02-11-2018 Leaving Tucson Heading North

Remember that if you click on a photo, (except for maps and internet photos) it will take you to the larger version on my SmugMug site, where you can also see more photos in that gallery.

When Sunday morning arrived, the gorgeous clear skies over Tucson were showing a bit of gray.  Clouds were coming in.  We didn’t know at the time that there was a lot of rain heading towards the big city in the desert, and as the days passed with extended weather reports from friends and news sites, we knew how lucky we had been.  Our entire time so far had been gorgeous.  Sunny, warm, temperatures much above normal, no wind.  Who could ask for more?!

Leaving Tucson, we knew the best way out of town was on the interstate.  To our delight, I-10 at 9 on a Sunday morning was beautifully quiet.  Note to self, always leave big cities which require freeway travel on Sunday morning.  I was driving so we missed photographs of all the amazing freeway overpasses and bridges between Tucson and Phoenix.  Even the fences are covered with gorgeous sculptures, some in cement, some in rusted metal.  We enjoyed all the art along the highways, both in Arizona and in Nevada.  Next time I’ll have Mo drive this section so I can get some photos.

(The two photos here were taken from the internet just so you get the idea.)

I have noticed this trend growing in many places where we travel.  Made me wonder what it must be like to be a freeway graphic artist and to see your designs bigger than life in such a public venue.  Almost as much fun as the mural craze that seems to be everywhere as well.

We were still not absolutely sure about our route home.  I had checked the weather going north along Highway 395 in California, and it looked a bit iffy.  The fastest route would be to take Highway 95 directly north from Las Vegas to Reno, but geez that part can be boring.  We thought maybe we could boondock in the Alabama Hills if we could get through Death Valley.  Both of us remembered some of the climbs in and out of the valley.

The route we traveled from Tucson to Minden, Nevada

We decided to head for Phoenix, and then north, with no real idea of how far we could or wanted to go and where we might end up that night.  Beatty, Nevada was the goal, and then Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, but who knew the timing.

I used the freecampsites.net website and found quite a few boondock sites north of Kingman.  I couldn’t believe how big Kingman was, and as we passed through, the boondock sites didn’t look all that welcoming.  We continued north, thinking we could find something.  Once again, freecampsites.net led the way.  We saw a big parking lot available across the street from the Hoover Dam Casino, just east of Boulder City and set a beeline for a free night spot that shouldn’t be terribly crowded.

Turned out to be a perfect place, and we never even bothered to cross the highway to visit the casino.  Dinner was once again some excellent leftovers from the freezer while we watched the sunset and settled in for the evening. A few rigs rolled in during the night, but they weren’t terribly loud.  By morning there were a few trailers, and some car and tent campers scattered around the edges of the big space.

Our plan was to continue north and then cross Death Valley, with a stay at Stovepipe Wells, but the weather had other plans.  It was COLD, and when we drove into Beatty I think the daytime temperatures were in the low 40’s, with a hard freeze predicted for the night.  I called Stovepipe Wells, where we were told all sites were taken, and we did a quick rethink.  We had passed a decent looking park on the way into Beatty, so gave them a quick call, and sure enough there was a space, full hookups.  Death Valley Inn RV Park was a good choice.

It was still early in the day, and as we thought about our options, it seemed like a good thing to relax early and spend some time playing and exploring.  We have been to Death Valley a few times, and the things we would see there are sights we have enjoyed in the past.  Something different would be fun.

We headed for the tiny Visitor center in town, next to the cheapest gas in town, and gathered up some brochures on local interesting things to see and do.  Rhyolite is a ghost town that is fun to explore, but we had already done that a few years ago.  We decided to explore some of the back 4 wheel drive roads, and found an interesting loop that meandered past old mining cabins, through “Secret Pass”, south to the desert, and back via the highway.

We explored the old Flourspar Cabin at a mining site before continuing up the road

The 8 miles to Secret Pass was challenging, but that is why we were out there.  I was a bit of a wreck actually, as Mo crawled over the big, pointy rocks, with me jumping out now and then to move some especially big ones.  Once we were past the bad part, it didn’t seem so bad.  I think for me it was the unknown factor of whether the road actually continued through.  I didn’t like the idea of having to back up and out over those rocks and ditches and eroded dry streambeds. 

When we got to an easier part, I started taking photos, and Mo asked why in the world we didn’t get photos of the scary parts?  I was too busy holding on and gasping! 

