Visiting Death Valley Again -- After 34 Years

After my late-night arrival at Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley the previous night, I got a late start in the morning.  I ate breakfast around 8 a.m. and didn’t leave the campground until, golly, about 10.  I had low expectations for the Furnace Creek campground, but it turned out to be a really nice place to stay and I highly recommend it.  Most desert campgrounds I’ve stayed at are, let's say, not too appealing.  But Furnace Creek campground is pleasant with widely-spaced sites and, considering the arid climate, a surprising amount of vegetation to provide visual screening.  The next time I come to Death Valley, I’m definitely staying here.

Above: I spent much of this day visiting Death Valley.  I left the park in mid-afternoon and drove up to the Nevada border.  From there, I headed south to the Mojave National Preserve and late at night, pulled into my favorite place in the Mojave Desert, the Kelso Sand Dunes.  It was my first visit there in almost 30 years.

So what about this name, “Death Valley,” you might be wondering?  Back during the California gold rush days, in 1850, a wagon train party decided to take a “short cut” to the California gold fields and came through this desolate, arid valley.  Their oxen died and they were stuck here for a while until help arrived, and as they were leaving, one of them said, “Goodbye to Death Valley” and the name stuck.  Only one of them actually died – but several visitors who haven’t taken adequate precautions here have died since then.

In the winter, this is a wonderful place with typically sunny skies, dry weather, and highs in the 60s and 70s.  However, in the summer this place can be deadly because high temperatures here often exceed 100 degrees.  Park visitation follows the seasons and it can get pretty crowded in the winter and early springtime, but it empties out in the summer.  So if you’re like me and can take the heat but not the crowds, this time of year is a great time to visit.

After breakfast, I left the campground, which had emptied out considerably in the previous hour, and drove to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, just a few minutes away.  I vividly remember the earlier, quaint Visitor Center from my one-and-only previous visit to Death Valley, a camping trip I took here in 1982 with my colleagues in the UC Riverside Geography Department, and I’m glad the National Park Service has made dramatic improvements since then.  My first stop was the check-in desk where everyone pays an entrance fee. 

So here’s one of the greatest deals in America:  it’s called the Interagency Annual Pass.  When you visit most National Parks, you have to pay an entrance fee, which can range from $5 for parks you've never heard of, all the way up to $30 at popular places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone.  But instead of doing the entrée approach, you can buy an Interagency Pass for only $80, which is good for one year and will get you into any of the 400+ National Park units plus any U.S. Forest Service or BLM site that also charges an entrance fee.  I’ve bought these passes before during my many road trips, going back more than 30 years, and they’ve always paid off in spades.  So as I stepped up to the counter, I asked for an Interagency Pass, handed the pleasant Park Ranger (is there any other kind?) my credit card, and bingo, I was set for the next year. 

Above: Here's 1). my campsite at Death Valley, 2). driving through Death Valley, and 3). driving across the Mojave Desert that evening. (1:09)

I chatted with the woman ranger for a few minutes who told me she was from the nearby town of Lone Pine.  I asked her if you could see the highest point in America, Mt. Whitney, from somewhere in the park and was disappointed when she said, “I’m sorry, you can’t.”  I didn’t have time the night before to head up the eastern Sierras and take a picture of Mt. Whitney, figuring that I’d see it once I got to Death Valley, but apparently there’s a mountain in the way that prevents you from seeing it from here (darn, that mountain!)  I thought about driving a few hours back over the transmission-wrenching summit that I’d driven the night before and then up the eastern Sierras to get a picture of Mt. Whitney and then back to Death Valley,  But instead I took a picture of the 3D map in the Visitor Center, because I think one of those peaks is Mt. Whitney.  All right, I didn’t actually see the highest point in the Lower 48 states on this trip -- but I thought about it intensely.  smile

The new Death Valley Visitor Center really is spectacular, though, and much nicer than the old Visitor Center, which was built in the 1950’s.  I remember that old Visitor Center well from my 1982 camping trip with my UCR friends.  I especially remember a 3D diorama that was in that old Visitor Center with the story about the Gold Rush wagon train being rescued, complete with an annoying audio recording that started up every time some annoying little kid pushed the button.  Towards the end of the 45-second recording, the narrator emphatically said, “The boys have come!  The boys have come!” referring to the miner’s rescuers.  As you walked through the Visitor Center, back in 1982, you would hear that same recording over and over every time an annoying little kid pushed the button – “The boys have come!  The boys have come!” Being a sensitive person (so I've been told), I took great pity on the stoic Park Rangers who had to work there and listen to it all day.

