20th – 26th May 2014 – Storm clouds spread across huge skies as we head up the 95 to Scotty’s Junction at the northern end of Death Valley National Park. Largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley is known for its great extremes in temperature and elevation. In 1994 it was changed from a national monument to a national park and now covers 3.4 million acres, most of which is a protected, roadless wilderness. America’s driest and hottest place, where less than 2 inches of rain falls annually and a temperature of 134 F has been recorded, but now unbelievably, we are having rain!
At Mesquite Spring, our first campground just inside the park, we find a sheltered place behind tall bushes that provide some protection from the onslaught of a cold wind. A group of nearby campers on a geology trip lost one of their tents last night in the wind. But just as fiercely as this wind picks up speed, in about an hour it subsides just as quickly and it is a calm and peaceful night.
In the morning, we have Jack Rabbits to keep us company.
We plan to visit the Ubehebe Crater but first make a stop at Scotty’s Castle in Grapevine Canyon as it was closed when we first arrived at the park.
Through the first half of the 20th century, Scotty was a well known celebrity, telling exaggerated stories about how he had discovered a gold mine in Death Valley, made his fortune and was now looking for investors. One of these was wealthy Albert Johnson, a business man from Chicago. Although he soon realised that there was never a gold mine, Johnson surprisingly was not angry with Scotty, instead, he became good friends with him, enjoying his company, his great sense of humour and adventures in the desert with him. Johnson remained faithful toward Scotty, supporting him for the rest of his life.
Johnson and his wife Bessie became captured by the peacefulness and powerful beauty of Death Valley and in 1922 began to build a grand holiday home in one of the world’s harshest deserts. In Grapevine Canyon however, a natural spring poured out gallons of water, creating a lush oasis and providing not only water, but also electricity following some ingenious use of hydropower. It became a comfortable castle home for Johnson and his wife, who also continued their life-long friendship with con-man Scotty.
Today this showpiece in the desert is maintained and protected by the National Park Service, encouraging visitors to share in the stories of Death Valley Scotty and Albert and Bessie Johnson and their Scotty’s Castle. A cross on the top of a nearby hill with views across the desert, marks the place where Scotty has been buried.
Ubehebe Crater is located approx. 8 miles west of Scotty’s Castle. This crater, thought to be about 2000 years old, was formed by a massive, volcanic explosion caused by extreme pressure from steam, when magma mixed with underground water. It’s hard to imagine how it must have shattered the silence of this northern part of Death Valley. It’s an amazing and unexpected sight, half a mile across and approx. 600 feet deep, with its unusual colours and sheer black, crumbling sides that make a gruelling climb out, if you decide to hike down to the bottom. We take the trail that circles the rim and also leads to some smaller craters.
To the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, this crater is ‘Wosa’ – Coyote’s burden basket, the place where the people emerged to spread in four directions across the land.
Flowers are blooming in the desert as we take the gravel road north to Crankshaft Junction, through Hanging Rock Canyon, then turning south to cross Eureka Valley, snow still on Waucoba Mountain in the far distance at 11,123 feet. We have our first views of Eureka Dunes, the highest dunes in California rising nearly 700 feet above the valley floor and home to rare and endangered species of plants and animals that have learnt to survive the possibilities of either being buried or exposed by these constantly shifting and changing sands.
This huge valley awash with yellow desert marigolds and other wild flowers, surrounded by mountains of coloured rocks and painted skies, will be our camping place tonight. Just us, made to feel very small in this vast, pristine wilderness.
Moby is just a speck in the centre of the photo!
It’s a race against the clouds to have our barbecue before the rain arrives!
There is time to climb the nearby sand dunes and watch the dust rising as storm clouds roll in once again. The colours and light are just spectacular and paint an ever changing landscape.
Our toilet is provided in this little hut for backcountry campers….what more could we want!