Of course, we didn’t have a good local map, and the phone map quit working about half way through.  We just kept going, and following our noses, found our way out of the mountains and across the desert back to the highway.  It was fun, and something we love to do when in the desert.  No flat tires, no getting stuck in sand or creekbeds, and beautiful views.

We had seen Big Dune on the way north to Beatty, and our dirt road intercepted the highway just a few miles north of the road to the sands.  We traveled the washboard gravel just 6 miles with the dunes looming in the distance.  This dune is incredible, a star dune out in the middle of the flat desert, and I loved it much more than the dunes in Death Valley.  Maybe because it rises all alone from the surrounding space, or maybe because it isn’t overrun with people, or at least it wasn’t when we were there.  Unprotected the way the Death Valley dunes are protected, it was covered with 4 wheeler tracks, but when we were there on this mid week afternoon, there wasn’t a soul around.

Mattie had more fun than she has had in a long time.  Something about soft sand makes her completely joyously crazy, and she ran around like a wild thing in the wind. 

She does the same thing at ocean beaches, and in big soft grass as well.  The dune was lit from the west with the late afternoon sun and the backdrop of dark clouds was a photographer’s dream.  Gorgeous!

On our way back, along Highway 95, we finally spotted the wild burros that were touted in the brochure.  All along our route we had seen burro apples, but no burros, so we were glad to finally see them.

A great mural in Beatty along the main road into town

The next morning was cold, so we took our time heading west toward Death Valley.  Stovepipe Wells was busy with tourists, and I stopped in at the Visitor Center and General Store hoping for a really good sweatshirt to add to the one I found at Chaco Canyon 4 years ago.  No luck.  I am pretty specific in what I want, and I guess my current version will have to suffice. 

I was glad we didn’t stay there, with all the people, visiting all the beautiful sights we have seen before.  It was enough to pass through this part of the valley and to save wandering around in the back country for another trip. 

Look closely to see the MoHo winding down the grade toward Panamint Springs

We knew about the long grade up from Stovepipe Wells, and then back down to Panamint Springs, not horrible, but definitely long.  We decided to unhook early on rather than waiting for the really big hill west of Panamint Springs.  Mo went ahead in the MoHo and I followed in the Tracker, making it much easier to stop along the way for photos.

We negotiated the really steep hill up from Death Valley toward Lone Pine without any mishaps, and stopped at the top for lunch and a walk with the dog.  The sun was warm coming through the windows, but the wind was really cold!

As we approached the intersection with Highway 395, I was again enthralled with the magnificent view of the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Often at this time of year, the highways are snow covered, but this year the snowpack in the Sierra’s is extremely low.  It was our window in time to travel one of our favorite highways without being worried about the storms and snows.  We have been in serious snow storms with chains required on this road as late as Memorial Day!

We didn’t stop along the way, passing places we have visited in the past, reminiscing about good food, beautiful hikes, historic sites.  Many good memories along this route for us, and it was fine that on this trip we simply passed through viewing the incredible scenery.  We were heading home, and no matter how long we are out, when it gets close to home time, we tend to move along fairly quickly.

There is just so much to see and do along this highway, the list is huge.  It deserves a month, preferably in warmer weather, not just a day.  We will return.

Our destination for the night was Minden, Nevada, where we had stayed at a new park back in 2014 on our way home from Florida.  At that time, it snowed on us, April 1, and we were happy for hookups.  This time the prediction was for temperatures in the teens, and once again we were happy for hookups.  I called ahead, and was glad I did since Silver City Resort seems to have developed into a very popular place in the last 4 years.  Most of the people there are in for long term visits.  That surprised me because it can be cold in this area south of Reno.

When we woke up the next morning, the temperature was 12 degrees F, the Tracker was covered in thick frost, and even the MoHo had frost on the lower sides.  We had turned on our tank heaters for the first time in a long time.

It was time to figure out our home route, and we cooked a nice breakfast while debating whether to take our chances over the northern mountains or give up and cross the Sierra’s over Donner Pass and travel home via I-5.  Decisions, decisions!


Sunrise~Sunset~Sunrise~Sunset….Swiftly Go the Days…Saturday May 4

Day 7 D Valley_051DSC_0051 Many of the more well known sites in Death Valley are around the Furnace Creek area, where we finally managed to work up the nerve to leave the swimming pool and air conditioned MoHo to venture out into the heat.  By 5pm it was only 96F or so, and even with the air going full blast, the inside of the MoHo was at 86F, cooling from the afternoon interior high of 91.  Yeah, we are only 30 amps in the MoHo, nice when trying to find a spot to hook up in remote areas, but not as good as those big 50 amp rigs with two air conditioners in hot country.  Getting outside and into the Tracker was a test in endurance until the air conditioning in the car finally caught up.

