A short trip to Death Valley - Tobias Höllrich (thoellri@adobe.com) - July 2001

I would have gone to work, but Adobe Systems decided to give me (and the rest of its employees) a break and shutdown operations for the week of July 4th. What was I supposed to do? Sit at home and go through the DVD library for the 10th time? Secretly dial in to work and actually finish some of the stuff I was supposed to have done a long time ago? Go over to AMC 20 every day and watch the latest movies? Perhaps even clean up the stack of mail at home? No, no - that's not the way I wanted to spend my time off. I needed something deeper, more meaningful, more interesting. And it came a lot deeper - lower, to be precise. I decided to disappear for a few days and visit the lowest point of the US - Death Valley.

On July 1st I rented a 4x4 at San Jose airport. The lady at the car rental counter was friendly enough to ask me what color for the Ford Escape I wanted. I said "What colors are available?" and she responds "A yellow one, a yellow one or a yellow one". I said: "Well, I think I take the yellow one then". So at lunch time on Sunday the two of us (the canary 4x4 and myself) left for Death Valley. Mapquest had told me that it would take me 10 hours to get there. If everything would have gone as planned it would have brought me into my hotel in Death Valley at around 11:00pm. But nothing ever goes as planned.

For those geographically challenged readers, the map below will help you to orient yourself, as we take a trip across California to the Nevada border.

As I mentioned earlier things did not run as smooth as expected and I soon ended up in a standstill traffic jam on I-5 way before the exit that I had planned to take. Consulting the maps I had with me I decided to take a "shortcut" and follow the route via 155, past Lake Isabella through the Sequoia National Forest.

Past Hanford 155 turns into a beautiful road leading you up into the mountains through rolling hills, farmland and picturesque bolder formations next to the road. It's also a small winding road which makes it extremely difficult to pass this truck driving right in front of your face doing 5 miles an hour. Hey trucker, thanks for pulling over after I followed you for 8 miles!

Now, if you ever happen to be in the area and you're tempted to test the capacity of your cars fuel tank, don't trust the size of a place called "Woody" (yes, it's really called Woody) on the map. It's not as big as it appears to be and you will not, I repeat, you will NOT find a gas station there. I saw myself already sleeping in the car and hiking down to civilization the next morning for some gas after I found out that the next gas station was 30 miles from this place. There is one department store in this place and the owner was friendly enough to tell me about "Chuck" who stashes away a few extra gallons whenever he goes filling up his truck. "Just follow this road and after the bridge make a left turn and look for Chuck - he can help you with a few gallons".

Surprised by the extreme friendliness of the old lady I decided to shop big time in her store (1 Diet Coke) and then look for Chuck. I found him where the lady had described him to be. Chuck was an older "cowboy" with a face that had marks from hundreds of years of sunshine. For his age he wore way too tight Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. However he had gas and he had lots of it. He told me how so many stupid tourists think they can find a gas station in Woody and how he started bringing 10 gallon canisters with him whenever he went to fill up. Most surprisingly he charged me less than a gas station in the Silicon Valley. If it was not so far off the beaten track I would consider always filling up with him. And Chuck, if you ever read this page - thanks again!

So I go on leaving Sequoia National Forest, past Lake Isabella (which looks a lot like a "Lake Tahoe" and may be worth a trip in the future) into hotter areas. I hit 178 and take it way east towards Ridgecrest and north again until I hit 190. It's pretty late already and there is almost no traffic. Road signs show clear evidence of gun abuse and when I turn down the car radio I can hear coyotes howling in the distance - I'm very relaxed.

After a few more hours I finally reach my destination. I check into the Furnace Creek Ranch (not the Furnace Creek Inn, which looks a lot nicer and a lot more expensive) at around 10:30pm. Not too bad given the Chuck-break and the time wasted in traffic on I-5.

I call home to let them know I arrived safe and enjoy the buzzing sound of the air condition which manages to generate a nice coolness in the room, as opposed to the 85 degrees outside. 85 degrees at 10:30pm? Hmmm, wonder how hot it gets here during the day. I retire early as I want to capture the sunrise the next morning.

You have to know that one of the reasons I decided to go to the Death Valley was for photography. You also have to know that there are really only a two "windows" during the day when you can take pictures. Those windows are early in the morning and just around sunset. During the day the sun washes out all the colors and creates a nasty haze which makes most pictures look either very harsh or extremely dull. Things are supposed to be different in the winter time, but it's summer time.

