The land of extremes
WRITTEN BY Elaine Macdonald
Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes, containing within its boundaries the driest and lowest spot in North America, and the hottest in the world. Other unique, memorable features abound. Telescope Peak, Death Valley’s highest mountain, stands at 11,049 feet, and Furnace Creek is an oasis in the desert situated 190 feet below sea level.
Death Valley’s 3.3 million acres consists of colorful sand dunes, flats of stark sagebrush, and flowing grasslands. Ninety-five percent of Death Valley is wilderness, which means no motor vehicles. The wilderness is open to hiking and horseback riding. Travel by foot or on horse is limited in Death Valley due to the lack of water and extreme heat in the summer months.
For more than 50 years, starting the first week in November, Equestrian Trails Inc. (ETI) has sponsored the Death Valley Ride. The ride is limited to 65 head of stock in Death Valley. The permitted number of riders is 50, plus 30 crew members. Not all of the 30 crew members ride.
The 125-mile, six-day ride begins in Ridgecrest at the Desert Empire Fairgrounds. The time in the saddle averages six to seven hours a day. Upon arriving at the fairgrounds, the riders care for their horses and set up their individual camps.
The ride fee covers three meals a day for the riders, feed and water for the horses, and transportation of gear (tent, sleeping bags and personal items). Arrangements are made for the riders to caravan their rigs to Furnace Creek in Death Valley. The riders are then shuttled back to the fairgrounds to begin their adventure.
Chuck wagon food manager
Sylmar resident Patty Hug is ETI Area 5 director and has been president of Corral 12 since 1980. She owns three horses: a 30-year-old retired quarter horse, a 20-year-old paint, and a 14-year-old Tennessee walking horse. For the last 10 years Hug has volunteered to be the food manager for the Death Valley Ride. Before that, she assisted the then-food manager, Susie Elinger, for 15 years. Good food on the ride is essential for hungry riders who spend long hours in the saddle.
“I have learned how to manage feeding large groups of riders. ETI has four vehicles designated for food. The chuck wagons carry generators to run the kitchen equipment, including several refrigerators and freezers,” Hug said. “Walter Conner, our head cook, creates the menu, and I buy the food and take care of the outside preparation.
“I start buying provisions two months in advance. The produce and fresh food is purchased two days before the ride. During the ride it is my job to prepare the lunch trays, hors d’oeuvres, salads and desserts and serve the riders. Two of the mornings, the cook crew starts the generators for making breakfast at 3 a.m. The rest of the days are a later start of 5 a.m. The cook crew serves evening dinner at 6 p.m., and we finish the dishes at about 8 p.m.
“We usually run out of some food products the last day of the ride. There is just so much we can carry in our chuck wagons. My husband, Jim Renze, meets us in Furnace Creek with extra food, which includes tri-tip steaks for the last night’s barbecue.”
Besides the chuck wagons, other support vehicles include two front-bed trucks to carry the riders bags and hay for the horses, a large water truck, one refreshment trailer, a hot shower wagon and several porta-potties.
The journey begins
The first night in Ridgecrest at the fairgrounds consists of a welcome dinner, ride review and crew introductions. There is a veterinarian and horse farrier available to help the horses on the ride. There are various crew managers who care for the different vehicles. Each day the city on wheels travels to a different camp and makes preparations for the advancing riders.
According to Hug, a rider’s horse must be in good condition before riding the Death Valley Ride. It is also important to expose the horse to riding in groups. Horses can get sick because of heat, being ridden on consecutive days, or being exposed to a large group of unfamiliar horses.
The Death Valley Ride has two separate rides. The gaited ride is for riders who prefer to move a little faster. The cruiser or walk ride is for riders who prefer to mosey along at a slower speed.
The ride commences on Sunday when riders leave the Ridgecrest fairgrounds and travel 18 miles to camp at the Trona Pinnacles. Monday’s ride is 20 miles through Trona to Valley Wells. Tuesday’s segment is 20 miles over the Slate Range to Panamint Valley, east of the old town of Ballarat, to camp at Goler Wash.
Wednesday is a long day’s ride of 32 miles. Riders proceed through Goler Wash, across Striped Butte Valley and on to Warm Springs Canyon to camp at the Salt Tanks. Thursday’s ride is 22 miles to Death Valley’s Eagle Borax Springs.
Friday’s ride covers 22 miles to Furnace Creek. The last couple of miles, the riders are in parade formation as they take part in the Death Valley 49er Encampment Celebration. There are hundreds of people who line the street to cheer on the riders as they enter Furnace Creek, the final destination.
“Over the years, I have ridden the Death Valley Ride twice. I much prefer working in camp and interacting with the crew and riders. It is a joy for me to sit around the after-dinner campfire and hear the stories and adventures of the riders,” Hug said.
“The evenings are fun! Riders are involved with various skits and the desert Olympics. Sometimes we have music and a little dancing under the stars. Our riders come from all over the United States to experience this special event,” Hug said. “I am happy to be a part of Death Valley Ride.”
For more information about the Death Valley Ride and registration forms, call 310/871-9458 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications will be posted on the website on July 1 at etinational.com.CaptionCaptionAbove, the cook crew at Trona Pinnacles, from left, Bob Foster, Walter Conner, Jeanne Gonzalez, Patty Hug, and Patty Munson. Right, Conner, the head cook, and Foster prepare for breakfast inside the chuck wagon.