Nothing prepares you for the heat of Death Valley National Park in August ( www.nps.gov/deva/ ). You could use a few old clichés to try to paint the picture, but basically, it’s hot. We’ve been to some warm places in our time such as the Greek Islands and Egypt, but this is hotter by several notches.
It was probably before 8am when we emerged from the room to go and hunt for breakfast, and we hadn’t bothered putting on any suncream, because we normally do this after breakfast. We just decided to walk over the road and go to the general store for breakfast, because we weren’t hungry enough for a big breakfast, and anyway the motel was likely to cost a few pennies. It was maybe 150 yards over the road but my head and arms were starting to feel distinctly burnt.
Breakfast comprised a couple of pastries and a 20oz of chilled coke. I don’t think I’ve ever had a chilled soft drink for breakfast, but somehow a hot steaming coffee didn’t feel right. We walked back to the motel somewhat quicker than we’d walked over and had breakfast on the porch. The view was pretty impressive from there. There was a huge caravan/RV park just over the road, but it was totally empty. There weren’t many other cars at the motel or on the road, and so we had a clear, unobstructed view of an expanse of desert flats, with the Panamint Range in the background, this time viewed looking North East, and lit by early morning colours. This was the first time on the trip where I felt like we were in America. If your European and you go to San Francisco, you could think you were in a European city. OK, the people speak English, Spanish or Chinese, but the architecture and culture and food could be somewhere in Europe.
The same applies to Yosemite. There are trees and mountains and lakes and waterfalls, but we’ve been into the Alps a few times, and there is the same kind of scenery. All of this familiarity goes out of the window when you get to Death Valley. There is no doubting that this is not Europe. You don’t get scenery like this in Europe. Greece and Spain have hot, dry-ish areas, but even they have rain in the winter. Here it is hot, dry, and barren, but you can see mountains with snow on the top. And you can tell how barren it is, because our pastries were suddenly the centre of attention for a substantial bird population. Most were quite small and were picking away at the crumbs we’d dropped on the floor. There was one quite large, black one which looked to me like a raven, but then I’m no ornithologist. It sat on the stone pillar of a fence around the porch and looked menacingly at us.
The plan for the day was to go for a look at the southern end of the park. There’s a lot of it, but what the heck. As ever, we started with the Visitor Centre in Furnace Creek to get the usual collection of free brochures containing information on current conditions, walks, and so on. Furnace Creek also furnished us with by far the most expensive refuelling stop of the trip.
We decided the plan was to head up towards Dante’s View first, and then come back down into the lower valley in the afternoon. We hadn’t discussed it, but I think we’d already come to the conclusion that this wasn’t a place for doing long hikes. Not today, anyway. Sounds like a plan.
The first stop was Zabriskie Point. There was a short walk up a hill from the car park to get up to a constructed viewpoint looking down on what can only be described as a strange landscape. It’s called badlands, I think. But basically, it goes like this. You have a bedrock that doesn’t absorb water very well, and conditions where there isn’t much water anyway. When it does rain, it rains quickly, and in large amounts. None of this can get soaked up into the ground, even though the surface is absolutely dry, so this means two things. Firstly, there’s no water in the ground to support plant life, and secondly, the water can’t do anything but run away, taking the top layer of soil/rock with it. This ends up looking like a large scale map of rivers and valleys, all joining into each other like a tree. But it’s all in minature, with complete valleys only a hundred or so metres long and maybe 10-20 metres deep. Because there are no plants, you also get to see the colours in the rocks, and because there are variations in concentrations of minerals in the rock you get lots of colour. At Zabriskie Point, they are mainly yellows and oranges at the lower levels with a reddy-brown cap around the horizon level. All of this forms a nice big bowl shape, with a view out over salt pans in the lower valley and the Panamints behind. This would have been more dramatic with shadows, but you can’t have everything, and it was still pretty darn impressive.
Next we decided ( well, I think Kev decided, being at the wheel, and Kas didn’t try very hard to stop it ) to go off the paved road and round the Twenty Mule Canyon Road. We didn’t see that many mules, but there was more badland scenery in similar shades to Zabriskie, and the road was the same colour this time because it had no tarmac on it. In fact, in places it was only the occasional tyre print that showed you where the road was supposed to be. The drive was OK, but I wouldn’t like to go a long distance over it. We had a couple of stops for photos, most of which show no sign of humanity at all.
From here we continued along highway 190 to get to the turnoff for Dante’s View, past a few bits of abandoned industry and eventually to a few switchbacks up to a car park in between two quite high peaks. From the car park you are aware that there is going to be a view, but you have to get out of the car and walk up to the edge to get the full effect. It is a pretty good effect ( by now, you can tell I’m running out of superlatives to use, so I apologize if I repeat myself ).
What you get to see from Dante’s View is this. There are the Panamint Mountains in the background, with Telescope Peak (11,050ft) at the very top. Then there’s a huge wall a few miles away, as the mountains give way to the valley. It’s probably not actually a wall, it’s more likely to be cliffs and debris fans like this side. In front of the cliffs there’s an expanse of flat land with salt pans. From this height, it looks like a river and a couple of lakes of milk. Right beneath you is Badwater, at 287ft below sea level. Hugging the base of the slope on the near side is a little wavy black line, which turns out to be the road. Then the cliffs and debris fans lead up to your viewpoint at 5475ft above sea level. You’re basically a mile or so up above the valley floor and you can see all the way across. You’ll see our description of Grand Canyon later on, but my personal view is that where Grand Canyon is big, it is also complicated, and that maybe detracts from the beauty because you can’t really take it all in. From Dante’s View, there is a simplicity to the view. Here’s some mountains, here’s a deep valley, and here’s some more mountains. You can see up and down the valley and all the way across, and you can see all of it. You don’t have to peak around corners or over cliffs, and you’re not searching around for the important bits, they are just all there, all visible. You don’t feel like you need to walk into it, because it wouldn’t improve the perspective. Personally, I could have sat there for hours and just stared at it, not really changing my viewpoint, but just absorbing it and admiring. I was also wondering what happened to the Mos Eisley Spaceport, which mysteriously appeared and then disappeared from the valley floor in the 70’s.
