So, up early today to get through Death Valley and out the other side. About 300 miles. I had stayed the night at a hotel/casino about 15 miles from The Strip on Hwy 95 so that I wouldn’t have to deal with traffic getting out of town. The basic plan is to go about 100 miles northwest on Hwy 95 to get to the eastern edge of Death Valley NP, then about a 100 miles through and around Death Valley itself, then about a 100 miles getting out of Death Valley and back to civilization.
Vegas to Death Valley Junction
The first part of the trip was pretty routine. Hwy 95 heads out of Las Vegas to the northwest and eventually ends up in Reno. As soon as you leave Vegas you’re in the desert. The only thing that really stands out that there is a state prison on the left side of the road after about 40 miles or so, and all along the right side of the road to the NE are various entrances into restricted government areas. The Nevada Test Site is one of these, the place were they used to test nuclear “devices” when that sort of thing was still allowed, and Area 51 is a couple of ridges over.
I talked to a guy at a gas station when you turn off from the main highway, who said that they see UFO’s out to the east over Area 51 all the time. But this guy isn’t a believer in little green men. Its just experimental aircraft being tested.
Death Valley Junction
To get into Death Valley from the east side, you go through an area called Armagosa Valley on a road which runs north to south, and eventually ends up in Shoshone, CA. A few miles inside California, a road running east to west from Pahrump, NV crosses the north-south road and heads west into the Park. This crossroads is called Death Valley Junction, although you won’t necessarily find that name on the map.
This “town” is almost a ghost town. There were only a few houses and most of the buildings were boarded up. The only thing that looked remotely alive was a motel/restaurant that had a few cars out in front of it. There was a shady spot across the road, and I stopped there for a break and to have some water.
There is no cell phone service in Death Valley Junction, but at some point I had passed though a 3G area on the highway, and my phone downloaded my email messages. I was checking through my messages and I noticed one from my step-mother. She said that as long as I was around Death Valley, that I should track down and check out a place called the Armagosa Opera House, which in addition to hosting music, also has some nice painted murals in the building. I looked up from reading the email, and there right across the street from me was the Armagosa Opera House. Weird, huh? Its part of the motel I mentioned earlier. I would have checked it out but it padlocked and is apparently closed for the season.
I continued on west towards Death Valley. I should mention that all around are tall mountain ranges separated by valleys; Basin and Range country. I was trying to guess which mountain range was the border of DV. The elevation of the floor of Armagosa Valley is about 3000-feet so I knew that I would need to lose some altitude pretty soon since Death Valley is at or below sea level. Sure enough, as you go west, you soon enter a canyon which slopes downwards though a gap in the mountains.
The canyon opens out onto the valley floor at a place called Furnace Creek, and because there is actually a creek there, the area is surprisingly lush. The first place you come to is the Furnace Creek Inn, which has lots of palm trees on it’s property, and is right at sea level. Further down the road and lower in elevation is the Furnace Creek Ranch, which has a golf course, campgrounds, horse riding and so on.
This is also the place where you get your first good view of Death Valley. The really dead part of Death Valley is to the south, so that’s were I headed. I was aiming for a place called Badwater, which is the spot to the lowest elevation in North America. Along the way I stopped at a place called the Devil’s Golf Course and took some pictures, and drove along a rode called Artists Drive which goes past some very pretty and colorful mineral deposits.
Pictures will be worth a thousand words, once I get them posted.
Badwater is just a pool of salt water and surrounding salt pans. When it rains here, however rare that is, the whole floor of the valley briefly turns into a very shallow lake. When the water evaporates, it leaves behind pure salt, which was all that I saw. The place got its name when a prospector back in the 1800’s stopped there and tried to get his mule to drink. The mule naturally refused to drink the salty water, so the prospector made a note on the map he was working on, that this was “bad water.” The name stuck.
Heading back north, I had lunch at the cafe at Furnace Creek Ranch. The way out of the valley to the west has you go north for a while before turning west towards a pass in the mountains. The official Death Valley continues north for quite a few miles, and includes a place called “Scottie’s Castle,” but I didn’t have time to go that way to check it out. Besides, it looked to me from the way that the mountains were laid out that it was really a different valley.
Along the way north from Furnace Creek, you pass the original borax mine which spawned the “20-Mule-Train” brand. Ironically, by the time they started to use the brand and a sketch of a mule train on their laundry products, the railroad had come to Death Valley and the company no longer used mule-trains to transport the borax out of the valley.
By the way, the place got the name Death Valley because it was (and still is) so large and lifeless. Many of the early travelers though the valley died here because of the lack of water. Hence the name Death Valley. Temperatures are normally above 100-degrees (F) during the day, and I had brought along a special water-soaked thermal vest to wear during this transit. The temperatures the week before I got there were around 115-degrees, but on the day that I rode though, it was an arctic 95-degrees. I wore the vest anyway, and I was nice and cool.
On the western edge of the valley is a tiny little town called Stovepipe Springs. After leaving here, the road starts to climb up the western mountain range heading for a pass at about the 5000-foot level. Then you’re down into another valley which looks just a deadly as Death Valley itself, Panamint Valley. Riding down into this valley from the east was quite an experience. Once the road descends from the mountains it runs straight as an arrow across the valley floor, which was shimmering in the westering sunlight. Way off to my right, at the northern end of the valley, was some kind of rippling land formation. I found out later that it was a massive sand dune.
On the western edge of Panamint Valley is another micro-town called Panamint Springs, which consists of a motel, a gas station and a campground. Here I ran into a group of off-road motorcyclists who told me that they had ridden there from Phoenix, all without touching any pavement. That would be cool to try sometime.
West from Panamint Springs is another mountain climb to get up and over the next ridge and back to civilization. The sun was nearly set by the time I got to the top of the range. All I could see of the surrounding area were scattered Joshua Trees.
The next valley over is pretty big and was a major casualty in the California Water Wars: The Wilson River Valley. Highway 395 runs though it, which is a major north/south route. The next mountain range over is a little thing called the Sierra’s and right in the middle of it is the tallest peak in the continental US called Mt. Whitney. And right at the base of Mt. Whitney is the town of Lone Pine, which is where I’m spending the night.
Tomorrow: north on Hwy 395 to Mammoth Lakes and the backside of Yosemite.