Immediately after Thanksgiving dinner I wrote up one of my favorite posts yet, called “Taking an Inventory“, which you should check out before continuing through this one. I was forced to race through the post because I had to meet up with Sean in Santa Monica by a reasonable hour so we could get to Death Valley at a reasonable time the next morning. By reasonable hour and reasonable time, what I really mean is entirely unreasonable, on both counts.
After putting the finishing touches on my post and getting all my gear stowed in the trusty Civic, I finally left Irvine around 11pm. “Great”, I thought to myself, “I can hardly keep my eyes open and we’re about to drive 300 miles through the barren desert, in the middle of the night, on the worst driving day of the year. And all to reach a destination aptly named ‘Death Valley’. What the hell am I doing?”
But it was too late to turn back now. I ignored my better judgment, turned up the DJ Tiesto, and sped off to Santa Monica, where Sean’s house is conveniently located in the complete opposite direction of Death Valley, about 45 minutes entirely the wrong way. For such a long drive though (6 hours each way) the slight detour was entirely worth it. And Sean is no slouch, unlike some of our other travel companions. By the time I arrived at his house he was ready to rock and roll.
The drive out was mostly uneventful other than the occasional coyote sighting, a quick stop in Mojave (a far more depressing town than the desert bearing the same name), and the multiple times that we caught each other nodding off at the wheel. In fact, by far the most exciting moments were the getting lost parts (thanks Google maps!) and the minor annoyance that my phone couldn’t place us anywhere closer than “Within 8000 meters”, or the equivalent of 5 miles, of our actual location (nice touch Verizon!). We had to re-route no less than 5 times, but thankfully there are plenty of different ways to get to Death Valley National Park from Southern California. They even make the odd boast that they house “more roads than any other national park.”
Along the way, we each consumed an entire bag of food ending in “tos” (Cheetos & Fritos for the uninitiated), shared more than a few “I think we’re going the right way”s, and enjoyed some pretty damn impressive star gazing. Sean even tested out stealth mode on his car, driving without any lights on in the middle of nowhere- an experience I don’t necessarily want to ever repeat.
We finally saw our first “Death Valley” sign around 5:30 in the morning after entering the official Western boundary of the National Park. Some hair-raising, cliff-hugging, speed-racer style driving got us to Stovepipe Wells in a jiffy, where we found ourselves at a relatively crowded and not-so reasonably priced campground ($12), considering we only had about an hours-worth of good darkness left for sleeping.
We coasted to a stop in the parking lot between the campground and general store, resigning ourselves to sleeping in the car, which as usual, was not so much fun. We didn’t have a whole lot of options though, since we wanted to talk with the Rangers as soon as they arrived for duty at 8:00 am. Showing up at 6:00 didn’t leave us enough time to squeeze in any kind of real exploration or adventure, and we had no idea what there was to see in Death Valley anyway. We hadn’t done any research whatsoever.
Our first run-in with the Death Valley Rangers (which provided some of the most interesting experiences of the trip) was both quite profitable and highly amusing, especially because our informant seemed to be the crack-smokingest human being on the planet! Without exaggerating a bit, this man was capable of fitting something like 10 sentences into the time, space, and breath that your average human typically uses for just 1 or 2. Think of the Micromachines commercials guy and multiply him by two.
Ranger Methamphetamine gave us some great advice on how to spend our time in the Park, providing us with a couple of excellent maps for the occasion, which alone were entirely worth the $20 entrance fee. We used both maps extensively, though I think I preferred the Death Valley Backcountry Roads Map to the regular Visitor Map. And for those of you with 4x4s, high-clearance vehicles- or more cajones than brains- you’ll definitely want to grab a copy of it.
In typical Tim & Sean form, we had planned absolutely nothing in terms of an agenda, other than the general destination and estimated time of arrival. As I learned on last month’s road-trip through Arizona and Utah [insert link here], flying by the seat of your pants is far more exciting and typically just as productive. Both of us have trouble with sticking to plans anyway, so why set ourselves up for failure – right?
To let you in on a little secret, Park Rangers really do deserve their minimum wage salaries (I kid!) because they actually know what the hell they’re talking about, unlike a lot of the people on sites like Virtual Tourist. I’ve found them to be the absolute best source of useful information on each destination I’ve seen in the past year. They’re the eyes and ears on the ground, and they know every little nook and cranny of the Parks that they protect. If I hadn’t talked to them at each of the major destinations I visited, I would have missed out on quite a few of my favorite spots
And Ranger Meth was no exception – in fact he was my favorite type of Ranger – knowledgeable, friendly, and outright hilarious. He let us know that our outlandish plan to “backpack Death Valley” was an actual possibility, due to certain rules like “You can camp anywhere as long as you’re at least 2 miles from a road”. Well – at least that’s what we thought he had said. It’s just too bad that it’s not the truth, as we would later come to find out. (And for the record, he did tell us the real rules, we simply heard what we wanted to hear).
