The lowest and the hottest, Death Valley

You have to drag yourself out of bed early, and wait in the pre-dawn cold for the sun to chase away the darkness, but sunrise at Zabriskie Point is a defining Death Valley experience. Watching the skies and landscape transform as the sun slowly rises is magical. The sky becomes pink, distant mountains turn a vivid red, and the rock formations of Zabriskie Point become yellow and golden.

Zabriskie Point is only a short distance from Furnace Creek, where we’d spent a strange night in the company of a motorbike gang. When we arrived at the viewing area there were already quite a few people gathered for the spectacle – mainly people with camera tripods – mutely observing the wondrous rock formations and the valley beyond. You could feel the anticipation in the air.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

As the sun made its way over the ridge of the mountains behind us, the world was transformed and a couple of dozen camera shutters clicked away rhythmically. The colour and texture of the rocks were dramatically illuminated in a way that only the sun can conjure. As the sun rose, the temperature started to head upwards as well. Time to head to our next destination, Dante’s View.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Sitting on a natural terrace at around 5,500 feet in altitude, on the ridge of the Black Mountains, Dante’s View offers vistas that are spectacular. The panorama across Badwater Basin is breathtaking, the white salt flats that stretch across the valley floor sparkle brightly in the intense early morning sun. The shape of salt formations in the valley look like giant pieces of art, a sort of salty Nazca Lines.

You’d normally have to work hard to get a view like this, trekking and climbing in the pre-dawn to reach the summit before sunrise. Happily, this being California, there’s a paved road, a parking area and even picnic tables. We watched as the sun illuminated more of the mountains and, as more and more visitors arrived, we headed all the way down to Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

A -282 feet (-85.5 metres) Badwater Basin is the lowest place in North America, and the contrast between it and the surrounding mountains is a dramatic one. Walking out into the middle of the salt flat is an incredible experience, like being in a gigantic white ampitheatre in the middle of the mountains. Most of the white stuff is sodium chloride, better known as table salt, but there are other minerals as well.

They say that Badwater gets its name from a traveller who tried to water his mule here. The mule refused to drink and the name Badwater was born. This gives a clue to how all this salt arrived in the valley. Occasionally this vast dried up lake is flooded in salt rich waters, when it evaporates a salt crust is formed. It was near here that the world’s hottest ever temperature was recorded in 1913, a whopping 134 °F or 56.7 °C.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California, United States

A short 10 minute drive from Badwater, along a dirt road, was our final destination of our time in Death Valley, a Natural Rock Bridge.  We parked the car and immediately were confronted with a truly alarmist warning sign. It only take 15 minutes to walk to the bridge, but apparently even this was likely to put our lives at risk without a gallon of water each.

After reading the sign, I was more concerned about the snakes and deadly spiders which would pounce on you from their hiding spot under stones. We decided we’d risk the stroll with only a half litre of now warm water. The arch is a larger than it looks, but the whole thing is a bit underwhelming. Worth a 15 minute walk in the sun? Just about.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

Hiking advice near rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Hiking advice near rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Trail to rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Trail to rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Rock bridge, Death Valley, California, United States

Finally, our Death Valley adventure at an end, we headed towards Nevada and the bright lights of Las Vegas. The contrast between the natural beauty of Death Valley and the trashy man-made neon of Vegas is, in my experience, unrivalled anywhere on earth. The transition is a strange one, but after the heat and the dust of Death Valley we were owed a night of fake opulence.

Death Valley, California, United States

Death Valley, California, United States

En route to Las Vegas, United States

En route to Las Vegas, United States

A land of extremes, Death Valley

The size and scale of Death Valley National Park is almost beyond comprehension. It’s vast 3.3 million acre size includes soaring peaks, including the 11,043 feet (3,366m) Telescope Peak, and salt pans that reach 282 feet (86m) below sea level. In between there are sand dunes, multicoloured rock formations, old gold mines, resort hotels, and even unexpected wildlife sightings.

From snow-capped peaks to the lowest, driest and hottest place in the United States, it’s a true land of extremes. Only when you reach its high places, or its low places, do you really get a sense of this extraordinary place.

Coyote, Death Valley, California, United States

Coyote, Death Valley, California, United States

The size of Death Valley makes it hard to decide what to see and do when you only have a couple of days. Even a conservative itinerary requires a lot of driving. We made a last minute decision to go to Las Vegas, so planned to spend our second night at Furnace Creek before driving into Nevada. In the meantime, we set off to see a few things west of Stovepipe Wells. First stop, the 6,433 feet high Aguereberry Point.

