offer even more
solitude thanks to
tourists thinning out
By DENNIS WYATT
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — You realize you are some place special the first time you stand atop the Star Dune rising some 140 feet from the floor of Death Valley as the sun slips behind the Cottonwood Mountains of the Panamint Range.
The tourists that scamper over the expansive Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where scenes from movies such as Star Wars have been filmed are all hiking back to their vehicles.
You’re left with the moon rising and the skies suddenly bursting with points of light you can no longer see in the Great Central Valley or most other places in California for that matter.
The silence is deafening. In the distance some 12 miles away headlights of a car pop through Hells Gate. There’s nothing between you and that car expect lots of rock, dirt, desert vegetation, and a small ribbon of asphalt. There are no buildings. There are no trees. There are no telephone poles. There are no billboards. And there is no wireless connection.
The first time I was on top of Star Dune I tracked the space lab twice as it flew 17,000 mph some 250 miles above circling earth every 90 minutes. I didn’t believe the ranger when they said you could see the space lab with the naked eye. On the western side of the Sierra you’re lucky if you can see Jupiter.
I spent close to three hours alternating between sitting and laying on the sand dune crest. You can do a lot of thinking at such a spot. You also realize just how grand nature is and how you are a mere micro cog in the massive scheme of things. You also discover you can find beauty anywhere you look even in a place called Death Valley.
There are a multitude of reasons why Death Valley why people fall in love with Death Valley. There ae endless hikes into canyons too numerous to name, endless peaks to tackle, unique history, there are more than 1,000 plant species ranging from ancient bristlecone pines on the way to Telescope Peak at 11,043 feet to ephemeral spring wildflowers blanketing alluvial fans below sea level, a repertoire of geological features, and starkness in a land where the highest air temperate on earth was recorded on July 10, 1913 when the thermometer at Furnace Creek hit 134 degrees before dipping into the high 90s overnight.
I first ventured to Death Valley 30 years ago looking for a road bicycling adventure. Although you are limited to a few paved roads, you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else with a heart-pounding 4,953 foot climb over 15 miles followed immediately by a heart-stopping 3,000-foot descent in 7 miles. I was hooked when I reached 63 mph dropping out of Hells Gate.
Bicycling brought me to Death Valley but eventually it was the unmatchable peace and solitude I fell in love with.
I’ve been to Death Valley now 21 times in 30 years. And that is not nearly enough.
All but once I have stayed at Stovepipe Wells Village. There is a reason for that. First, Furnace Creek has way too many people. That first trip with Backroads Cycling we stayed two nights in different campgrounds plus I optioned for one night of wilderness camping.
What I like about Stovepipe Wells Village are two things: The solitude and the location.
The solitude has been up ended in a bit in the past several years when they added TV in the rooms and you can now get cell service in the immediate vicinity of the resort. There is also camping and RV areas across the street, swimming pool, a general store with gas pumps, a restaurant, and gift shop.
But you can still wander outside and find a place to sit in the shade and read a book for hours on end with only an occasional crow poking around. And if you want to enjoy the heavens it is virtually pitch black at night.
Lodging ranges from the double bed patio rooms for $140 per night to deluxe rooms with two double beds for $210 a night. I actually have stayed in the same patio room (No. 3) now for the last eight trips. Right outside is the courtyard with its fire pit. The price is perfect given I stay for usually seven nights and use the room basically for sleeping, eating (I bring my own food), and showering.
January and February are the slow months which means lots and lots of quiet. You would think it would be July and August given the ground temperature can soar past 150 degrees making it impossible to walk for more than 15 minutes and canyon walls radiate heat. European and Japanese tourists jam the only two hotels (the other is Furnace Creek Resort) opened that time of year in the national park encompasses 5,219 square miles or roughly the same size as the state of Connecticut. The Furnace Creek Inn — built in the 1920s as a resort for the rich and Hollywood famous — closes down for the summer. It’s open now but it’s a little pricey with rooms going from $339 to $503 a night.
It is definitely a resort. Backroads booked a dinner there one night and the dress code was shirt and tie for men and dresses for women. There was a violinist playing as we dined. I’m not too sure what it is like 30 years later but I have no desire to part with a month’s pay to find out.
So what is there to do in Death Valley — particularly near Stovepipe Wells?
