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Death Valley. Oh boy, Death!

Wednesday, June 20th, 2007 by

For New Year’s 2006, I went to Death Valley National Park with Erin, Joe, Kate, Vikash, and Dan. (All hail Kate for planning it!). We went up on the 30th and came back on the 2nd of the new year. We car camped, and drove around, and looked at sand, and low places, and salt, and canyons, and had a pretty amazing time all around. Anyway, this entry is pretty long, all apologies.

dry heat indeed.

Darwin Falls:
The three of us drove up from Los Angeles on December 30 and entered the park from the west side, and saw this little gravel road not too long after entering, and said “Let’s take it!,” because we knew we would have to wait a while for the rest of our party to show up. Then I looked at the map , and said “Hey, we can drive 3.5 miles to Darwin Falls!” which I shortly realized was actually 2.5 miles of road and 1 mile of walking. But we decided to do it anyway. So intrepid , that’s us. But we went, and we parked, and we started walking, and it was all pretty cool. This little hike is 2 miles there and back, and basically flat.


First, of course, I had to look at the board in the little parking area, and there was this very dire warning about what would befall us if we dared to touch the water pipe running through the canyon. I didn’t really get a photo of it, but the reality of this “pipeline” was amazing. It was a piece of PVC tubing, more or less, that was haphazardly running along. In some places it was held up with nylon rope, and in others was propped up on some scraps of 2×4, or a pile of rocks. It was leaking in some cases. I have to say, if this is a terrorist target, man. They’ve come down in the world.

Anyway, you start walking, and it’s rocky and dry and grey and brown and sort of the standard of what you’d expect of the real desert. Then there are a few scrubby plants, and then there is this tiny trickle of water, and some water plants. And the stream of water starts growing slowly. It never becomes very much by “river” sort of terms, but out there in this barren wildnerness, it feels a lot more impressive.

omg!! life!

And from there it just gets greener, including some really awesome green stone in the canyon walls. And after about a mile, you do indeed get to these little falls, maybe 20-25 feet high. We were told later that you can go above the falls, and follow it along further, and find another nice little garden area, also quite out of the norm for what you’d expect for the area. Walking down this canyon, with reeds and some full grown trees, it does get you to wondering how that stuff even gets out there. Even though I know in the larger sense how it happens, it is still this sense of wonder when you come upon it in the middle of this desolation. So this was a lovely, if unexpected, introduction to the park.

Panamint Springs:
After we left the falls, we continued on our way to our first campground, Panamint Springs. They had RV hookups and a little motel, and a gas station, and all that good stuff, all in the middle of nowhere surrounded by park. It is private property that was there before the park was actually created, but it provides a useful service. We set up our camp area, and started thinking about what we could do, as it was getting chilly, but we didn’t want to burn all of our firewood, and then Erin had the brilliance of pointing out that we were no more than 200 feet from a restaurant and bar. I continue to be amazed and respectful. So we went and had a couple of drinks and some cocoa, and met some crazy characters, one of whom worked there, and had some amazing stories to tell of life growing up in Trona, California which seems like an amazingly special place all around. In a … colorful sense. We also ran into a guy who had come out to go camping with his buddies, but all his buddies had not come for a variety of reasons. Anyway, we talked for several hours, then went back to our campsite, and then these other people sort of showed up again, and it was all kind of bizarre. Finally, shortly after we settled down to go to sleep, our second car of compatriots showed up, so we had to greet them, but finally we all made it to bed.

In the morning, after we all got up, we all went back to see Darwin Falls again ( except for Dan, who wanted more sleep). Kate and Joe and Erin clambered further up the falls, but Vikash and I were lazy as all getout. It was great. Anyway, that done, we came back, packed up, and continued on our merry way.

not the best angle, but we’ll take it.

Panamint Dunes:
From there, we headed a few miles further east, towards a goal we could actually already see from the Panamint Spring campsite, Panamint Dunes, in the Panamint Valley, which is one valley west from Death Valley proper. There is the main blacktop road that cuts through the park, and in the middle of this valley, you turn off it to the left (going north). Then you drive 5 miles on shitty road. Mmm, washboarding. The Prius took it very well, however. Whee! (not that I was in the Prius). Anyway, you go about 5 miles north on this road, and you can always see the Dunes in front of you. Eventually, the road “ends” (though it continues in the form of a pretty serious 4WD road). To our surprise, there was actually a firepit at the end of this road (we had known you could camp there, but we had wanted to have a fire that evening), so we decided that we would probably stay there. There was one other car parked at this roadend, and as we set out from our vehicles (no trail, but there was No Possible Way to get lost), he came back to his vehicle. Apparently he was an ultra-runner, and he was just coming back from a run.

go there!

So, we began walking towards the dunes. It was about 4 miles there, and a little bit of uphill, but nothing really noticeable. We started on fairly rocky ground, but we cut over to a sandier part that was easier to walk on. And always being able to clearly see where you are going is a bit strange, but remarkably helpful – no getting lost there! The weather was lovely, bright and sunny but not too hot, and lots of beautiful clouds scudding around in the sky. At the dunes themselves we played around a bit, and some people tried to sled down on a sleeping pad, but it didn’t work all that well. We climbed one of the tallest two dunes (it was hard to tell precisely which was the tallest.), which was actually rather hard to climb towards the top. As it gets really steep, the sand just doesn’t want to give you much purchase. But getting there lead to some remarkable photo taking opportunities of “footprints in the sand” and “lonely traveller in the desert” and all such lovely things. And then we got to come down!

run, my friends, run!