Day 7 D Valley_020DSC_0020 We only had a short mile to the Old Borax Mine works just north of the ranch.  Even though I had been to Death Valley before, I was surprised to be reminded that the famous 20 mule team borax wagons only operated out of the valley for 5 short years.  We drove through Mustard Canyon, but the overcast skies muddied up the mustard yellow color of the Furnace Creek Formation mud and silt left over from the 3 million year old lake sediments. 

Day 7 D Valley_013DSC_0013 Of course, we had read the memo, and knew that sunset would be a great time to drive the 27 miles to Dante’s View.  As we continued south past Zabriski Point toward Dante’s View, we took the one way side road into 20 Mule Team Canyon. It was just a short 5 mile loop, but incredibly fascinating to see the old sediments and the beautiful colors against the darkening skies. The storm looked like it could really do some damage, in spite of the fact that the valley only gets 2 inches of rain annual at the most.

Day 7 D Valley_034DSC_0034 Along the way south to the view point we passed huge open pit mines that were just outside the boundary of the park.  On the narrow road we kept seeing signs saying “no trailers allowed” and then a few miles in, there would be more signs proclaiming “trailer parking”.  Sure enough, at the top of the very narrow winding road, we saw a motorhome.  It was a small one, a rental of course, but still the sign DID say no motorhomes or trailers.

Day 7 D Valley_070DSC_0070 We read the memo about sunset, but neglected to remember that we were again traveling from below sea level to more than 5,000 feet elevation.  Hmmm.  We are in sea level clothes at cloudy high mountain temperatures.  We weren’t the only ones at least.  There were some carloads of hardy souls waiting for the sunset, and some of them even had the foresight to bring along some fleece.  Not us.  The wind was blowing hard, the skies were dull and smoky from the huge Camarillo fires, and it was cloudy.  The most fun was watching the sunset watchers.  Several carloads gave up and left, but there was this thin line of clarity just over the mountains to the west that made me think that something wonderful might happen if we were patient enough.

Day 7 D Valley_074DSC_0074 It did.  It wasn’t what I would call a spectacular sunset, but it certainly was a magical one.  We watched the glowing red orb appear in the opening in the clouds as it dropped toward the mountain and then something funny started happening.  As we watched, a thick, black, solid image appeared on the lower part of the sun.  It didn’t look anything like a cloud, but something was definitely in the sky there between us and the sun that was really cool.  Looked kinda like a coyote sun to me.  It was worth the wait to then watch the clouds along the mountain horizon light up as though they were rimmed with Christmas lights.  Maybe not whole sky spectacular like some sunsets I have seen, but definitely different and definitely amazing.

Day 7 D Valley_091DSC_0091 We slept well considering the heat, and again the air conditioner ran all night with lows in the mid 70’s.  The pre-dawn alarm was set and woke us to skies that were still a bit gloomy, but the eastern horizon looked as though light might find a way through.  Zabriski Point is one of the more famous viewpoints in the park, the one closest to the Furnace Creek Inn where people have come to marvel at the desert since the early part of the last century.  Now the parking lot is down low and you must walk to the viewpoint, but old photos show old cars all lined up there to see the sunrise.  Taking photos of a Zabriski sunrise is probably a requirement for any landscape photography course.

Day 7 D Valley_109DSC_0109 Once again it was fun watching the watchers.  It tickled both of us to see all the different morning bed hair, on both men and women.  Some people even hauled chairs and thermoses of coffee to wait for the light.  Of course there were lots of cameras, lots of languages being spoken, and lots of tripods.  I didn’t have mine, and instead used the interpretive signs as a makeshift tripod.  Next to me, however, was a photographer.  In capital letters.  He had some kind of large format camera, the kind that always excites me and yet is so intimidating.  I don’t even know if these cameras still use film, but I assume so.  Do they have large format digital cameras now?  It looked like a Hasselblad 4×5, the coveted camera of my university photography classes.  I have no clue what they cost now. 

Day 8 D Valley_005DSC_0005 I wanted to pick his brain but he was concentrating of course, using meters and such, and taking lots of prep photos as he waited for the light.  I’ll bet his photos are better than mine, but a lot more expensive as well!  I had fun fooling with exposures, and did a lot of really slow shutter speeds playing with the light. 