4:00am wakeup call, wash up, grab the camera gear, leave the room, bang - I get slapped in the face by the heat and immediately start sweating. Smart as I am (thanks Candice!) I brought lots of water supply which turned out to be a really smart idea. I move the canary south a few miles until I hit Zabriskie Point. Again, I'm all by myself and I notice something really weird: There is no noise at all. It's absolutely quiet. No noise from the wind, no crickets, no traffic noise. Nothing at all - wow (of course this will change dramatically as a group of 3 French tourists arrive at the same spot 45 minutes later). For now I have Zabriskie Point all for myself and I wait for the sun to do it's magic on the mountain range in the distance.

And the sun does it's magic. It's absolutely stunning to see the area awake. What appears to be blue and gray and sandy in the twilight of the morning, turns into a colorful display of reds and all shades of brown. I take a lot of pictures and enjoy the landscape around me until the French group arrives. After that I decide to retreat and move on to a different. It was just getting too loud.

I take the car further south and hit "Twenty Mule Team Canyon" soon after Zabriskie Point. It's a one-way dirt road and I decide to take it. Soon I see the first man-sized holes in the rock, old gold mines that were dug a long time ago. Warning sings at the entrance of the mines tell you that it is not a good idea to enter these mines. Toxic gases, old dynamite, rotten ladders can really ruin your day. I get out of the car and walk around in the Canyon. It's only 6:00am, but it must be close to 90 degrees already and I finished the first half gallon of water a few minutes ago.

I can feel the rock and sand heating up in the morning sun and reflecting the heat. In a few hours this place will be an oven.

I peek into some of the mine entries. It's tempting to explore the mines a bit deeper, but then who would be so stupid to enter them without a flashlight. I decided to not "ruin my day" and turn around after a few feet into the mines.

The sun is a lot higher already and my soaked t-shirt tells me that I certainly have enough fluids in my body. Still, I'm drinking almost constantly (water!) to avoid dehydration.

My shadow against some sandy hills offers a nice opportunity for a self-portrait.

After exiting the "Twenty Mule Team Canyon" I continue on to the south and soon hit the road that brings me towards "Dantes Peak". On Dantes Peak one gets an incredible view of the whole Death Valley. You can see Telescope Peak (11,049 ft) to the west and Badwater (-282 ft) below you. Again, no tourists, nobody else - I'm all by myself enjoying the view. On a rock close to the parking lot on the top I setup the tripod and shoot twelve pictures for a panorama. Of course I'm not careful, leave the circular polarizer on the lens and thus get different colors in the sky as I try to cover 200 degrees of view (you can see that the left side of the panorama shows a darker, more saturated sky, while the right side seems to be more bright and washed out).

After Dantes Peak I decide to fill up my empty stomach and silence my brains constant scream for some caffeine. I return to the Furnace Creek Ranch to have some breakfast. It's 9:00am and most of the "tourists" are having breakfast as well. While I'm waiting to be seated I cannot overhear a conversation in front of me in the queue. The conversation happens to be in German. A family with 4 kids is waiting for a table for breakfast. You pay for the breakfast buffet (9.95 US$) as you enter the place. Let's see: 2 adults and 4 kids = 6 people times 9.95 US$ = around 60.- US$. The dad pays and starts talking to his wife "150.- german marks for breakfast????" he says. Knowing the salaries in Germany, I know that this is pretty steep for the family with 4 kids and I wonder why they decided to come to the States when the exchange rate is far from being optimal for Germans. To give you an impression about how much he paid for breakfast: Image going to Germany and paying 350.- US$ for you and your 4 kids :-)

After breakfast there are two options: 1) go back to the room, wash up, have a nap, then go to the pool and spend the rest of the day close to cool water 2) get out there and see something while you're in the area. While Candice suggested I should consider option 1 (because I'm not too good at handling temperatures above 100 degrees), I decided to go for option 2. Water bottles refilled, camera dusted and we are ready to go again.

This time I go to the north on 190 from Furnace Creek Ranch and soon hit the Beatty Cutoff and turn right towards the Keane Wonder Mill and the Keane Wonder Mine (click on the links if you want to find out more). I get out of the car which appears to be a really bad idea as the temperature has hit 105 since I left the Ranch. I get the Sauna feeling. Lots of old structures, even more rusted metal and 100 year old wood are in the area. I see some mine like holes in the distance and decide to give them a closer inspection. They just turn out to be tunnels which may have been used for mining purposes. It's amazing how much "old" stuff there still is. It looks like people only left the place a few years ago. One is tempted to pickup the rusted cans and smell to identify whatever they held.

