A Land of Extremes – Death Valley

A Land of Extremes – Death Valley

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.

Campground

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.

We loved watching the sunsets!

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.

Al reading information about the area – Dante’s View
The expansive scene from Dante’s View – overlooking Badwater Basin

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.

A Jeep rounds a bend on Twenty Mule Team Road – the perfect vehicle for exploring Death Valley NP.

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.

Al and Ingrid at Badwater Basin
Exploring the salt flats
Interesting patterns formed by salt deposits.

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.

A 53 year old Ingrid is awed by the landscape.

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 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.

Artists Palette
Death Valley National Park – Vast large land worth exploring!

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.

Our campsite at Stovepipe Wells National Park Campground – no services.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

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. 

exploring the dunes
Ingrid dumping the sand out of her shoes after exploring the dunes.

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.

Al and Ingrid near Artists Palette – February 24, 2012
Death Valley National Park

Cooking with Altitude

“Wow, these are the best pancakes you’ve ever made”, Al comments.  He wonders what I’ve done differently or if this is a new recipe.  “It’s not the recipe, hon.  It’s the altitude”, I respond.  Altitude, or lack there of I’m thinking.  You see, Al made that comment while we were camped in Death Valley…. at sea level.  We live in Colorado, 5000+ feet in elevation.   Baking or cooking at these higher elevations can require modifications or tweaking to many recipes.

I have to agree with Al.  The pancakes were delish.  They had a thick, fluffy texture.  Usually they are a bit thinner and denser, thanks to the high altitude.  Nonetheless, we always enjoy these yummy pancakes.  It’s just sometimes they turn out better than other times.

I found this great pancake recipe on the Food Network website.  I’ve made them with white flour, as well as with wheat flour.  It’s merely a personal preference.

Pancakes:

  • dry ingredients:                                      wet ingredients:
  • 1 1/2 cups flour                                      2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons sugar                              1 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder                 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt                                           3 tablespoons melted butter

Fresh Fruit
Fresh Fruit (Photo credit: fensterbme)

Mix dry ingredients in large mixing bowl.  Mix wet ingredients in medium bowl.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry.  Mix until combined.

At this point I add 3/4 cup of chopped walnuts and a cup or two of fruit….blueberries, strawberries, or other berries.  I like to keep bags of frozen fruit in the freezer for those times we’re camped in the middle of nowhere, and Death Valley would constitute as the middle of no where.  No farmers market here.

Ladle batter onto a large heated skillet.  Flipping once.  Serve topped with sliced bananas and warm maple syrup……….yum  🙂

Mesquite, Nevada

After an awe-inspiring trip to Death Valley, we head out from Stovepipe Wells on Hwy 374 toward Beatty, Nevada.  Our destination is Mesquite, Nevada.  In Beatty we pick up Hwy 95 and head south to Las Vegas.  Once in Las Vegas we pick up the 215 beltway east to I-15 north.  The trip takes about three hours including a stop for gas and lunch.

The main reason for our visit to Mesquite is to visit long time friends of my parents.  My parents met these folks during both their RVing days.  Health reasons stopped my folks from future travels and their friends opted for a Park Model in Mesquite.  They spend six months out of the year in Mesquite and the other six months on their ranch in Montana.  They recently purchased a little travel trailer for a trip to Alaska, which they had done before, and Al and I wanted as much information about this impending trip as possible.  The Alaskan Highway (I still refer to it as the Al-Can Hwy) is on our bucket list.  I’ve heard a lot of conflicting opinions on such a trip and was extremely curious to get their take.

Mesquite offers two exits off of Interstate 15.  We opt to exit the first one and stop at Walmart to stock up on supplies.  Before turning into the Walmart parking lot, we notice a banner on some fencing…..RV Resort with an arrow.  We decide to check it out.  The Solstice Motorcoach Resort has only been open a year and is a beautiful facility.  We decide to spend a week and focus on ridding ourselves, the dog, and the rig of dirt and sand.

Solstice Resort, Mesquite NV

The Park sits high above the town offering a beautiful night view of the lit up town and casinos.  The folks at the park are extremely friendly and helpful.  The weather, this last week in February, was still a bit chilly and windy.  We enjoy the stay, and are particular pleased visiting with the friends.  I think it’s time to head south for warmer weather…….

Another Day Below Sea Level…

Badwater Basin is such a unique, surreal kind of environment, I feel compelled to make the eighteen mile drive once again.  One visit was not enough.

Dante’s View is at the top of this mountain and if you look at the photo closely, there’s a sign 3/4 of the way up.  The sign says “Sea Level“.  Out on the salt flats is a group of photographers.  It appears, this time of the morning (8:30 or so) is a great time to capture the salt flat up close.  I feel a moment of inferiority as we pass some of these photographers.  Strapped around their necks are large SLR cameras with zoom lenses and they carry strong and sturdy tripods.  I have my new light weight tripod along with my little point and shoot Lumix DMC-TZ4 camera.  I wonder, can I capture the flat’s equally as well with my little camera?

Salt Flats

I’m sure those SLR’s  are able to capture the finer details far better than my point and shoot, but for my purposes I’m happy with the results of my little camera.  Years ago I toted around a large SLR with interchangeable lenses, filters, etc. but found myself using a point and shoot much more frequently due to the convenience.  It fits in my purse or pocket, and thus I always have my camera readily available.  However…………perhaps a visit on Amazon for a finer camera, just to look mind you, would be in order.  If only I had internet service.  Guess Amazon will just have to wait.