The first stop on our shiny new, Ranger-informed agenda was to head down tourist row (South Western Death Valley) where we’d be able to see all the sites “from the post cards”. A few minutes later we were standing at Zabriskie Point which fellow Pink Floyd fans should recognize, looking out over a magnificent view. I managed to waste it by leaving my circular polarizer in the car, so these shots didn’t turn out nearly as nice as they could have, but I’m still relatively happy with them as is, and I learned a valuable lesson in the process.After shooting the scenery, digging the desert vibe, and taking some Chinese teeny-bopper-style photos of ourselves jumping in the air, we were back in the car and speeding off toward the next destination. And what a destination it was. Dantes View is what they call it, and it’s absolutely incredible!
Sean accidentally came up with a much more motif-appropriate name for the place though, calling it “Devil’s View” both as an homage to The Inferno (I actually made that part up while writing this) and for theme unity with the whole “This place will kill you” meme established by “Death Valley”. Whatever it’s name the view from the top is just magnificent.
And it’s also quite famous, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. The shot below is nearly identical to a scene from the original Star Wars, when Obi Wan and Luke are looking down over Mos Eisley Spaceport from the surrounding mountains.Neither of us were expecting much from Dantes View, but I’m damn glad we took the chance to visit! And if I’m being honest, I also had no idea that Death Valley was so damn big until we got up there. The perspective from Dantes (at 5,475 feet above sea level) afforded us a perspective on the scope and size of the Park, especially since most of the Valley floor lies right around sea level.
For those of you not paying attention, that’s a 5,000+ foot elevation differential. And even though the pictures don’t really do it any justice, this place is huge, and I mean absolutely massive. It’s hard to explain the sheer size, scope, and desolation that Death Valley inspires, but it delivers on all three counts in a major way.
And when it all boils down to it, Death Valley itself couldn’t have been given a better name. Not that it’s a literal valley full of death (in fact I don’t remember seeing anything dead at all), but that it contains so little life. As far as I could tell, there’s pretty much nothing but ants and shrubs out there. We heard no coyotes, saw just a couple birds, found very little sign (animal droppings), and heard absolutely no noise other than that which we created.
And I really mean that last part about the noise too. It’s not like there was “just a little bit of noise” or even “some quiet sounds”. There was nosound whatsoever! Nothing. Not an insect’s chirp, a frog’s croak, nor a coyote’s howl. All I heard was the sound of the wind-blown dust and sand, of which there was plenty (as my sleeping bag, tent, and camera gear can attest to).
After Dantes we came back West and even further South toward some of Death Valley’s really unique natural wonders. It was here that we saw some things which, to me at least, make Death Valley entirely worth visiting. This place is a must-see destination. It is absolutely out of this world. And the best time to be there is right now.
Next up on our tour was the Devil’s Golf Course, probably the weakest of the major Death Valley destinations, yet still one that really shouldn’t be skipped. It’s a gigantic Salt Pan, and one that given a perfectly appropriate name in terms of both theme-cohesion (“Devil’s”) and appropriateness of description (“Worst Golf Course Ever”). Apparently it derives from an old National Park Service guide book stating that “only the devil could play golf” on its surface. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to try.The place may also be bad luck, considering that both Sean and I experienced major camera failures there. Looking back on it though, I think we were both just underwhelmed by this location- partially because Zabriskie Point andDantes View were so incredible, and also because our cameras stopped working.
We only lingered here for about 10 minutes before racing off to the infinitely more spectacular Badwater Basin, which was far more impressive and exciting. I snapped one of my favorite shots of the trip just as we arrived, catching a pretty reflection of the sky in the only pool of water I saw during the entire trip.Arriving at Badwater Basin, also known as the point of lowest elevation in the entire United States at -282 feet below sea level (yes, that’s a negative), I totally thought we were in for another major let down. We were debating whether or not we should even walk out into the area, but since we had nowhere else to be, and nothing better to do, we kept exploring. Much like the rest of the Park, Badwater Basin turned out to be chock full of surprises!