The views over Death Valley are little short of spectacular, and at this altitude it’s also a little breathtaking. On a good day you can see for 30 miles or more, and can easily see Dante’s Peak 20 miles away across the valley floor. We drank in the views and returned down the dirt road to the abandoned mine we’d seen. As we did something moved in the scrub, there, in front of us, was a coyote.

Human for scale, Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Human for scale, Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Aguereberry Point, Death Valley, California, United States

Aguereberry Point was named after one of Death Valley’s many extraordinary characters, Jean Pierre “Pete” Aguereberry. A Frenchman from the Basque country, Aguereberry came to America in 1890 aged 16 to seek his fortune hunting for gold. After almost dying trying to cross Death Valley on foot in 1905, he eventually struck lucky at a small, inauspicious hill in the middle of nowhere.

He named the hill Providence Ridge, filed his claim and soon there were 300 people living in what was optimistically called Harrisburg, after Aguereberry’s partner, Shorty Harris. The mine Aguereberry dug was known as the Eureka Mine, and he worked it alone from 1907 to 1930, extracting around $175,000 of gold from it. He died in 1945 in the appropriately named Lone Pine.

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Views from Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

1947 Buick Roadmaster, Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

1947 Buick Roadmaster, Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Eureka Mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Some of the old Harrisburg buildings can still be seen from the Eureka mine, slowly crumbling, and off in the distance is a rusting 1947 Buick Roadmaster. Who it belonged to seems to have been lost in the dust. The wooden ruins on the hillside are of Cashier Mill, used to crush the ore before mercury and cyanide were used to extract the gold. The whole scene is like a movie set.

Further along the road is another former gold mining settlement, Skidoo. Gold was discovered here in 1906, and once news got out a small town of around 700 people grew up around the site. It’s remarkable that in this desolate place once stood a bank, stores, saloons, homes and a post office. There was even a telephone service installed. None of the town is left, only remnants of the mine and mill remain.

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo is famous as the site of the only hanging in Death Valley. The murder of Jim Arnold, the Skidoo general store owner, by a violent drunkard, Joe Simpson, in April 1908, resulted in the lynching and extrajudicial hanging of Simpson. It’s rumoured that Simpson was hung twice, the second time so that newspaper photographers could get a picture of the doubly-dead man.

Like nearby Harrisburg, Skidoo’s existence was short lived. By 1917 the gold and profits were drying up, people were leaving the town and all the energy and enterprise that had put Skidoo on the map petered out. The mine closed in September 1917, the death knell for the town. It’s an evocative place to wander around, although pay attention to the signs warning of hidden mine shafts and other dangers.

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Skidoo mine, Death Valley, California, United States

Into the Valley of Death*

The American West is littered with literal place names. Big Rock, Black Rock, Lone Pine, Big Pine, Topaz Lake, Big Bear Lake, and a thousand others. All describe the most distinctive feature of each place, and a lack of imagination of the person naming them. It has to be assumed that Death Valley got its name for similar reasons. Having visited, it’s easy to see why. This is not a place to take lightly, even today.

The legend is that in 1849 two groups with around a hundred wagons, heading to the California Gold Rush, took a wrong turn into Death Valley. Unable to find a route out after weeks of stumbling around, they were forced to kill their oxen and burn some of their wagons to cook the meat. All their wagons gone, they eventually walked out of the valley. It was then that a woman in the party is alleged to have looked back and said, “Goodbye Death Valley”.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The name stuck and was popularised in a book written by one of the survivors. To underline the dangers of the place, inside Death Valley names are also synonymous with the suffering and struggles of the first Europeans to see it: Badwater, Furnace Creek, Saline Valley, Burned Wagons Camp. It’s a ferociously inhospitable place, where the highest temperature on earth was recorded, a mere 134 °F or 56.7 °C.

We had a small slice of our own Death Valley misery driving from Eureka Dunes on a rough gravel road that had formed a washboard surface. Forty miles of Death Valley Road washboarding, and near permanent bone rattling, mind numbing misery.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

Crankshaft Junction, Death Valley Road, California, United States

Crankshaft Junction, Death Valley Road, California, United States

IMG_9300

It’s a pretty amazing journey regardless, passing through some incredible scenery without seeing another vehicle. Dotting the landscape are the signs and sites of former mines, and occasionally you’ll see bits of machinery and buildings on hillsides. At one point we reached a real landmark on the road, Crankshaft Junction. Here you can turn left to Gold Point or right to Death Valley.

