Southern California Deserts
Part 1- Death Valley
Some background information-
The Mojave Desert spans some 47,000 square miles, covering a large section of southeastern California. The desert also spills over into southwestern Nevada and Arizona. Included within its bounds are Death Valley, the Mojave National Preserve, and portions of Joshua Tree National Park. The Mojave desert is considered a “hot/cold” desert, meaning that it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. By contrast, the Sahara desert is considered a “hot” desert and Antarctica is considered a “cold” desert. To survive these extremes, plants and animals have made unique adaptations. For example, the Creosote bush, which covers large expanses of the Mojave, can live without water for at least two years and, yet, can live for 100-200 years. Now that is adaptation!
Death Valley is encompassed within the bounds of the larger Mojave Desert complex. It is hard to fathom that this unique world is only five hours from Los Angeles with its population of 10 million people, and 2 1/2 hours from Las Vegas. Despite its proximity to major urban centers, Death Valley is a world unto itself.
Our plan on this trip, was to visit with some friends in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and then reconnect and travel with them in the deserts of Southern California. My wife’s first impression, when planning the trip was, “Why are we going to the desert? What is there to see?” After completing the trip, she no longer believes that the desert is an empty place. As she said while traveling around Death Valley, ” Who knew there could be some many shades of brown.”
Indeed, I also was surprised to find, not only the salt flats of Badwater, which is 282 feet below sea level, but numerous mountain ranges, with Telescope Peak topping out at 11,049 feet. Badwater and Telescope Peak are only 15 miles apart. Such extremes is such a short distance, who knew.
Oddly enough, the day we arrived in Death Valley, it began to rain. We were able to get in a morning hike in Golden Canyon, but then the rains came. By northeastern USA standard, it was a steady rain, but not a downpour. Yet, the rain caused roads to flood, and sand bags to appear. Over the course of that day, Death Valley received one inch of rain. This was more than they had received in the whole year before. Indeed, many of the side canyons and roads were closed for the next four days. Traveling with the side effects of climate change forces one to be quite flexible. We used the day to visit the Visitors Center and some of the small shops around Furnace Creek.
Furnace Creek Ranch is the main hub for accommodations in Death Valley. There is also the much more upscale Inn at Furnace Creek. For those on a budget, Furnace Creek Ranch will be your best option. They have several options for all manner of travelers. Within the complex, they have an RV park, guest houses (larger to accommodate families) and smaller, cozy cabins. Our friend stayed in her RV, for a reasonable fee of $36.00 per night with hookups. We chose the cabins, which had two double beds, small refrigerator, shower, and TV. Wifi is available through out the park. The cabins were $85.00 a night for the weekdays and went up to $120.00 for the weekend. This did not include the additional $40+ dollars of taxes and park fees attached to each night. That being said, Furnace Creek is centrally located within the park, and really the most convenient option in the area.
There are a couple of restaurants located within the Furnace Creek complex and a small general store. We ate out at the bar/restaurant two of the five nights we were in the park. The first night I had a $15.00 hamburger. The second night, I had scallops (not exactly local fare) for $20.00. Maybe many would find the fees reasonable, but I have to say that the food itself was only marginal. The hamburger was overcooked and leathery. The scallops were under cooked and raw. It seems for those prices, they need to get better chefs. But they do have you captive right? Also, I would have liked to seen a more indigenous menus, something that reflected the mood of the desert and the the southwest.
Another surprise, but understandable upon reflection, were the gas prices. We were traveling in December of 2014 when gas prices across the USA were plummeting below $2.70 a gallon. However, in Death Valley the prices were around $4.20 per gallon. I wondered what the prices had been when gas prices outside of the desert were approaching $4.00 a gallon. None of these observations are deal breakers, but just something to be aware of if looking for a place to stay while visiting Death Valley.
Death Valley sites-
Because of the rain, we had to modify some our plans. We had planned to rent a jeep for a couple of days to explore Titus Canyon and the Racetrack. We would be renting the jeep from Farabee Rental of $200.00 per day. I have to say that Farabee was extremely fair and flexible, letting us repeatedly postpone our rental dates. We kept hoping the closed roads would open. In the end, after four days of waiting, they gave us a full refund.
Death Valley is a really large national park. To travel up north to the Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack from Furnace Creek is 2-2 1/2 hour trip one way. To travel out to the Beehive Charcoal Kiln is another full day, with side trips. Dante’s View is 50+ miles round trip. So all that being said, and with road closures, we had a great time exploring the main areas around Furnace Creek.
We traveled down to Badwater, the lowest and hottest place in the United States. Because of the rain, we did not get to see the baked salt flats. The ridges and crust were flattened by the rain. It was still an interesting tourist stop, however. We worked our way back up Badwater Road towards Artist Drive, bypassing Devil’s Golf Course, as it was still closed due to the rain. Artist Drive is a scenic and curvy one way nine mile road, leading you to the multi-colored Artist Palette. The oxidation of metals gives Artist Palette its unique hues. The reds, pinks and yellows are from iron salts. The green is from decomposing mica. The purples are byproducts of manganese. The whole of the Palette coming together is quite the organic spectacle.