Sunrise brings a quick view of distant, pink hills. We hear a far off grumble and within seconds, a fighter plane is roaring overhead, turning on its side as it disappears between the mountains and dunes. This long valley is used for their training flights and we are to hear and see many more.
Joshua Flats (as the name suggests), has many of those fascinating Joshua trees, some still with their large, green fruits, enjoyed no doubt by some animals as well as birds, who break these open and disperse the seeds. Splashes of colour and we discover some cactus plants in flower, it is impossible to think of deserts as being empty wastelands, they are simply full of life if you take the time to look closely.
A strip of golden light in a wide valley between the hills and this is Jackass Flats. We stop to look at an abandoned mine where the open mine shaft disappears into the darkened depths of a hole in the ground and wonder at how people once risked their lives in these remote places, in the hope of finding their fortunes.
Snow tyres or chains are often needed on the next stretch in the winter as we pass Waucoba Mountain and Mount Inyo, both just over 11,000 feet. Even today the temperature suddenly drops and we have some rain as we climb over North Pass at 7000 feet. We now have a complete change of environment amongst the Inyo National Forest, with dense pine and mesquite trees and forested hills, little blue lupins still managing to survive at the edge of the track. It’s already proving to be a park of great extremes!
Rain is falling in the Saline Valley below us when we suddenly meet another vehicle…..our first on these backcountry roads. We both pass slowly to say hi. The guy’s upper, bare body and arms are completely covered with large, colourful tattoos. His ears have been stretched until they appear very strange and unreal…..or could they be plastic fit-ons? He introduces himself as Adam and then to Eve sitting next to him, dressed in a minuscule, turquoise bikini. Adam then lowers a rear window and a little boy looks out, smiling at us shyly and tells us that his name is Noah. They have just come up from the Saline Valley and tell us that it is very hot and windy down there. I see Eve reaching for a coat after we tell them that where we have just left, was very cold and windy with snow on the mountains. Have we really just met Adam and his wife Eve and son Noah on this remote backcountry road?
The rain has cleared and the sun is out as we reach the valley, where we have to look twice before we can believe that we are seeing water…….a thin, blue ribbon winding amongst the startling white of the salt flat!
Our map shows a side track leaving the valley, the Lippincott Road, describing it as ‘…..steep, narrow and winding, with cliff edge washouts.’ It’s a distance of 6 miles but if it were possible, it would be a much shorter route to reach the Racetrack Valley to the east (our next destination). The beginning is marked on our left by large stones and it is tempting to give it a go. All goes well as we climb gradually for approximately the first 3 miles, although the track is only wide enough for 1 vehicle. But as the mountains close in, sections have broken steeply away, large rocks have become a risk in damaging the underside of our vehicle, and as we get out to check the track ahead, we can see it very soon becomes the width of only a path. No room to turn around, so Bill slowly reverses for quite a way until this is possible.
Panamint Springs provides us with another nights camping before we set out to take the longer way round to reach The Racetrack.
We make our way over the Cottonwood Mountain Pass and begin our descent into the Hidden Valley. Flowers continue to bloom, a lizard covered in spots from his head to his tail, poses for photos whilst warming himself in the sun and a gopher snake crosses in front of us to hide in the protection of a low bush. Beautifully marked and not poisonous, it is a common snake to come across.
A short detour takes us to The Lost Burrow Mine, so called after Bert Shively discovered gold there whilst rounding up his burrows (donkeys or mules) in 1907. Various owners have worked this mine over the years, but by the time it closed in the 1970s, about $100,000 worth of gold had been retrieved!
Anyone for tea at Tea Kettle Junction? Who would have expected to see this in the middle of Death Valley? It makes an interesting stop to look at the various kettles that people have tied to the signpost, each one having either messages, pictures or simply the names of the people who have left them….great idea!
