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Death Valley - Again
February 12-16, 2017Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,
Written February 13+
This would be a repeat of a trip we took almost exactly two years ago, when our car was brand new and we wanted a challenging test drive. In the end, we didn't challenge much, but did have a pleasant visit, pleasant enough for this re-run.
The drive south and around the bottom of the Sierra Nevadas was as nice as that drive can be. The first part is on Highway 99, not very interesting, but easy. We now have a "standard" breakfast restaurant: Apple Annie's in Tulare. Stopping there signifies that we are really on the road, and the food is pretty good too - for road food.
Going east we chose the highway through the Tehachapi mountains (versus the more rural Lake Isabelle road last time.) The Sunday morning traffic was light, the skies were blue with puffy clouds. Nice. The windmills were more stopped than not. I do not understand the economics of these machines that seem to be stopped a lot. Oh well, electric power is no longer my business.
Our first stop was the small Jawbone Canyon information center, where we picked up more tourist literature than we would ever use. Why do I do that? But I also managed a couple pictures of desert plants. It's a lot easier when they have been planted next to sidewalks.
Later on the drive, we stopped for a few more plant and tree pictures. In winter, everything was prickly and bare.
Pretty in its own way, but not our normal preference.
Our route was north through the Owens Valley, looking left to the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. These are the same mountains we visit outside of Fresno in Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks, but view could not be more different. The middle picture is not mine, of course, but a road stop sign that names the mountain peaks and indicates where the original "highway" ran. It is still visible almost 100 years later.
Part of the charm of this drive are the empty highways. Highway 395 runs from Los Angeles to Bishop and looks like a major California freeway on the map. In person, it is more humble, showing the rocky hills and mountains to better effect than Highway 99 for sure. Even the single gas station in these parts looked scenic somehow.
Many of our pictures this time were taken by pointing the camera out the window and clicking, hoping for something usable. This may be one of the worst photography techniques we ever use, but if the roadside is dramatic enough, it works to efficiently give a flavor of the drive. Today's Sunday drive qualified as dramatic and we climbed through the Panamint mountains and down into Death Valley.
So, eight hours after we left on our planned six-hour drive, we checked into the Ranch at Furnace Creek, the (slightly) less expensive of the two National Park hotels in the heart of Death Valley. This too was a repeat of our 2015 visit, but this time we had an upstairs room in one of the two-story buildings instead of the single-floor garden rooms. The garden rooms are better.
In our 2015 trip, one major goal was to see some starry night skies, a mission that failed due to four days straight of clouds and drizzle. Two years later, we have timed things better and the winter rains paused, allowing us to go to the nearby historic borax plant and take advantage of the sunset and the truly dark desert sky. The shadows of the sunset made for OK pictures, even if the wind prevented a stable platform for star pictures. Trust us, we saw a sky full.
On Monday morning I got up early, like usual, and headed to breakfast and diary writing. As all photographers are supposed to take pictures at sunrise and sunset, I did snap a couple of shots of the eastern silhouette and of the Inn at Furnace Creek, our hotel's richer brother.
Then it was a four-hour breakfast, writing, planning session. I do like slow starts.
The "plan" was to drive north and see what we could. We had already learned that the normal attraction up there, Scotty's Castle, had been flooded in 2015 and would only be reopened in 2018 or 2019, after an estimated $28million in repairs. The October 18th Sunday experienced a five-hour rain storm in the valley above Scotty's that dumped more than a year's worth of water. Over 500 miles of Death Valley roads were damaged. When it rains here, it really does pour. Something to remember.
Not far from Furnace Creek, we stopped on the side of the road just to enjoy the view of dramatic rock faces and the broad expanse of the valley. Proving that beauty is where one finds it, what we took pictures of was a dried-up puddle, patterns:
The other "up close" pictures we would try all day were of flowers and bushes. Apparently the 2016 spring season was a "superbloom" and the valley was carpeted with color. Not so in 2017, at least not yet. Nevertheless, we did snap a few shots of the hard-working plants. They deserve the attention for the struggle in the Valley summers. Over the next few days, I may try to actually provide names for these desert residents.
Not far from our dried mud, we turned west on a short gravel road to the original Stovepipe Wells. In the early days, this was the only water available in this part of Death Valley and it had served as a cross roads for both natives and later European settlers. Today, it is far enough off the main road to give a sense of how isolated the well must have been. (It had been marked with a stove pipe when sand dunes marched past water spring. Nowadays, the dunes are some distance off.)
