This makes no sense, but turning around and backtracking to the west along the same road we had traveled a few days prior rubbed me wrong. It felt vaguely counter-productive, as if we’d already gained that ground and were giving it back up, even though we were headed to new destinations. Like I said, no sense.
Possibly though, it’s related to this tiny, deep-seated sense of relief I experience each time we complete a leg of our journey, with nothing having broken down or disabling us in some way. I used to get the same feeling back when we had a boat in the San Juan Islands – I loved going out, but every time we pulled back into the dock having cheated maritime disaster once again (never a given; we got into some pretty sketchy situations in that boat), I would feel this tension release.
So here we were driving back through the Virgin River Gorge and around Vegas toward California, not sure of what to expect in Death Valley.
As we turned northwest out of Las Vegas and left civilization behind, I was struck once again how massive and remote Nevada is. We only saw a small corner of it, but the entire state is mini mountain range after mini mountain range, wide valley after wide valley, rocky, dry, and empty, forever. And by “mini” I don’t mean that they are small mountains. They’re huge. But the ranges themselves only stretch for 50-100 miles, and there are so many of them that you wouldn’t even know their names unless you lived in Nevada. Maybe even then you wouldn’t.
There’s truly a “you could find anything out here” feel to the area, which helps to explain Burning Man, Area 51, legalized gambling and prostitution, and the little town we drove into just prior to turning west back into California. There were only a few scattered semi-decrepit buildings, but evidently one of them was a brothel run by Mr. Dennis Hof, of HBO/Cathouse infamy. How did we know? Well, the town, if you could even call it that, is full of billboards with his enormous face on them. I’m not a fan of the man and can’t fathom how he managed to build his fortune on brothels situated literally in the middle of nowhere, but he’s nothing if not an expert self-promoter. I wish I had a picture to share.
The weather, as it has for most of our journey, cooperated. Winter is of course high season in Death Valley, and the forecast called for low 80s and sunny, but with a good bit of wind.
I’ve previously mentioned Davista’s, and therefore my, severe sensitivity to grades. Highway grades I mean. Slope. I nixed an entire leg of the journey due to not wanting to crest a few 8000’ passes (ok, and also because of the snow), and here we were about to descend steeply into a valley, the bottom of which sits at -282’. It’s also bordered by a range of snow-capped mountains to the west, which would be the direction of our egress in a day or two. Point being, as the engine shifted into low gear and began to whine once again as it tried to prevent us from reaching warp speed, I gritted my teeth a bit and hoped she was up to the task.
Semi-interesting side note here: Many people know that Death Valley has the lowest elevation in the US. What fewer people seem to know is that Mt. Whitney, the highest elevation in the Continental US (get outta here Alaska!), is only 85 miles away as the crow flies. In fact, the two points are in the same county. What’s more, there’s an endurance footrace called the Badwater Ultramarathon that starts at the bottom of Death Valley and ends at the Mt. Whitney trailhead. California’s got a lot going on.
The scenery was interesting in an extreme desert sort of way. Though Tacco and I were fascinated, we’ve long since given up on demanding that the kids put down their screens / books and look out the window though, at least for any extended period of time, by which I mean more than it takes for Firebolt to say “cooooooolllll.” We figure that if Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the rugged Pacific coast failed to provide enough visual stimulation to hold their attention, then nothing will. At least they’re not fighting with each other.
We arrived at our campground without incident, but discovered fairly quickly that “play it by ear” wasn’t going to be a viable tactic here. The official National Park campground was ok, if a bit shrubby and windswept, but the other options (if you recall, we were only able to get reservations here for one night but planned to stay two) were full-on Lunar Base Delta. Zero vegetation, zero hookups, not even close to level, and, well… ugly. There’s a time to be hard core; this was not it.
So The Plan morphed, as it’s wont to do. One night in Death Valley. We’d check out the Ranger Center in the evening, drive around to see a few sights in the morning, and then continue west.
The wind really kicked up as we walked over to the Ranger Center to see whether it would be feasible for the girls to bag another Junior Ranger badge (it was). One of the surprising things we learned about Death Valley from the exhibits was the fact that there’s a Native American tribe that has made their home at the bottom of the valley for, well pretty much forever. So many questions about that…
I also discovered to my consternation that the path out of the valley to the west wasn’t nearly as forgiving as it had looked on the map. Though it avoided the 7000’+ pass through the highest mountain range, it didn’t avoid passes altogether, and in fact would take us up about 5000’ and down pretty quickly. I filed that away for later.
It wasn’t our best night. We slept ok all things considered, but on top of the incessant wind making noise and shaking our home, there was not only a loudly partying group nearby (who I noticed were being evicted by the NP staff the following morning) and a dog next door that decided it was important everyone knew he existed most of the night. It’s safe to say that none of us was complaining about breaking camp and moving out in the morning.
We did decide to go check out Devil’s Golf Course, which sums up Death Valley nicely. It’s otherworldly and worth checking out, but after a few pictures and comments about how alone we were out there, it was time to move on.
We took one more side jaunt through an area called Artist’s Palette, and then departed.
It wouldn’t be fair to call our Death Valley detour a swing and a miss, as it’s undoubtedly extraordinary, and something to check off The List. But one night was plenty. Back to the mountains!