Almost 3 years after our grueling whiz past Death Valley in July 2001, we decided to take into its charms again in March 2004, only to find that the Park is more accessible and enjoyable than previously thought. Its amusing to sit back and reflect, compare and contrast the experiences from these two trips.
The moral of this entire trip was either – Do your homework thoroughly before you plan a trip, or Never take Nature lightly – whichever way you want to look at it. Combined with the morals we learnt a day earlier, one would deduce that its not good to leave your coveted idiot box couch ever. From almost a week ago, I had been monitoring the weather forecast for the Death Valley region, and it had stated thunderstorms late every afternoon. I had witnessed many a rain and storm in the San Jose region. They were puny, a mere drizzle, compared to the downpour we get in India. So I quickly disregarded the forecast, and merrily started on the trip to the bottom of the world.
We started out from Bakersfield at 9:30 – already too late for the early morning photographer’s light. Our options were either to take the Interstate towards Vegas and then turn into the Valley, or take the more scenic and (maybe) slower CA-190. We decided on the scenic route. The plan was to stay near Zabriskie Point till sunset, and then drive back at night. Rachna had always wanted to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way which is near impossible to do from San Jose. So we wanted to stop at Panamint Valley in the middle of the desert, while returning, and take in the grand view.
Hopping on I-58 we drove east towards the desert town of Mojave. After a few boring minutes, we hit an enormous jungle of windmills churning away to supply power to the greater Los Angeles area. At Mojave, we switched to I-395, moving north towards Lone Pine. The surroundings quickly became very intriguing – unlike anything we had expected from looking at the maps. I was expecting a gradually climbing narrow highway, with traffic crawling its way up the Sierras. Instead, we found a ruler-straight freeway cutting through a barren stretch of flat plateau at 3000 feet above sea level. There was a thin line of tar vanishing into the horizon in front of us, with barrenness stretching on both sides, blocked only on the west by the mighty Sierras.
The first interesting geological formation you come across is the Red Rocks Canyon National Park. It looked quite interesting, and since it was only a puny 45-minute drive from Bakersfield, we decided to explore it the next morning. From here on till Olancha, we were in constant company of the Sierras on the west. Olancha was our first stop. I filled up on gas not knowing when we would hit a gas station next as we were about to turn towards Death Valley. This gas station in the middle of nowhere, was run by an family from India – which was quite surprising. I always thought that Indians were prone to sticking together. On the other hand, there is probably no corner of this planet which you can declare India-free.
At Olancha we forked into CA-190 east towards Stovepipe Wells, the first known entrance into Death Valley. Until it merges with CA-136 coming in from Lone Pine, 190 shoots straight through a shrub-like desert vegetation and a few Joshua trees, towards nothingness. Looking at my rearview mirror, I could see the ghost-like image of Olancha behind me in stark contrast to what was ahead. What was even more astonishing was that all stretches of vast barrenness right from Mojave till we hit the Death Valley park boundaries were situated at 3000 feet above sea-level, and there was no way you could feel it. There was hardly any traffic on this route, and spotting a cop car would be too easy – which meant that speeds of 100+ mph were easily attainable – not that I had any such intention.
After merging with CA-136, CA-190 almost immediately starts climbing and cuts across the Inyo ranges, rising to almost 6000 feet. Once you reach the eastern edge of the Inyo, you are greeted with an awe inspiring view of the valley below. At first glance, this seems like it. You can almost make out the sand dunes to your left, the stretch of salt and water that is probably Badwater, and your imagination conjures up a road cutting across the valley from the dunes to Badwater. So you drive hurriedly downslope only to find out that you are at Panamint Springs in the Panamint Valley. And then you see the road you are on stretching for miles in front of you, cutting across the valley, climing through the mountains in front of you and disappearing behind them. Time to snap and move on. Another climb and then downhill – not to a plateau at 3000 feet, but downwards towards sea level in Death Valley.