Day 8 D Valley_040DSC_0040 Once again, as the light brightened and flattened out the shadows, it was time to return to the MoHo for a nice breakfast and a long, lazy swim in that fabulous pool before we checked out at noon to leave the valley.  We will definitely go back, I am sure, probably a bit earlier in the season, however.  Our drive north was a return over the two big grades that we drove in on, and we both agreed it would be a lot easier to just unhook the Tracker.  We unhooked in Stovepipe Wells and ground our way up the hills.  I drove the MoHo and Mo followed in the Tracker.  The ups were definitely not as scary as the downs.  I had to put it in 2nd because the automatic downshift just didn’t go low enough on the long 9 percent grade dropping into the Panamint Valley.

Day 8 D Valley_055DSC_0055 We hooked up again at the top of the grade, a few miles east of highway 136, still a bit dicey but nothing we weren’t used to traveling in the MoHo hauling the Tracker. The skies were cloudy and as we left the valley the temperatures cooled to the 70’s and the winds were getting really strong.  We we descended into the Owens Valley the dust from the dry alkali lakebeds made eerie dust devils and we worried about the paint getting blown of the rig.

Day 8 D Valley_057DSC_0057It was still early when we reached Bishop, and there was plenty of time to take the drive up Sabrina Canyon which we had missed the last time we passed through a few days previous.  The light was opening up a bit, still cloudy, but at least a bit of sunlight to make the mountains glow.  The canyon was lovely, and Bishop Creek has a lot of forest campgrounds along the way.  The creek was full and there were lots of folks fishing.  Once at the dam, we negotiated some construction barriers before rounding the corner to the ‘lake’.

Day 8 D Valley_084DSC_0084 The lake was gone.  We found a huge pile of boulders, lots of sand, and a couple of small puddles where the lake used to be.  The water rights are owned by Southern California Edison Co, and the water goes to LA via the aqueduct along with al the other water in the Owens Valley.  There was a boat launch and resort with private docks, signs saying “keep off dock” and they were about 30 feet in the air, the boats al lined up at the closed resort in the dirt.  There are no plans at this time to refill the lake.  I can’t imagine just how awful this must be for the owners of that lodge, much less the people of Bishop who probably loved the fishing and boating on “their” mountain lake.  It was a dam, and dams are being removed everywhere. I do get that part in some respect, but we can’t undo the damage that we have done by just pulling out the dam.

dust storm at Owens Lake It is a bit like the controversy at Hetch Hetchy.  That valley will never again be the pristine valley that once rivaled Yosemite, even if the dam is removed and the water let out.  Here in the Klamath Basin, we have ‘reclaimed’ wetlands that have been unreclaimed, but they are nothing like the original natural wetland system that was once here.  One of the most controversial proposals in the Klamath Basin is the removal of 4 dams on the Klamath River.  I support that proposal, but looking at Sabrina Lake I can see what a hypocrite I can be as well.  I wish there was still a lake there. 

Sabrina Lake has gone to LAAfter that little disappointing side trip, we arrived at Brown’s Millpond Campground in time to snag the last hookup site. We had unhooked again before driving up to Sabrina Lake, so Mo took the Tracker to get groceries while I took the MoHo to check in and set up.  Once again I ran into some lovely Germans from Munich in a rental rig.  They were very sweet when they came over to ask, “Maybe you know this answer?”.  It seems that they saw the “city water” inlet for shore water and thought it meant water in the city, so they hooked up the water to the sani flush outlet and were in a panic because their toilet was filling up and almost overflowed.  I explained the difference between the two inputs to them as best I could, and once again Stacy at the campground came to the rescue with a bucket and bag saying they could empty bucketfuls from the black tank and dump them in the restroom toilets.

After all was good, they came over to thank me, and brought a big chocolate bar all wrapped up nice.  Ahh, European Chocolate!!!  Yum.  I would imagine that they might have a stash of those bars to thank people that they meet along the way in the twelve week adventure in the United States.  They had traveled from San Francisco to Yosemite and over Donner Pass and were on their way to Nevada and then to Bryce Canyon, but no desire to see Death Valley!Abby wants to know, where is the water, Mom?

Our sunset was accompanied by high wailing winds and wildly bending trees that we ardently hoped wouldn’t fall on the MoHo during the night.

