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Death Valley

January 26-30
Written January 25+

Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
We found ourselves with a window between medical appointments and so decided to scratch off one of our required travel goals: Death Valley.  It is relatively close: 150 miles as the crow flies, but 353 miles if the crow has to drive the car around the southern Sierra Nevadas.  It will even be a bit warmer than Fresno, only a bit since we, too, live in a desert and it is winter, not summer.

The plan is to drive our new car down Monday and spend almost five full days in the National Park.  That may get extended if the weather does not cooperate and give us at least one clear night to marvel at stars.  The current weather forecast shows rain or clouds for most of our five days, but we will see.

I will lay out our goals and, as we pass the week, we can keep track of our planning success.

"Leave early.  Breakfast near Bakersfield.  Cross over into the desert via the southern Sierras, passing Lake Isabella.  This is a 5,200 foot mountain pass that we hope has no snow.  From there it will be Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells, before we settle in at The Furnace Creek Ranch.  This part of the route will see us go from about 3,500 feet, back up to 5,300 feet and then down to sea level, or a bit lower.  All in all, this will be a real highway test of us and our new Jeep.  (We are undecided if we will do much off-road testing.  It's such a new, shiny, red car.)"

Not too different from the goal.  We packed up the nice, clean, new car and headed down Highway 99.  For almost 100 miles we passed acres and acres of orchards, along with scores of agricultural business lining The 99.  Breakfast was at Apple Annie's in Tulare, a tradition since we've been there twice.  It doesn't take much for us to establish a tradition.

After a turn east at Bakersfield, we drove up through the Kern River Canyon.  This was the first of our dramatic roadways, in this case a narrow, twisty, road, threatened by overhanging rocks.  This road was identified as the "Lake Isabella" road, but that body of water should be called a puddle.  We saw our first Joshua trees and other gnarley desert vegetation.  From there, it was Ridgecrest for a fuel stop.  (I had gotten worried about the cost of fuel inside Death Valley and decided to fill up outside.  Probably a waste of time!)
Narrow Kern Canyon and not-more-than-a-puddle Lake Isabella
It is amazing that anything holds on to life in these mountains.

Next, we drove north, up the eastern face of the Sierras, before heading east across the Panamint Range.  Despite the clouds and generally "flat" light, we couldn't help taking pictures.  Mountains on both sides and wide desert plains in between.   Some day I'd like to do this drive, in winter, with blue skies and puffy clouds.  Oh well, have to take the world as we find it.
The cut through the Panamint Range showed very dramatic rocks, even in flat, cloudy light.
Down below us, in the Panamint Valley, we saw a cloud we took for fog, but in fact it was thick dust.  Driving through that definitely took the shine off the car.
Death Valley
We checked in at The Ranch at Furnace Creek, a National Park Service facility that became our home for the week.  We stayed in a worn but clean "mid-century" motel room, clean but worn.  After we settled in, a rare rain storm passed by and washed some of that dust off the car.  A good first day.

"Some sort of sunrise pictures, maybe just in Furnace Creek.  Then breakfast, casually, as is our travel custom.  From here, we will head north, toward Scotty's Castle, but first we will stop at Ubehebe Crater, a big hole blasted by a volcanic steam eruption a few hundred years ago. We have reservations for a 3pm tour of the Castle, but we will see if another time is convenient as well.  The Park Ranger schedule looked pretty open.  From here, we hope to hit somewhere photo worthy for sunset around 5pm.  Then dinner back at Furnace Creek."

d150127_02_inn_am.jpgAgain, pretty much according to plan. I took a picture early of the Inn at Furnace Creek, the high-end hotel in the Valley, but clouds prevented any sunrise color.  Later, we would end our afternoon with a drink in the lobby, looking down to where I had been looking up.  We passed on dinner, due to cost mostly, only to discover the Ranch has essentially the same prices.  For example, good steaks or prime rib were over $60 - per person!  By the way, rooms at The Inn run from the mid-$300s and up.  Clearly for the 1%.

Our main goal of the day was Scotty's Castle, 56 miles north of our hotel.  We had plenty of time, so we took a leisurely drive, with stops for sketching and photos. 
We passed a temporary lake and saw signs of past floods, when Death Valley was a 600-foot deep lake.
This was the original well that pioneers had marked with a stovepipe, hence "Stovepipe Wells".
At the far end of our drive was Ubehebe Crater, a hole created by a volcanic steam explosion about 300 years ago. The wind was blowing so strongly I could hardly stand up, despite the calm on the desert floor.  This is an example of the phenomenon that makes the Valley so hot:  cooling breezes don't make it down to the valley floor. 

