Laura and Lee's Death Valley Day

April 7, 2002

As we were driving to Mammoth to visit my parents for the weekend, it occurred to us that in all our visits we'd never stopped in Death Valley, even though the road goes within 100 miles of there. (Though my parents informed me that I actually HAD been to Death Valley - when I was about 4. So I think I'm excused for not remembering! :-) )

Anyway...we decided to get a relatively early start and drive though there on our way home on Sunday.

But on Saturday we went to June Mountain and skiied for a while, then went to the Mono Lake Visitor Center - we found a Death Valley guide book there that gave us a better idea of what we might be interested in seeing. We also did a little more exploring around Mono Lake itself - normally we just go to the South Tufa area, but this time we visited some places on the west and north sides of the lake. We saw the pumice "towers" that are near the Old Marina (back when the lake was a lot higher than it is now there was a marina), and the tufa towers that are on the north side of the lake - they aren't as impressive as the ones on the south side. We also went to Black Point, which is basically a volcano that erupted under water (at the time), and now it's a big exposed pile of black sand. There are some obsidian fissures up higher but we didn't have time to hike there. It also has a black sand beach, with Negit Island in the distance.

And we also saw something very odd there...Mono Lake does have a rather unearthly appearance, so I suppose it shouldn't be a total surprise that we found what appear to be crop circles! Someone alert Scully and Mulder! :-)

On Sunday morning we left about 8:30 (since the @#$%*! change to daylight savings time cost us an hour) and after a couple stops for bread (Schat's) and gas, we left our usual road at Lone Pine and headed east to Death Valley. We had a nice view of Mt. Whitney from there. And it's a rather interesting fact that the *highest* point in the continental U.S. and the *lowest* point in the U.S. (actually the entire western hemisphere) are only about 150 miles apart!

We had to go across two mountain ranges (the Inyo Mountains and the Panamint Mountains) to get to the valley. And that's one reason that Death Valley is so dry - because the clouds have to cross all those mountain ranges before they get there. It's almost like each mountain range demands the clouds pay a "rain toll" in order to cross, and by the time they get to Death Valley there's no moisture left! The average rainfall is only 1.9" there, and there are some years they've had no measurable rain at all!

We reached the sign that said we were entering Death Valley a number of miles *before* I was expecting to see it...on the CA map we had in the car the park showed the park being much smaller. As we later found out, in 1994 the park went from being a National Monument to being a National Park, and about 2000 square miles more were included. Of course, that also tells you something about how old our map was. :-)

We arrived in Stove Pipe Wells about an hour and a half after we left the main road. There certainly wasn't much traffic on the road, and it was already sunny and quite warm - probably about 88. Stovepipe Wells is so named because there actually are some hand-dug wells in the area, which were marked by putting an old piece of stovepipe beside them.

Just outside of Stove Pipe Wells are the sand dunes - evidently a popular spot for visitors. The creosote bushes were blooming in the area - they are spaced at such even intervals that it appears they were planted, but they grow that way naturally. The roots of the plant exude a chemical that's like weedkiller, which prevents *other* plants from growing around the creosote bush, and competing with it for water.

Ok, so who remembers "Death Valley Days", and the "20 Mule Teams" hauling borax, and all of that? We stopped at the Harmony Borax Works (or what is left of it) and saw one of the big 20 mule team wagons (they were actually hauled by 18 mules and 2 horses). The wagons hauled 36 tons of borax across the desert to Mojave after it was processed at the borax works, about 330 miles and 20 days round trip. The borax works was not operated during the hot months - not for any humanitarian reasons, but simply because borax won't crystallize at temperatures over 120 degrees!

The road also went past a place called "Mustard Canyon" - for rather obvious reasons. :-)

We stopped at the Visitor Center in Furnace Creek - it was very nicely done. There were exhibits on the geologic history of Death Valley as well as the plants, animals, and the human history. It's amazing to me that any of the early pioneers made it across - it's such forbidding territory, and there's very little water! Though the Furnace Creek area is actually rather amazing because there IS water, from springs that flow at a rate of about 1000 gallons per minute. It's quite the little oasis - though it's still VERY hot there, and a little bit below sea level.

Speaking of sea of the interesting things about Death Valley is that much of it *is* below sea level - the valley floor, that is - obviously the mountains are higher. It's 282 feet below at Badwater - the lowest spot in North America. There were various signs we passed that showed us where sea level was.