From here we worked our way back up to Furnace Creek, visiting the Natural Bridge, and Golden Canyon. In Golden Canyon, we hiked out about a mile to see the views of Red Cathedral. All of these sites are along Badwater Road and easily seen in a day.
Mesquite Sand Dunes, Day #2-
We headed out from Furnace Creek and headed north towards Stovepipe Wells and the Mesquite Sand Dunes. On the way to the Mesquite Dunes, we pulled over at the Devils’ Cornfield for a quick look at the thick clumps of Arrow weed. The Mesquite Dunes offer yet another amazing geological feature of Death Valley. Besides the numerous mountain ranges, and the vast salt water flats, there are also several extensive Sand Dunes within the park. The Mesquite Dunes are easily seen from Route 190. From the parking area, visitors are free to roam the ocher colored dunes near or far, with the Panamint Moutain range framing your views. Within the dunes there are numerous areas clumps of mesquite and creosote bushes and burrowing owls, kit fox and sidewinder rattlesnakes make this habitat there home. Perhaps, because of the rain we had received, the dunes were compact and relatively easy to walk. This was a treat, as it lets us explore large expanses of the dunes with relatively little effort.
Dante’s View, Day #3-
The main highlight for Day 3 was an evening visit to Dante’s View. Though Zabriske Point was along the way, we did not get to visit this site as the road was closed for construction from December 2014 until April 2015. Between rain, road closures due to the rain, and now a closed site due to repair, we, indeed, had to be intrepid travelers, and just be thankful for the sites we did get to see. My hope for Dante’s View was to get some night shots. The road up to Dante’s is steep and winding and the temperatures at the 5,476 foot peak were freezing compared to the sea level Furnace Creek. Though I did not have a thermometer, I would judge that the temperature at Dante’s view was a good 50 degrees colder than at sea level. I had on all my clothing layers. Though the panoramic view was fogged in, I was able to catch a few photographic moments from Dante’s. I was able to get some pink sunset clouds surrounding the local peaks. After the full moon rose, I photographed the “backside” of Dante’s, which provided an eerie moonscape layered view of the upper desert mountains. Once again, I kept trying to work the scene photographically, even if it was not quite what I had hoped for.
Beehive Charcoal Kilns, Day #4-
As I said, the travel distances in Death Valley can seem foreboding. Photographically it is not easy to fit in many sites in one day, even if they are within the same direction. To that end, we headed out from Furnace Creek north on Route 190 towards Stovepipe Wells again. This time our goal was to visit the Beehive Charcoal Kilns. To get there you travel up and over Emigrant Pass and through Wildrose Canyon. The Canyon and Pass are above 5000 feet and the temperature extremes were as severe as at Dante’s View. A lesson here is to always carry multiple layers when traveling the desert in the Winter. I am sure the high passes are a welcome reprieve from the heat in winter and we did pass several primitive camping sites. But for us the temperatures were, literally, freezing. That being said, the pass and canyon were as stark and, seemingly, barren, as only a desert can seem. So imagine our surprise after 40 miles of wending our way through narrow passes and valleys to find the road dead ending at the Beehive Charcoal Kilns. The paved road ends and a gravel road continues for about 3 miles until the road dead ends at the Beehives.
The Beehive Kilns are a marvel and an anomaly at the same time. The kilns were completed in the 1877 and only ran for three years. There are 10 immaculately preserved stone kilns, each, perhaps 30 feet in diameter and 20 feet tall. They were built by Chinese laborers. The information boards left me asking many questions. I wondered how many Chinese laborers were used. Where did they live? In this barren landscape, how were they fed? The kilns are a manufacturing marvel, but there existence at this very remote location, made me wondering about the suffering that was endured here.
The reasons for the Kilns existence in this remote location was because of the relative abundance of pinyon pines that were used to make the charcoal. This charcoal was then shipped by mules some 25 miles away to be used in Smelters at the Iron ore mines.
The remoteness and isolation along with the ingenuity and determination that went into making the Beehive kilns makes this site and odd specialty within Death Valley.
Not all photography trips are created equal it seems and Death Valley seemed to exemplify this is spades. The rain causing road closures made the Salt flats smooth and mushy. Zabriske Point, a photographic highlight I am told, was closed. Fog and freezing weather at Dante’s View were a challenge. But with all these limitations, there were photographic opportunities to be had. There were clouds hovering over the usually sun drenched mountains. The overcast conditions meant I could photograph all day long. There was the lunar type moonscape looking backward from Dante’s View. There were the splendid set of hues gracing Artist Palette.
Did I get to do all that I had planned and hoped for in Death Valley. Not even close. Am I sorry about my time spent in this desert? No way. What I did get to experience, I loved. Now that I am familiar with Death Valley and have a lay of the land, if I get a chance to return, I will know where to focus my time and energy. Most of the time it takes several trips to get everything just right. Right?