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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 4x5, the coveted camera of my university photography classes. I have no clue what they cost now.
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.
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.
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.
It 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’.
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.
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.
After 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!
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.