Thursday, January 28, 2010

Death Valley (Travel Tip Thursday)

It’s cold. The temperature is well into the single digits and the wind chill is well below zero. The wind has been bitter today and this evening a rapidly moving clouds kept blocking the nearly full moon as it rose in the sky. At times you could see the moon covered by sheer clouds, other times it was blocked, with just a light spot in the heavens. It was quite eerie and as I walked back from the gym, the snow squeaked under my feet. This cold weather got me thinking about the desert--the low desert and you can’t get any lower in the United States than Death Valley (in truth, you can’t get much lower anywhere as the valley floor is -262 feet below sea level. This is my “Travel Tip Thursday” entry. This is a great writing prompt and I recommend it for those of you who like to travel. Below is the author standing in Death Valley with the snow-covered Panamint Mountains in the background.

I’ve been to Death Valley a half-dozen or so times. I’ve never been there in the summer, but have been there many times in the winter. It’s a great place to hike and explore when the temperature isn’t so oppressively hot. In the valley floor, it’s never really cold. Once, on New Years Eve, we spent swimming in the pool (warmed by hot springs) late into the evening. On another trip, in late February when the temperature had climbed to 100 degrees at mid-day, a small sidewinder (a type of rattlesnake) set up camp in front of our tent at Stovepipe Wells. The best time to visit the park is in early March during a year in which there has been a lot of rain in December and January. This just might be such a year! During these years, the valley explodes with flowers.

In 2005, during the same trip that I was in Randsburg, Ralph and I decided to head back to Utah through the valley. We left Ridgecrest early in the morning and headed east on California 178, driving through Salt Wells Canyon to reach Searles Lake. The lake is dry, but there the underground water there is filled with chemicals and minerals. The landscape is barren, but the town of Trona sits on the edge of the lake. We stopped there for coffee. The town exists because of two chemical plants that pump water from the ground, removing the minerals and then returning the water back to the ground. A railroad spur runs into the town, hauling out car loads of product more efficiently than the old twenty-mule teams that worked this region. These chemical plants have been mining the groundwater for nearly a century and they show no sign of running out of raw material to extract.

After Trona, we headed up and over a ridge before dropping into the Panamint Valley, which runs parallel to Death Valley. The highway looks like a ribbon pulled tight, running straight, north and south. As we drive, Ralph tells me about traveling with Sam, an old prospector, from his home near Randsburg to Death Valley back in the early 40s. The route they took when by several old mining camps, but is now closed off and part of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. As we were talking, a Navy jet, flying just above the highway, scared the crap out of us as it. I think that if he had his landing gear down, he would have touched the top of the car. We found Panamint Valley beautiful, with some flowers out and I was excited about getting to Death Valley as I’d heard lots of good reports about this years flower crop.

Just east of Panamint Springs, we turned onto California 190 and headed up the steep highway over Toumes Pass. At nearly 5,000 feet, we were surprised to find ice and snow along the road. I turned on the heat. But then the road snaked down into Death Valley and soon it was warm and we rolled the windows down. In the northern part of the park, we found a few places with flowers, mostly draws and seeps. We stopped at Furnace Creek and had lunch. Then we continued south, passing bad water and the lowest point in the United States. The further south we travel, the more flowers we see, with our best views being between Ashford Junction and Jubilee Pass. We stop along the way to hike and photograph. After leaving the park, we headed over through Shonshone and on down to Tecopa, where we ended the day soaking in hot springs.
My travel tip--if you can make it to Death Valley in late winter, after a rainy season, do it. It is something to see the desert in bloom! I should write more about Death Valley as there is plenty of places one should see there. Although I didn’t make it this trip, one place you won’t want to miss is Dante’s Point, which overlooks the valley from the eastern ridge. I need to find my photos from those other trips.


  1. Shhh don't let everyone in on the truth that there is awesome amounts of life in the, long thought of, desert places.

  2. Death Valley (and Joshua Tree) are two places I must see. The next time I'm in San Diego on business, I'm taking an extra week off, I think.


  3. I've been close but never there. The word DEATH must have been weighing heavily on my mind.

  4. Someday I hope to have the funds to actually use my summer break for traveling road trips. The dessert is at the top of mylist of places I miss since I moved to Hawii.

    Grat travel post! Thanks for linking it up.

  5. Walking Guy, its a good thing that many people don't like deserts--I was one of them until, at the age of 31, I moved to Nevada

    Randall, you would enjoy them... but try to make the trip in winter

    Ed, Death Valley wasn't a good marketing slogan, was it. It received its name in 1849, when a wagon train got stuck there and lost many within the party.

    High School Teacher, You should do Death Valley on a winter break!

  6. Yes, I'd definitely want to see it after a rain. it's so amazing how life finds a way, how it pushes through the rock and sand to take it's moment in the sun.

  7. Low flying jet? How close is Death Valley to Area 51? :)

    Wow, you're posting more lately. I've got some catching up to do?

  8. A friend of mine from Germany took a trip to the US West Coast last summer and visited Death Valley among other interesting places.

    He told me a lot about the desert -charming nights, animal sounds, starry skies, hidden places to hike- and sent me a few pics that i found really beautiful. I wish i could go there one day!

  9. Beautiful photos. I sure would like to see the desert in bloom.

  10. You be careful when you're hiking there. Every year they find people that didn't take enough water...

  11. Charles, the desert is a unique place--I really recommend the writings of Craig Childs for understanding it, especially the "Secret of Water" (although there is one of my readers who will disagree)

    Bone, its not that far--if you remember several years ago I wrote a piece about Rachel, NV, which is on the edge of Area 51

    Leni, you've captured a lot--the nights are wonderful with the sounds and the stars

    Kenju, thanks.

    Jen, extra water should be travel tip #1!

  12. You know, I have never travelled to Death Valley, though I'm sure I'd find it quite beautiful at the right time - after the rainy season, like you mentioned. Lovely pics, Sage.

  13. it must be wonderful to see Death Valley all in bloom like that...

  14. Although I haven't visited, Sage, after reading your excellent story I feel as if I have! Winter sounds best, yes!!!

  15. I was in death valley in 2005!!!!!!!

    man, the wildflowers were amazing that year. There is a pic of two friends of mine and I standing in a field. I've been told it looks fake, like they can't possibly be real, that it's all photoshop. But they were very real.

  16. Usually in most other locations the minimum overnight temperatures quoted here at or near Furnace Creek, Death Valley would indeed be significant however at Death Valley. It becomes attentive within the valley and so unusually high minimum warmth’s often happen in summer such as those of 30 June 2009 and 1 July 2009.

    Best Regards,