4x4 eastern sierra nevada great basin 4wd death valley national park eureka valley horsethief canyon fish lake valley inyo county

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4x4 Trails:
Horsethief Canyon
Eureka Valley to Fish Lake Valley

Route Length


16.0 miles total.

Trail Difficulty:


Easy – Some low slung car-based crossover vehicles (such as Subaru Outback and Forester, Honda CR-V and Pilot, Toyota RAV4 and Highlander, etc.) OK but use caution.

Season:


All year – Summers, though still hot, are not extreme due to the higher elevations involved. Be sure to be prepared for hot weather in summer, snow in winter.

Elevations:


Lowest (Eureka Valley): 3,415'. Highest (head of Horsethief Canyon): Approx. 5,325'.

Cell phone Signal:


None

Running Surface Water?:


No. Much of the route runs through washes, so during heavy rains or spring snowmelt periods there may be some running water, especially in the upper elevations.

Distance to Civilization:


Big Pine, California from Eureka Valley start of route: 33 miles
Big Pine, California from Fish Lake Valley finish of route: 36 miles
Dyer, Nevada from Fish Lake finish of route: 19 miles

Trail Travel Density:


Minimal. You'll very likely be by yourself, especially in the Eureka Valley and Horsethief Canyon portions of the trail.

Nearest Supplies/Emergency Aid:


Big Pine, California and Dyer, Nevada.

 
Horsethief Canyon – a name direct from western novel romanticism. A place of hiding, concealment and solitude. Those words also describe a seldom used 4x4 pathway between Eureka Valley and Fish Lake Valley. If you choose this route, you also enjoy a place of hiding, concealment and solitude, as this route is seldom visited nor used.

This route is rather short and not technically challenging. While it lacks any wow factor, it offers a chance to get away and enjoy some beautiful and remote scenery. The route between its start in Eureka Valley to the junction with North Eureka Road is only 8.3 miles; however I include 7.7 miles of North Eureka Road between Horsethief Canyon and CA168 just south of Oasis, for a total of 16.0 miles of backroad byway. Elevation gain or loss is around 1,900 feet, but there are no steep grades.

This route traverses several climate zones – it starts in the Mojave Desert like Eureka Valley, with its creosote/scrub vegetation; climbs through an upper Mojave Desert like zone complete with Joshua trees in the upper section of Horsethief Canyon and southernmost Fish Lake Valley; and as one travels northward into Fish Lake Valley the vegetation turns to Great Basin desert, solidly fixed within the sagebrush vegetation zone.

Most people traveling between Eureka Valley and Fish Lake Valley use North Eureka Road; which at its southern end begins on the Big Pine to Death Valley road about 3,500 feet west of the road to the sand dunes. North Eureka Road is signed and is maintained by Inyo County, and is generally a good road, suitable for all vehicles. But the road often washes out due to flashflood or heavy snowmelt. North Eureka Road Discussion (2/11/05)

However, since the primary focus of this page is of a trail that offers at least some challenges that require the use of four-wheel-drive, the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 route is a nice alternative to North Eureka Road when exiting Eureka Valley northward into Fish Lake Valley. The route is a corridor that bisects the Piper Mountain Wilderness area, most of the pathway wandering through Death Valley National Park lands, the northern end is on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. This route was originally closed when the Park Service increased the size of Death Valley when it became a National Park in 1994, but has since been reopened. Roger Mitchell mentions the route briefly and as being closed in his 2001 book “DEATH VALLEY SUV TRAILS.” It is definitely open today and is signed as being so, by both large signs and plastic strip markers placed along the route.

The route through Eureka Valley and Horsethief Canyon I would rate as generally easy, however there are some rocks scattered here and there that might require care to keep from hitting something underneath slow slung vehicles, such as all wheel drive cross-over vehicles; such as Honda's CR-V and Pilot, Subaru's Outback and Forester series, Toyota's RAV4 and Highlander. There is some hardpacked sand in wash bottoms, but otherwise no traction problems should be encountered. The route northward through Fish Lake Valley along North Eureka Road is easy and suitable for all vehicles as that road is periodically maintained.

Tires are not really an issue on this trail, as long as the tires on your vehicle are in good shape. All season radial tires with passenger car rating should be able to withstand the minimally rocky sections on this trail as for the most part the route is hardpacked sand or gravel I would not recommend dropping air pressure down below 25psi on passenger rated tires due to sidewall vulnerability. Carry a good spare and tools to replace flat tires.

This path can be taken individually, or the traveler can link the Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail or North Eureka Road for a loop trip from a base location in Eureka Valley. There is one nice location for a camp where the route starts into the bottom end of the canyon; another in Fish Lake Valley has a panorama view of that large valley.