Our descent from here, suddenly gives us a breathtaking view of The Racetrack, an ancient ‘playa’ or dry lakebed, located below us in a remote valley, nestled between the Cottonwood Mountains to the east and the Last Chance Range to the west, with an island of dark bedrock known as ‘The Grandstand’, clearly visible. Home to the mysterious ‘moving rocks’ that have been something of a mystery to scientists. However, until someone actually witnesses this ‘wandering’, studies and evidence suggest that strong gusts of wind and swirling dust devils set the rocks in motion, when rain or ice causes the lakebed to become slippery.
The playa is supplied by rocks falling from a mountain face at the southern end of the Racetrack. Although there may be some uncertainty about how the rocks move, their trails are clearly visible, sometimes straight but they can also meander.
We camp at the southern edge of the playa with just two other people, one a German guy who enjoys investigating the many old and abandoned mines here. He unfortunately got stuck on one of the rough and remote tracks out here and had to dial 911 for help. It took two days for his car to be rescued and a bill for 4000 euros!
We have an incredible sunset which turns the mountains a deep orange, as if they have caught fire. The sky becomes ink black and dotted with stars…..no light pollution here!
We make the journey back to Panamint Springs and head north to camp near the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These 150 foot dunes with the rugged Grapevine Mountains in the distance, are constantly changing with every windstorm but remain trapped at the foot of Tucki Mountain…..more desolate beauty in the late afternoon light when colours and contours can be spectacular.
We are up at 5 a.m. and hear coyotes howling in the distance. We want to make an early start as we have been told that temperatures will reach 113 degrees today at Furnace Creek, 190 feet below sea level and our next stop for camping.
Our first destination however, will be Badwater Basin, 18 miles south of Furnace Creek. At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America and where, on a blistering hot day in July 1913, a record temperature of 134 degrees F was recorded. Movements in the earth’s crust created this huge basin that was once the site of a deep lake. Without an outlet to the sea, the water slowly evaporated leaving layers of salt.
The sun has not long risen over the mountains behind us as we arrive but it’s already very hot and the expanse of nearly pure white table salt is dazzling, as it stretches away to the long line of the Panamint Mountains in front of us. We are free to walk as far as we wish although it is necessary to keep on boardwalks around the briny pools which are home to tiny Badwater snails. It is easy to understand however, how lives have been lost when in the summer months, people walk out too far.
On our return journey to Furnace Creek, we stop at Natural Bridge and take the short hike through the canyon to see this natural archway. Despite Death Valley’s arid climate, over the course of thousands of years, occasional heavy storms have created flash flooding which have carved canyons and features such as this arch.
Our route takes us past the Devil’s Golf Course where jagged, crystalline salt formations, resembling something like a vast coral reef and just as sharp, are all that remain of Death Valley’s last, significant lake which is thought to have evaporated around 2000 years ago.
Back at Furnace Creek it’s as hot as was predicted with not a breath of wind. Our camping place has no shade so we can only sit it out and melt until late afternoon when we set out to tour Artist’s Drive, a one-way road that twists for 9 miles through striking ravines and colourful rock formations, a result of one of Death Valley’s explosive, volcanic periods.
It is a hot night back here again at Furnace Creek. A thin coyote is wandering just outside the campground as we leave early once more, to try and beat the heat. It’s our last day in the park, but just 5 miles southeast of here is Zabriskie Point which gives unforgettable views of Death Valley’s wildly eroded Badlands in hues of chocolate and shades of ochre, yellow and cream. These hills are riddled with gullies from times when water has rushed down these dry slopes. It’s easy to see why this amazing landscape has become one of the park’s most popular viewing points at both sunrise and sunset.
And so we make our way back to Panamint Springs and on to Father Crowley Vista Point, where the jet fighters are quiet so far today. As we leave Death Valley behind, a line of snow-topped mountains appear in front of us…….the Coso Range, with Coso peak at just over 8000 feet. How lucky we have been to experience this land of such contrasts and outstanding natural beauty, it has been a real highlight!
Moby however, has started to overheat when climbing the passes and Bill is wondering if it could be the thermostat. We hope the problem will solve itself as the next few parks in California, will also be requiring some steep climbs.