Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Summer Road Trip: Day 1 - Death Valley

16 Days.  2,500 miles (that’s just over 4,000 km for fans of the metric system).  By car, bus, boat, trolley, on foot, and even on a ferry.  From 282 ft (86 m) under sea level – Badwater Basin in Death Valley –  to 9,943 ft (3,031m) on the Tioga Pass en route to Yosemite.  Desert to mountains, to the Pacific coast, to the [not so sunny] southern California beaches, to [almost] Mexico, and back.  7 hotels.  3 house rentals.  10 times packing and unpacking.   Intense, to say the least, but all in all, an amazing road trip, with not a dull moment along the way and tons of amazing memories!  Oh, and did I mention 11 other people in tow?

This was – even by my standards – a major undertaking to plan, and even more thrilling to execute.  Biggest itinerary I put together to date.  And with one or two exceptions, it all went pretty good… 

The whole itinerary is broken down in 9 separate entries, by location.  As usual, it contains my travel impressions, advice, recommendations, and the occasional parenthesis around a random topic or two.  And lots of artistic pictures that our resident photographer (Laura) diligently captured throughout the trip.  So let’s see how it all went down…

Day 1:  Death Valley (May 23)

The initial plans were to fly into San Francisco or San Jose and get to Yosemite from the West… but as flights turned out to be cheaper through Vegas, the Tioga Pass entrance seemed a better choice.  And rightfully so!  That also meant adding Death Valley to the itinerary… as it simply was on the way.

Well, am I glad things worked out that way, because this park was absolutely a wonderfully pleasant surprise; definitely not to be missed.  In my ignorance, I was imagining a literally “dead” monochrome, lifeless, flat landscape.  It turned out to be the exact opposite!  Color, character, vastness, variety, the occasional gopher running for shade, and even a lonely coyote…

Shortly after entering the park (the biggest by surface in the lower 48, by the way, which means one day may not be enough to cover it) the road heads up to Dante’s view – a high point on the Mt. Perry ridge, offering panoramic views of the valley below, where the aforementioned preconceptions [or misconceptions] about this landscape are immediately dismissed.  The color palette (even though missing most shades of green) is simply spectacular, especially against the backdrop of a blue sky, and fluffy clouds punctured by the jagged edges on the other side of the valley.  A very original “mother nature” still-life rendering …


Just 20 miles north from there, Zabriskie Point offers a different vista, easily a film location for any Star Wars type setting (actually, I learned later that although most of the original “desert” scenes were filmed in Tunisia, about 9 different locations in the park were actually used for re-takes or new shots).  Everything seems filtered through a sand-colored lens.  Some of the crests are darkened, as if dipped in coffee, contrasting beautifully with yellow and tan.  Mother Nature is such an artist here… Simply breathtaking.  People have worn paths through the landscape, although I don’t see what would drive one to walk under this blistering hot sun… Maybe it’s the curiosity of experiencing some of this up close… or the need to find the limits of the human body under these inhuman conditions… That might explain the 135 mile Ultramarathon taking place here once a year, where 70-80 ultra-people are “driven” [read crazy enough] to go against the blazing July sun in order to claim victory in “the worlds’ toughest foot race”.

Me, I was “drained” just after a leisurely walk to the view point, a couple hundred yards away from the parking lot…   


Just around the bend from there, it’s Furnace Creek, a place that holds the record for highest temp ever recorded in most record books: 134 Fahrenheit / 56.6 Celsius.  After all, this whole area is the lowest, hottest and driest in North America.

Driving back south about 17 miles on this other side of the Mt Perry, you get to the Badwater Basin, 86 meters below sea level.  Here, the cracked ground is covered by a white sprinkling of salts and minerals left behind by the evaporated pools.  Yes, it gets so hot that water evaporates faster than it can be absorbed into the rock-dry soil.  And there’s something eerie about the sign up high on the ridge that says “sea level” yet you’re down there, without any scuba gear ;-)


Back up north, the Furnace Creek area is nothing to write home about, but it’s a good tourist stop for a quick bite, a cold drink, and souvenirs.  The visitors' center is also there.  Stop in for a map or a quick chat with the friendly staff.

But before you get there, a little one-way detour road called Artist’s Drive adds another dimension and a few new color hues (purples, navy and oranges) to the earlier mentioned palette.  I’m guessing that’s where “Artist’s” comes from…


But the highlight of the day in Death Valley – and thank God we rented SUVs, otherwise this would have been impossible – was Titus Canyon; another one-way road (this time unpaved) that took almost 2 hours to cover, even though it was only 28 miles long!  Bumpy for the most part, scary at times, as the road is narrow, the landscape steep and railing non-existent (definitely not for the faint-hearted), but absolutely rewarding over the last few miles, as the car literally had to squeeze between the vertical rock walls on either side.  Astonishing!

Conversely, if the car is not equipped for this type of road, the canyon can be accessed (on foot) from the other end… but the whole experience would definitely not be the same!


The Racetrack was also on the itinerary, but after almost 2 hours on a bumpy road, with evening fast approaching, two more hours on another unpaved road proved to be too much for our group.   I would have loved to see the famous sailing stones / sliding rocks (a very interesting phenomenon) but that may be something for next time…

Also for next time, maybe a quick hike through the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, which we only saw from a distance, as we drove out of the park, under the setting rays of the sun.  Definitely happy for the decision to fly into Vegas and drive through this natural beauty on the way up to Yosemite.   Oh, and speaking of driving: whoever designed some of the roads through the park (which you can probably notice in some of the pics) was clearly a roller-coaster fan.  Loved it! 


Day 1: Pahrump to Lee Vining through Death Valley
From the hot and dry Death Valley, in less than 3 hours Hwy 395 climbs about 6,800 feet (2,000+ meters) and the scenery changes from tumbleweed and thistles to conifer forests.

Murphey’s Motel, in a frigid Lee Vining, provided shelter for the first night.

Off to Yosemite (click link) in the morning…


…. To be continued …

*     *     *     *     *

Links to the rest of the itinerary:

No comments:

Post a Comment