Dawn at the Dunes May 4

Current Location: home in Rocky Point with thunderstorms, sun and rain.  It is good to be home.

dawn at the dunes Escaping the heat isn’t the only reason for rising at dawn when visiting Death Valley.  Reading Galen Rowell’s book, “Mountain Light”, reminds me again and again about that “magic hour” when taking a photo worth remembering is possible.  He said, “I almost never set out to photograph a landscape.  My first thought is always of light”.  In spite of the fact that I am still photographing landscapes, and sometimes photographing in forgettable light because I want to remember where I have been, reading his words has reminded me to at least think of the light more than the “thing” I am trying to photograph.  With that in mind, I set the alarm for 5:30 am, even though I am usually awake by then, I didn’t want to miss the sunrise over the Mesquite Dunes near Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

dawn at the dunesWe even skipped a morning beverage, running a quick brush through our hair, and putting on shorts and tank tops to fit the 70 plus degrees outside in the thin light.  The dunes are just a mile from where we were camped, so getting there wasn’t an issue.  The parking lot is big, and in the comparative coolness and lack of sunshine, it was OK to let Abby wait for us while we wandered into the dunes.  The hardest part about visiting a National Park is the lack of dog friendly space. There isn’t anyplace at all where a dog can walk except on the hot barren gravel around the parking lots.  Obviously heat is an issue as well, which is part of the reason we didn’t hike much in Death Valley.  We couldn’t leave Abby in the rig because she would bark and we couldn’t take her on the trails because of the rules, and we couldn’t leave her in the car because of the heat.  A problem. But on this sort of cool morning, she was fine, and although we could hear her barking from the distant dunes, there weren’t enough people yet around for it to be a big problem.

dawn at the dunes  The last time Mo and I climbed these dunes in 2004 it was in the middle of the night to the light of a full moon.  Today we read the interpretive signs warning of sidewinders, and wondered if we had even thought of that danger when we hiked out there in the dark.  The sun wasn’t to rise until just after 7, but there were other folks out there who had also read the memo.  Just about every single brochure about Death Valley talks about getting the best photos at dawn and sunset.  We saw more people on the dunes than we had seen anywhere in the park so far, except for the check-in office in Stovepipe Wells.

dawn at the dunes Another delight of early morning dune walking is discovering all the little tracks of the night animals that live in this amazing environment. We found trails of the kangaroo rat and some other interesting little tracks that I never managed to figure out.  At first we thought they were sidewinder trails, but when we saw photos of the real thing, we knew better.  Hiking in the dunes is a bit like walking on a sandy beach, times ten.  I wouldn’t want to spend a long day trying to go anywhere very distant in this sand.  We laughed a lot just trying to get up on a crest so I could wait for the coming light.  We saw a few hardy souls out on the highest dune, all of 140 feet high.

dawn at the dunes Comparatively, the remote Eureka Sand Dunes rise nearly 700′ from their base and the Panamint Dunes rise 340 feet.  We didn’t manage to get to either of these sand dune fields on this trip, but next time around we plan to drive in from Big Pine on a long northern route that will lead us to the Saline Valley and the Eureka Dunes. I can’t quite imagine climbing a 700 foot sand dune, since I didn’t even manage to get out to the 140 foot dune at Mesquite!  Still, the light was wonderful, and watching the shadows shift and change was beautiful.  Our morning was a quiet one, with no wind and a bit of softness to the light from the filtered haze and smoke sifting into the valley from the Southern California fires.

dawn at the dunes When the sun was high enough to flatten out most of the shadows, we made our way back to the car and Abby.  Just west of Stovepipe Wells is a short  road leading 2.5 miles to a beautiful treasure called Mosaic Canyon.  At the head of the canyon is a day use area, and we knew that Abby couldn’t go there, so we hadn’t made it a priority.  With the cool morning light, however, we thought we should at least go look at it.  There were already a couple of rental RV’s parked there, but signs everywhere saying “no camping”.  Mo said go ahead, and she stayed with Abby while I wandered up the canyon trail for a look at the narrows just 1/4 mile distant. 

Mosaic Canyon in early morning I am so glad I did.  I am a hiker of Utah’s slot canyons, and a lover of slickrock.  Instead of sandstone, though, this canyon is a study in metamorphic rock that has been polished and smoothed by wind and water in much the same way as the red sandstones of Utah.  The canyon narrowed nicely, but not so much that it required moving sideways to get through.  Still, it felt magical and I meandered along climbing slickrock here and there in spite of the silly Keen flip flops I had worn to hike the sand dunes.  They didn’t work quite as well on the polished dolomite stone. 