We followed behind a snaking line of tourists on a well-traveled path that soon gave way to some of the most interesting scenery of the entire trip. I was just blown away by the cavalcade of increasingly intricate crystalline structures strewn about the valley floor. I got some of my favorite shots here, and would suggest that this spot is a definite must-see as part of any trip to Death Valley. Just make sure to walk out far enough into it though, otherwise you’ll be likely to leave severely disappointed.
The entire Basin is covered with a variety of salt-crystal structures, looking something like a massive natural kaleidoscope. I won’t try to describe it in words beyond that attempt, except to say that it was absolutely mind-blowing. The formations were so detailed, so delicate, and so different from anything that I’ve ever seen before that I was filled with awe, amazement, and wonder that something like this could even exist. The world truly is an incredible place, and the Badwater Basin is a perfect example of its awesomeness.
Sean remarked that “Man could never create something like this, no matter how hard he tried”, and he was dead on. The entire area was absolutely fantastic. I was so taken by the Basin that I plan on returning with my tripod for a full on photo shoot. I’d just love to see the long shadows on this terrain, and the prospect of catching a gorgeous sunrise or sunset here has got me chomping at the bit to return.
We spent quite a while at Badwater Basin, only leaving after we’d become distinctly aware of the rapidly setting sun. We had a long drive ahead of us- down past Ashford Canyon, just about 25 miles South of Badwater Basin. We had planned on hiking in “two miles from the nearest road” to set up a back-country camp for the night. We had been told about a secret parking lot down there which “someone” (the exact word used by the Ranger) had “blocked off with rocks”.
With a wry grin, he suggested that we simply “move the rocks and park in the dirt lot”. We were then supposed to hike the requisite two miles West where we could then legally camp near the base of the foothills bordering the edge of the park. We managed to find the parking lot without any trouble, but the impending darkness looked to be an entirely different issue. We started to worry a bit about just how little time we appeared to actually have before total darkness.
Fortunately, “2 miles” from the nearest road becomes a subjective measure when hiking through Death Valley in fading light, 50 miles from the nearest Ranger Station, and at least a mile from the closest human being. Accordingly, we made it to camp substantially faster than we had thought it would take us. We also managed to catch a pretty awesome sunset along the way.
Home for the night turned out to be a small rise in the center of a massive wash, way out in the middle of nowhere and about 200 yards from a large patch of low-growing shrubs. I had wanted to set up camp amongst those shrubs, but Sean vetoed the idea due to irrational concerns over catching the Hantavirus. To his credit, our site provided excellent views of the entire valley floor, and we had both expected it to offer at least a modicum of protection from the wind, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Once Sean got over the Hantavirus obsession, we broke the rules to collect a little dead wood for a fire that turned out to be the smallest, yet most awesome I’ve ever had the opportunity to enjoy. We were both blown away by its ability to keep us warm, even though it was so small. It seemed to be just the right size, and even seemed like it could last all night since it took so little fuel to keep going. It’s warmth and glow kept us quite comfortable for a couple of hours, lulling us into a false sense of security.
After hours of total stillness, the desert unleashed a furious barrage of wind attacks which caught us entirely by surprise. Our previously cozy and perfectly controlled little fire transported itself from a comfortable position at my feet to a much less convenient one directly on the side of my tent. Literally. And my tent is by no means fireproof- its materials aren’t even “flame resistant”!
It was at this point that I started to feel a bit panicky, having convinced myself that I was under attack by some sort of supernatural force- like one of Don Juan’s “inorganic beings”. Thankfully, Sean had not flipped his own lid and was perfectly capable of springing into action. He quickly put out the fire with some dirt, then deftly maneuvered my tent so that it was better positioned to deal with the oncoming wind gusts.
Just as we finished moving the tent, my flashlight crapped out completely, and I was left with pitch blackness. I immediately jumped into my tent, beginning what would become a night-long vigil as I listened to something patrolling around outside, patiently waiting for me to emerge so it could attack. I felt certain that stepping outside would have resulted in my being torn to shreds by whatever force was prowling around out there. I didn’t get a lot of good sleep that night, but I certainly had myself one hell of an interesting time.
We finally got up the next morning around 10 or 11, far later than we had planned. After spotting a super-sized storm building up directly over our location, we quickly got to packing up. Our idea was to head back North to Stove Pipe Wells, stopping to check out the few remaining post-card destinations along the way, then backpacking out onto the famous Mesquite Sand Dunes for the night. But Nature had other ideas in store for us.
On the way to our next stop, I had an interesting thought, which was that on this particular trip I seemed to be playing the part of the Lawyer from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sharing my observation with Sean, he responded “Does that mean I get to be Johnny Depp?” Priceless.