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES — just two miles east of the resort you pass Mesquite Flat They are the park’s most accessible — and popular. On morning or evening jogs where I will go to a point beyond the dunes and back to the resort I always pass a photographer camped out waiting to get a shot of the sunrise or sunset over the dunes.
PANAMINT SAND DUNES — Considered the most remote dunes in the park in terms of access, they are some 30 miles away including a five mile drive down the rutted and rocky Lake Hill Road then a four mile plus one-way hike over classic desert pavement to reach the edge of the dunes. The tallest dune in the field in the upper Panamint Valley rises almost 700 feet. I’ve been there three times — once by myself, once with my nephew Garrison during s summer night hike, and once with Sawyer Urbatsch. Each time there was no one else out there. It screams solitude. You can hear a bird flapping its wings from a mile away. Navy jets on maneuvers of China Lake Naval Base used to swoop down to a hundred yards above the ground south of the dunes before almost all of the Panamint Valley was added to the national park.
*MOSIAC CANYON — A short drive from Stovepipe it is an 1 to 2 mile one-way walk up a polished marble canyon with the length depending on how comfortable you are with slick rock scrambling. A dry fall stops your progress some 2 miles in. It can by bypassed if that is your forte although the bypass is a bit tricky to find.
*FALL CANYON — The most noted of all canyons in Death Valley due to its stunning narrows and relative ease of access. At three miles a dry blocks your progress. It can by bypassed if you are a seasoned scrambler by doubling back. If you haven’t done bypass scrambling before, don’t do it. It is a lot easier to get up than down.
*TITUS CANYON ROAD — A 26-mile one way road requiring high clearance 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive. There are some sketchy parts with steep grades and heart-stopping drop-offs coupled with loose gravel. This takes you to several good hiking starting points as well as past the mining town of Leadfield before you start descending down Titus Canyon where you can see how the forces of nature molded the earth.
*UBEHEBE CRATER — A one mile waling loop to the meteor created crater. You can take a strenuous quarter mile hike down 500 feet into the crater’s floor.
*WILDROSE PEAK — Although Telescope Peak is the tallest, snow this time of year makes Wildrose Peak — an 8.4 mile roundtrip to 9,064 feet — more doable. There are spectacular views at the football field sized summit including Mt. Whitney and the Sierra to the east. You start at the Charcoal Kilns. Miners built them from stone to create charcoal from trees that they in turned used in the process to separate ore from rock.
*DARWIN FALLS — After you drive down a 2.5 mile dirt road. it’s a little over a mile hike to see a desert oasis.
*GOLDEN CANYON TRAIL: The colorful badlands connects to Zabriske Point for a six mile round trip or you can keep it at two miles and stay in the Golden Canyon area and take in Red Cathedral as well.
*BADWATER: This is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere (actually several miles to the west at 282 feet below sea level. Some 24 miles away is Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. Hikers that go between the two points cover the quickest gain of elevation in terms of distance anywhere in North America.
*DANTE’S VIEW: At 5,476 feet Dante’s View is on the north side of Coffin Peak in the Funeral Mountains more than a mile almost straight above the Badwater parking lot. You can drive to the top but not the last quarter mile if you have an RV. The grade exceeds 17 percent as my quads remind me the last time I bicycled it. The top can get a bit windy. In fact a glass observation building built there in the 1920s for tourists didn’t last long.
ARTIST’S DRIVE: A one-way drive to Artist’s Palette with its rainbow of rock colors.
RHOLTYE: Just east of Death Valley, this ghost town is impressive given the railroad station built more than 100 years ago cost over $1 million back then. There were numerus banks and newspapers as well. Its biggest attraction today is arguably the house built from beer bottles.
Scotty’s Castle is still undergoing renovations after a flash flood send a wall of four feet of mud down Grapevine Canyon in the fall of 2015. When it reopens, the winter ranch of a Chicago insurance tycoon that was built in the early 20th century is well worth the time to see.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of popular spots. The great thing about Death Valley are the endless spots you can explore that are off the beaten path.
Just a couple of things to keep in mind. Don’t rely on global positioning systems in Death Valley. Take plenty of water with you. Tell people where you are going and check in with them when you get back. And — most important of all — even though it can be a harsh environment it is fragile and has been millions of years in the making. There is literally no other place like it in earth and it is less than an eight hour drive from the 209.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org