Mosaic Canyon in early morning After my foray into the canyon, we headed back to camp for a nice breakfast and a bit of reading and photo management before our required 11am departure from the campground.  When we walked outside to disconnect and hook up the Tracker, it was breathtakingly hot.  Maybe only in the high 90’s, but at 10:30 in the morning, believe me, that is breathtaking!

Our move was a short 27 miles south to the Furnace Creek Ranch RV Park where we had made a reservation a few days previous.  The national park campground at Furnace Creek now has 21 hookup sites with electricity and water, but the campground was closed on April 16 for repairs.  Furnace Creek Ranch is quite the establishment, with a gift shop, a general store, a post office, a borax museum, a golf course, palm trees, grass, and water.  And yes, a swimming pool.

By the time we were settled into our site, it was 102 degrees, and the walk to the pool was just long enough to make that water feel fantastic.  The pool at Furnace Creek is fabulous, fed by warm spring water, crystalline and fresh and clear.  Most of the chaises were taken, but we found one to share because I had no desire to come out of the water at all.  It was a perfect way to end a hot afternoon in the hottest place on the planet.  A tidbit: It used to be thought that there was a site in Libya hotter than Death Valley, but it was recently determined that the 136 F temperature recorded there was in error, and the 134 degrees F recorded on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek in Death Valley is the hottest recorded temperature on earth.  You might not want to visit in July, although last week we heard the hottest temperature was 110 degrees F and That was in April.


Afternoon in Titus Canyon

Titus Canyon RoadCurrent Location: Topaz Lake RV Park, Nevada on 395

Current Temperature: 45 degrees F Cloudy with thunderstorms. Lo tonight: 39F

(we drove through snow today)

Titus Canyon RoadAfter our amazing morning at the higher elevations on the road to Wildrose, the heat at sea level was breathtaking.  Literally. There is a swimming pool at Stovepipe Wells, but it was too hot to walk across the street to get into it.  Besides it was very full with all those lodge guests who also needed to be somewhere cool during the middle of the afternoon.

When Mo and I traveled to Death Valley in 2004 we rented a car in Las Vegas and stayed in Beatty, Nevada.  The upper end of Titus Canyon road isn’t far from Beatty and the old ghost town of Rhyolite, and we gave it a try.  Of course we weren’t supposed to have that little sedan on dirt roads, but we took our chances.  It was gorgeous and fun, and we decided that it might be worth a repeat trip.  I figured that the canyon would be shaded this late in the day.


Titus Canyon RoadIn early April of 2004, the valley was hot down at Badwater, but quite cool elsewhere.  The photos show us in shorts, long sleeves and warm vests.  No vests on this trip, no way no how.  Just a month later makes a big difference, but then again I don’t think much is predictable about visiting Death Valley, and missing out on the biggest crowds seems to be a nice benefit to coming a bit later and braving the heat.  According to the literature, don’t come on a holiday or in January and February if you want to find a parking spot at any of the popular sites.

Titus Canyon RoadIt is about 28 miles from Stovepipe Wells to Beatty, and the turnoff for the canyon road is just 3 miles west of that little town.  We remember something about ice cream at Beatty, but we were on a mission and ice cream wasn’t on this particular agenda.  The road starts at the bottom of a very long, very rough, alluvial fan, graded dirt and gravel with a LOT of rocks.  Nothing daunting, just a big pain in the patootie.  It seems to go on forever, and right into the western sun.  I was reconsidering my timing for this trip by the time we finally reached something that was at all interesting.

Titus Canyon RoadThe park brochure also says to allow at least three hours for this trip, and when we set out we couldn’t imagine it would take that long.  We left at 4 and it was after 7 when we dropped out of the canyon onto the paved highway.  The time in between, however, was timeless.  Once we maneuvered the narrow winding curves and drop-offs, and descended into the main part of the canyon, the afternoon light did all that I imagined it would.

Titus Canyon RoadWe saw a very few flowers growing from the canyon walls, and bits of vegetation here and there, but the heat was still pretty strong even in the shady canyon.  We stopped to let Abby walk and Mo moved ahead with the car so I could have a bit of alone walking time in the depths of this lovely place.  Abby was pretty concerned, though, and kept running ahead and sniffing the ground to try to figure out what I had done with Mo.  It wasn’t a long walk, but I treasured it.  There really aren’t many places to hike in Death Valley where there aren’t a lot of people around. Once again, we had the entire canyon trip to ourselves without one single car marring the magic.

