Death Valley December 2014

I’m a bit late (as in a few years) publishing this. Oh well, life happens! I wrote the narrative as soon as we got back but never got around to looking through all the photos my husband took until now.

I have relatives that live in Las Vegas. Which means I go to Vegas more than someone who likes to gamble as little as I do would normally go. On the flip side, we get out and explore as much as possible. In 2014 we visited early enough in December to make it to Death Valley during the “shoulder” season.

In September 1996 I moved from Virginia to California. My mom drove with me in my brand new 1996 Honda accord with all my possessions in the backseat and trunk. We had budgeted way more time than we had needed for the drive and in the end made a detour through Death Valley and up across Tioga Pass road. What I remember of Death Valley was standing at Badwater, the sand dunes, and that the drive out of the west side of the park made my mom very nervous due to her fear of heights. I knew that someday I would make it back to explore a bit more.

DISCLAIMER: We took this trip back in 2014, 10 months before the devastating floods. As of July 2018, Scotty’s castle and the nearby road remains closed and are not anticipated to reopen until 2020.

DAY 1:

I had originally done a lot of planning and gotten advice on Tripadvisor for our trip to Death Valley, but when the time came we ended up winging it a bit. We had both been extremely busy with work related stuff before our trip and wanted a bit more “chill” time than I had originally planned. We had originally planned to get up early and head to Death Valley our second full day in Vegas, but we were kind of pooped and the weather was poor so we altered our plans a bit. After a leisurely breakfast at a casino buffet we eventually headed out. The rain was predicted to taper off in Death Valley in the early afternoon which meant we had a wet drive most of the way heading out of Vegas on route 160. I was a bit nervous in the Spring Mountains because the temperature kept dropping and I was afraid we might hit some snow. Fortunately, the car thermometer bottomed out at 39 degrees so all we had to deal with was some fog. Originally we were going to detour to China Ranch Date farm, but when we reached the decision point to turn or not, it was pouring rain still so we decided to keep going toward Death Valley.

When we got to Shoshone it was still raining so we decided to forgo the cold sandwiches we had packed in our cooler and stopped at the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon. Great decision- they were decorated for Christmas and we enjoyed our hot lunches with more food than we could eat and plenty of ice tea. Unfortunately it was still raining when we left but we headed into the Park via route 178. I was surprised that there was no official entrance station and was disappointed we hadn’t picked up some sort of map at the Shoshone museum. At this point my husband asked how far to our hotel, and when I said 70 miles he was a bit surprised. I reminded him that the park is about the size of the state of Connecticut. About the time we got to Jubilee Pass the rain let up and we could even see a tiny bit of blue sky. It almost seemed like some of the scrub plants were turning green before our eyes.

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Rain finally stopped but you can tell where it had been flowing across the road. This road was also damaged in the floods of October 2015 but reopened a few months later.

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Desolate and beautiful at the same time.

Continuing towards Badwater we stopped briefly to have a look at the Ashford Mill ruins and to use the pit toilets. PSA- at least in late 2014 none of the pit toilets we used had any kind of hand sanitizer, so consider bringing your own.

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Ashford Mill ruins. Note a hint of blue sky and sun!

Along the way to Badwater we enjoyed the view and even saw a Coyote along the road.

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Heading into Death Valley toward Badwater. The sky was clearing and allowed us views of the snow covered mountains.

At Badwater the sign I remember having my picture made with in 1996 was still there (or at least a new one just like it!) so I had my husband take my picture there again 18 years after my first visit. I’m a bit camera shy so decided not to post it here. We hiked out onto the salt flat a bit and enjoyed the view up to the sea level sign on the mountainside above us.

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Standing in the salt flats at Badwater. The tiny speck of white on the hillside above us is a sign that says “Sea Level” and puts everything into perspective.

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Badwater. 282 feet below sea level.

We continued the drive toward Furnace Creek and enjoyed all the beautiful desert views as well as the brief glimpses of the snow covered peaks of the mountains across the valley as the clouds shifted around them. We decided to forgo the Natural Bridge on this trip, and unfortunately the road to access Devils Golf Course was closed due to the recent rains. We arrived at Artists drive at about 2:30, which at this time of year gave us great lighting. We stopped fairly early in the drive to hike up a hill to have a look around. I swear there were sustained tropical force winds at the top of that hill. I had to brace myself to let my husband take some pictures and at times the wind was moving me around. Again, I’m camera shy so will forgo the photos here. We continued on to Artist’s Palette where we hiked around briefly and my husband took a lot of pictures. This place is stunningly beautiful! There was a guy giving people photography tips (an organized class I assume) and people discussing that scenes for Star Wars had been filmed in the area. I would say this is a “don’t miss” in Death Valley!

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Artists drive.

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Along Artists drive.

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One of the overlooks along Artists Drive. It was super windy here.

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Artist’s Palette- one of my favorite photos from the trip. I need to get this one printed and framed.

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My husband calls this one “self portrait”.

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A closer view of some of the colors.

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Star Wars fans will recognize this!

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Even more beautiful colors.

After Artist’s Drive we decided to head to the Ranch at Furnace Creek (now called Ranch at Death Valley) to check in. We made a wrong turn and ended up at the Inn where we saw where the fire had taken out their laundry building a few days before. The volunteer fire department was still on scene and was diverting traffic to detour through the parking lot. After turning around we made a brief visit to the Visitor’s center to pay our entrance fee, get a map and buy a postcard. The Ranch at Furnace Creek is right next door to the Visitor’s center and after checking in we decided to chill the rest of the day. We had time to play a game of bocce ball and enjoy a cocktail out on our balcony before heading to dinner. We ended up just grabbing a pizza and beers in the Saloon. That worked out well because with the fridge in the room we took the leftover pizza with us for later. We are huge fans of the TV show the Amazing Race so we were happy to call it an early evening to be back in our room in time to watch that night’s episode.

