A Journey into Death Valley

At last writing I was hitting the road after flying Elissa back to Dallas from the Las Vegas airport. As I’ve stated many times before (probably every single time I’ve flown her back home since I started this journey) it is always an emotional time for me… saying good-bye to my precious daughter knowing it will be months before I see her again. At times it’s downright anguishing, and can send me into a tailspin of depression for a few days. This is a tough admission, but I don’t want any one of you to think that I’m on a perpetual high and happy as a lark everyday.

Most of my writings are about the adventures, the beauty and the joy I find in my days… with periodic whining about my technology woes thrown in. It’s seldom that I share the dark days that befall me from time to time, but I do have those dark days… just like everyone else. I had a long discussion about happiness with a friend a few months ago. It started with me sharing my belief that happiness is a choice and spun on from there. I could write a whole blog post, or possibly even a book on the subject. [It is, in fact, a subject I will come back to because I think it’s well worth sharing, but that’s not what this post is about. I have to get caught up with my regular posting first, but I vow to come back to the subject of happiness (vs. depression) as soon as I have the time. It is, after all, a big part of what this journey was all about!]

In my thinking, one key ingredient in finding happiness is simply taking a step toward it. Taking that step is not always easy, I know, but taking it is within our control. (More on that later.) In my case the “step” might come in the form of some miles on the highway, and that was exactly the case when I said good-bye to my girl and watched her walk through airport security. The moment I knew her flight was in the air I was rolling… with Death Valley on my radar. I had never been there, so new discoveries were on the horizon.

Death Valley National Park is an interesting place! I can’t be alone in blindly visualizing it as a vast, smoldering hot desert full of wind-swept sand and a scattering of desert plants and desert critters, but it is really so much more. It is indeed vast, and there’s plenty of wind-swept sand. Plants and critters too. But its canyons and crags and rugged terrain are a diverse wonderland. The layers of color amongst the canyon walls are intriguing, the tremendous sand dunes a beautiful and ever changing contrast in texture to the surrounding terrain, and then there’s the history! It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving existence in this place, let alone choosing to live here, but many did. Much can be learned about this national park and its rich history at the link above.

When I arrived my only camping option was at Sunset campground in the Furnace Creek area. This campground is dry-camping only… no hook-ups. Since the weather was relatively mild this worked on a short term basis, but not a place where I could leave the dogs behind during the day which limited my activity. As I’ve pointed out several times before, dogs are not allowed on many trails within our National Parks. They did hit the road early with me the following morning and chilled by my side as I photographed the sunrise from Zabriskie Point.

Death Valley National Park

Awaiting sunrise at Zabriskie Point

Death Valley National Park

Manly Beacon from Zabriskie Point

Death Valley National Park

Jazzy and Sadie happy to be along for the shoot

I don’t know if it was a designated trail (not marked on either of the maps I’d been given), but we did find a path into the hills below us and wandered for awhile after the sun came up.

Death Valley National Park

Amongst the hills at Zabriskie Point

Death Valley National Park

Manly Beacon

Death Valley National Park

Jazzy and Sadie

Death Valley National Park

At Zabriskie Point, Eastern Sierra’s in the background

Death Valley National Park

Parched earth

Death Valley National Park

Texture of the land

Death Valley National Park

Shadow selfie of me and the girls (right above the R) with Manly Beacon

After one more quick shot from Zabriskie Point we hopped back in the car and drove to Stovepipe Wells to check out their camping situation. (I should note that, with the exception of a few “pockets,” there was no cell reception in the valley which necessitated the drive.) They only had dry-camp sites available that night, but I was able to wrangle a spot for the following two nights… WITH electrical and water hook-ups! Once booked we simply drove for a bit to see what we might find. The first thing we happened upon was THE Stovepipe Well. Beyond that, without the ability to hit the trails, I simply enjoyed the view from the road, stopping from time to time to capture some of the scenery.

Death Valley National Park

Stovepipe Well

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Landscape with Grapevine Mountains in background

Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Grapevine Mountains

Death Valley National Park

While walking the dogs back in the campground that night I visited with a few friendly neighbors. The moon rising over the hills literally stopped me mid-sentence so I could grab my camera and tripod just in time to catch it finalizing its grand entrance.

Death Valley National Park

Moonrise over Funeral Mountains

The following day I got out while it was cool enough to leave the girls in the car with windows open while I scurried up a trail to see the Natural Bridge near Badwater Road. Soon after I drove far enough off-road to see Devil’s Golf Course. I’m not a golfer, but I’m guessing most golfers would find it a challenging fairway or putting green and thus aptly named. 🙂

Death Valley National Park

Natural Bridge trail

Death Valley National Park

Devils Golf Course

Another interesting find off Badwater Road is the narrow, windy one-way Artists Drive which leads to “Artists Palette”, a colorful bit of earth resulting from the oxidation of minerals found in the rock and soil there. A bit about that and a few of the other places I’ve mentioned can be found on this Wikipedia page… Places of Interest in Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park

Artists Palette

Death Valley National Park

Artists drive

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Landscape from Badwater Road

Back at Furnace Creek there are many historical treasures to be found. The story behind the 20-mule teams was most intriguing. Each team, which were apparently 18 mules and two horses, hauled two 16-foot long solid oak wagons filled with nine tons of Borax ore plus supplies (all totaled more than 33-tons!) from Furnace Creek to Mojave. I don’t know what their route was then, but by today’s roadway it’s 192 miles!

