California - Death Valley

by Kimp 27. December 2012 17:12


Photo Blog

Death Valley is one of the places my son and I went to during Christmas Break.

It's a great place to become one with yourself, with your family and with nature. It was much larger then I expected, we could haven driven for more then an hour in any direction at highway speed and still never have left the park. The only Cell phone coverage is in a very small village known as Furnace Creek. No TV, No Internet. Just peace, quiet and lots of breath taking nature. The prime time for visiting is in March or April when the desert wild flowers are in bloom, but December was pretty nice as well.

Getting There

When we arrived, I was still recovering from a full day of sickness the day before and I was still a little jet lagged. Jet lag is like being in a bit of a haze. My eyes are telling me something, like it should be time to eat lunch, but my body is saying that I should be sleeping, and my mind can't quite figure out what to do.

I had a reservation at a resort that I knew was inside of the National Park, but I didn't write the name of the resort down. All I had written down was CA-190 Death Valley National Park, which I assumed was probably on the reservation.  I know better from my travels in remote places such as Switzerland, but circumstances got the best of me this time. Before arriving, I figured, how many resorts can there be on that short park road? There are probably plenty sign's.

I fired up my GPS and looked at points of interest in Death Valley National Park, and there is only one lodging place which happened to be a resort, and it is on CA-190. The name didn't ring a bell, but gee, that sure looks perfect. We entered the park and drove for another 45 minutes to the GPS location, and heard the GPS announce, "You have reached your destination!". We looked around and there was nothing but desert, in every direction. I had thought that the resort happened to be named after a small town that I saw a sign for, which was another 25 miles ahead, so we drove in that direction. We are reluctant to go all of that way, but head that way anyway.

I tried my cell to look up the reservation, but there wasn't any cell coverage, in nearly all of Death Valley, nor within 100 miles of it either. We get about 10 miles more towards that town and I remembered passing a gasoline truck that had broken down on CA-190 about 20 miles in the other direction. There were park rangers on both sides making sure that cars slowed down to about 10 MPH as they passed,  and there was a fire truck standing by, just in case. I figured they were still there, so I turned around to go back and talk to one of the park rangers, thinking that he would know exactly where the resort was.

We get there, and the truck and the rangers were still there. By this time, another empty gasoline truck had showed up and they were busy pumping the gasoline from the broken down truck, into the other truck that was now there. So we pull over, off of the road and walked up to talk to one of the park rangers. I get up to the nearest ranger, who at this time, has all of the traffic stopped. He said, "Sir, it's going to be a few moments before I can let any traffic through.". I said "That's fine, I just needed to ask a question, but I can wait until you aren't busy.". He looks down the road at the short line of cars and asks me which car is mine. I pointed at the white one that was off the side of the road on the desert shoulder. He's gives me that dumb tourist look and says, "Do you mean that white car, that's parked on the other side of the Large Orange Triangle sign I put up, to warn people to slow down as they approach. The car that is completely obstructing on-coming cars views of that sign?".

"Yes, sir, that would be my car. I'll move it immediately." About 10 minutes later, after the traffic cleared and nobody was coming, he hands me a park map and tells me there are three resort's in Death Valley National Park. One where I was originally headed, one 10 miles in the other direction from where we were now standing, and one 35 miles from where we were now standing. Not knowing which one I needed, I started at the far end and worked my way back.

"Excuse me, Ma'am, I have a reservation at one of the resorts in the park, but I can't remember the name. Would you happen to have a reservation in my name?".

I get to a place named "The Furnace Creek Ranch", the last resort that the ranger had told me about, and they didn't have a reservation for me either. But they directed me to the "The Furnace Creek Inn", which did have my reservation. I tell them the story and the dude say's to me, "So that's why we don't have any gas at the only gas station in death Valley." I said, "Well, I sure hope they have gas tomorrow?" I ended up driving an additional 100 miles because I didn't write the name of the resort down. That's right, I've been to 28 European Countries, 46 States, 3 Central American Counties and 2 African Countries, and I still make dumb tourist mistakes.