We didn’t time it quite perfectly and the sun was setting as we walked back. In fact, it was getting rather dark by the time we were getting close to the cars, and I had a GPS waypoint, but it wasn’t *right* by the cars, but I’m sure we would have found them eventually…But then we saw a nice bright light, and it turned out to be a lantern. The guy who had been out running was aware that we hadn’t come back yet, and had put his lantern on top of his car, just in case we needed some help (the moon was very bright that night, so we would in fact have been fine, but it was really appreciated.

He turned out to be a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and we spent that New Year’s Eve with him, having a fire and drinking a fair bit. Later in the evening, a few people from a small campfire we could see down the road showed up and offered us a bottle of wine in return for the use of a can opener so that they could open a can of beans…that was, if we had a corkscrew. Conveniently, we had both, but man, planning. So, with the further bottle of wine on top of all the other booze we had, and this lovely gentleman, we had an amazing NYE out in the middle of the desert. It was so beautiful, though the wood we had for the fire was a bit wet and started shooting sparks everywhere. Fun! Ken (the guy) did end up taking his slightly more dirt road worthy vehicle back to Panamint Springs to get a bit more wood too, so that worked out quite well.

Badwater Basin:

how low can you go?

The next morning we packed up and decamped, off to see more of the park. We first drove to Badwater Basin, which is a huge salt flat area. It’s pretty impressive (although apparently more amazing when it rains a bunch and it actually floods, or in the following springs, when there manage to be flowers.) More to the point, it is the lowest point in the continental United States, as the sign says (though it doesn’t have much on the Dead Sea, which is also a very strange place to visit). It also is not very far from the *highest* point in the continental United States (Mt Whitney) and there is a crazy adventure race from here to the Mt Whitney portal (though not to the summit). The salt flats form neat patterns which apparently form as the water drys up from the occasional wet years. Apparently, on the driest days, you can hear it crackle as yet more water leaves it. The “path” you can see the people walking on is crushed salt, and is pretty blindingly white where it’s not dirty, though that’s a bit difficult to make out. Of more amusement is the sign on the cliff when you come in.

look close, now

Natural Bridge:

After we left Badwater, we went back up the road just a little bit, to go see the Natural Bridge. There are lots of canyons and gullies and ravines and whatnot, but apparently very few overhanging arch formations in Death Valley. Go figure. This wasn’t too tricky. You drive a little bit on dirt road, park, and then just keep walking (this seems to be a common factor of a lot of trips in this park…). It’s flat and gravelly and after not very long you come to the arch. Nothing too crazy. I kept going up the canyon a little way, looking at these really weird formations that look like melted wax, but are apparently just caused by mud drips on the rare occasions that there is rainfall in the part. They are really awesome looking though. I turned around when I got to this green rock wall about 6-8 feet high. I’m sure I could have easily gotten over it, but it was an obvious turnround place when we still had a fair bit to drive to get to where we wanted to be for the evening.

yup, bridge. don’t fall!

We then continued on our merry way, stopping briefly at the Artist’s Palette, which has some layered color rocks (all very pale, though) where a few of us got out and looked around for a bit, but I lazed in the car and read 🙂 We then drove way north through the park (which is enormous) to go to the Mesquite Spring campsite, so we could be closer to our destination for the next day. We did have to stop on the way to manage to pick up some more firewood, because firewood is key.

We eventually made it to the campsite, which is sort of in this wash area, with kind of scrubby plants, and had some tasty dinner and sat around and talked. And then the next morning we continues on our merry ways.

Ubehebe Crater:

First, let me say I love this name. It is pronounced (as far as I know) you-bee-hee-bee, and it’s small neighbor, Little Hebe Crater is “hee-bee”, but I always want to say “you-bee-heeb” and “hebe”, as in Hebrews, as in Jews, and this just makes me snicker. People represent! Or Jewish asteroids crashing or *something*. I have no real clue. Anyway. It’s a big hole in the ground. And they want to make sure you don’t fall in!


Anyway, you just park at the crater, and start walking up the trail, and there is a little trail that goes around the rim, which we all took, and also a little trail that goes to the bottom, which only a couple of us took (see also: not me). But it’s a great little loop, letting you look at the rock all the way around. “Glad I wasn’t there when this stuff happened.” The initial climb is surprisingly vicious, but nothing too terrible. Once we got down, those of us who didn’t go all the way to the bottom did take turns being voyeurs and watching the ones who did descend all the way through the binoculars, though. I mean, if you can’t spy on your friends in plain sight, who can you spy on? Then we all ate (you can totally make hotdogs in a jetboil, WHO KNEW), and took a group photo on the edge of the crater.

Good Times.

Mosaic Canyon:

We then went on to our last location, Mosaic Canyon. Another short drive up a bit of dirt/gravel road, and just walking into a canyon. This section was probably 4.5 mi RT. You know. Give or take. Anyway! This canyon is totally amazing. It has huge chunks made entirely out of marble. It’s slick and beautiful, and unexpected. It doesn’t really photograph well (at least not with my camera), but that huge slab someone is scrabbling over in that photo, that’s solid marble.

scrabbling over marble. oh boy!

We just kept walking up it a bit, and, well, then, eventually turned around. After which point we regrouped right by there at Stovepipe Wells, and said our goodbyes, and head on out of the park to go home. But , that place is immense, but really really amazing. I don’t know that it’s a good place to spend a lot of time, but Death Valley is truly spectacular in its own way. No national park has ever disappointed me, though it is easy to come to expect them to be forested like the Sierra Nevada – but you don’t need that for sublime beauty. Also, as a fun footnote, going all the way back to the beginning, Dan had always felt like he was a little ill, and maybe feverish, and it turns out he had had strep throat! and he persevered through all of that. Amazing.

moonrise is always wonderful

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