An old water pipe leading down from the Keane Wonder Mill grabs my attention. It seems to go nowhere the way I captured it on the picture on the right. In fact it ran over the ledge and then continued downhill until it ended at a water container at the bottom of the hill.

I get back on the road and continue on the Beatty Cutoff towards Hells Gate. No cars around. I stop the 4x4 on the side of the road, take the camera and lie in the middle of street to get the shot below. Yes, I checked for other cars, what do you think I'm stupid? Or what?

The road merges with 374 and brings me in north-eastern direction towards the Nevada border. Before I the mountains at Daylight Pass, I see a sign on the right hand side of the road that points toward nowhere. The sign has a symbolic jeep on it which makes it obvious that only "tough" guys are allowed beyond this point. I consult the map which I received at the Death Valley visitor center and yes! , I hit the jackpot: the map shows that I can go on a U-shaped trip into the desert and then merge back with 374 a few miles later across the Nevada border. Awesome, finally I can take the canary 4x4 for a spin. The map also says that you're not supposed to take the off-road without an off-road car. Sounds even more promising. It's about lunch-time and of course I have no food with me, but enough water. I look at the map again and calculate that I'll be back on the main road in about an hour.

One hour later I'm nowhere near 374. I think I only managed to complete a third of the "U", which means I probably have another 2 hours to go. I'm crawling over rocks and through the deepest potholes I've ever seen. The recommendation to have a 4x4 when entering this dirt road now appears like a sarcastic joke of the person who created the map.

I don't feel like taking pictures. It's hot. I'm running low on water and I'm beginning to hate the decision I made when I turned off the paved road.

Finally after 1.5 hours the road turns into a "normal" dirt road with potholes only as deep as a small poodle. I rest for a while next to the parked car and take a panorama picture of the Nevada Amargosa mountain range in the distance. Then I suddenly realize that I haven't seen a living thing since I turned off 374. No cars, no animals, no nothing. The cell phone doesn't get a signal here in the desert, which means I'm stranded in case the car breaks down. Oh well, I will think about it when it happens.

I continue on an awfully long, straight stretch of dirt road towards 374. It's absolutely straight and allows for "driving blind" practice. The idea: On a straight road, if you keep your car straight, you will drive straight. Now close your eyes and see how long you dare to keep them closed while your car is driving straight. Don't try this in the city. You can tell I was bored then.

The road is rippled. Why do dirt roads turn into rippled dirt roads after a while? You know those ripples that are really, really hard to drive on? You can go 5 miles an hour and the ripples won't affect, but you don't get anywhere. You can go between 15-30 miles an hour and hear the car around you complaining very loudly about the fact that you dare to drive that fast over ripples. Or you can do what real men do: drive 50 miles an hour and basically jump from ripple peak to ripple peak and the rippled dirt road suddenly feels like a paved road. The later technique should only be used when you're absolutely sure that there are no big boulders or bumps on the road ahead. I vary techniques to keep it interesting.

Finally after three hours I hit 374 again and see a "Welcome to Nevada" sign. Thank you, thank you - I made it. If I would have taken 374 over the pass I would have been here about 2 hours and 40 minutes ago. Oh well, I'm in no rush.

374 leads toward the metropolitan area of Beatty. The city is bustling. I think I see a total of five people on the street as I go for a quick drive through there. However, they do have two eager police officers sitting in their patrol cars at the city entrance, where the speed limit has conveniently been dropped to 25 mph. Both of them wait for fresh tourist-food coming over from the Death Valley to visit Beatty - like a couple of spiders they wait for Chevrolet Corsicas to pass by doing more than 28 mph. The whole visit to Beatty doesn't last longer than 2 minutes and I'm back on 374 going towards Death Valley again.

One of the main reasons to drive into Nevada, was to visit the Rhyolite ghost town. "Ghost Town" I read on the map - ah, that sounds interesting. You know those ghost towns you see in the movies. Still perfectly intact, but simply without people. I see myself going to the saloon and checking out the long wooden bar with some bottles still on the shelves. Ah, can't wait to get there.

Hello? That's it? I have to admit I'm a bit disappointed as I drive through the remains of the ghost town. Buildings are not intact (what did I expect after 100 years?) - there is no saloon, at least not one I could look at from the inside. So I walk around the ruins of the old buildings, visit the cemetery, the jail and some other places. An old Union Pacific train car grabs my attention and I take a few pictures of it and the ruins around it.

The second reason I took 374 to Nevada was the one-way 4x4 entry to Titus Canyon, which happens to be just across the border in Nevada. A dirt road (once again) takes you from 374, across "Red Pass", Leadfield ghost town into Titus Canyon.