Mesquite San Dunes, sunset, Death Valley National Park, California At Stovepipe Wells, we stopped for gas and to load up on fluids. Word of advice – when stocking up on fluids, be sure to stock up on a lot of water. Fancy fluids such as fruit juices and Gatorade just don’t cut it. You have to drink a lot of fluids, and after a while you start yearning for fresh water. Lunchtime was upon us, so we took a break.
The hottest day in Death Valley has been July 10th, 1913, when temperatures reached a soaring 134 deg. Farenheit in the shade. We were in Death Valley on July 7th. The sun wasn’t as scorching as expected, though massive clouds were rolling in from the west over the Panamint Range bringing us two immediate problems, and possibly a third problem later in the day. For one, we were getting trapped inside the greenhouse effect – it was becoming increasingly hot and humid, even for a hot-blooded Indian like me. Secondly, we could almost see ourselves crying at our photographs – dull, lifeless, flat and bland. The third worry was about the predicted thunderstorm – what if it came true.
Sweeping our worries aside for the moment, and deciding to enjoy what we had ahead us, we started hiking across the sand dunes – which come into view as soon as you leave Stovepipe Wells. Have you ever driven at night towards a low moon over the horizon and wondered why you are not getting closer to it? Maybe it was the heat or maybe it was the tiresome walk through sand, but we felt the same way about the dunes. The really well-formed and untouched dunes, which always seemed so close, were drifting further with every step we took. Midway between the road and the highest dunes (or at least we think we were midway), we gave up, captured a few moments of that dull lifeless day, and returned back to the car. Since we were running short on time (especially after that futile desert walk), we decided to hit Badwater directly. There was no time for Scotty’s castle. En route to Badwater, we made quick stops at Devils Cornfield, Devils Golf Course and Golden Canyon, deciding to explore Artists Loop on the way back.
Badwater, true to its name, is a smelly stretch of stagnant water complete with salt crystals. This is the only home of the Badwater snails, Assiminea Infima, which are barely the size of a grain of sand and hide below the salt crystals. At this point, we were officially at 280 feet below sea level. If you walk a couple of miles across the manmade trail through Badwater, you will reach the lowest point in the western hemisphere, at 282 feet below sealevel. Given the clouds, heat and therefore our motivation, we felt that there was no need to drop down a further 2 feet.
Badwater is *the* place where you can actually feel the stark barrenness. What was so unique about this place? For one, you could see the valley stretch forever towards your left and the right. There were no trees, no shrubs, no dunes – just an ocean of white sand. And then, suddenly it struck Rachna. Birds! There wasn’t even a single bird in the entire Death Valley Monument. Coupled with a dire lack of tourists due to the oppressing heat, this was the most desolate part of the world we had ever seen.
After coming face to face with desolation, it was time to add some color to life at Artists Loop. This loop is a narrow winding one-way road sporting the most colorful rocks I have seen. The colors stem from the volcanic minerals (greens and violets) and iron oxides (reds and yellows) that are found in these hills. The diffuse cloudy light did help enhance these colors a bit, and blessed the photographs with no harsh shadows. We could have explored this region much more, but daylight was quickly disappearing behind the rolling clouds, and we had at least one more point to cover.
Continuing north on CA-190, our next stop was Zabriskie Point. I have had greater-than-normal attachment to this name. This was the name of a Michelangelo Antonioni film on the late sixties. It wasn’t the film I was fond of (I haven’t seen it yet), but the accompanying soundtrack is a masterpiece, with contributions from the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. The Point itself is God’s masterpiece. We reached at an opportune time – at sunset – when the sun would turn golden orange over the golden yellow rocks towards the east… if there was a sun. We waited in serenity for what seemed eternity, but couldn’t catch a glimpse of a supposedly fiery sunset. After a while, we gave up and started heading west towards Stovepipe Wells on our long trip back to Bakersfield.