Death Valley National Park

Old Stagecoach, Furnace Creek

Death Valley National Park

20-Mule team wagons, Furnace Creek

As soon as I relocated to Stovepipe Wells I plugged in, took the girls for a brisk walk, and with promises of treats and another walk upon my return I set out to hike up Mosaic Canyon. Early on the hike I started chatting with a nice young family (darned if I can remember their names a month later!) and ended up hiking and visiting with them all the way to the end of the canyon and back. It was not only fun visiting with the parents along the trail, but imagining the adventure through the youthful eyes of their energetic boys… as they clambered up and over rocks and along ridges above as we hiked on the canyon floor… reminded me so much of youthful adventures with my brothers! I should point out that there were a few spots where we ALL had to clamber up and over rocks and along ridges to get to the end of the canyon!

Their presence along the way made what would have been a nice hike an even more delightful experience. (If you four find this post, please drop me a note! I have some fun shots of all of you I’d be happy to send your way!)

Death Valley National Park

Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National ParkMosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Photo op at the end of Mosaic Canyon

The following morning I was once again up well before sunrise. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were not all that far up the road, but it was my goal to be well INTO the dunes before the sun peaked over the Amargosa Range to the east. That meant hiking some distance in the sand and up and over the dunes. How far… I wouldn’t know until I arrived at THE spot… or in this case… spots. 🙂 I have no idea how far I actually hiked that morning, but I can tell you it was a great workout!

Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Death Valley National Park

Moon over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Anyone else see a face in this image???

Death Valley National Park

Man in the Dunes?

Death Valley National Park

Moon over the Dunes

Death Valley National Park

Loooong Shadow Selfie

As soon as I returned to the motorhome I took the dogs for another brisk walk, double-checked that the AC was switched to on, and hit the road to Scotty’s Castle where I had morning reservations for both the House and the Underground Tours. The drive was only 43 miles, but I’d be pre-warned that the road was under construction causing delays of up to 30 minutes. I encountered only a short delay which put me on the castle grounds well before they opened. It was actually still quite chilly (or maybe just seemed so after my morning workout in the dunes) and I chose to stay warm by walking the grounds rather than sit in the car.

The first thing that caught my eye (after the castle itself) was the structure in the foreground of the image below. My first brief thought was “A mote!” but it didn’t surround the castle. Then I noticed all the windows around the perimeter. It took only seconds to realize it was an empty swimming pool. The rocky bottom was what threw me. I found out later during the tour that it was indeed a pool, but never actually completed. The tours were well done and quite interesting, but the most fascinating part of all was hearing the stories about “Death Valley Scotty” who was not even the owner of the castle!

Death Valley National Park

Scotty’s Castle

Death Valley National Park

Through the gate at Scotty’s Castle

Death Valley National Park

Grand room in Scotty’s Castle

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

Dining room

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

Kitchen

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

Grand room

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

Music room

Scotty's Castle, Death Valley National Park

Spiral staircase

While in that corner of Death Valley I hoped to see Ubehebe Crater as well, but I had already been away from the motorhome for a few hours, and after waiting for at least twenty minutes just to get out of the parking lot because of the construction delays I thought better of making the turn down yet another road knowing it would undoubtedly add an additional delay to my expedition. The temperatures were by no means extreme, but with even the slightest chance of a power outage of some sort I was not comfortable leaving the girls behind for more than a few hours. Without electrical hook-ups I would not have left them behind at all.

The “Racetrack” is another place I really hoped to see while in the valley, but what I discovered when inquiring was reason enough not to attempt it on my own in my trusty little all-wheel-drive Honda CRV. It is in a very remote part of the valley and the route is 23 miles off-road on what was described as very rough terrain which would require a high clearance vehicle. Remember too that there is no cell service out there. Taking any chance of getting stuck alone in the desert 23 miles from the nearest roadway, which in itself is quite remote, just didn’t seem like a risk worth taking. Next time I go to Death Valley I’ll take a jeep… and a friend. 🙂

While at Zabriskie Point my first morning in the park I bumped into a couple guys with “real cameras” and tripods (not necessarily tell-tale signs of professionals these days, but serious amateurs at least.) We stopped and visited for a bit, and upon learning the westward route I was taking out of the park asked if I’d ever been to Alabama Hills. When I told them I’d never even heard of Alabama Hills they insisted it was a place I should not miss. Without more than their brief description to go on (no wifi=no research) I made that my destination the following morning. I can tell you that I was not in the least bit disappointed, and what I thought might be an overnight stay turned into several days, including a few day-excursions along the Eastern Sierras.

So… that’s where I’m taking you next. 🙂

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