This is certainly the highlight of the day and is highly recommended for visitors to the Death Valley. The road takes you slowly up to the Red Pass where you have a gorgeous view of the mountain ranges on the Nevada and the California side. It then drops you down into Titus Canyon, passing several old mines and the ghost town of Leadfield. The Titus Canyon road snakes though massive rock formations to the left and to the right. You pass some Petroglyphs and washed out river beds. The road gets narrower and narrower as you approach the mouth of the canyon and finally offers a spectacular view at the end of the Canyon into the Death Valley.

Halfway between the 374 turnoff and the mouth of the Canyon you will pass by some old mines and the ghost town of Leadfield. This time I'm a bit more adventurous and I go deeper into one of the mine shafts. It's an eerie feeling not knowing what to expect in there. I took my flashlight and at least I can see where I'm going. After penetrating the mine for about 150 feet, I decide to turn around, because it's just getting too dark around me and I don't want to be stuck in there. I take a few pictures of the mine and make the fatal mistake of using the cameras flash. It seems that there were a few bats at the mines ceiling and they certainly don't like to be woken up in the middle of the day by the light of the flash. They let me know about this by flying a few inches over my head, which in turn causes my pulse and adrenaline level to rise significantly. It takes a lot less time to get back to the entrance of the mine than it took me to get in there - wonder why?!?!

Leadfield is not at all spectacular. A few old buildings (including the Post Office) can be seen. Lots of rusted cans and metal is spread out all over the area. The picture below "Leadfield Ghost Town view" was taken from the inside of one of the structures.

Further down in the Titus Canyon you will find a number of Petroglyphs on the huge boulders left and right of the road. It's fascinating to see those old signs on the rocks. A nearby sign says that nobody is really sure what those marks really mean.

I am tired and exhausted from the long trip through the canyon. My stomach tells me that it is time for a break and I drive to Stovepipe Wells Village to fill up on gas and food. It just feels great to be back on a paved road and to be able to do more than 20 mph. After filling up the car and filling up the belly, I drive back to the sand dunes just outside of Stovepipe Wells Village.

Various trip reports from the Death Valley talk about the sand dunes and the excellent views one can get there. Unfortunately these reports also mention that one should take pictures in the early morning and close to sunset. It's 5:00pm and probably another 2-3 hours before the sun sets. I don't want to wait around for that long and get out of the car to take some pictures now. Bad idea, really bad idea. The sun gets reflected from the sand and turns the dunes into an oven. I think it must be close to 130 degrees as I walk into the dunes. Sand, dried salt, dead tree trunks and dried out bushes are all over the place. It is really pretty, but I can't appreciate the view at this point. It's just too damned hot here.

After snapping some photographs I rush back to the car. The black camera body is heated up to the temperature of the environment and I'm beginning to wonder whether I will hear the IBM microdrive die during this trip. The camera is actually so hot that it hurts holding it in my hands. I arrive back at the car, start the engine and crank up the air-condition. Some other tourists at the scene watched me as I came out of the sand dunes and I guess they assume it's safe to go for a walk in there. I'm happy as I see the Japanese guy turning around after spending only a minute in the scorching heat. Hehe, I lasted a lot longer ...

I call it a day and return to the Furnace Creek Ranch. For the next day I have again plans to get up early. A nice dinner (they do have some excellent steaks at the Furnace Creek Ranch) with some cold beer makes my body heavy enough to fall asleep immediately upon return to my hotel room.

4:00am on July 3rd I get my wakeup call. It's hot again. Luckily it's also cloudy today. After washing up and packing my gear I head out in southern direction. This time I go to Badlands. The lowest point the continental US (282 feet below sea level). It's still dark. I setup my tripod next to the salt water pond at Badlands and wait for the desert to wake up around me.

The salt is making some cracking noises and walking on it feels like walking on snow. The rising sun slowly starts to illuminate the sky and I see shades of dark blue turning into shades of light blue.The cloudy sky is a welcome change from the clear blue sky the day before. In the distant I can see rainclouds and it's obviously raining over there. However, as I was told by Furnace Creek Ranch staff, the rain does not hit the ground. It simply evaporates on it's way down from the clouds.

I take a few pictures as the sun starts hitting the mountains in the distance. After about 1 hour I go back to the car and take more photos at the little salt water pond. The reflection of the mountains kissed by sunshine makes for some nice images. There is no wind to cause ripples on the surface of the salt water pond. It's perfectly flat, almost like a mirror

On my way back from Badlands I stop at the "Devils Golf Course". Thousands and thousands of salt-crusted dirt piles as far as you can see. It really is an incredible view. A sign next to the parking area warns people, not to climb over the "rocks". Too many people had accidents here and fell on the rocks or broke their ankles when feet got stuck under the rocks.