Death Valley

Death Valley is a land of extremes. The valley is very low (below sea level) desert and very hot in the summer, yet it is surrounded by mountains. Some of which peak at around 11,000 feet (3500 m) (over 2 miles). It has several different climates in the same location at the same time. The native Indians (Timbisha Shoshone) lived a very good life here for over a thousand years. They lived in the valley in the winter and in the mountains in the summer. The native women could weave a basket so tight that it held water. They were devastated when they discovered that the white man named it "Death Valley". 

Despite its name and its summer heat. Death Valley is full of life. There are actually some species of fish that survive here and are only found here. Despite only 2 inches of precipitation per year, , there can be flash floods in Death Valley and in 2005 one of the lakes here filled with water (for a short time), for the first time in recorded history.  Check out all of the wild life at this government site.

How it got its name

Death Valley's name originated from a 20 wagon California Gold Rush party who broke off from a 100 wagon party and decided to veer off of the old Spanish Trail. They had taken this route because it was to late in the year to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range and this was a 500 mile short cut to the California gold area, known as Sutter Mills. They didn't have any guide, but it was December and around a pleasant 60 degrees there, so what could possibly go wrong. Well, the terrain here is very rocky and the mountains around it are very steep. They made it across Death Valley, but could not find a pass through the mountains on the other side. They might have died of thirst, but a snow storm arrived and solved that problem.

With broken wagons and almost no food left, they descended back into the valley and burned their wagons, cooked what they could, and sent two men on foot over the mountains to look for supplies. Those men found supplies and returned a month later to find a nearly empty camp, because most people had decided to go their own way, to look for a way out. When they arrived, they found two families and a dead man. They lead the remaining people out of the valley, and as they were leaving one women proclaimed "Good-bye Death Valley". 


I had heard Death Valley is very colorful when the desert wild flowers bloom. The bloom comes very quickly and is so intense in good years, they can attract large numbers of pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bees and hummingbirds, that might not otherwise venture to Death Valley.

They don't bloom well every year though. The biggest factor is, there needs to be enough moisture spread out through the fall and winter for them to bloom. Some flowers are all yellow, some all purple, some are purple with a yellow center, and some are green. The desert floor bloom is Feb - April and the best blooms have a heavy rain in Sep or Oct of the year before. Check out this government site for more details.

Even without the colorful flowers, Death Valley is still a land of color. The mountains are rich in many different minerals, all with their own unique color. Yellows, Reds, Browns, Blacks, Whites and zillions of varying shades. It was cloudy while I was here, but when it is not, I've head that you will see more stars in the sky then you ever had at night, since there are not any big light sources within a 100 miles of Death Valley in any direction. I had also heard that the star light, lights up the valley with different colors as well.

Ghost Towns

Rich in minerals, there has been a lot of mining in Death Valley. The park service no longer allows new claims and old claims are very closely monitor to ensure the rules are being followed.  A small gold deposit and silver deposit were found here, near a location known as Wild Rose.  That brought lots of people here who didn't find much of anything, and it means Ghost Towns exist here. Some with standing structures and some without. I didn't have the time to go to any, but even the ones without any structures look pretty awesome on paper.

Extreme Foot Race

Every year, Death Valley is host to the most extreme foot race in the world. At 146 miles (235 km), Bad Water ultra marathon, is ran in mid-July when the temperatures are 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 Degrees Celsius) even in the shade (but there isn't any shade anyway). It starts in Bad Water, the lowest place in Death Valley and goes to the 14,505 ft summit of Mt Whitney. Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 states. It is by invitation only and slightly more than half of the ultra marathoners, ever complete it. Now it's an officially sanctioned race and ends at the trail head to Mt Whitney's summit, which is at 8500 feet.

It was first completed in 1977 by Al Arnold on his 3rd attempt. It took him 80 hours (the record for that course is a little over 33 hours, the record for the official course which doesn't climb the summit is just over 22 hours.). Al had to go through Sauna and Desert acclimation training to do it. I can imagine it started as something like this. Al and some dude are sitting in a bar conversing over a few beers. Al's buddy says to him, "Al. What do you think the most extreme marathon would be? I would say it would be one run through Death Valley on the hottest day of the year.". Al, say's, "Oh hell no, that would be nothing!" "It would be an ultra marathon ran all of the way through Death Valley, starting at the lowest point, climbing the mountain ranges all of the way to Mt Whitney 85 miles away as the crow flies, which is 146 miles by shortest road path."