After about thirty minutes of walking around the salt flats and marveling at its uniqueness, it’s time to return to the Rig…..it’s moving day.  We decide to head north and camp at Stovepipe Wells.  Upon arrival, we realize it’s remoteness.  With the exception of Furnace Creek, all of Death Valley is extremely remote and vast.  The wind is blowing and dirt devils are twirling.  We park the Rig with the backend into the wind.Once settled in our new location, we decide to explore the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near by.  Al and I hike the dunes being sure to keep our eyes on the ground for critters….i.e. snakes and 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.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

The winds continue to kick up and Al and I are covered in a fine layer of dirt and sand.  We return to the Rig for dinner and hopefully another gorgeous sunset.

We were sorely disappointed with the sunset in this location.  However, the night sky and crescent moon made up for any lack in the sunset. If we had it to do over, we would have stayed at Sunset Campground and just drove to the other areas. The constant extreme wind starts to irritate us and we make a plan for the next day.  Although, I feel we’ve barely touched the surface of this awe-inspiring terrain, we decide to head out with the promise of returning next year.  I really did not get my fill of Death Valley and am already planning the hikes and explorations for our future visit.

February 22, 2012

Death Valley…

After a wonderful nights sleep in Death Valley, Al and I discuss the plan for the day over coffee.  National Parks are not usually pet friendly and Death Valley is no exception.  So Al and I plan our day keeping Bear’s needs in

Bear

mind.  Fortunately, the weather will be in the sixties and low seventies, allowing us to leave Bear in the Rig for a few hours.  The old guy (meaning Bear, not Al) needs some extra rest after a rather exciting, fun filled five days in Havasu.  So, he doesn’t mind being left behind to catch up on some much needed rest.  If temperatures were to get much warmer, this would definitely not be an option.  Pets are NOT allowed on any trails and are not allowed to be left unattended in your vehicle.

Dante's View

First stop this morning we head to Zabriskie Point and then onto Dante’s View.  Dante’s View is considered the most breathtaking viewpoint in the park.  The overlook is more than 5000 feet above the floor of Death Valley and overlooks Badwater Basin.

Dante's View

We are very glad we brought our sweatshirts along as the temperature is around 55 degrees and extremely windy at this altitude.  While admiring the views, we meet an elderly gentlemen who shared some of his experiences he encountered in Death Valley over the years.  One of which was a marathon held in July with temperatures reaching 120 degrees.  He was very proud of this accomplishment, righteously so.  Al and I thought it sounded insane as did the bike race.  I admire folks like this gentleman and at seventy he was there to hike Telescope Peak….11049 feet in elevation.

Salt Flats...... Background - Telescope Peak

On our way back to the Rig for lunch, we take a side trip and venture 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, one I would do again and stop a bit more along the way.

We return to the Rig to find Bear still fast a sleep and I need to coax him to take a walk.  After lunch Al and I head 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.  The salt residue sticks to our tennis shoes and leaves a fine coating on our truck floor mats.

On our return to the campground, we take a detour by taking Artist’s Drive.  Artist’s Drive is a one-way, scenic, nine mile paved loop.  Artist’s Palette consists of multi-hued volcanic hills, best photographed in the afternoon.

We would have liked to visit and hike Natural Bridge Canyon but the day was getting late and we wanted to make sure Bear was ok.  We’ll just need to put that on the bucket list for a future visit.

We return to the Rig and enjoy the rest of the evening with a glass of wine and once again watch the sun set.  Tomorrow we’ll move to another campground and check out Death Valley to the north.

Land of Great Extremes

Death Valley has long been on my short list of places I have wanted to see.  So when Al and I decided to hit the road, Al wanted to know my top choices of locations I’ve always wanted to visit.  Keeping time of year and weather in mind, February in Death Valley seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Have you ever wanted to do something or go somewhere really badly only to be disappointed once achieved?  Well that’s kind of how I was feeling about the trip to Death Valley.  I thought, “this is a place I’ve wanted to visit for the last twenty years, and am finally able to do so.  I bet it will be anticlimactic”.  NOT!!!!  So worth my while.  Absolutely loved it and plan to return next year for further exploration.

Badwater Basin - 282 ft. below sea level - salt flats

From Lake Havasu City we traveled north on Hwy 95 to Interstate 40 west.  We took exit 78, Kelbaker Road, north through the Mojave National Preserve.  Filled up with gas in Baker, California, before crossing over Interstate 15 and headed north on Hwy 127.

The land is vast and the road free of company.  As Al and I sit in our climate controlled truck with cushioned leather interior, we marvel at the Pioneers who first discovered these lands on horseback and wagon.  I don’t dare complain about the lack of cell phone coverage.  Yes, that’s right folks…no cell phone service in Death Valley or a good 100 miles around.  There’s actually pay phone booths at a couple of the resorts.  Flat tire?  You’ll need to fix it yourself cause AAA ain’t coming!

We had planned to camp at Furnace Creek.  However, the Furnace Creek Campground is closed for the next year for repairs/updates.  So we stay at the Sunset Campground.

Sunset Campground

It’s pretty much just an organized gravel parking lot, but at $12 a night I

Camp Site

can’t complain.  We just need a level spot to park the Rig and crash for a couple of nights.  They have a tiered overflow lot that provides the most spectacular sunset set views from your RV.  We spent a total of three nights in Death Valley and each night we sat outside to watch the sunset and once down, the sky would turn an amazing red.  We would also watch the sky darken to the most incredible deep, deep midnight blue.  The stars were bright and the crescent moon amazing.  There are some things in life that can’t be captured on film and must be experienced first hand.  This was definitely one of those moments…..a vision I’ll remember and highly recommend.

Our first night in Death Valley, we sleep well and look forward to our explorations the next day…..