Titus Canyon RoadThe wildly contorted geology of Death Valley is no more evident anywhere than it is in the depths of Titus Canyon.  Metamorphic rock is folded and bent, lifted and curved in ways not often seen.  Huge boulders brought down canyon are erratic, and cemented conglomerates filled with shiny smooth rounded stones are piled up under dolomite cliffs.  This canyon is definitely worth a repeat trip, even though at the beginning we were wondering about our decision to try it again.

Titus Canyon RoadThe return highway dropped into the valley below and we passed the Mesquite Dunes just after sunset, missing the “magic hour” of light that would have made photos memorable.  It was definitely too hot to think about wandering around in the dunes, especially when photos would have looked dull and flat.  Instead we decided to rise at dawn, as suggested in the park brochure, and walk the dunes when the air was reasonably cool and the morning light would be fun to photograph.

Home to the full blast air conditioner, gravel parking lot sites all filled up again with rental RV’s and a swimming pool too darn crowded to even attempt a swim.  After a very full day, we were perfectly happy to close up the shades and read ourselves to sleep.

Mesquite Dunes at sunset

Into Death Valley, Stovepipe Wells and Aguereberry Point

Current Location, Browns Millpond Campground, Bishop, CA , on our way north on 395 toward home

Current T 47 F, Hi 70 Lo 39 Cloudy and 50 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms

descent into the valleyTraveling toward Death Valley from the west is an education as to just what Basin and Range landscapes are all about.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  Lots of it.  This was the first time we have entered Death Valley from the west, traveling highway 136 from the junction at Lone Pine, following along the back side of nearly dry Owens Lake, and connecting with highway 190 into the park.  The MoHo is only 26 feet, but with the Tracker in tow it makes sense to pay attention to grades.  We knew there were grades, and the road has two serious climbs, and 2 more even more serious downhill stretches on the way to Stovepipe Wells.

descent into the valleyWe did see one big rig pulling the first big hill as we geared down for our descent, but he wasn’t pulling anything.  (Neither were we when we left the valley three days later, we unhooked!) Considering that the elevation on the east side of the Sierra along 395 ranges from 4,000 to 8,000 feet and that Death Valley is below sea level, there are bound to be some considerable grades.  I think if you enter the valley from the south, either from Ridgecrest or from Nevada and Las Vegas, you could drive just about anything without having to think about your gears and your brakes and unhooking.  The grades exceed 9 percent, but it isn’t the grade percent that is the issue as much as how long they are.  The grade from Stovepipe Wells is close to 20 miles long.

morning at Stovepipe WellsThere aren’t a lot of camping options with hookups in the valley, but we decided to stay at Stovepipe Wells initially since we wanted to see some of the area in parts of the park we hadn’t seen before.  It is hot, even in early May, and hookups are a requirement for us since we preferred not to use generator power to run the air conditioner. 

Skidoo RoadWe arrived around 5 and I was surprised to find the lodge office jam packed with folks getting rooms.  Very few of them spoke English, and I think German was the language of choice, although I did hear a bit of French from the Canadians, and some others.  The other notable thing was the number of RV rentals on the road.  The 14 sites at the gravel parking lot with hookups were filled mostly with rentals.  Some of these folks aren’t too good at understanding their holding tanks, I think, because the smells near them were not the best.  Sure would hate to travel like that!

Skidoo RoadCheck-in was easy.  I knew from the Death Valley paper that our fee would be 32 per night, but we would at least have water and sewer.  We decided to stay two nights.  The man at the desk asked if I had a Golden Age Pass, and I said, yes, of course, does that matter?  Imagine my surprise when I got a bill for $16.00.  For both nights!  I guess we are out of the season (ended on April 30th), this park is actually a concession park for the National Park, and then we got our half price discount for being old!  Best rate I think we ever paid for full hookups anywhere!

Wildrose RoadWe enjoyed the air conditioning since the temps were still in the high 90’s even after the sun set, but by 2 in the morning sometime I finally turned it off.  I stepped outside and for a moment couldn’t figure out what the bright orange triangle was over on the mountain to the east.  It was the moon! just a crescent of vermillion orange edging up over the horizon.  I woke up Mo and in minutes we watched that thin moon rise and illuminate the desert landscape. The stars were beautiful as well, with the curve of the Milky Way visible clearly.  We don’t see the Milky Way at home.

Wildrose RoadWe hadn’t quite yet figured out the pre dawn requirement for this park, so our first day here we had a normal 7 am breakfast and by 8 we were on the road back toward the Wildrose Road to find something we hadn’t seen on our last trip to Death Valley.The Wildrose Road is narrow, but completely paved all the way to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.  Along the way the road follows a broad valley, winds through some colorful canyons and is the connecting point for two dirt/gravel roads that lead to an old town site and to a view of the valley from the west.