This route can be taken in either direction. For this discussion, I will describe the route from its start in Eureka Valley.

The point of access to the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail is found in the western end of Eureka Valley, a few yards west of the end of the paved portion of the Big Pine-Death Valley road. There, at a distance of 32.1 miles east of Big Pine or 7.0 miles west of the road to the Eureka Valley sand dunes, a route starts northward. Elevation here is about 3,415 feet.


Click Map to Enlarge


Click Photo to Enlarge
This view gives you an idea of this route's geography. Fish Lake Valley is situated north and east of Eureka Valley and is accessed through an arm of the same range of mountains that separate Eureka Valley from Deep Springs Valley to the north and west.


To smooth the ride, I'd recommend dropping your hot tire pressure five or more pounds (depending on your type of tire). This will smooth the ride over stones and washboards and give better traction in the few areas of loose sand. Be sure you have the means to return your tire pressure to manufacturer's specifications when returning to the highway.

A sign indicates that this byway is a designated corridor through wilderness lands. Pull off onto this road, which is also the southern access to the Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail. Traveling north 1.2 miles will bring one into a wash, where the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 route starts. A duplicate sign indicating a corridor through the wilderness area will indicate the route. The elevation here is at 3,500 feet.


The start of the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail, which junctions with the
Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail 1.2 miles north of the Big Pine-Death Valley road.

The first 0.2 of a mile traverses the wash bottom (all further mileage figures will be from the start of the trail at its junction with the Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail). The gravels are pretty hard packed and traction is not a problem. After any flashflooding or runoff the route will likely need to be reestablished by those who come through first after the ground dries. After the first couple of tenths of a mile, the route exits the wash course and becomes more discernible over harder ground. At 1.0 miles from the start of the Horsethief trail, a set of shallow but sharp washes are crossed. After periods of water runoff they might have short vertical walls, which will require some shovel work to allow lower vehicles through them.


The lower route as viewed from the driver's vantage.


One of several old placer gold prospects found along the way.

A mile and a half after starting the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail, the road starts to ascend the alluvial fan toward the mountains ahead. The route turns from soft and sandy to hard and more well defined. The route's surface is interspersed with stones, some small rocks, small creosote bushes and beavertail cactus growing from between the tracks.

Scattered along the route to the canyon's mouth are prospects, which appear to simply be a shallow hole scooped from the surface and the resulting mound of displaced dirt set immediately alongside. These are gold placer prospect holes dug decades ago. These prospects are found seemingly everywhere scattered around much of the Eureka Valley floor, along with a few within Horsethief Canyon.

At 3.3 miles into the trail, the route drops into the main wash channel that exits the mouth of Horsethief Canyon, at an elevation of about 4,130 feet. Another sign indicates that this route is a corridor through the wilderness area. The route begins to be hemmed in by low hills on either side of the wash, with multi-colored hues of different geologic makeup. A small prospect bores a hole into the side of the southern hillside. Soon ahead are found the “gates” of Horsethief Canyon. These are found 3.9 miles from the start of our trail.


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View northeast from the alluvial section below Horsethief Canyon.


Along the lower alluvial area below Horsethief Canyon. View is a bit south of west toward the Inyo Range.


A second sign indicating that the route is a corridor through the Piper Mountain Wilderness area. The truck is parked where the trail drops into the main wash channel exiting Horsethief Canyon.


A prospect is found as one enters the mouth of Horsethief Canyon.


The “gates” of Horsethief Canyon.

Beyond the “gates” of Horsethief Canyon, the canyon narrows considerably and begins to bore through the main mountain body. The “gates” themselves are made up of a different geologic matter – appearing to be either volcanic ash impregnated with stones, or solidified mud embedded with stones. In any case, it is of a different material than anything else around and contrasts sharply with the surrounding surfaces.

Just above the gates, at 4.0 miles, there is a level camp spot on the right (south) that is inviting to those wishing to pitch a tent or set up their camper. The view from the level area is blocked a bit, but a short scramble of a few yards will take one to higher ground where a panorama of Eureka Valley south and west will delight. The elevation at this level spot is right at 4,400 feet. If you are planning to take this route in summer, it will provide a respite from the heat of the valley floor, and will be about 6° to 8° cooler during the day.


The “gates” of Horsethief Canyon.


Click Photo to Enlarge
View through the “gates” is westward toward the Inyo Range.


View up Horsethief Canyon from the level camp spot. Here the canyon takes a northerly trend, which it will keep until exiting into the southern end of Fish Lake Valley.

Immediately after passing the level camping spots above the “gates,” the canyon and route turns more northerly for the remainder of the canyon route. The canyon begins to squeeze down, although never becoming deep nor confining.

