Death Valley

I left Los Angeles at 8:30 on Sunday morning headed to East California, a region best known as where you pass through to get to Mammoth or Las Vegas. Most people don’t know that there is actually a lot to see. With my parents and sister in South Africa, I didn’t want to stick around LA and sit around while everyone else in the city celebrates Thanksgiving with their families. Coupled with spectacular weather in Death Valley this time of year, I figured why not go on an adventure.

4 hours out, I got lunch in Lone Pine before heading to Manzanar another 10 miles up the road. Manzanar was an internment camp used to contain people of Japanese ancestry during WWII. Most Americans don’t know that we held thousands of our own citizens in these camps against their will. After watching the informative park movie, I drove around the bare ruins of the town. Nothing is left except trees, recreated buildings and the cemetery.

Owens Valley
Owens Valley

One reason I wanted to go to Manzanar was for the national park passport stamp. On my very first road trip back in August 2011, I drove past Manzanar with my roommate Anthony not knowing it was a national park service unit. About 2 hours later in Devils Postpile, we both bought national park passports and soon discovered that we would have to one day return to Manzanar to get the stamp in order to go to every national park site. It became an ongoing joke so I finally decided that this was the time to go to Manzanar.

Ready to check out Manzanar!
Ready to check out Manzanar!

After Manzanar, I drove east along the seldom traveled CA-136 into the Panamint Valley and then over the Panamint Range into Death Valley. The final mountain pass was over 5,000 ft high and heading downhill into Death Valley (below sea level) I noticed that my car started to shake when I applied the brakes. Having faced this situation in Australia, I knew that my brake rotors needed fixing. The problem is that there are no mechanics in Death Valley, it’s 3:30 in the afternoon on Sunday when most mechanic shops are closed and there is no cell service.

I slowly drove the final 1000 vertical feet into the Stovepipe Wells Visitor Center on the west edge of Death Valley. The ranger suggested I get my car repaired in a town called Pahrump an hour and a half away. There I finalized my plan: I would drive halfway to Pahrump, camp in Furnace Creek where the park headquarters are, and the rest of the way early the next morning.

Mesquite Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells
Mesquite Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells

I pulled into Furnace Creek just as the sun was setting around 4:30 pm and set up my tent. I then ate a makeshift dinner of lavash, goldfish, and dried mango. By 5:30 it was completely dark so I decided to lay out under the stars. Because Death Valley is so remote and dry, the stars were incredible- among the best in the US. The Milky Way was completely visible. Around 6:30 I determined that there was nothing else to do so I got in my tent and laid down. Before I could fall asleep, I heard a faint fiddle and a voice singing the classic folk song Long Journey Home. “Lost all my money but a two dollar bill so I’m on my long journey home”. Luckily I have a little more than $2 to my name but I do have a medium-sized problem to accomplish tomorrow. Hoping for the best.

Day 2:

I woke up at 5:45 am before the sun. After quickly packing up my tent,
I headed out on the road to Pahrump, Nevada site of the nearest mechanic. I arrived the mechanic right as they opened at 7:30. After I explained my problem and suggested that the rotor needed to be fixed, they suggested resurfacing the front rotor instead of replacing it. Rather than a $400 fix, it ended up costing me $90.

Sunrise on the CA/NV border
Sunrise on the CA/NV border

During my 2 hour wait for the car, I met an off-duty police officer fixing his car. He has worked for 28 years in rural Nevada and told me lots of stories such as how he pulled over a guy going 218 mph. He and the shop owner then were talking about a mysterious lake called Walker Lake, which is owned by the Navy- strange since the lake is in the middle of the Nevada desert. The local rumor is that the lake is actually connected to San Jose, CA via an incredibly long underground tunnel and that Navy submarines go through the tunnel to practice navigating in dirty water desert conditions. Do I believe this story? No, since the tunnel would have to go below sea level underneath Death Valley and then climb up 2000 ft to the elevation of the lake which seems awfully expensive for a simple naval testing center. But then again, Nevada is a weird rural state that is mostly owned by the government so who knows… I mean Area 51 is 15 miles away.