Throughout the day's drive, we could look around and see the sharp mountains that line the Valley. Here is a panorama of our eastern view, but no matter how large the picture, it can not convey the size and how small it makes visitors.
The other geology lesson concerned the "alluvial fans" that line both sides of Death Valley. These are rock deltas formed by the periodic floods that this area has experienced over millions of years (as well as in 2016 up at Scotty's). Flash floods really can move mountains.
Our northern-most geology class came at Ubehebe Crater, a depression formed by a volcanic eruption and then collapse along the western side of the Valley. We did not venture along the trail above the 770-foot deep pit. Risking falls is not our thing. Geology pictures are.
By now, it was time for lunch but the restaurants were all an hour-and-a-half away, back at Furnace Creek. Our plan was to go to the elegant Inn at Furnace Creek, and we succeeded, but only shortly before the 2pm lunch closing. We closed the place down!
By now, we were running out of things to do (only day 2 of the 4-day stay) so we went over to the Ranger Station. I took the required picture showing how warm it was (88F/31C). Not bad for winter, but summers are much, much warmer!
Unfortunately, the plans for ranger-guided tours did not seem attractive, so we headed out to the one famous location we had missed in 2015: Zabriskie Point. There was a locally-filmed 1970 movie of the same name and a bad reputation. The area had been under reconstruction in 2015, but now features a large parking lot and a wide path up to the very large viewing grounds. Despite the available space, many folks persist in risking their lives by climbing over the barriers. I liked my shots just fine, even if they were from the safety of a paved viewing area.
Leaving Zabriskie south, we a spotted gravel road labeled "Twenty Mule Team Canyon" and we headed off the main highway. Apparently this area had been the site of several borax-related mines back in the 1800's. Now it is just for us tourists. The road was a bit rough, but the hills were spectacular. We need to remember, if we see a fork in the road, take it. (I think that was a Yogi Berra saying.)
The last stop of the day was Dante's View and a wonderful view it is. One can look north and west over almost all of Death Valley. Not to be forgotten are nearby ridged hills on the south and far off snow-covered mountain on the east. A great place to end the day.
Plans for Day 3 developed over breakfast, after the diary work was finished. This whole process takes hours and I actually look forward to starting the day this way. I suppose it is just the power of habits and patterns. Anyway, the plan was to go south on the valley floor we last saw from up on Dante's View.
We considered both paved and gravel roads, but gave up the latter after a few hundred yards. Our car may be two years older on this visit, but we didn't want to add more premature aging than necessary.
Off on the right was the snow-capped Panamint Range. Two years ago we had gone near the tops of these mountains, but this year we probably will not make the several hour drive. We feel less compelled to see "everything" on our second trip. That's good, because another one of our goals, "Artists Palette", had been washed out in the 2015 storm, so any repeat there will have to wait.
Our first turn off pavement was the short gravel road to the Natural Bridges parking lot. We had not gone here in 2015. Our recollection is that we considered the car too new to suffer the bounces. Now it is OK.
The hike from the parking to the bridge was an easy quarter-mile, our sort of hiking distance. On the way up, we spotted the only wildlife of our trip. Past the bridge was "the waterfall", a section of the rock wall worn smooth by the occasional floods. It is hard to imagine how many thousands of years it takes to cause the water wear in this dry climate.
Stop two of Day 3 was Bad Water, an obligatory tourist visit to the lowest spot in Death Valley: 282 feet below sea level. We stopped, had our picture taken, started the long salt path out, and then turned around. We decided there was little benefit in completing the rest of the path since it was the same salt all the way.
That was all we could manage before it was time to drive back for lunch. We looked over into the Artists Palette hills, and promised to return some day. We should do more each day, I know, but our travel style is what it is. This is why it takes us four days to cover what others do in half the time and we still need multiple visits. To each their own.
Lunch was back at the Inn, a nicer experience than the cafeteria down at the Ranch and not significantly more expensive. The fact is that all the restaurants in Death Valley National Park are pricey. This seems to be generally true of National Parks, but at least the Inn offers good food and a wonderful setting.
Part of the Inn setting is the garden and pool area spread over the hill below the main building. This was a fun little photo excursion and we became convinced that our next Death Valley stay would need to be up here with the 1%-ers. (They offer a good senior discount!)
All this tourist work and good food sent us back to our room for naps. Also a sign of our travel style.