However, the rocks were too hot to sit, and it was getting on towards lunchtime. So we had a good old gawp for an hour or so, and took some big panorama photos. Kas took the obligatory photos of me taking photos, with a rather good view in the background. From Dante’s View back down into the valley, and then down to Ashford Mill takes a while, but we decided this was the way to go. Firstly, this meant we had a convenient lunch break before starting again for the afternoon, and secondly it meant that when we came back up the valley we’d be pointing the right way for the Artist’s Drive. I’m not quite sure what we were expecting at Ashford Mill but there wasn’t a lot. The main feature to remark upon was the picnic tables in the car park. Imagine this, it’s about 120 degrees outside, the sun is blazing down and you fancy sitting outside for a spot of lunch. OK, I can understand why there is no shade, because that would probably mean that the tables were visible from much further afield. But neither of us could really understand the logic behind them being made of aluminium. In this heat, they may as well have thrown broken glass and six inch nails on the top and electrified them. I guess they’re more pleasant in the winter, or maybe we should have taken our big tartan blanket with us to sit on ( all British cars come fitted with an 8ft square tartan woollen blanket, just in case ). We therefore discovered that the rear door of the RAV4 opens really wide to reveal a carpeted floor at just the right height and just the right width for two bums. Sorry – two fannies if your American. You wouldn’t want two bums sitting in the back of your car. Then we had a bit of a walk around, found a few ruined bits of building and a very arty looking bush in the middle of a stony wasteland, and decided enough was enough. Time for more air conditioning.
From here, we pretty much went to all the stop offs on the road back from Ashford Mill to Stovepipe Wells, via Furnace Creek. First up is Badwater. There’s a little pool of water that you wouldn’t want to drink unless you want to lose weight quickly, what looks like a road made of salt disappearing into the distance, and a sign announcing where you are, and just how far under the surface you’d be if the sea ever found a way in. Thankfully, it didn’t while we were there. Maybe it’s still going round the one-way system in Yosemite.
Next came the Natural Bridge, and Kev’s mini whinge to Kas, because she was getting to do all the driving off tarmac. There’s a side road that leads up one of the debris fans a little bit, and a dusty car park at the end. From here you walk up what must occasionally be a riverbed, but not today. Kas was feeling a bit knackered, so she decided to sit on a rock in the shade while Kev trudged up another 6-700 yards to find the actual bridge. As its name suggests, it’s a rock bridge over the top of the valley. There weren’t any cars on the top, so it probably isn’t a road bridge. Anyway, the air in the canyon was very oppressive and the walls vertical, so the whole experience was a bit claustrophobic. Do a few photos, swig some more lukewarm water, and back to the car.
Next up was the Devil’s Golf Course. This is an area of razor sharp pinnacles of salt crystals rising up from the valley floor. If the Devil really plays golf here I bet he loses a lot of balls. It’s good for photos though.
Then came Artist’s Drive, which branches to the east side of the paved road for a few miles and gives you a close up view of the various colours in the rocks and volcanic ash of the valley side caused by the different minerals in the rock. There’s green, purple, orange, red, yellow, brown, white, grey and a few other bits. Most of the colours are arranged in layers at varying angles, and then with various intrusions of different colours thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure what school the artist belonged to, but it was probably one of the more abstract, modern ones.
This took us past Furnace Creek, and then on to Salt Creek interpretative trail. There were some salty flats, with interesting hexagonal patterns. It was very good for abstract, close up photos, but there’s not much else to say really.
And finally for this day, probably the least clever part of the whole holiday. Kas wanted to wander into the sand dunes for photos, and Kev didn’t, due to a headache coming on. So rather than both go, or both stay, Kas went for a walk and Kev stayed in the car. This may not seem too bad, especially seeing as Kas had a hat and was carrying water, and at the time neither of us thought about it at all. A couple of weeks later, there was a news article on the telly about a guy from somewhere in the Midwest who went for a walk into the sand dunes from Stovepipe Wells with his wife one morning. He was walking faster the her, and got some way ahead. The woman stopped for a rest and let her husband go on. He had a hat, long sleeves, sun cream and water. He wasn’t in bad health or unfit, and he was about 40 – two years older than Kev was at the time. After a couple of hours waiting his wife gave up and assumed something was wrong. She walked the couple of miles or so back to Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to find help. It took 24 hours to find him and he died in hospital the day afterwards. So I guess the moral of that tale is that the best survival aid is to make sure someone else is with you at all times, just in case. Thankfully Kas made it back to the car, and because neither of us realized the danger at the time, we didn’t get upset about it either.
By this time we were both a bit the worse for wear, so we decided to go home and chill out. This involved showers, and for the first time on the trip, a dunk in the motel swimming pool. It was outdoors, and getting dark again by the time we got there, but it was still uncomfortably warm around the pool. Cooling in it, but warming out of it. Most of the people we saw in the motel the previous night seemed to be doing the same thing. In fact, I think there were eight people there, and apart from the Visitor Centre at Furnace Creek it was the most people we had seen in the same place all day.
After the previous night’s disappointing meal and because we didn’t fancy anything heavy for dinner, we decided to just go to the bar for cold beer and snacks. Nachos, I think. They were freshly nach-ed, warm and substantial. And the beer was cold and wet. ‘Nuff said.