On my way out from the Badlands back in northern direction I take "Artists drive". This loop is famous for the coloration of the rocks and the sand on the drive. After just a few minutes on the "Artists drive", I pass the "Artists palette". Different minerals in the sand/stone make different colors appear. I can see greens, reds, browns and even slight blues. Especially in the morning sun the different colors look amazing. I hope my camera can catch the colors the way they are. It looks like somebody emptied buckets with paint on the rocks.

After going though the "Artists drive" I go back to the Furnace Creek Ranch, have my breakfast and check out. I promised to be back home on the 4th of July, so I got to leave otherwise I won't be able to get there on time. I still haven't decided how I want to go back to the Bay Area. Only thing I know: I want to see Ubehebe crater and the Eureka Dunes. The map says I have to cross the Death Valley and leave to the North. So after checking out I go North past Scotty's Castle (which I did not see this trip) and drive up to Ubehebe Crater.

The crater was formed by a volcano which must have erupted with tremendous force a few years ago. Well, actually, it looks like it happened more than a few years ago. It's incredibly windy up there and my attempt to walk on the rim of the crater is stopped by really strong gusts. I decide to go back to the car and not risk getting blown into the crater. Beside it being difficult to walk, I also hate all the sand around me and I can see already that my camera will need an extra cleaning job tonight.

I take the road to the north of the crater which will bring me via Crankshaft Junction out of the Death Valley in north western direction. This is one long stretch of a dirt road. Not as bad as the roads I've seen in the last two days, but still pretty bouncy. The road brings me slowly up into to the pass and I can tell that the vegetation around me changes already. There are actually plants around me and they don't look all dried out. The picture on the right was taken right at Crankshaft Junction looking backward towards the main valley. The Ubehebe crater would be slightly to the right towards the end of the road in the distance.

The drive up to the pass is again a challenge for the vehicle and the driver. You get some stunning views on the way up to the top. Several times I stop to enjoy the view into the Valley and the mountains in the distance (with "Last Chance Mountain" at 8500 ft being one of the more impressive ones).

Once I arrive at the top of the I'm surprised to find an old mine up there which seems to have been abandoned a long time ago. It's an interesting area, because there dozens of little roads leading from the main road into nowhere. I decide to follow one of them, even though a sign tells me that the owners (some Crater Mumble Group) cannot be held responsible for any accidents when taking the road. The road leads through several canyons and gets narrower and narrower. It's obvious that no car has been here in a while, because plants grow all over the road and there are no signs of car tires anywhere. After 30 minutes with no end in sight and the road being so narrow that the car brushes the bushes on the left and right constantly, I decide to turn around and go back to the main road. I'm still curious what I would have found at the end of the road. Oh well, next time.

Finally back on the main road I hit a section that is actually paved! The car screams in joy and decides to enjoy the pleasure at 80 mph. Only for a short time. Soon after arriving in the Eureka Valley the road turns again into a dirt road.

The last Death Valley stop for today are the Eureka Dunes. The moment I arrive at the bottom of the pass in the Eureka Valley, I can see them already in the distance. Compared to the Dunes in the Death Valley (those close to Stovepipe Wells) the Eureka Dunes look much more impressive. They are also a lot higher. They almost look like white mountains in the distance.

When I finally get there after driving to a Mars landscape, the Dunes are really mountainous. A sign at the bottom of the Dunes tells you about a singing noise the sand will make at the top of the dunes. It is caused by millions of sand corns rubbing against each other. The sign claims on a hot day you would be able to hear the noise at the top of the dunes. After walking a few hundred feet into the Dunes I decide it's way too hot to make it up to the top. And what if there is no sand-singing-performance today? So I scratch the idea to walk for 1 hour in deep, deep sand to the top and get back into my car after just spending 20 minutes in the mid-day heat. Another place I want to come back to again when temperatures are more moderate.

That concludes my short trip into the Death Valley. The rest of the day is spent driving back towards the Bay Area. I hit Mono Lake and spend 20 dollars to drive through Yosemite Park (of course it has to rain when I'm there). Leave Yosemite in western direction and decide to rest for the night in the lovely little town of Mariposa. I take the last picture for the day on my way into Mariposa.

The next day I'm back in the crazy Silicon Valley where I drop of the rental car at the Airport - 1500 miles later.

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