After getting my car back, I immediately noticed that the brakes were much better- very good thing I went. From Pahrump, I headed to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. There I went to a spot called the Devil’s Hole. It is a hole in the ground tucked next to a large hill. At the bottom of the hole is a pond that contains the entire world’s population of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish. On the way to the pool I met a park ranger who was going to feed these incredibly rare fish. It turns out that due to human activity there are only 33 of these fish left. For conservation purposes, the pond is closed to the public so I could only get a short glimpse of it, but this further confirms my belief that Nevada is the weirdest state in the country. Oh, one more weird fact: after the earthquake in Mexico in 2011, Devil’s Hole experienced a mini tsunami contained completely within the pond.

The Devil's Pool is about 35 feet down in a hole next to that mountain.
The Devil’s Pool is about 35 feet down in a hole next to that mountain.

After the Devils Hole, I went for a short hike to an oasis in the reserve before heading back into California and into Death Valley National Park. When driving down into the valley, I saw a sign for 20 Mule Team Canyon. It was a dirt road, so I decided to drive it. Boy did I luck out because this canyon was a winding path through the badlands. I blasted one of my favorite driving songs: “The Race Is On” by George Jones and cruised. At one point, I was able to get out of the car and walk around. It was awesome.

Ash Meadows
Ash Meadows

I then got lunch back in Furnace Creek before heading to the visitor center to decide what next to do. I asked them about Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park. They told me that it was not yet covered in snow but that it was going to be really cold. There are 3 campsites on the road to the trailhead to the peak. The top campsite is at 8,000 feet but is a mile away from the nearest drivable road for my vehicle. The middle campsite is a mile down and I was told that I might be able to make it with my car. The final campsite was only at 4,100 ft (less acclimatization) but was completely accessible for my car. Since I wanted to stay warm and didn’t want to possibly waste fuel if I couldn’t camp at the middle site, I opted to camp at the lowest campsite. A couple months ago I climbed a mountain of similar height and didn’t feel altitude so I figured this would suffice.

I got to the campsite around 3:15 PM and quickly discovered that it is really cold at elevation- mid 50s at the warmest part of the day. I then set up camp and my summit pack before retreating to the car, which is the warmest place to be. The campsite was nice except the ground was too hard so I couldn’t stake my tent in. Rather, I had to gather large stones to place inside the tent so it won’t blow away.

Sunset at 4,100 ft.
Sunset at 4,100 ft.

The sun set at 5 and by 5:30 it was completely dark. Since I was alone in the campsite, there was nothing left to do except eat food and get a very early night’s rest.

Day 3:

I woke up early after a 12 hours rest. However, I had to wait until the sky was light enough to see the road. The metal on my tent poles were too cold, so I decided to abandon the tent for the day until after the hike. To get to the trailhead I had to drive uphill for 9 miles, the last 2 were on a “high clearance” dirt road. The road turned out to not be nearly as bad as advertised although I decided to stop after a mile on the dirt rather than press my luck. So I parked the car at the Thorndike campsite at 7,000 ft. By not going the extra mile I added 2 miles and 1,000 ft of extra elevator gain putting the grand total for the hike at 4,000 ft elevation gain and 16 miles roundtrip.

After making my final preparations, I set out on my way up the mountain. The sun had not yet hit here yet so it was extremely cold. My car thermometer read 17 degrees. When I signed the hikers register, I noticed that I was the only person on the hike. The first hour involved going up the road and then strafing the side of the ridge. I had views of Death Valley 8,000 feet below. Despite the temperature, I was actually very hot because of my heavy clothing. Eventually I made it up to a ridge line where it got very windy. As I moved between the windy places and the wind shadow, I kept having to take off and put on my ski jacket.

First view of Telescope Peak!
First view of Telescope Peak!

After traversing along the ridge for an hour, I finally reached the bottom of Telescope Peak itself. The trail was mostly covered in snow, so I had to use my ice axe to navigate the snow. Eventually I made it to the top, summiting at 10:06 AM. The peak was named Telescope for the incredible views. At 11,049 ft it is the tallest peak in the Panamint Range, offering views of the entire region. I could see Badwater Basin, the lowest point of Death Valley and North America at 282 ft below sea level. On the other side, I could see the Panamint Valley and beyond that the mighty Sierra Nevadas including Mt Whitney, the highest point in the US outside Alaska at 14,495 ft. The view was certainly one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I made it!!!
I made it!!!