Runers have to supply your own support team for the race, nothing is provided and the runner has to run it in under 48 hours to get the coveted (I am an Ultra Man) belt buckle. There isn't any prize money.

There are some race variations. If you reach the summit and turn around and run all of the way back, that's called the Death Valley 300 and if you run it unassisted, pushing a modified baby cart with all your supplies, stopping at check points every 20 miles to refill, that's called the unassisted solo. Some dude even ran it three times (Started at the Summit, went to Bad Water, ran back to the summit then back down. It took him 10 days. Seems like some men, always have to "one up" everything. "Oh, you only ran it one way? Dude, you're such a wimp!"

Scotties Castle

Scotties Castle is a very beautiful Spanish style villa in Death Valley National Park (up in the mountains on the north east side). In the style of a romantic Castle. Built by a very rich Chicago Insurance man as a winter home, who's name was not Scotty. Scotty had been a lesser known member of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show for 12 years. He was very flamboyant, and had conned rich business man into investing in his fake gold mine in Death Valley. Scotty spent the seed money frivolously, and had become very well know for his spending habits. Skeptical of Scotties spending habits, this business man asked Sotty to see the mine, and the con was revealed.

However the business man had the time of this life out there and enjoyed Scotties company so much, that he decided to use him as a Death Valley guide and entertainment after he built his castle. He even made a room for Scotty in it, and let Scotty play like he owned it, to all of the visitors (and later tourists). Built in the 1930's with lavish furnishings (which are still there), and can be toured with a guide, for a small fee.

Furnace Creek 508 mile Ultra Marathon

The midpoint of the Furnace Creek 508 ultra marathon race is in Death Valley at Furnace Creek. It starts near Los Angles, goes through Death Valley and the Mojave desert and ends after 508 miles in Twenty-Nine Palms California. 

Furnace Creek

We stayed at a beautiful resort named Furnace Creek Inn, inside of the National Park. The most expensive place I've ever stayed. I'm pretty sure that I single handedly paid off California's debt during this visit. Most of the places in Death Valley National Park are very rustic and I didn't know how my son would like that. The "Amergrosa Opera House" in Death Valley Junction (outside of the National Park), for a lot cheaper, would be more like what I love. No TV, No Internet, is very western looking, has lots of real art and is run by artist Marta Becket who donates all proceeds to charity. You can read the captions to learn about the resort were we stayed. Very nice, but only worth the price to me, if they threw in two Swedish Massages from a real Swed, a case of Heineken, and a good night kiss from a beautiful Timbisha Shoshone native woman.

What I think would be a great vacation

If I had a family who loved the outdoors (which I don't), what I would do for an awesome Spring Break Vacation is. Get some cheep flights into and out of Vegas or into Vegas and return out of LA (call the airlines, do not book two one-ways). I'd pack a small tent and some summer sleeping bags in a large duffel or sea bag and check it. After arriving, I'd go to the nearest super Wall-mart or similar and get a cheep Styrofoam cooler, some ice, cold cuts, bread, etc. Rent a car and hit the follow places camping out at each. First day, Hoover dam, only 25 miles from Vegas. 2 to 3 days in Death Valley (about 2 hours out of Vegas), camp in the middle near Stovepipe wells where there is a tent only section with nothing else around for about 3 miles. No TV, No Internet, No radio (a few static AM stations). Nothing to do, but enjoy nature, and your outdoor loving family.

One day in the Mojave Desert about 2 hours from Death Valley. A few days in the Sequoia national Forest about 3 hours from Mojave. A few days near LA (maybe long beach). Not sure where the camp sites are, but a hotel would be cool too. Check with rangers before leaving to find out the open fire rules. 

An alternative would be to rent a mobile home for 10 days in Vegas and not rough it. A little more expensive, but pretty convenient and not as expensive as hotels. Either way, fill your tank up in Nevada just before hitting California. Gas was 40% higher in CA then NV on my trip. Car rentals often charge a fee for a drop off location that is different then the pickup location, but they will allow that.




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