At 4.6 miles, a fence crosses the canyon. This is the boundary for Death Valley National Park, although there are no signs. From this point onward, you'll be crossing lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, although you'll still be within the Piper Mountain Wilderness Area until you get out to Eureka Valley Road. There is no means to lock the gate (which is simply strands of barbed wire hooked to a piece of wood, in which it is stood up and slipped under a barbed wire hoop at the top of one of the gate uprights), so I surmise that the Park Service have no intention of closing off this route temporarily; unless they close the trail to all vehicle use for good.

 


Click Photo to Enlarge
A cholla cactus grows from stone.

As the route progresses up the canyon, the creosote bush declines and pretty much ends at the DVNP boundary fence, although individuals are found a ways further up the canyon.

At 4.8 miles the canyon forks, the road taking the left fork. Though here the roadway is not very well defined, evidence of minimal use.

At 4.9 miles, the first Joshua trees begin to appear, although most are small, single branch individuals.

At 5.1 miles the canyon constricts to its minimum size. A couple of small boulders might require some care to negotiate if you are piloting a large, full size truck or Hummer H1 or H2. Otherwise, there are no obstacles along the entire route. Nearby is an interesting sight: a cholla cactus growing from solid rock.

Continuing up the canyon, it gradually widens and it becomes obvious that the head of the canyon is close. Joshua trees become more numerous and larger. At 6.5 miles from the start of the trail, the canyon opens into an open bowl. Piñon pines start showing up on nearby hillsides in the east. The northern terminus of the Last Chance Range shows up in the south.

At 6.8 miles the first glimpses of the White Mountains in the vicinity of White Mountain Peak show.

At 7.0 miles, you reach the summit at the head of Horsethief Canyon. The elevation here is approximately 5,325 feet, or nearly 2,000 feet higher than the beginning of this tour. The view northward includes the White Mountains and the Silver Peak Range, dramatically set against a foreground of Joshua trees.

At 7.1 miles the route turns a sharp 90° right (east) turn and junctions with North Eureka Road.


View of the northern tip of the Last Chance Range from the head of Horsethief Canyon.


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The White Mountains from the summit of the road at the head of Horsethief Canyon.


The terminus of the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 route at North Eureka Road in the southern tip of Fish Lake Valley. The snowy northern slopes of the Last Chance Range are seen on the right.


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Looking back down Horsethief Canyon from the route's terminus with North Eureka Road.


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View north down North Eureka Road and into Fish Lake Valley from its junction with the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 route.

At the junction of North Eureka Road, you can choose several routes of travel, depending on your destination.

Turning south on North Eureka Road will take you swiftly back into Eureka Valley. It is approximately 13 miles back to the Big Pine-Death Valley road and if the road has recently been maintained it will be a relatively swift trip. However, the road is often closed due to washouts. See North Eureka Road Discussion (2/11/05)

If you wish to exit the Eureka Valley and Death Valley area and head out into Nevada (the Nevada border is only four miles away as the hawk flies) or back into Owens Valley, turn north along North Eureka Road. Traveling northward along North Eureka Road will also be the way to go if you wish to make a loop trip back into Eureka Valley via the Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail.


Click Photo to Enlarge
Scene in Fish Lake Valley along North Eureka Road.

To finish out the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail, I will include North Eureka Road also, which will end in 8.4 miles at its junction with CA168 just south of Oasis Ranch. The road is maintained and generally in good shape; and is suitable for all types of vehicles.

This is a lonely country out here. Fish Lake Valley is prime cattle ranching and alfalfa raising country. Farther north, the valley is well watered with numerous year around streams pouring forth from the lofty White Mountains, it's summits as high as 14,242 feet at White Mountain Peak. In addition to livestock, the wild horse roams free.

Traveling northward along North Eureka Valley, any traces of the Mojave soon disappear. The Joshua forest found at the southern end of the valley peters out quickly and sagebrush dominates.

At 3.8 miles from the Horsethief Canyon road, a windmill with a large wooden tank and several watering troughs comes into view and the road makes a jag around it. The elevation here is 5,042 feet. A road marked as an open route takes off eastward across the valley and into Nevada. This road accesses the ghost town of Sylvania, Nevada in the Sylvania Mountains to the east. You can also access NV266 from this point, it coming out there a short distance across the state line.

On the hillside adjacent to the windmill and water tanks is a terraced millsite, which has a nice view and would make a nice camping spot if you are so inclined.


Click Photo to Enlarge
Panorama north and northeast across Fish Lake Valley.

Continuing north along North Eureka Road, you will quickly encounter a junction with Oasis Road 3.1 miles north of the windmill. Either continuing ahead on North Eureka Road or taking a right turn on Oasis road will put you back on CA168 within a mile.