The sun was down before we did much else, and that was eating corn chips around a fire pit. Dinner. As fine a setting as we could imagine.
In 2015, our goal was to see stars and we failed due to constant drizzle and overcast. 2017 is different. We headed just outside our Ranch building to see what show the stars would provide and we were not disappointed. The National Park is designated a "dark zone", so even places near the buildings are dark enough to enjoy the night sky.
I wanted to try some photography, but was too lazy to go back and get the "big" camera and tripod. Also, I had not reviewed the necessary camera settings to get good night sky shots. Too bad, I thought.
But, I did have my little SONY RX100 with me and decided to try. I knew it would take 20 to 30 second exposures and a steady camera so I just set the time, put the camera on the ground, and pushed the shutter button. It worked. I was just amazed.
I ended up taking 15 or 20 pictures and several are good enough for our little diary. Can you identify Orion and his three-star belt? Or Venus, this moonless night's brightest object. Or the faint winter Milky Way? For me, it's wonderful to just gaze out and imagine how many stars are out there posing for pictures.
Day 4 really was, like usual, unplanned. We had ruled out any extensive drives back over to the west and had covered the must-sees on the east. There was a long breakfast, of course, and loading the cameras into the car. The weather was perfect: sunny, high 70s, and a very light breeze. Even my morning test shot came out ok. We had to get out there.
We drove north a few miles to Salt Creek Trail, in search of "pup fish". These little fish have survived for thousands of years in a creek that dries up every year. They apparently survive in the wet mud at the spring that is the creek's source. Tough guys.
We are not terribly tough, so the SC Trail was perfect: a flat boardwalk, less than a half mile out and back.
We looked for little fish, and saw a few, but mostly we saw these worm-like animals (fish?) on the creek bed and geckos sunning on the boardwalk.
Nevertheless, we did find patterns in the creek, the plants, and even the weathered boards, so Marianne has more material for her drawing
Back closer to our Ranch home, we turned at the Harmony Borax works and went on the Mustard Canyon loop drive. I have no idea what this ruin was, but we stop at all kinds of things nowadays. Then we slowly drove the one-way road through Mustard Canyon looking for something interesting, if not dramatic. The soft lumps of the canyon walls did offer a change from hard, sharp rocks of other canyons.
And that was all we could think of to do or visit. Two years ago, we explored much farther on our four-day visit, but we just didn't seem to need to see so much this time. An afternoon of drawing (Marianne) and reading (me) was perfectly acceptable.
Dinner would be back at the Inn. Before eating, I showed Marianne the garden I had seen the day before, she did some jewelry shopping, and we sat on the patio sipping wine and looking out at sunset. Dinner was an excellent combination of elegant setting, pleasant service, and good food. We even got a little after dinner exercise walking through the long tunnel out to the parking lot. A great end to our last full day.
Day 5, Thursday, started out with an early breakfast and diary-writing session, just as I normally start. Unfortunately, Marianne had picked up some sort of stomach ailment, so breakfast was not on her agenda, nor was any extra touring on our trip home. We simply backtracked our arrival route, an easy-enough five-hour trip.
Driving west on Highway 190, we stopped two or three times to rest the passenger, and give me a chance for yet another picture from "Father Crowley Overlook". The arriving weather provided more interesting clouds than we had seen on the way over.
Farther along, approaching Owens Valley, we stopped for another rest and another picture or two. Back over the Panamint hills, clouds were forming and disappearing as we watched. We also looked for the fighter pilot who had just buzzed us a few minutes before. THAT was a strange experience. The plane had arrived without warning and was gone in a moment, leaving only a trail of noise.
Meanwhile, the storm over the mountains was clearly dropping yet more snow. Great for our hopes for an end to the California drought, and good for yet one more Sierras' panorama, but a dreary environment for our drive.
No matter. We continued the drive, south to more crowded freeways and back north to Fresno. It was time to be home.
Trip Conclusion: We probably will not need another four-day stay in Death Valley, unless we get more adventurous about off-pavement driving. Probably not. Maybe we will splurge with a stay in the luxurious Inn at Furnace Creek for a couple of days, once Artists' Canyon and Scotty's Castle are reopened. And, I may even want a drive-through in the summer, just to say we did it and take a mid-day temperature picture at the Furnace Creek ranger station.
No rush, there are lots of other places to see, including Florida and Cuba in a couple of weeks.
John and Marianne
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