I’m sitting in our climate-controlled truck on a cushioned leather seat watching the scenery unfold in front of me. The land is vast, harsh, barren, and the road free of traffic. I can’t fathom the life of Pioneers who first explored these lands via horseback and wagon. Complaining about the lack of cell or internet coverage seems so petty on my part. However, the thought of a flat tire or other breakdown has me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. No calling AAA out here. We’re on our own!
Our Route – February 22, 2012
We pulled out of our campsite in Lake Havasu City bright and early that morning. We traveled north on Highway 95 to Interstate 40 west. After studying the map the day before, I thought it would be interesting to drive through the Mojave National Preserve.
The Mojave Desert is an arid rain-shadow desert and the driest desert in North America. And just like I imagined, the views are miles upon miles of sparsely vegetated land … harsh land that deserves respect if one is to survive. After our turnoff from Interstate 40 onto Kelbaker Road, I think we saw less than a dozen other vehicles, if that. Fascinating terrain!
Once in the town of Baker, we top off with fuel. We realize, the further we get from civilization, the more expensive fuel costs will become. Our journey continues toward Death Valley National Park and Furnace Creek.
The Furnace Creek Campground was currently undergoing a renovation and therefore closed for the season (Feb. 2012). Signs directed us to the Sunset Campground where we quickly found a level gravel site to pull into. The Sunset Campground was pretty much an organized gravel parking lot with no services, but at $12 a night, we weren’t complaining. We made a quick note of the generator hours to assure we kept our batteries topped off.
Sunset Campground is aptly named. Every evening, we found ourselves sitting outside to watch the sunset. Once the sun had disappeared, the sky would turn into fantastic shades of colors ranging from pinks to reds and purples. Then the sky would slowly darken to the most incredible deep, deep midnight blue. The stars were bright and the crescent moon stunning. Al and I would just sit quietly in awe watching the show unfold.
Although we lived in a community with a dark sky policy (Pueblo West, CO), I think this was the first time we truly understood light pollution. There was none here to detract from the beauty of the sky, and we were appreciative observers. Each night was a little different but equally spectacular. There are some things in life that can’t be captured via a photograph and must be experienced first hand. Admiring the night sky in Death Valley National Park was definitely one of those special moments … a vision etched in my memories.
Exploring Death Valley
Established in 1994, Death Valley National Park is a beautiful but challenging landscape where unique wildlife have developed ingenious adaptations to the arid, harsh environment. Located in both California and Nevada, it’s the largest national park in the lower 48 states and has nearly 1,000 miles of roads that provide access to both popular and remote locations in the park.
After reviewing the Death Valley National Park map, Al and I discuss our plan for the day. National Parks are not usually pet friendly and Death Valley is no exception. So Al and I plan our day keeping our dog, Bear, in mind. Fortunately, the weather would be in the 60 degrees Faherenheit range allowing us to leave Bear in the RV alone for a few hours. Since he was over thirteen years old, Bear was showing his age and could use a little extra rest after a rather exciting, fun-filled five days in Lake Havasu. So, he didn’t mind being left behind to catch up on some much-needed rest.
Our first stops were Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View. Dante’s View is considered the most breathtaking viewpoint in the park. The overlook is more than 5,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley and overlooks Badwater Basin. We were extremely glad that we wore our sweatshirts considering the temperature was only around 52 degrees Fahrenheit that morning and extremely windy at this high overlook.
On our return to the RV, we took a side trip and ventured down a dirt road known as Twenty Mule Team Canyon. This is a one-way 2.7 mile drive through badlands. The history of this road dates back to the days of mining for Borax in the Valley. It was a fun little side trip even though there were points I wondered if our large truck would fit through some of the tight corridors in the canyon. If it weren’t for our growling stomachs beckoning for lunch, I would’ve loved stopping more frequently along the way. Yes, more photo-ops would’ve been nice, although Al might disagree.
Upon our return to the RV, we find Bear still fast asleep and needing to be coaxed for his walk. He is one tired little guy and doesn’t mind being left behind the rest of the day.
After lunch, Al and I head over to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Badwater Basin is a vast landscape of salt flats. From a distance it looks like snow.
We ventured out onto the salt flats taking in the fascinating landscape. Badwater Basin was once the site of a large inland lake. The lake had no outlet, leading to the accumulation of sediment and salt over time. When the lake eventually evaporated, concentrated salt deposits were left behind. Today, captivating geometric salt polygons form on the flats as groundwater rises up through these deposits and evaporates.
After more than thirty minutes of walking around the salt flats and marveling at the unique and surreal environment, we returned to the truck where we noticed the salt residue had stuck to our shoes and was now leaving a fine coating of salt residue on our truck floor mats.
A Golf Course that isn’t a Golf Course
Just north of Badwater Basin is a side road that took us down a bumpy dirt road to a parking lot. We found ourselves surrounded by craggy boulders which are really meteorite like sharp crystal formations of salt. Imagine an immense area of rock salt that has been eroded by wind and rain and turned into jagged spires and boulders. The sculpted salt formations form a rugged terrain that is simultaneously delicate yet dramatic. Rocks are so serrated that only the devil could play golf on such rough links. Hence, the name Devils Golf Course.
The terrain looks daunting and can be dangerous, thus best viewed from the parking lot. We had the place to ourselves and it was so quiet that we could actually hear the salt formations cracking. It was like tiny little pops and pings. The sound is literally billions of tiny salt crystals bursting apart as they expand and contract in the heat.
The next stop on our tour was driving the scenic, one-way, nine-mile paved road known as Artist’s Drive. A photo-op stop at the Artists Palette is a must. Artists Palette consists of multi-hued volcanic hills, best photographed in the afternoon. Known for its variety of rock colors, it’s no wonder where the name came from. The various colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals. Iron compounds produce red, pink, and yellow. The decomposition of mica produces green, and manganese produces purple. Once again, we are left speechless and perplexed by the terrain.
After two full days of exploring this southern section of Death Valley, it was time to move north. Al and I never realized just how enormous this national park is; 3,373,063 acres.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
On day three, we move camp to the Stovepipe Wells Campground. Upon arrival, we realize its remoteness. With the exception of Furnace Creek, all of Death Valley is extremely remote and vast. We park the RV with the backend into the wind. The wind is blowing and dirt devils are twirling.
Once settled in our new location, we head on over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes nearby which is the whole reason we moved to this new location. Al and I hike the dunes being sure to keep our eyes on the ground for critters; snakes, scorpions, etc. We occasionally stop for photos or to marvel at the landscape. These dunes rise nearly 100 feet from the Mesquite Flat and are in a constant state of change due to the winds. It appears wind is the norm in this part of the park.
The winds continue to blow and Al and I are covered in a fine layer of dirt and sand. We return to the RV for dinner in hopes of enjoying another gorgeous sunset. We were sorely disappointed with the sunset in this location. However, the night sky and the crescent moon made up for any lack in sunset color. If we had it to do over, we probably would have stayed at the Sunset Campground and just driven to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the day.
Although I feel we barely touched the surface of this awe-inspiring terrain, the constant extreme wind was irritating, and we decided to leave the next day with the promise of returning to Death Valley another time.
Throughout our entire Death Valley explorations, we were intrigued by the landscape and felt like we had stepped back in time … Jurassic time. With each bend in the road, it would not have surprised us to have encountered a dinosaur or perhaps see a pterodactyl fly overhead. Or perhaps it wasn’t another realm but rather another planet. Regardless, we were awed, mesmerized, and perplexed by the incredible landscape. We left with the realization that another visit to Death Valley National Park would be warranted. Four days and three nights were definitely not enough time to explore this expansive and special land.