Scotty's Castle is deservedly the most popular tourist attraction in Death Valley. Check here for the complete story of Walter "Scotty" Scott and his benefactor Albert Johnson.  It's worth a read.
Guide, in 1939 period costume
Courtyard flowers, desert-style
Details and the original Packard still in the car port.
Inside, as it was in the 30's, with all original furnishings, down to Scotty's clothes still hanging in the closet.
Scotty would tell daily dinner table stories from his throne.  His "job" for the Johnsons was essentially a court jester.
Upstairs were rooms that served as guest rooms, initially for the Johnsons and their famous guests and later for paying travelers.
Outside, we found a project we could take on,  maybe.  On our way out, this guard coyote was making sure we didn't linger.

The drive south was as nice as the drive up.  Our history lesson for the day came at the Harmony Borax Works, ruins of the original borax mineral processing equipment and an example of the famous twenty-mule team wagons that were used for the 165 mile trek to the railroad.

All day, as we drove, we needed to stop and soak in the scenes.  Pictures can convey some of the wonder, but you really need to visit yourself.
d150127_70_daypath.jpgA successful day, for sure.  Now, tomorrow?

Now we are into our less-planned days.

Tuesday night we tried to see the famous desert stars, but they were over-powered by the half-moon.  It was amazing how much light the moon made, but we decided we would try an early morning Wednesday wake-up to see stars after the moon set.  Nice plan, but a haze had set in over the valley, so we could not get the full impression.  Now we have a reason to come back!

Not wanting to waste the early wake-up, we then headed to Dante's View for sunrise pictures.  The drive up to 5,000+ feet was interesting, but our new diesel-powered SUV had no problems.  On top, the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky.    The haze that had interfered with stars made for a nice red sunrise.
Funeral Mountains to the East
Death Valley and Panamint Range to the West

d150128_20_drive.jpgFrom high on Dante's View, we descended back down -- to breakfast!  Meals at the Ranch remain tasty, but expensive.  After the meal, we headed out to Badwater salt flats.    The drive in the morning light was exceptional, or, the new normal as we have become accustomed to the wonderfully colorful hills.

At Badwater, I wandered out on the flats, looking out at the forbidding desert, but also looking back at the mountain that rose 5,000+ feet above us, back to Dante's view.
Can you spot the "Seal Level" sign?
Our next stop was "Devil's Golf Course", a salt field even more rugged than Badwater.  I'm not sure who came up with "Golf course" for a name, but there are plenty of cute names in this valley, many made by the early tourism developers, I bet.
Artists Drive is an eight mile loop, parallel to the main Badwater road, running through some of the most colorful rock scenery of the valley.  Our house artist loved the place, but then again, she is falling in love with the whole valley.
Back at The Ranch, we visited the small Borax Museum.  It was a pretty limited display, but did provide some history of borax mining in the valley.  The back yard had an assortment of rusty equipment, mildly interesting, but kind of like the "shards" we used to joke about in small, local, European museums.
"Dinah", a steam-driven replacement for the 20-mule teams, with seven-foot drive wheels.
d150128_59.jpgd150128_70_trips.jpgAfter our 13-hour day of touring, we settled around the fire pit and enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner. We thought about friends in other climates,  feeling smug about our balmy evening.  I am certain that in the 120 degree summers, the feeling might be reversed.  (One staff member did say that summertimes are very busy at the hotels, primarily with Europeans who want to see Death Valley at it's hottest.  I can't imagine being outside in such heat!)

Now, what about tomorrow?

d150129_80_map.jpgOn our third Death Valley day we headed out with just one goal: the charcoal kilns in Wildrose Canyon.  Along the way, we would stop at whatever seemed interesting, including collecting photographs of plants and rocks, the details of the grand views we had fallen in love with.  (We will only bore you with plant pictures if you click HERE, since there are far too many for just casual interest.)

Our drive took us north out of Furnace Creek, up past the nearby -100 foot and sea-level signs, across the valley at Stovepipe Wells, and back south down Emigrant Canyon Road.  The drive would have been much shorter going straight across the Valley, but that is simply not possible.  At least we could avoid worrying about the "Savage Summer Sun" that local signs warned us about, it was a balmy 72F.