Crankshaft Junction marks a remarkable stretch of the road, it travels straight as an arrow for perhaps 15km. It’s an extraordinary experience, although the washboard road was a killer. A small lifetime later the washboard finally gave way to a smooth paved road when we joined the Ubehebe Crater Road.

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

The Big Pine to Death Valley road, California, United States

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California, United States

Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley, California, United States

We’d been on the road for a long time, and the sun was beginning to set as we reached Highway 190 and drove into Stovepipe Wells. We were hot, dusty and shaken not stirred, but some air conditioning and a cold beer in the hotel bar quickly revived us. We had dinner and did some star gazing before getting an early night. We had plans for the morning.

Having missed the sight of sunset over the fabled Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes the evening before, I clambered out of bed before sunrise and headed the short distance down Highway 190 to where you can walk into the dunes. Watching the sun rise over the dunes and illuminate the mountains behind was magical. The highest of the dunes is only around 100 metres, but they extend over a huge area.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Walking through and up the dunes reveals their true nature. Wide half moon shapes curve magically up into the air. As the sun rises, their colour changes from reds to oranges and then to a silvery white. It was brilliant but, with the sun risen, the temperature also rises, and being stuck in the middle of some sand dunes is no place to be. I headed back to Stovepipe Wells ready to explore some more of Death Valley…

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California, United States

_________________________________________________________

* The line comes from The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Native American Petroglyphs and California’s highest sandunes

We arrived into the nondescript town of Bishop at night after a long day of driving. The entire town seemed to be strung out along a long main street lined with motels, fast food restaurants and gas stations. To say it was uninspiring is an understatement, but we were happy to find a bed for the night and a good restaurant for dinner. The morning brought a stunning revelation, Bishop is surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Somewhere I’d read about an area near Bishop which contains a treasure trove of Native American art, rock-carved petroglyphs scattered amidst this vast region of plains and mountains. This forbidding landscape lies in the Owens Valley, a once lush agricultural area that supported a sizeable Native American population. Hundreds of petroglyphs, all that remain of that civilisation, are scattered around the area.

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Restaurant near Bishop, California, United States

Restaurant near Bishop, California, United States

Owens River near Bishop, California, United States

Owens River near Bishop, California, United States

Finding them, however, is an entirely different matter. To protect them from vandalism and theft, and in 2012 someone actually stole four sets of petroglyphs, their location remains obscured. The road is barely sign-posted and even if you do find it, the sites of the petroglyphs are no longer marked. I tried to find some accurate information in Bishop, but drew a blank.

Undeterred, I headed into the vastness hoping to find something, anything of these artworks. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. There are millions of rocks and all of them may hide a petroglyph. I spent a couple of hours driving around and eventually got lucky, but I know I missed out on seeing the most famous petroglyphs. If that’s the price of preventing theft, so be it.

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Landscape near Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Native American Petroglyphs, Bishop, California, United States

Back in Bishop we packed the car and bought provisions for the next part of our journey, a drive to Big Pine and then miles of unpaved roads towards Death Valley. It was going to be an adventure taking several hours, including a picnic lunch at a truly unbelievable place: the Eureka Dunes. Once we left the main highway we barely saw another person until arriving at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

California’s highest sand dunes are an extraordinary sight, reached along a dozen miles of dirt road branching off the Death Valley Road. Set against a backdrop of the Last Chance Mountains, the white sand stands out like a floating, surreal beacon amidst the brown landscape. At around 700 feet (210m) high, these are the highest dunes in the state, some say in the United States, but that isn’t their real claim to fame: these are singing dunes.

Sign near Bishop, California, United States

Sign near Bishop, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

On the Death Valley Road, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Mountains near Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Under the right weather conditions, when the sand avalanches down the dune it makes a deep droning noise. We didn’t hear it, but just walking amongst the dunes was reward enough for making the journey to these 10,000 year-old piles of sand. There is a dry camp (no water or flush toilets) near the base of the dunes, and the (very smelly) toilet has to be one of the remotest I’ve come across.

We had our lunch under a ferociously hot sun admiring our surroundings with only the sound of the wind for company. We repacked the car, took one last look at the dunes and headed back the way we came, bracing ourselves for 50 miles of bone-rattling washboard dirt roads as we headed to Death Valley.

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Toilet, Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Toilet, Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States

Eureka Dunes, California, United States