But it provided good fodder for entertainment, because that entire evening, back in 1982, all my buddies in the UCR Geography Department kept repeating that phrase by the campfire at the Stovepipe Wells campground, as we (well, they) proceeded to get inebriated on Jack Daniels.  “The boys have come!  The boys have come!” we would all laugh.  Finally, a nice Park Ranger (is there any other kind?) stopped by our campsite and asked us to kindly tone it down, since the campground was packed and people were starting to complain about our rowdy behavior.  So the good news is that the Park Service has removed the 3D wagon train diorama and the better news is that they’ve built a really fantastic Visitor Center – and with no irritating audio recordings.

Death Valley:  A Land of Extremes


Good Memories and Badwater 

When I left the Visitor Center, at 11 a.m., it was already 93 degrees.  People were complaining about the heat but, having lived in Qatar, it didn’t bother me.  In fact, I didn’t turn on my truck’s air conditioner all day, even as the thermometer passed 107 later in the afternoon.  I drove over to Furnace Creek Ranch, a year-round desert resort community, but declined to pay $3.52 for a gallon of gas (yikes!), the most expensive gas I’ve seen so far on my trip.  From there, I drove about an hour south to Badwater, which is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (i.e., North, Central and South America) at an elevation of 282 feet BELOW sea level. 

Badwater is really bizarre, and thus a great place for any Extreme Geographer to visit.  It’s basically a giant salt flat.  The rainwater, such as it is, trickles off the mountains and flows here, carrying with it dissolved salts from the hills above.  Then when the water evaporates, the salt gets left behind.  Repeat that process for a million years and, voila, you get a salt flat.  I was so impressed with the vista at the parking lot that I took a panorama photo.  Then I walked out to what I thought was the lowest point in Badwater – much farther out than any of the other visitors dared to go (because apparently they’re namby-pambies and not Extreme Geographers) – and took another panorama photo (hey, I love panoramas).  It’s a really interesting place, though I wouldn’t want to venture across it if I was in a wagon train back in 1850.  And I certainly wouldn't have said, "The boys have come!"  

It was over 100 degrees here in the middle of the salt flat and my lips were getting crusted with, well, salt.  Then I started feeling a bit light-headed either from the intense sun or the salt or the heat, so I walked back to the truck and dived into my cooler for an ice-cold soda.  Well, OK, I’m a namby-pamby, too.

I backtracked and headed north again, stopping at a bizarre place called the Devil’s Golf Course.  The Devil apparently had a big hand in forming Death Valley because there’s also the Devil’s Cornfield, the Devil's Hole (don't ask) and the Devil’s Racetrack.  But what I really wanted to see was the old campground at Stovepipe Wells again, where I’d camped back in 1982 with my UCR friends (“The boys have come!”), so I drove an hour north.  The Stovepipe Wells campground was closed for the season but I walked through it and realized that it hadn’t changed at all in 34 years.  In fact, I was able to find the exact campsite where we’d camped during that weekend back in 1982 and caused such a ruckus.  Standing there at the campsite, it was like stepping back three decades and it seemed, quite literally, like it had been yesterday that I was here with my rowdy group of geography colleagues.  In his song, “The Pretender,” Jackson Browne once said about life that, “In the end, it’s the wink of an eye,” meaning that it goes by incredibly quickly.  And the older I get, the more I think it's true.

Above:  Badwater Basin in Death Valley. This is the lowest, hottest and driest place in America.  It was over 100 degrees when I shot this. (0:54)

But alas, the road beckoned so after buying a few Death Valley t-shirts at the Stovepipe Wells gift shop and getting another monstrous Diet Pepsi with lots of ice, I headed out of Death Valley.  I wanted to camp at the Kelso Sand Dunes that evening but still had a long drive ahead of me.  First, though, I wanted to visit Nevada.  One of my goals for this trip is to visit each of the 48 states and I realized this would be the closest I’d probably come to the Silver State, at least on this trip, so I drove 15 miles up the highway, took a picture of the Nevada border sign, drove into Nevada for about 10 seconds, and headed back into California.  On my way south across the Mojave desert, I also crossed into San Bernardino County, which is the largest county in the United States – much larger than Maryland (and eight other states). 

I continued driving across the Mojave Desert that late afternoon and pulled into the desert town of Baker, located on Interstate 15, where I got gas and a 44-ounce iced tea.  From there, I took the KelBaker Road, which – you guessed it – links the towns of Kelso and Baker, and pulled into the Kelso Sand Dunes area after sunset.  I first stumbled across the phenomenal Kelso Sand Dunes during a road trip in 1984 and since then, it’s been my favorite place in the Mojave.  This area is pretty remote and not a lot of folks make it out here, and even though it had been nearly 30 years since I’d been here, I was glad to see that it hadn’t changed much.  There was only one other person there and, a hundred yards away, I found a quiet place to camp at the end of the dirt road. 

By the light of the full moon and while listening to the coyotes in the distance, I cooked up some more chili-brats and gazed at the sand dunes off in the distance, glistening in the moonlight.  Yes, it had been another busy day.  But it was also another very pleasant evening.

Goodbye to Death Valley -- and on to Kelso



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