Our first unscheduled stop was at Devil's Corn Field, on the east-to-west part of our route.  Truthfully, we were underwhelmed.  As near as we could tell, this was just a field of desert plants, a bit bigger than ones we had been seeing for miles.  Nonetheless, we took a picture or two, just in case these turn out to be very special plant species.  (I doubt it.)
Not far away were the Mesquite Flat sand dunes.  These really were impressive -- I think.  In fact the 60-feet high dunes were a half-mile walk from the parking lot, and we were not going to attempt the stroll.  We got far enough to see gnarley dead mesquite trees and to touch the powdery sand.  Good enough in my book to get the Sand Dunes Boy Scout patch.
We drove through Stovepipe Wells, not even pausing for pictures. Not necessary.  It's just a collection of pretty uninspiring buildings (store, motel, bar, Park Service office, gas station) and a completely uninspiring camp grounds.  However, just outside Stovepipe is the turn off to Mosaic Canyon.  The two-and-a-half mile dirt road was a bit bumpy, and the canyon itself requires a hike, but it was worth it.
Some rocks were marble-like, smoothed by eons of water and debris rushing down the canyon.  Others were agglomerations of stones set in concrete like ancient sediment.  This later rock type ("schist") is only a few thousands of years old but the older stone had been here for eons.  An entire geology course could be taught on the first mile of Mosaic Canyon!
Shortly past Mosaic, we turned south on a beautiful and empty paved two-lane road.  The road rose up through Emigrant Pass (5,318 feet) and then continued up to over 6,500 feet at our goal.  For the entire south-bound trip, we saw perhaps a dozen vehicles, counting both directions.  We were definitely feeling like we had wandered off the beaten path. That impression was reinforced by the last two-miles on rough gravel.  Our new car may develop more rattles than we would like!
The Wildrose Kilns were used from 1877 to about 1879 to produce charcoal for the Modock Consolidated Mining Company for lead-silver mines 30 miles west. After 135 years, the hills in the area have regrown only a fraction of the slow-growing pine trees that fed the kilns.
From the Wildrose Canyon, we drove straight back to Furnace Creek, stopping only for some quick shopping at Stovepipe.  We noted that from Wildrose to Stovepipe, we descended 6,000 feet and the temperature rose from a chilly 40F to a very pleasant 74F. We could imagine summer, when this would be a change from 90F to 120F - or more!

All in all, we were happy with our goal and the side trips we discovered along the way.  That may be our overall impression of the entire trip so far; happy with the  main goals and  pleasantly surprised almost everywhere we have looked.

Another slow breakfast and delayed start.  Actually, since this is our normal pace, I don't suppose "delayed" is correct. The day  looked to be gray and even rainy, but we have gotten used to this desert-unusual weather.

d150130_02_entrance.jpgd150130_04_motel.jpgI started the daily photos with a few shots of the The Furnace Creek Ranch, our home this week.  The facilities include three restaurants and a general store (mostly tourist trinkets), as well as the Borax Museum (see above), a couple of camping areas, a post office and the rooms.  Our part of the Ranch was a section of 1950s-style motel rooms, simple and worn, but clean and comfortable.

d150130_59_trip.jpgd150130_18_nv.jpgOur big excursion for the day was a drive east to Beatty Nevada, with a stop at the Rhyolite ghost town. This took us out of Death Valley and across the Grapvine Range, another jumble of rugged and colorful mountains.  We realize by now, that all these rock and mountain pictures are making our readers glaze over.  After all, what's the difference between one hill and another?  However, for us, each seemed to be at least a bit different and this trip into another state was no different.  So, browse quickly if you want, we will still over-record our travels because our own memories will fade all too soon.
Rhyolite is our ghost town for this trip.  In the Death Valley area, there are dozens of ruins of old mining towns and villages, but Rhyolite is probably the easiest to reach (no off-roading required).  The town was founded in about 1904 and grew to 5,000 to 10,000 residents, the largest town in the area, before being abandoned less than 15 years later.  At its peak, it was said to have two churches and 50 saloons, along with two schools, an opera house, and a train station.  The town grew around the Montgomery Shoshone Mine, one of the most profitable mines in Nevada, for a few years at least.  Toward the end, it was purchased by Charles Schwab, the man not the company, but was never a star in his financial empire.

Today, there are only a scattering of ruins, home to rattlesnakes and ghosts.

-- Rhyolite ghost town.  Turn of the century.  Founded in 1904 by two prospectors.  Montgomery Shoshone mine, eventually purchased by Charles Schwab - the man, not the company!  5 to 10,000 people. 2 churches & 50 saloons, a stock exchange, and an opera house.   And a train station.  Now a dozen ruins and a small museum and art gallery.
The train station is the most intact building.  Old banks and stores are just a few stone walls.
Ruins of a few of the old house remain, reminders of the conditions the thousands of residents endured.
The Tome Kelly "Bottle House", was rebuilt in the 1920s as a movie prop.
Just outside Rhyolite, was the Goldwell Open Air Museum. The art included ghost-like figures, done in the mid-1980s by a Belgian artists, Albert Szukalski.  The docent, a retired Beatty high school teacher, told us the stories of this and the other art work in the collection. A worthwhile stop.

