A Weekend Well-Lived: Trail Running In Death Valley National Park

You can find trail runners in more than a few national parks these days, and Death Valley National Park, with its wide-open spaces and roads running through tight canyons, is a spectacular draw for those looking for great scenery and solitude on their runs.

Editor's note: Trail runner Meghan Hicks and some friends headed to Death Valley one February to do some running. This is what they found.

At high noon on a February Friday, Junebug the Border Collie and I roll into Death Valley National Park’s Stovepipe Wells Campground. A trail of chalk-colored dust traces the truck’s path to where Jeff and Todd are waving us in like an airplane arriving to its gate. As he gestures, Jeff is leaping around, kind of ape-like, setting a goofy mood for our weekend.

I, technically, don’t know either of these guys in the real world, and my mom would probably kill me if she knew I am convening with strange men in a remote national park. In truth, while I am just meeting Todd for the first time, Jeff and I have known each other via Internet blogging for five years. I’ve followed along as he’s worked through professional challenges, as he and his wife adopted and began raising a wee one, and as he’s trained for running races.

Though I don’t 'know' know the guy, I feel like I do, so I climb out of the car and give him a hug.

“A tough-looking desert. Ready to run across it?” Jeff asks as I turn on my heels to take it in: squeaking dirt of the Mohave Desert between the treads of my sandals, creosotes standing higher than even tall Todd, goldenrod sand dunes, every horizon lifting to mountain ranges coated by desert varnish the color of chewing tobacco.

“More than ready,” I answer, restless to get moving.

Road running in Death Valley
Jeff, Junebug, and the author descend from Mosaic Canyon. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Smith.

We take an afternoon run up the dirt road across from the campground to the trailhead for Mosaic Canyon. Junebug is jogging with us, and she’s not allowed off the road surface, so the three of us take turns going up the canyon. Its walls are smoothed to slickrock by eons of violent desert monsoons and are composed of folded and conglomerate-ed rocks that look like they’ve been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride a few times over the course of geologic history.

On the 1,000-foot, dirt-road descent back to the campground, we practice fast leg turnover and discuss geography with what appears like half the Earth in front of us. We’ve decided to run on the nearby Mesquite Flat Dunes at sunset, so we occupy the interim hours with snacks and storytelling. Junebug’s sitting in the shade of the picnic table when a side-blotched lizard doing push-ups catches her eye. This behavior is lizard-speak for “This land is my land!” and the dog’s ears twitch with the desire to herd him in with the rest of us.

We watch this interspecies communication until the lizard gives up and sprints under a bush and the dog heaves her head into the dirt, shuts her eyes, and sighs with what sounds to me like contentment. About an hour before sunset, we forge out for the dunes, leaving Junebug napping in the campground. In dog years, she’s roughly 70, so it’s reasonable that she holds down the fort during today’s second run.

We arrive to the sand just as the show of late-afternoon sunlight begins. The dunes’ color, almost citrine, stuns us speechless. As we charge the dunes, cool sand fills the extra space inside my shoes. “It’s more difficult if you fight it,” I observe aloud about the shifting sand, to no one in particular.

Running Death Valley's dunes
The author ascends a sand dune. Photo by Jeffrey Smith.

I watch Jeff bound down the steep side of a dune in slow motion. I try it, too, and feel like an astronaut on the moon with not much gravity holding me down. When the sun drops behind the Panamint Mountains to the west, we’re hooting and hollering from the top of the tallest dune. A jog back to our campsite, cheers over a couple brews, a simple camping meal, and chatter about today’s 12 miles of running and tomorrow’s 20 fill our evening.

In the dark, we gawk at the buh-zillions of stars and talk about quantum physics and the Back to the Future movie. When I inchworm into a sleeping bag for the night, the dog sidles her warm self against the bottom half of my legs. Staring at the stars, I decide that, based upon the pure awesomeness of this day and the giddy anticipation I have for tomorrow, all must be right with the world.

More runners join us, oozing from cars and into our campsite during the night. I’m sleeping hard and don’t hear them, so our introductions come among sleepy eyes in the silent, pre-dawn desert. To our troop, the nighttime added Lambert, who prefers to be called LT, Kristin, and Janet. We eat oatmeal and bananas, sip coffee, putter with tents and gear, and work through the logistical details of our day’s plans.

We hear a rustle from the direction of the dog, who is a statue watching two brazen ravens breakfasting from her food bowl. Jeff and LT chase the birds off, then continue running around the campground while flailing a blanket at the now-empty sky into which the ravens disappeared. It’s early and they’re hilarious, so we all laugh from the gut.

At 10:15 a.m., while high clouds make a complete canopy separating us from the big blue, we snap a photo that marks the beginning of our run along the 20-ish mile long Titus Canyon Road. We’ll be traveling through Death Valley’s eastern backcountry and completely traversing the Amargosa Mountains. A brochure we read by lantern last night told us that the mountain range’s name means “bitter water” and we joked that, between the park’s Badwater and bitter water, we want no part of whatever liquid it offers.

Running Titus Canyon in Death Valley
The walls of Titus Canyon begin to narrow around the road. Photo by Meghan M. Hicks.

Our group moves like a Slinky up the dirt road, pressing together, then spreading apart, then gathering together again. It goes on like this for a couple hours as we ascend the high desert track to a pass where the road tilts down into a red, badland-filled basin. The road’s composition becomes a rusty dust and it clings to the Border Collie’s feet and the sweat on our legs until we all start looking like crimson Smurfs. The road tips up again, a red snake slithering into the sky. Its got a steep grade and we can’t see the top, so we gear down and begin grinding uphill.

We pass barrel cactuses the size of pony kegs and watch lizards skitter into tiny clouds of red dirt until we complete our climb at a place the map calls Red Pass. Mother Nature, or perhaps the hopeful miners who built this road 90 years ago, reward us with a couple perfect downhill miles. We move fast off Red Pass and nod to the remnant buildings of the Leadfield mining ghost town as we pass.

From below me on the road, I hear LT shout, “There it is!” I follow the line his outstretched arm makes and see it: a wall of gray rock with one gap, the throat of Titus Canyon.

Titus Canyon is a half-football field wide, but the walls close in so that soon its smooth, straight sides are no farther apart than a large SUV. As the canyon tightens, our pace increases until we are flying around s-curves. We’ve been leap-frogging with a friendly group of Jeep-ers all day, and they are picnicking in the canyon’s narrowest stretch. As Junebug and I pass, they cheer for us like we’re leading a race and their echoes chase us down the road.

The dog is tired, real tired—I can only pray that, at 70, I’m half as active as she is—but she has sensed a change in mood and is running loud and proud. Without warning, we burst from the canyon shadows and out into the sun at the mouth of the west-facing canyon.

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The group poses before the Titus Canyon run. Left to right are the author, Janet, Junebug, LT, Jeff, and Kristin. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Smith.

I high-five LT and Jeff, who’ve finished a bit before me, then get ready to fist-pump when the rest of the group emerges from the canyon. The sun makes the landscape glitter, what I imagine it must be like in a snow globe when someone shakes it.

Sunlight on the land is beautiful, blinding, even. Our passel of athletes experiences an explosion of joy, too. It’s a feeling of a job well done, of new-formed friendships, of a happy canid, of deep immersion in a desert’s wild. We may be in Death Valley National Park, but we lived this weekend well.

Meghan M. Hicks is Park City, Utah-based writer and trail runner. Adventures in national parks are her favorite kind of vacation.