Continue on North Eureka Road, which follows the powerlines, if you wish to go west on CA168 to Gilbert Summit or Owens Valley. If you wish to return to Eureka Valley via an equally lonely 4x4 trail, the start of the Gilbert Summit-Eureka Valley 4x4 trail is 2.8 miles to the southwest; the route takes off to the left (south) of the highway at the summit sign. Big Pine, California is 36 miles away. Bishop, which has all the amenities, is 14 miles north of Big Pine.

Take Oasis Road, which exits out on CA168 about two-thirds of a mile farther north, if you wish to go into Nevada. Dyer, Nevada is about 19 miles away and has groceries, supplies and gasoline at the Esmeralda County Store. Gas prices generally run substantially cheaper than they do at Owens Valley gas stations. The owners and staff at the store are friendly and the store nearly always has a few locals in sharing local news and conversation with each other.


Fish Lake Valley is an empty land, with cattle and alfalfa. The snowy Silver Peak Range forms the valley's eastern boundary.


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The view south along Fish Lake Valley. The Last Chance Range, which separates Eureka Valley from Death Valley, is seen in the distance.


End of the road – North Eureka Road and CA168. The view is northward. Oasis Road junctions with CA168 in the middle distance, about two-thirds of a mile down the road. Oasis Ranch is seen in the background. Dyer, Nevada, is about 19 miles away off the photo to the left. The Silver Peak Range is seen in the background.


Update March, 2008 – I guided an Oregon man down the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail in his stock Toyota Highlander. It was an excellent opportunity to see how the Highlander would handle the Horsethief Canyon trail, as well as how well the trail accommodates such crossover type SUVs. It did fine. Photos of the trip below, run from Fish Lake Valley to Eureka Valley.

NEW PHOTOS
MARCH, 2008
PHOTOS ARE ARRANGED IN PROGRESSION NORTH TO SOUTH (FISH LAKE VALLEY TO EUREKA VALLEY)

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO ENLARGE TO FULL SIZE


Near the northern terminus of the road, at the junction of North Eureka Valley Road and Oasis Road.


Along North Eureka Road in Fish Lake Valley, southbound. The White Mountains in the distance. The Toyota Highlander is accompanied by another Toyota Tacoma.


The windmill and corrals in Fish Lake Valley. The view is south with the northern Last Chance Range colliding with the Sylvania Mountains in the background.


Along North Eureka Road near the terminus of Horsethief Canyon. The Last Chance Range dominates the background.


A three Toyota caravan at the start of the Horsethief Canyon road.


View north to White Mountain Peak, 14,242 feet high, as seen from the junction of North Eureka Road and the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 Trail.


View south to the northern Last Chance Range, as seen from the junction of North Eureka Road and the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 Trail.


Driving along the first yards of the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 Trail.


Well within Horsethief Canyon, with the Inyo Range in the distance.


The cholla growing from rock is still there within Horsethief Canyon.


In the central portion of Horsethief Canyon, looking down canyon.


Exiting the narrow confines of central Horsethief Canyon, view south into Eureka Valley.


Our three-vehicle caravan at the “gates” of Horsethief Canyon.


Eureka Valley, view south.


Nearing the junction of the Horsethief Canyon and
Eureka-Gilbert 4x4 trail. View is into the Inyo Range. The Big Pine-Death Valley road can be seen climbing into the range.


The confluence of the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail and the Eureka-Gilbert 4x4 trail. View southwest into the Inyo Range.


Our caravan is parked northbound on the
Eureka-Gilbert 4x4 trail, whereas the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail takes off to the right. Combining both trails makes for a fine loop trip.


Looking along the route of the Horsethief Canyon 4x4 trail from its western terminus.



Maps: USGS 7.5” Topographic

 

Horsethief Canyon, California (1987)

Sylvania Canyon, California-Nevada (1987)

Chocolate Mountain, California-Nevada (1988)

Books for Further Reading:

 

No books that I am aware of outline the Horsethief Canyon route in detail. However, the following books will give a good understanding of the region in general.

THE EXPLORER'S GUIDE TO DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK – by T. Scott Bryan and Betty Tucker-Bryan

DEATH VALLEY SUV TRAILS: A GUIDE TO 46 INTERESTING FOUR-WHEELING EXCURSIONS IN THE DEATH VALLEY COUNTRY – by Roger Mitchell.

INYO-MONO SUV TRAILS: A GUIDE TO 40 INTERESTING AND SCENIC FOUR-WHEELING EXCURSIONS IN INYO & MONO COUNTIES – by Roger Mitchell.


Date created: 2005

Page Revised: 08/24/2010