After two wonderful days in Joshua Tree, it was time to head to the next National Park of our California vacation: Death Valley!
We had been through a snippet of Death Valley once before, while driving west from Pittsburgh during our move to Los Angeles. It was the first week of June, and all along the road, we saw vehicles pulled over after overheating! So, since we were driving a U-Haul of unknown age and durability, we just cruised through and didn’t stop.
But. The desert. I love it. I had to go back.
There are a few different routes you can take between Joshua Tree and Death Valley. We opted for the slightly-longer, slightly-east route that goes up the 127, because it had….. a Roadside America stop AND another National Park location along the way!!
The National Park is the Mojave National Preserve. This area is the most wild National Park we have ever visited.
If you want to get away from LITERALLY everything, this is your place. You can hike or backpack (although there are very few marked trails), ride horses or ATVs, and scope out the local wildflowers and Joshua trees. But that’s…. basically it. It is a wonderful place to drive though, if you love the desert. You can see so many sweeping mountains, sand dunes, and patches of Joshua trees from the highway.
There’s also a jail cell outside the Kelso visitor center. (The visitor center itself is a great place to stop – clean bathrooms, and a full National Park shop Thursday – Monday – cash only, however.)
The next actual town that we stopped in past the Mojave National Preserve was Baker, CA. And we stopped there, because they had a general store full of different root beers, but ALSO the World’s Largest Thermometer!!
So hot right now.
Our final destination for the night was Stovepipe Wells, which is in pretty much the exact middle of the park. We thought that would be a great stopping point between our destinations (heading west to Paso Robles after we left Death Valley), and there is a terrific little hotel & town there, with great hiking just around the corner!
But it’s us. So you KNOW disaster has the great potential to strike.
Rolling road closures in Death Valley can be long enough that you can get out of your car, make friends with the people in the cars around you, wander around the side of the road, take hundreds of pictures, AND dance in the middle of the damn desert highway. Oh yes.
All told, we were stopped for about 45 minutes. At the end of it, our line of parked cars got in motion and followed this ‘pilot car’ the 10 or so miles until both sides of the road were open again. It actually would have been kind of neat if we hadn’t been on such a tight time table.
Badwater Basin is a salt flat very, very, VERY far below sea level. It’s the lowest point in North America. This is a basin where theoretically, it could fill up with water very quickly. However, with the evaporation and heat levels of Death Valley, that never lasts long. And any water that *does* land there (there’s a little pool that always has *some* water in it right at the edge of the basin closest to the mountain) is undrinkable because it’s so salty.
(French Fries, the Salton Sea, salt flats… these are a few of Fox’s Favorite Things… #Salty)
Anyway, the best way that I can describe walking on the salt flat, is to imagine that there has been snow, and it’s tightly packed, but also wicked hot and you have to slush around a bit. It’s weird, and cool, and you definitely shouldn’t miss this stop.
We walked out about 3/4 of a mile and then back. You can walk farther than that, but we had other things to hike, so we kept it short. It is HOT but in April, it’s not oppressive. It was about 94 degrees when we were hiking, very sunny (BRING SUNSCREEN AND REAPPLY ALLLLL DAY), but not like 94 degrees in Pittsburgh.
The next logical stop out of Badwater Basin is the Devil’s Golf Course. This is another area formed by Way Too Much Salt. But whereas Badwater Basin is very flat and smooth, the Devil’s Golf Course is bumpy as hell. There are warning signs about trying to hike out onto it because the bumps and crags are unpredictable and hard to judge.
Apparently, the name came from an old National Park book that said, “only the devil could play golf” on a surface like that.
We wanted to get in one *real* hike (because Badwater Basin was just like a little walk) before turning in for the night. We decided to make that hike Golden Canyon. It’s the next Must-See Stop on the road once you leave the Devil’s Golf Course, and it is GORGEOUS.
Also, it’s a pretty perfect spot for various levels of hikers. You have a lot of flexibility: we were short on time, so we opted for the shortest hike, to Red Cathedral, which is 3 miles round trip. You can also hike to Zabriskie Point for a 6-mile loop, or add on the Gower Gulch loop for some awesome panoramic views (NEXT TIME!).
The trail is really reasonable to hike – the ground itself is fairly smooth, and there are lots of spaces of shade to keep you out of the direct sun. At the end, you can do a bit of scrambling around on rocks at Red Cathedral.
There are a few tight corners to make, but nothing that is enclosed enough to make you feel claustrophobic. All told, it is a great little hike for novice to experienced hikers. The earlier in the day you go, the easier it’ll be (it was about 97 when we got there, but bear in mind that as long as you are hydrating and keeping covered up, hiking at 97 degrees in Death Valley corresponds to running at 75 degrees in Pittsburgh).
The hike was a blast, and I wasn’t even that bothered that we missed the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek by about ten minutes. I figured I could get a stamp for my National Parks Passport Book from the ranger station where our hotel was the following morning. After the hike, we were parched and ready to get out of the sun and enjoy a delicious cocktail and some dinner at our air-conditioned room in Stovepipe Wells.
When we arrived, we noticed the main entrance was closed. We wandered around to the back, and saw that the lobby was open. But it was…. dark. And kind of hot. Well, that’s odd, we thought.
We were informed by hotel staff moments later that the whole valley had lost power the night before at 8pm. We could either get a full refund on our room and go somewhere else, or stay there for a discount, and instead of having a full restaurant and bar available for dinner, we could have a BBQ outside at the pool with the other guests.
In the end, we made a bunch of phone calls, which led to us thinking we had reserved a room 30 minutes back-tracked to Furnace Creek. It seemed like a nice place, and it had a restaurant on the premises, and it had power. (If the power had *just* gone out, I would have gone with it – the desert gets downright COLD at night and we would have been fine. But the thought of a room that had been closed up allllll day in 97 degree temps? I just wasn’t mentally prepared for that, as hot as we were from hours of hiking.)*
Imagine our surprise then, when we arrived, and found out they had *actually* given us booking info for their smaller sister hotel, which was down the road, partially under construction, had no restaurant on-site, and was not designated dark-sky (we had hoped so much to stargaze more in Stovepipe Wells).
So, when we found out a previous renter had peed in the iron, it just all seemed like part of the Magic Of This Trip. (I was very, VERY grateful that it doesn’t rain in Death Valley and we could leave the iron outside overnight, and extra grateful that the front desk staff was so apologetic and gave us a little discount and everything to make up for the drama! Thanks, team!)
Anyway, we *were* still able to have dinner at the nice restaurant at the other hotel, and it was AMAZING start to finish. Look at that beet salad! YUM! Well-deserved fancy food after being hot, sweaty, and smelly for hours hiking in the desert!
But what we learned on this trip was that there is a LOT more that Death Valley has to offer than what can be experienced in just a day. There is a lot you can see in a short time, but there are many famous sites that we ran out of time to visit. Some areas are only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles, and we would have loved to see some of those drives. And of course, we *do* need to return to stay at Stovepipe Wells and stargaze long into the night.
So, as it goes with every trip to the desert, I show up, hoping to get that ‘I need to be in the desert NOW’ itch out of my system, and I wind up wanting to return again even more. This will surely not be our last blog about this amazing space!!
*If you find yourself in a similar situation in Death Valley, we *did* find out the following morning that Panamint Springs, on the western border of the park, so maybe like an hour past Stovepipe Wells, does not receive electrical supply from CalTrans. So, if you need a place to stay and don’t mind driving some reeeeeally steep and winding roads before settling in for the night, Panamint Springs hotel, restaurant, and gas station are all on their very own electrical generator, and you can drive out there, which is what we would probably opt for in the future.