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

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

California Dreaming, a Golden State road trip remembered

No wonder California plays such a huge part in the collective psyche of the United States and beyond. It’s a place that seems to have it all: cosmopolitan cities filled with diverse populations, stunning national parks, perfect golden beaches, rugged wild coastlines, giant redwood forests, mountain ranges, vast tracts of silent desert, some of the finest vineyards and some of the most productive agricultural land on the planet.

If that wasn’t enough, it has the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, and there are only a handful of States in the country that have lower gun-related death rates. It also has terrible traffic, is prone to devastating droughts, earthquakes, and chronic inequality; plus the roads don’t seem to have been repaired for a couple of decades, and someone has removed most of the useful road signs.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fracisco, California, USA

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fracisco, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Eureka Dunes, California, USA

Eureka Dunes, California, USA

To many, the California narrative is forever as a mythical ‘land of opportunity’. A quintessential part of the American Dream, where gold rushes, vast open spaces and available land attracted millions from around the world to settle and seek a better life. Obviously, a ‘better life’ was possible only by disinheriting and killing tens of thousands of the indigenous peoples who called California home before Europeans arrived. California is filled with the legacy of this history.

For anyone brought up on tales of the Wild West, the names you pass as you drive around California recall just about every film or TV series about the ‘taming’ of the West. Whether it’s Big Pine, Last Chance Mountain, Bodie, Eureka, Dry Mountain or False Hot Springs, you could only be in one place. There are plenty of more familiar names though: Aberdeen, Swansea, Zurich and Dublin, to name but a few.

Bodie, California, USA

Bodie, California, USA

Death Valley Road, California, USA

Death Valley Road, California, USA

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

Hungry I Club, San Fracisco, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Morro Bay, California, USA

Morro Bay, California, USA

We visited California some time ago now, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while. On a short trip it’s hard to choose which of California’s many attractions to visit. Flying to San Francisco, we had a couple of days to explore one of the world’s great cities, and then we hired a car and headed east through Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park, to Death Valley and a quick side trip to Las Vegas.

We rolled the dice but kept our shirts to make it through the epic Mojave Desert on a mad dash for the coast at Morro Bay. It was a long day of endless miles of blasted desert, over a mountain range to the Pacific Coast. From Morro we turned north and followed the sublime coast road through Big Sur National Park to Carmel and Monterey, before hiding away amongst the vineyards of Carmel Valley for a couple of days’ wine tasting.

Mojave Desert, California, USA

Mojave Desert, California, USA

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Sea Lions, Monterey, California, USA

Sea Lions, Monterey, California, USA

Aquarium, Monterey, California, USA

Aquarium, Monterey, California, USA

Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Big Sur National Park, California, USA

Lee Vining, California, USA

Lee Vining, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Yosemite National Park, California, USA

Returning to San Francisco after a couple of weeks touring around in the Californian countryside was like arriving on another planet. It may be a place with some of the most famous cities on earth, but it was only travelling through this vast State that the remoteness and diversity of its landscapes really dawned on me. Road trips are something of an American invention, and this was a road trip to remember …