From Rhyolite, we drove the four-miles into Beatty, a not-yet-ghost-town of about 2,000 hardy souls.  Local industry seems limited to tourism, unsuccessful prospecting, nuclear waste, and support for mitigation efforts at the nearby nuclear bomb test site.  Many of the houses were mobile homes, as if the residents wanted to be able to disappear overnight. 

d150130_40_cand.jpgThe Goldwell guide had recommended a stop at Beatty's "famous" candy store, the largest in all of Nevada!  Well, it was big, but we managed to pass by all the sweets.  Instead, we picked up some beef jerky, sort of candy of the desert?  After that, it was lunch soup and sandwiches at KC's Outpost.  This little cafe served a good meal in a friendly atmosphere.  We recommend it!

On the way out, we stopped by the humble Beatty Historical Museum.  The little docent showed us her favorite displays.  I liked the old picture of Rhyolite because it showed that town in its prime even larger and more permanent than Beatty.  The small display of Geiger counters and a radioactive-hazards suit was looked over by pictures of some local bomb blasts.  I suppose every town needs a theme.


d150130_50_visitors.jpgd150130_52_scienceproject.jpgBack home in Furnace Creek, we stopped by the National Park Service's visitor center where we sat through a good film introducing Death Valley and wandered through the hands-on displays that were so much more modern than those in Beatty, but somehow less memorable.  (My favorite display was a science-project arrangement that illustrated how mountain ridges in the area were built from the continental spreading that occurs around Death Valley.)


After almost a week at The Ranch, we headed home.  While we were packing up, many of the motel guests were getting ready to start a marathon run.  I expect the cool weather suited them well.  (There is another race, the Badwater Ultramarathon, run from here in July, but it sounds completely insane: 135 miles, from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, over 13,000 feet in elevation change.)

d150131_02_dtr.jpgOur drive out was far more comfortable.  We left at about 8:00, before breakfast even, and planned a stop in Shoshone about an hour away.  The drive was more of the deserted highways we have come to enjoy, with rugged mountains ringing our way on all sides.  We will miss this.

It was not hard choosing a breakfast place in Shoshone: there was only one place open, The Crowbar Cafe and Bar.  We ate in the bar, all by ourselves.  I could not help but believe this was a very direct descendant from the pioneer bars of the old Wild West.  But the food was good and the service friendly.  (As a measure of how remote Shoshone is, there was no cell phone service in town. )

We toured the Shoshone History Museum after breakfast, set in the old gas station next to the Cafe.  Pretty humble place, but it fit well with the town.
Two real dinosaur jawbones were the main attraction.  Like I said, humble.
In the Cafe, we picked up a brochure for the China Ranch date farm, a few miles away near Tecopa.  This seemed like a possibility, so we set off.  The first several miles were normal, two-lane paved roads, including a portion of the Old Spanish Trail Highway.  That trail has been crossing this valley for hundreds of years.  As we approached China Ranch, the road changed to gravel, one-lane, and twisty.  We were beginning to have doubts about how worthwhile a date farm visit would be.
Fortunately, we hung in there, and discovered a real oasis, hidden in a spring-fed valley (gulch, really).  China Ranch got its name from a late-19th century Death Valley mine worker named Ah Foo who helped develop the water resources of the ranch.  The ranch went through a series of owners, each trying something different to make a go of it, but most failed.  Currently, the ranch is owned by the Brown and Sorrell families, old-line settlers of the area.  The ranch is a tourist shop and hiking base, but mostly a working date farm.
After buying a bag of dates and a box of freshly-made date cookies, we headed back up the twisty dirt road and were soon on normal highways.  Within minutes, we were on Interstate 15, the busy connector between Las Vegas and the Los Angeles Valley.  We soon missed the empty Death Valley roads we had enjoyed all week.

d150131_40_tehachapi.jpgThe rest of the trip was completely uneventful.  One stop for fuel, out-the-window shots of the Tehachapi windmills, the largest wind farm in America, and hours of freeway driving though the Mojave Desert and up the San Joaquin Valley to Fresno.

We got home tired, but feeling successful.  Our new car had passed it's "shake down" trip with flying colors.  It is comfortable, capable of smooth or rough roads, and averaged around 27 miles-per-gallon, not bad for such a heavy machine.  I think we will need to do more travel soon, or at least as soon as medical schedules allow.

Stay tuned.

John and Marianne


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