Our entire day was pretty much ruined by severe cloud cover and an impending downpour, complete with sporadic drizzle, and absolutely horrendous light for Photographic pursuits. We had gotten up so late that we even had to skip a couple sights too, among them the Natural Bridge, which I now deeply regret. We also mistakenly thought that the Artist’s Drive & Palette would be worth visiting, but the light was so poor that most of the colors on the canyon walls were hardly discernible, and even in great lighting, I’m not so sure that this place would have been all that exciting anyway. So it goes!
The Artist’s Drive, however, does house a famous spot called “Artoos Arroyo” which sort of salvaged the day for me. I didn’t realize it while we were out there, but I took another shot nearly identical to that framed in Star Wars, which is actually pretty cool. I guess I also got a decent shot of Sean driving, in which you can see the clouds building up through the windshield. I also like the cliched self-portrait that I took, but I’m really not all that proud of any of the photos that I shot that day. It’s unfortunate, because Death Valley is so spectacularly beautiful, that even a single day lost is a major waste.
I do think that the Artist’s Drive might have been a sight worth visiting if the lighting had been better, or if I hadn’t already been spoiled by the Red Rocks in Sedona, the hoodus of Bryce Canyon, and the gigantic scale of the Grand Canyon, all of which I’d visited just weeks beforehand. To be fair- I’ve seen some pretty amazing stuff lately, and while most parts of Death Valley definitely compete with those places, the Artist’s Drive left a bit to be desired. I’ll leave it up for the jury to decide, but let’s just say that this was the only part of the Park I don’t feel compelled to revisit. Above is the aforementioned shot of Sean, and below you can see my self-portrait.
When we did finally make it back North to the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, our plans were thrown for a loop. The sky looked far too ominous to venture out onto them without first consulting a Ranger for an updated weather report. I may be an idiot, but I’m not that careless. Unfortunately, the new Ranger on duty (not the same one we’d talked to the day before) had nothing but bad news for us.
“You boys are heading out into a miserable muddy mess”.
“Could we make it to Sequoia National Park tonight?” I inquired, in desperation. I was grasping at straws in an attempt to save the trip.
“Tonight? What are you gonna do? Drive over the highest mountain range in the lower 48? There’s no road through there.”
I had forgotten that Sequoia was on the other side of Mt. Whitney from us.
“Besides, the storm should clear out tonight.”
“Thanks” we muttered and left, dejected, but still undecided on a course of action. At least there seemed to be a chance that things could get better, as the Ranger had pointed out.
But just then, Sean spotted another Ranger in the parking lot and decided to try his luck again. I had a gut feeling that this was a bad idea, but for whatever reason I kept it to myself. Perhaps I was just desperate to get some good news and a nod of approval for our idiotic plan, but what we got from this guy was the complete opposite of that. Looking back, I should have stopped Sean when I had the chance.
As we approached him my body stiffened up and the hair on my neck stood straight and tall. I felt absolutely terrified, though I’m still not sure why. Perhaps it was because the Ranger had an incredibly stern look about him, or maybe it was just the gigantic pistol on his hip. As we approached to within around 15 feet, I swear I saw him unlatch the holster. It was at that point that I fully realized we’d made an absolutely enormous mistake.
“Could we ask you a question?” Sean started in.
“…” He just sort of stared at us with a disapproving look.
“You can ask.”
“Do you think it’s safe for us to camp out on the Dunes tonight?”
“There’s no camping outside of a campground in a National Park”. He had hardly let Sean finish the question before snapping back.
“There’s no camping outside of a campground in a National Park,” he repeated again, with more force than the first time.
Sean and I looked at each other, bewildered.
I started in with, “One of your colleagues told us earlier today that…” but he cut me off immediately. This guy was clearly not in a good mood, and he wanted nothing to do with us.
“There’s no camping outside of a campground in a National Park”. As he said it for the third time, he waved his hand over the word “Ranger” painted on the side of his truck and let us know that he had “a ticket book right here to prove it”.
Whoa buddy, we get it. Conversation over.
We walked away even more upset than before. I snapped at Sean for putting us through that, telling him that we should have cut our losses earlier, since we’d already been told not to camp out there anyway simply due to the weather. Now we’d been informed that both our plans for that evening and our trip on the previous night were illegal, would get us fined, and possibly even kicked out of the Park. Bad times in a major way.