The hike down took 2 1/2 hours including talking to some hikers going up. I counted a total of 10 people hiking up of which 5 planned on camping on the ridge and not summiting. At 1pm, I finally made it back to my car. My legs were beat. After regaining my focus, I packed up my things and headed down to my campsite from last night to take down the tent. I then drove down to Stovepipe Wells at which point I had an hour left of daylight, so I set up the tent, ate dinner in the “saloon” and headed back to camp.

Driving back down to the valley floor
Driving back down to the valley floor

When I got back, my campsite neighbors had a fire going and invited me to drink beers with them. One guy was from Berkeley and was on a MeetUp group to explore Death Valley. The other two guys were from China and had 6 weeks to explore America in a rental car. Their goal was to make it to Florida and see as many national parks as possible. This was only their third day. We had an awesome conversation about culture, traveling, and aliens. It was really nice to interact with genuine vagabond travelers for the first time in awhile. I’m sure they are going to have plenty of adventures and am envious of their opportunity to experience America from a fresh perspective. Unlike the two previous nights, I ended up going to bed really late- around 9pm. Since the sky was very dark and the moon almost empty, the stars were incredible- the experts say that 7,000 stars are visible with the naked eye in Death Valley. I heard a rumor from a hiker today that something happened in Ferguson. It’s probably bad news. Luckily, none of that matters when camping out in the isolated desert surrounded by new friends under the starry sky.

Campsite in Stovepipe Wells
Campsite in Stovepipe Wells

Day 4:

I woke up to a beautiful sunrise. After packing up the tent, I headed 3 miles out of Stovepipe Wells to Mosaic Canyon. I wasn’t expecting much from this slot canyon, so I was in for a surprise when I suddenly found myself in a cathedral of stone with nobody around. About a mile up, the canyon narrowed considerably and I had to climb up small waist-sized cliffs. Eventually the canyon dead-ended at a 30 ft tall cliff that I couldn’t scale. As I walked back to the car, the first light hit the canyon. While traveling this early in the day was bad for pictures, it allowed me to be the only person in the canyon which was a special experience.

Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon

From Mosaic Canyon, the plan was to go to Badwater, but when driving down the road, I felt the urge to go to Nevada, so at the intersection, I hung a left and headed up Daylight Pass. At the top of the pass, I crossed the state line and headed to the ghost town of Rhyolite. Rhyolite used to be a busy town of a couple thousand residents but now is a few ruined buildings. There was a 2 story schoolhouse, a bank, and a couple houses. Right next to the ghost town, someone installed an outdoor sculpture garden with some whacky sculptures. There was a couch and a ghost riding a bike, but the weirdest sculpture was a group of ghosts in the form of the last supper. Why not, I suppose.

"The Last Supper"
“The Last Supper”

After spending an hour in Rhyolite, I went into the nearby town of Beatty for lunch. There, I got a call from my Grandpa Milton who told me about what happened in Ferguson: the grand jury results and the race riots that followed. Since this is a travel blog and not a political blog, I won’t be sharing my opinions but I do have them. If you want to know, feel free to ask me. Despite having traveled and been off the grid a lot, this was the first time I had been oblivious to a major political event.

Rhyolite, Nevada
Rhyolite, Nevada

After receiving the phone call, I then got lunch and drove to Scotty’s Castle back in California. On the way, I drove by 2 defunct brothels which reminded me that despite being in the middle of nowhere, I was actually on the main road between Nevada’s 2 largest cities, Las Vegas and Reno. I then crossed back into California and arrived at Scotty’s Castle. The tour cost $15 and was well worth it. The castle, built in the 1920’s cost a whopping $2 million so the detail and the technology (for the era) was incredible.