Skidoo RoadMost visitors to the park see the sights that are close to Furnace Creek, but this drive is worth every mile.  We first wandered up to the old town site of Skidoo, wondering as we went why the town would be named for a snowmobile.  Skidoo was actually named for a slang word popular in the early 1900’s that meant to get out quickly.  Ok then! Old ghost towns are great fun, even if there isn’t a thing left.  The old dumps are fascinating, and the rusted cans and broken glass are reminders of just how ephemeral things can be in the wild west when the gold is no longer there.

old glass at SkidooWinding back down to the main road, we stopped often for photos of wildflowers.  As it turned out, this was the best wildflower viewing of our three days in the park.  They were few and far between, nothing like the sometimes brilliant spring shows that come after rainy winters.  Still a bright surprise in the desert as we rounded a bend in the road. 

Skidoo RoadWe continued south a few miles on the main road to the turn for Aguereberry Point.  Along the way are abandoned mining sites, and the hills are peppered with old mine holes and leftover buildings.  I read that there are more than 600 abandoned mine areas in Death Valley and Obama’s recovery act passed out some cash for the park to try to deal with the safety issues surrounding these old mines.  We are warned to stay out, that the air can kill you, timbers can fall in, and hanta virus is everywhere.  Gee, sounds fun! Think we will skip the mines and head for the view.

Aguereberry Point RoadThe road to the top is a bit scary, after all it is only a 4,000 foot drop or so on a narrow little dirt track up a very steep hill.  Driving is MUCH easier than being the passenger in these situations and today I was the passenger.  The view opened up before us, and even with the smoky haze generated by the southern California fires, the valley was breathtaking. We could see the oasis of Furnace Creek far below and the white hot playa of Badwater reflecting the sunlight.

Aguereberry Point RoadAnother worthy mention is that we had this entire complete trip to ourselves.  We saw one other car early on the Wildrose Road but they must have continued on the paved road and we never saw them again.  The town of Skidoo, and the viewpoint were completely our own, silent and gorgeous. 

most amazing find of the dayWe hiked around a bit, nagging Abby to stay away from the edges, when just around a rocky corner I found the most brilliant orange calochortus (Desert Mariposa Lily) I have ever seen.  There was just one on this rocky slope.  Later I read that these little flowers can wait for years for the right conditions to bloom and sometimes they cover entire hillside with orange glory.  What a sight!Aguereberry Point

The drive back down the hill seemed uneventful, until once again we rounded a curve and saw one of those wildly painted rental rv’s in the road.  It seemed to be in a weird position, and then suddenly we thought we saw smoke billowing up from beneath the rig and people bailing out.  Turned out the smoke was only dust, but scary anyway.  The big rental rig was seriously stuck with the back wheel spinning in a hole and the back sidewall of the rig firmly planted in dirt, rock. and shrubs.

uhoh on Aguereberry Point RoadWe stopped to help, thinking we would have to drive someone back to Stovepipe Wells, but the young German family was determined to get the rig out on their own. Remember that in all this time we hadn’t seen another vehicle, and none were traveling the paved road that we could see off in the distance.  In Death Valley it is a long way to nowhere, and cell phones don’t work.  We wouldn’t have left them there, of course, but neither of us were very optimistic that this wiry, small young father was going to get that thing unstuck.

yay! European family unstuck on Aguereberry Point RoadAfter more than an hour, suddenly dust billowed in the west and a big red pickup drove up with two big guys ready to help.  The one guy hollered at our little German guy, “It says cruise America in an rv, not bury it in the desert!”.  The German guy said, no, no, I think I can drive it out, and the big American guys just shrugged.  Sure enough, he has dug enough and in one hit on the accelerator he had that rig out of the hole.  The red truck drove off, and then the family was all happy and excited and we all hugged and cheered together. 

Wandering off in the desert is not something to take lightly.  Make sure you have water, a shovel would be smart of course, and none of us had one so the digging was done with hands and rocks.

Death Valley is so huge, and of course these stories are picture heavy, and we aren’t done for the day.  By the time we got back to camp it was over 100 degrees at sea level, even though the temperatures up on Wildrose Road had been in the mild mid 80’s.  We settled in for an afternoon nap under the air conditioning, and waited until 4 in the afternoon to head out on our next adventure: Titus Canyon.

map  to Aguereberry Point