We managed to prepare for departure within minutes of our arrival, but not quickly enough to beat the setting sun. It was well past twilight by the time we started to strap the packs on. We then noticed what appeared to be some pretty serious rain falling across the valley on the other side of the dunes, but heading directly our way- and quickly. A solid sheet of water, mist, and fog, obscured the view of the mountains to the East. Our moment of hesitation lasted long enough for yet another Ranger to drive by in his jeep. I decided the risk was worth it this time, and flagged him down, hoping for another weather update.
“You guys are right. It’s definitely raining over there.” he responded to my initial inquiry. “And the thing about this place is, we either get no rain at all, or a total downpour. I wouldn’t advise heading out there tonight.”
“But are we allowed to? We’ve heard two completely different stories…”
“We’ve got a lot of,” he fidgeted uncomfortably, pausing for an extended beat as he searched for just the right phrase, “turn-over in the Park. We’re not always exactly on the same page. Let me look it up so I can make sure I don’t get you guys into all sorts of trouble.”
We were just happy to get more than a “Screw off” out of him at that point, considering the quality of our last Ranger encounter. Sean and I looked at each other with amazement as he walked back to his Jeep to grab the rules book. At least we had a chance!
And if I can make a quick side note, I didn’t realize it until writing this up, but it sounds to me like there might be some sort of Civil War brewing amongst the Rangers in Death Valley. This particular Ranger’s comment about “turn-over”, the staff being “not exactly on the same page”, and the suggestion to park in the dirt lot near Ashford Canyon which had been blocked off with rocks from Ranger Meth makes me wonder if there’s not some serious dissension amongst the ranks.
While the young Rangers encouraged us to backpack out into the wild, move things around, and generally just do whatever we needed to have a good time, the older crowd seemed pretty much intent on destroying all chances for having any fun at all! Thankfully both Sean and myself aren’t very big fans of doing what we’re told, so we didn’t let it get in the way of our having a good time.
And either way, Civil War or no, it was refreshing to speak with this Ranger, who took the time to converse with us, actually examine the rules book, and explain to us that we’d simply misinterpreted the statements made by his colleagues. Apparently the real rule in Death Valley is that you can camp “2 miles from any road” outside of the corridor established between the Stovepipe Wells Airport and the Ashford Mill.
With that in mind, we hadn’t broken the law the night before, we’d simply heard what we wanted to hear when receiving instructions. What the Ranger had really said (and what we recollected after looking at the map, upon which he’d left annotated instructions) was that we couldn’t actually camp on the Dunes, but that we were to head quite a ways North of them- past the Airport, and well within the acceptable zone for backcountry camping. Duh!
But to get back to the story, while standing out there in the dark and watching a virtual wall of rain bearing down on us, we agreed that backpacking was out of the question. Instead, we went back to the Stovepipe Wells campground, bought ourselves a site, and picked up some fire wood from the general store. Then we had ourselves one hell of a fire, which we lounged around in comfortable camp chairs while watching the storm move across the Valley. We never got much rain, but the wind picked up at just about the same time as it had the night before, sending us off to bed a little earlier than I would have wanted.
Sean woke me up just after sunrise the next morning and let me know that it was time to head out to the Dunes.
“I’d rather rest a little longer” was all that I could muster.
“I’ll come back for you then. After I check them out.”
I was in the car 30 seconds later. And I’m glad I got my ass in gear because I would have been furious if I’d missed out on that part of the adventure.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes turned out to be the star attraction of Death Valley, producing some of my most remarkable photos of the entire trip, and providing some incredibly outlandish experiences. The hike out onto them, and really the entire experience with the dunes themselves, was just interesting as all hell.
Walking through that desolate area, which appeared so much like an ocean in both form and movement, yet was completely the opposite in terms of composition, was absolutely mystifying. And as we approached the ridge lines of the larger dunes, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to get lost in such a beautiful, yet unforgiving and outright hostile environment.
The wind arrived with the same force that had attacked us on each of the previous nights, but we faced an entirely different problem out in the sand since we had absolutely nowhere to hide. We were entirely exposed, and knew fully well that we’d fall victim to whatever the storm God’s decided to throw at us- but luckily they held back. As it was, simply turning my back into the wind was enough to shelter my sensitive parts, and more importantly, my camera gear.
I watched as sand poured from the tips of each dune, quite similar in appearance to the spray of water that flows off the tips of crashing ocean waves. These sand dunes perfectly represented impermanence in both appearance and character, providing me with a great lesson in humility by allowing me a glimpse of the real shifting sands of the universe. I truly enjoyed just being able to spend some time in their presence. The following shots were taken over a period of a few hours, during two separate trips out into the sand. I was blown away by the Park’s beauty, and I hope that these photos will encourage you to make the journey out there, because it’s entirely worth the effort!