There's a very nice resort in Furnace Creek - the Furnace Creek Inn. It would be interesting to stay there sometime - but not in the summer! :-)

The next place we stopped was an area called "Golden Canyon", appropriately named for the golden color of the canyon walls. It was getting QUITE warm by then - it was about 1:00 - though it *was* a dry heat. :-) I think the high for the day was 92. The colors in the canyon were beautiful - golds, reds, pinks, oranges...the pictures really don't do them justice. But, as in most of Death Valley, there was VERY little vegetation - the canyon was quite barren. We walked about 3/4 of a mile up the canyon to where we had a view of Red Cathedral, then went back down. I was VERY happy to get back to the air-conditioned X-Terra! But it was a nice walk - it would be quite beautiful in softer late afternoon light.

By far the most colorful place we visited is "Artist's Palette". This is a one way road that runs from south to north (which meant we ended up backtracking, since we were travelling north to south), but I'd call it an absolute "don't miss". The colors on the hillside are amazing - it really does look like an artist's palette. Most of the colors are the result of two different minerals - hematite and limonite - though the violets and greens are the product of volcanic ash. One nice thing about this drive is that you can enjoy it from the comfort of your car, though it's worth getting out at a couple of places for a better look. The pictures really don't capture richness of the color.

Our next stop was "The Devil's Golf Course". (Death Valley is just *filled* with all of these cheerful names - Devil's Golf Course, Badwater, Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Dante's View, Starvation Canyon...) This area is at what used to be the bottom of a saline lake, and as the salt water rises to the surface and evaporates, this rough, pock-marked surface is formed. It's definitely NOT a place you want to slip and fall. The new salt crystals are still white - blowing dust and dirt have discolored the older ones. Lee teed up and took a practice swing. :-)

"Badwater" was an interesting place - 280 feet below sea level! And HOT - that white salt flat surface really reflects the sun's rays. There's actually water there in a VERY salty pool (that's why the place is called "Badwater", though the water isn't actually poisonous - just too salty to drink). And there's some vegetation actually growing around the pool, as well as some tiny snails and insect larvae that live there. I thought it made for an interesting reflection.

Something that illustrates this whole "below sea level" thing - up on the hill above Badwater was this sign - at sea level. It was *way* up the hill!

In looking up some Death Valley details for this trip report I ran across some information on something called the "Badwater Ultramarathon". This is a race from Badwater to Whitney Portal (135 miles away)...and they do it in *July* when the average high temperature is a toasty 116 degrees! These people are *nuts*!!!! The "purists" (aka the truly insane) don't stop at Whitney Portal - they continue another 15 or so miles up to the top of Mt. Whitney - thus going from the lowest point in the U.S. to the highest in the continental U.S. And then the ultra insane (I'm running out of adjectives) turn around and go *back* to Badwater! Here's Coach Weber's Badwater 2000 Photo Album, if you're interested in reading more about it. (Or just shaking your head at the crazy things that some people will do! :-) )

But back to the trip report...It must have been about 4:30 by then - there really weren't any more interesting places to stop on the road out of the park, but there was still a lot more of it. No offense to desert afficionados, but Death Valley has a whole lot of nothing - though it has more varieties of nothing than I have ever seen before! :-)

Let's addition to the "typical Death Valley nothing" pictured here, there is also:

One thing that I really missed was flowers...there was very little vegetation, and the "height" of the flower season (such as it is) is in March. But there were still a few things blooming.

Despite our side trip through Death Valley, we were doing ok on our trip home until we got over to Interstate 15...where we hit all the weekend traffic coming home from Las Vegas and ended up in stop and go traffic for about 60 miles. It was horrible - we would have done better to backtrack through Death Valley. We finally arrived home at about 11:15.

There's still several parts of Death Valley that we haven't seen - like Scotty's Castle, in the northern part of the park, which has a pretty colorful history all of its own - so I think we'll be making our way back there one of these days - but definitely NOT between May and October! :-)

Other Links

Tigger's Death Valley Day

Text and photographs copyright © 2002, by Laura Gilbreath and Lee Zimmerman. Feel free to link to this document, but you may not redistribute it in any form without the express written consent of the copyright holder.

Laura Gilbreath,
Last updated 6/6/2002

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