By this time, dark ominous clouds had started rolling in from the west over the Panamint Range. We suddenly started wondering whether the “late-afternoon” thunderstorm was finally here. As we were moving west, stepping up on the gas pedal only managed to decrease the interval as to when we would hit the storm. Then finally near the Devil’s Cornfield, it all started happening.
The sky turned midnight blue in a matter of seconds, intersected by long stretches of lightning tearing through the clouds in an arch from the west to the east. The temperature must have suddenly dropped a couple of degrees. Dust storms were everywhere. There was a wall of dust blowing across the western edge of the valley like a gray curtain between us and the mountains. The unstoppable wind rushing through the obstruction-less valley floor was shaking the car and bombarding us with sand particles. Imagine a downpour of sand. I could barely see 20 feet of the silver road vanishing into the dust and gloom in front of us. There were dirt devils everywhere, bumping into our car from all sides. There was nothing else in sight.
And then we saw it coming towards us out of the storm. A 15-20 feet high twister, as wide as the road we were on. I froze right there, but it advanced. Looking at it keenly, we found that it wasn’t very thick, and probably consisted of very light dust. Since it wasn’t uprooting the desert vegetation along the roadside, I gathered up all courage and drove through it. Phew! I was still breathing. We could see the sand dunes right in front of us – which meant that Stovepipe Wells couldn’t be very far away. What a relief.
At Stovepipe Wells, which was almost freezing at this point, we stopped to fill up on gas. By this time, it had started raining. Rain in the desert – now that was amazing. At the gas station convenience store we wanted to enquire about the road conditions ahead, and whether it would be safe to drive across the mountains. CalTrans had no current information on the highways ahead, and the store owner was trying his best to make us stay at the hotel across the street.
A piece of advice – always talk to the park Ranger when in doubt. The locals only think about making a quick buck and never give you an accurate picture. In fact, it was almost a small-scale theatrical production right inside the convenience store. As soon as we entered, the owner shhh-ed everyone in the store, put on a big smile, and greeted us with a lengthy “Welcome to Death Valley, home of the..” blah-blah – something I hadn’t heard when I was in the store during lunchtime. Then slowly, along with 2-3 of his accomplices, he started giving me a rundown of all things that could go wrong in such weather. “Oh, we haven’t had a thunderstorm in this area since January” – wrong! Thunderstorms are quite frequent in the area as I later found out. “Oh, I stay across the Panamint Valley, and I won’t be going home tonight” – wrong! He was staying right there in the village.
Moments later, a Ranger came by, and we asked him about the conditions. He believed that we should be able to cut across the valley fairly safely after the storm had subsided in an hour or so. The only problem could be a flooded Panamint Valley, which he was about to go and find out. Also, there might be some rockslides on the highway, which the CalTrans workers had already started to tackle. We waited for an hour for the storm to subside, and decided to take a shot at cutting through the night.
We must have driven on 190 for about five miles when we hit water on the road and stopped. It was pitch black in front of us – nothing was visible. Intermittent lightning ripped the sky apart. We stood there for a while with our headlights off, feeling really puny in the hands of Nature. Then we drove back, booked a room at Stovepipe Wells, and snuck in for the night. I had newfound respect for CalTrans workers that day. But there was more in store for us. Right when dinner was over and we were about to retire for the night, lightning must have struck an electric pole somewhere, and we were out of power for the entire night.
Morning was a different world altogether. A fresh sun was turning the Panamint Ranges golden, and we could see for miles through a washed out atmosphere. I really wished I could stay that day, and on hindsight, I really should have. I would have captured Death Valley at its best. We swung by the dunes, and then left the Valley for good. On the way back, we saw cars coming into the Valley, and felt jealous at the fun they would have on that pristine day. We took some pictures of the Saline Valley sand dunes and some Joshuas, and headed towards Red Rocks Canyon State Park. A couple of snaps later, it was back to Bakersfield, and then the long drive into the humdrum of San Jose. And so we completed our trip into Death Valley, and we have the tan to prove it.