Scotty's Castle
Scotty’s Castle

Despite being called Scotty’s Castle, it was neither owned by not occupied by the famous con-man Walter Scott. It was actually owned by his good friend, Albert Johnson. Mr. Johnson owned a large title insurance company in Chicago and invested with Scotty in a gold mine in Death Valley. Eventually Mr Johnson took a trip to check on the mine and discovered that it was a scam. However, Scotty instead showed Mr Johnson around Death Valley for a month. He liked it so much that he came back year after year. Eventually, Mrs Johnson wanted to come out to Death Valley and see what her husband was up to but she insisted on building a nice vacation house as part of the deal. After the stock market collapse of 1929, the Johnson’s were running low on money so they rented out rooms in their house and ran a scam to get investors to give them money. In the scam, Scotty owned the castle and actually ran a gold mine underneath the castle (the entrance was underneath his bed). When guests were being entertained, the kitchen servants would hide in the tunnels beneath the house and crash pots together to simulate the sound of miners at work. Scotty actually bought a large chunk of gold from a mine in Colorado and went all over the country showing it off to lure people to give him money and to visit the mine in Death Valley. Considering the remoteness of the park, this castle was the last thing I would expect to find, but it turned out to be fascinating and well worth it.

I then drove to the Ubehebe Crater, a 500 ft deep volcanic crater. Having seen other volcanic craters, I wasn’t blown away but it was still very beautiful. My favorite part of the crater was watching a Chinese man pull his wife up the crater rim using trekking poles.

Pulling his wife up the crater rim.
Pulling his wife up the crater rim.

I then drove to the campsite at Furnace Creek 50 miles away. I camped about 1 mile away from where I spent my first night in Death Valley. All the neighbors were very friendly. As I was sitting at the metal table, a middle-aged couple invited me to eat chili with them. I said yes since chili sounded way better than Goldfish, mango, and beef jerky. We had a great conversation about traveling. It turns out that their son works as a fire fighter for the Bureau of Land Management. So for the summers he travels all over the American West fighting fires, but for the rest of the year, he has lots of money to travel. Last year he backpacked around Spain and the year before Indonesia. I talked about how my brake issues on Day 1 changed this trip from a highly planned trip to a completely spontaneous trip. I believe that spontaneous travel is certainly more fun, but it is also important to have done research and have a list of things to do. That way if something happens (like this trip), you can work around it and still see just as much.

Day 5:

I woke up at 5:45 to the beautiful sunrise I had been waiting for all week. The clouds were pink and orange all over the valley. I then quickly packed up my tent and headed off on the road south.

The epic sunrise
The epic sunrise

My first stop was the Natural Bridge Canyon, another slot canyon at the end of a bumpy dirt road. As I drove up, I was followed by a white rental car. After parking, a girl walked out the car and said that she trusted someone in a Subaru to navigate the dirt road. She also said that she didn’t want to hike alone in the canyon and asked me to hike with her.

The girl’s name was Emily and she was on a solo road trip through the Mojave Desert. She just moved to Bakersfield to work in the oil business 3 weeks ago from Texas and knew nothing about California. She didn’t bring any camping gear and slept in her car the last couple nights. Her plan was to go to Mojave National Preserve and then to Joshua Tree. The hike through the canyon took about an hour. Ten minutes up the canyon, we reached its namesake, a large stone arch that was most definitely formed by the dangerous flash floods that happen everytime it rains in Death Valley. Since the desert ground cannot hold moisture, the rain from the hills congregates in small gullies that eventually from the slot canyons. These now torrential rivers have an amazing force and can move rocks with ease, thus forming the arch and the unusually shaped canyon. It was interesting comparing this slot canyon to Mosaic Canyon. This canyon was much narrower and shorter. My guess for the differences is the type of rock. This rock is more of a composite of different types of rocks whereas mosaic canyon looked like metamorphic rocks layered on each other, although I’m no geologist. I also enjoyed the short rock climb at the end of the hike.

Natural Bridge
THE Natural Bridge

After the hike, I asked Emily where she was going next and she said Badwater, which is where I was going. So I said goodbye for now and we both drove down to Badwater, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Badwater is a salt flat, so the trail out into the valley is essentially a road made of salt. To test this, I licked the ground and lo and behold it tasted exactly like salt. I took a planking picture and while i was planking, someone told me about the new craze in photos: owling.

Badwater
Badwater

Not amused, I drove to my last stop of the trip, the Crowbar in Shoshone, just outside the park boundary. The town of Shoshone has just 31 people. Emily joined me for lunch because she was also headed south. I got a green chili burger and pumpkin pie, because after all it was thanksgiving. We then parted ways and I drove the 5 hours back to LA.

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