Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Death Valley

Missing my old West Texas trips - and the heat in general - I dragged my partner out to Death Valley for a few days.  Here's what happened:

Stovepipe Wells Motel
Three days before, the forecast was for highs in the 80's and cold nights.  By the time we set out for a day of travel through the Central Valley, the forecast was for highs around 100 and warm nights.  So it was hot.  A dry heat, but there isn't a lot of shade in Death Valley, so there wasn't a lot of relief from the direct sunlight except in the car or the motel room.  Motel?  We stayed in Stovepipe Wells since it was pretty much in the middle of the largest National Park in the lower 48.

Since we arrived in the evening we didn't have time for much that day, but managed to check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dusk - just down the road.  We also checked out the pool at the motel and met a friendly Canadian guy who said he "love[d] this country" because it's too cold in Canada and he met some loose women in Las Vegas.  Just don't get sick dude.

Woke up relatively early despite an unfamiliar bed and headed for what is often considered the highlight of the park - the lowest point in the Western hemisphere (not counting the oceans).  Along the way we checked out Golden Canyon - interesting but don't bother with the 25 cent pamphlet/guide - here's the gist: these rocks are really, really old.  Then the Badwater Basin.  Holy shit.  A hot, flat, salty, slab of earth that sits below sea level and has got to be the size of 10,000 football fields, and you can see all the way to mountains that rise up thousands of feet above.  As we walked along the white, salt path I commented to JC: "This place could use a coffee stand.  Can you imagine?  Some poor barista making espresso out here, sweating like a dog."

Artists Palette (purple rocks!!)
Then off to the Artists Palette.  Not a literal palette, but very colorful and unusual cliffs.  Probably one of the first places where we couldn't stop looking at rocks.  That's right, rocks.

Followed that up with a drive up to Dante's view to cool off and get another view of the Badwater Basin.  The Basin was probably about 100 degrees, while Dante's view - a 20 minute drive away - was a comfortable 76 or so.  The heat has a way of sapping your strength, so after that we headed back to the motel for a siesta.

After relaxing a bit in a 68 degree, tv-less room and drinking an ice-cold beer, we ventured out to the heat and took the Honda FIT onto our first unpaved road of the trip - just around the corner to Mosaic Canyon.  If you ever wanted to walk through a smooth, striped, marble canyon, this is the place.  It was one of the highlights of the trip - we didn't see another person except a few folks leaving as we arrived and a few folks arriving as we left.

The next morning I noted that we hadn't seen any mammals since we arrived - no squirrels, no coyotes, nothing - except humans of course.  On our way to the charcoal kilns we stopped in a random dry stream bed and took a walk in a mild, scrub-filled valley, where we surprised the first of 3 rabbits we'd see on the trip.  Out another unpaved road to the charcoal kilns - some old structures that were used back in the 1870's to create charcoal for use in smelting or something - which led to a steep trail featuring cacti growing among pine cones and another incredible view of the Valley.

The old jail in Rhyolite.
Still trying to get relief from the heat, we drove to Darwin Falls and one of the rare, lush canyons in the park.  JC found a camera someone must have dropped on the trail.  Look for it on Craigslist soon.  The waterfall itself was relatively small compared with what you'd find in the Sierra Nevada, but it was still an unusual sight in the area.

That night, the Stovepipe Wells Ale hit the spot.

There are lots of ghost towns around Death Valley, but most are in more desolate areas at the end of rough, unpaved roads, and we only had a few days.  Rhyolite is conveniently on a paved road and one of the better-preserved ghost towns.  The highlights include a 3 story bank that is still standing, sort of, and a house some crazy dude from the 1800's made out of bottles.

Salt Creek pupfish
After that we found a city park with cottonwood trees in Beatty, Nevada and enjoyed some dash board soup (soup heated on the dash board of the Honda FIT) in the shade.  Driving back into the park we tried another random hike at Daylight Pass.  More cool rocks, but the highlight for me was startling a group of Chukars - some sort of partridge birds that are like ducks that stand up a bit straighter and have some striped thighs.  They kind of sound like a cross between ducks and chickens - quackling about the desert.

We sunk into the Valley a few hundred feet to see the pupfish in Salt Creek - ancient fish that only live in that creek.  Walking around the boardwalk - built to protect the sensitive habitat - felt like walking in a dry sauna.  I would imagine that at that temperature with only salty water available to drink, a human would die within 90 minutes.  Seriously.  Luckily our car and A/C were both nearby.

We survived!  And enjoyed another swim at the pool.  Then off to a canyon that is rarely visited, but is just around the other corner from Stovepipe Wells.  ANOTHER UNPAVED ROAD; and this time the FIT wouldn't make it all the way.  That means we had to walk, like, 3 miles, uphill, through loose gravel in the hot sun, just to get to the mouth of Grotto Canyon.  Worth it.  The other best part of the trip (remember a nearby canyon - Mosaic Canyon was also pretty amazing) was this canyon where we saw no other humans.  Once in the shade of the canyon we walked through a palace of rock decorated with cacti and the sound of curious birds and a cool breeze racing through the tall canyon and scattered brush.  We reached a twisted rock formation that was too difficult to get past; but half the fun was trying to get around it.  We never did get around it - the path back down was too steep and we were tired - but scrambling up side canyons and looking back to see miles of sand dunes and distant peaks, made it a final adventure that really made the trip.  Reflecting on that last hike I realize that one of the best things about Death Valley is exploration.  There are lots of canyons - and many of them are relatively empty of people - so it feels like you're in uncharted territory.  You can also hike just about anywhere - again rarely seeing other humans - and find lizards, rabbits, rocks, unusual and/or amazing views, birds, and quiet solitude.  You just don't get that in many places this beautiful.

I actually liked the heat, but I think we could have done a lot more and hiked a lot further if we had gone in March.  We could also have gone a lot more places if we had a 4x4 vehicle.  So maybe next time we'll go in March and rent a 4x4.  There's still a lot more to see.