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
Traveling 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.
We 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.
There 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.
We 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!
Check-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!
We 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.
We 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.
Most 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.
Winding 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.
We 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.
The 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.
Another 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.
We 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!
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.
We 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.
After 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.