DAY 2:

The next morning we took advantage of the in room coffee and had leftover cold pizza for breakfast before heading out. We headed to Golden Canyon for a hike. We hiked up to Red Cathedral area. We considered doing the full loop through Gower Gulch, but the access to Zabriskie point was posted to be closed at that time (December 2014) and I had forgotten to bring my hiking poles. I could tell the full loop would be more climbing and descending on the side of a hill than I would be comfortable doing without them, so we decided to save the full loop for a future visit. The part we did hike though was just absolutely gorgeous. I would highly recommend even a short out and back though Golden Canyon.

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Hiking in Golden Canyon.

After our hike we headed out toward Stovepipe Wells. We stopped briefly at Harmony Borax Works ruins.

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Borax works ruins. Could you imagine working in the heat?

The Visitor’s Center had recommended visiting the Salt Creek interpretive trail. Originally, this wasn’t on my radar as something to do, but I’m glad we did- I really enjoyed this short hike. There were lots of animal prints around the creek and even birds and butterflies. We think we saw pupfish in the creek. We took advantage of the picnic tables there to eat the sandwiches we didn’t eat the day before. You really do have to plan ahead for lunch in the park as the places to buy food are few and far apart.

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Salt Creek area.

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Animal tracks at Salt Creek.

Our next stop was the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. We hiked out across the dunes for a bit, which is very hard work hiking through sand up and over the dunes. It was a lot of fun though, and we watched a bunch of kids out “sledding” on the dunes.

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Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

We headed out to Stovepipe Wells Village and enjoyed a cold soda on the front porch of the store there before heading up to Mosaic Canyon. I enjoyed the hike in Mosaic Canyon but thought Golden Canyon was a bit more interesting.

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An interesting area in Mosaic Canyon.

By that point, we had actually been on our feet quite a bit and also had done quite a bit of driving, so decided to head back to Furnace Creek to take advantage of the pool. The pool is fed by a warm (but not hot) spring, but I thought it was warm enough while I was in it. However, the air temperature was pretty cool, so once we got out we made a freezing mad dash back to our room. Dinner was back at the Saloon again. Overall, food choices are rather limited at Furnace Creek. That night there was a meteor shower, but it was predicted to be hampered somewhat by the moon. Just sitting out on our balcony we saw a couple of shooting stars, so decided to not get out in the car to try to get a better view. Sleep was more important.

DAY 3:

The next morning we decided to head up to Scotty’s Castle. It was about an hour drive from Furnace Creek and we stopped a couple of times along the way to take some photos of the amazing scenery. There were also a few places on the road where debris had been washed across it in flash floods a few days before. Once we got to the Castle, the weather was very cool so I busted out my hat and gloves. We didn’t get our tour tickets in advance, so we got there a bit before the office opened. It was definitely slow season because we had no problem walking up to get the tickets. This place is absolutely amazing. Such a lavash house basically in the middle of nowhere, and the story of Scotty is quite something. We did the house tour and our tour guide who played the part of the likable scoundrel Scotty did a phenomenal job. There are so many interesting architectural details and amazing art inside the house. There is a “big finish” to the tour involving the player piano, which was even more special because due to the holiday season the music was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. There is also an underground tour of the house we could have taken, but we felt like we wanted to see some other stuff and wanted to be back in Vegas before dark. We did have time though to hike up to where Scotty is buried above the castle and admire the views from there. (My future self feels very fortunate to have visited Scotty’s Castle before the devastating flood of 2015).

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Scotty’s Castle, December 2014.

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Entering the castle for the tour, December 2014.

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Some of the amazing details and art in the castle, December 2014.

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The upstairs music room. The player piano is in the left corner. Standing in this room and listening to the holiday music on the player piano is a memory I will always cherish. December 2014.

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View from up on the hill where Scotty is buried (photo from December 2014). I can imagine the flood waters the next year racing down this valley.

Before heading out of Death Valley, we headed to Ubehebe crater for a look. We decided not to hike around or down to the bottom though.

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Ubehebe crater.

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Views from Ubehebe crater.

We then headed out back past Scotty’s Castle (this road was wiped out by the 2015 flood) out to Scotty’s Junction where we got on route 95, only stopping briefly during the drive to take a picture of the entrance sign to Death Valley right at the Nevada/California border.

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We stopped briefly in Beatty to visit the Death Valley Nut and Candy company where I bought some old fashioned candy to take back to the people who work for me and we enjoyed some ice cream. We then checked out the ghost town of Rhyolite, which is actually something I would have been okay skipping because I didn’t find it too interesting. After that it was a straight shot back to Vegas in time for dinner and to spend some time with family.

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Image from the ghost town.

Death Valley is a spectacular place, and we obviously didn’t have time to see it all. We don’t spend much time in a car in our day to day lives, so we kind of got tired of driving so much on our full day in the park which meant we skipped Dante’s View. So, I’m sad about that but that is definitely on the list for the next trip along with Devil’s Golf Course and the complete Golden Canyon/Gower’s Gulch hiking loop. I would also like to rent a jeep and see some of the things that are only accessible when you have high clearance 4WD.

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