Death Valley: more than meets the eye

Apparently Death Valley gets 2.36 inches of rainfall annually, which if you do the math, leaves many hours of unblinking sun to cope with. Even in November daytime highs climbed up to a toasty 78 degrees – which doesn’t touch the July 10, 1913 record high of 134, but gave us a small hint of what it might possibly be like to visit this desert in the summer months. (If it feels this hot now…)
As we hiked under an intense sun, for some reason an image kept popping into my head – us lost in the desert, crawling on hands and knees, sunburnt and delirious with thirst. Death Valley feels unforgiving.

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Hottest place on earth! Driest place in North America! Lowest elevation in North America! Superlatives abound for a place that is like no other. Those crazy extremes of weather and landscape were exactly what attracted us to this park in the first place. Death Valley makes you work to discover its charms – it is way more than the first pile of rocks you first drive by.

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To really understand what Death Valley is all about, you need to lace up your hiking boots, carry plenty of water and go deep into the canyons. We were there for just two and a half days, and explored four canyons and a salt flat, but missed the sand dunes and a number of other excellent hikes that are spread out over a 50-100 mile radius. Many times we were all by ourselves, which added to the eerie quiet of the place. Although Death Valley is home to coyotes, packrats, kit foxes, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, and even non-native burros, we did not see one sign of life.

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Death Valley is the largest National Park in the U.S., outside of Alaska, but just a tiny portion has been developed for tourists. Two small settlements – Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek – offer up food, lodging, campgrounds, gas and water. After a quick stop at the visitor centre in Furnace Creek, we headed for one of the first-come-first-served campgrounds nearby.  Our campground offered good-sized lots with views onto the mountains and while there are no trees to speak of in Death Valley, there were wispy mesquite trees and scrubby creosote bushes to add a bit of life.

You can see our truck and trailer in the foreground – we woke up each morning at 6:30  to the sunrise glowing over the hills and went to sleep each night under a sky filled with stars.  This bald lot turns into a cozy community at night, with the sounds of quiet voices and the pitch black broken up by flickering campfires and campers wandering with headlamps. We loved the evenings there – bundled up against the chill, enjoying casual chats with other campers and watching the night sky.

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Nearby Furnace Creek’s lodging “The Ranch”  is an oasis – lined with palm trees, a golf course and a pool. Since we had no wifi and cell service at the campground, we took an afternoon break to sit under the shade of a massive mesquite tree and catch up on emails.

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If you’ve ever heard of Borax and the Twenty Mule teams, their origins began in Harmony, Death Valley. These “big teams” of mules pulled massive wagons filled with borax a grueling 165 miles to the railhead near Mohave, and although these teams only ran for six years, their romantic image lives on.  We visited the remains of the Borax mines, which included an original wagon.

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Another notable mineral deposit  is the salt flat at Badwater, the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It is possible to walk far out onto the flats.

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Parts of the flat are smooth and resemble a giant skating rink. Other parts are puckered and squared off; it is possible to see the salt crystals.

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The main attraction for us was the hiking. While it was possible to take on strenuous hikes of up to 14 miles, we stuck to the trails that were between 5 and 8 miles. Armed with our maps, plenty of water, apples and Clif bars, each day we set out to experience entirely different landscapes. We would park our truck, follow the signposts and enter a hidden world.

Sometimes we were climbing over rocks, other times we were walking along wider valleys.

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This hill had me whining like a baby – huffing and puffing and sweating and swearing. It doesn’t look that bad from this perspective, but we were almost at the top and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.

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And then, the reward:

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We’d walk along for a while and the wide open spaces would close right in. We’d be back in a skinny canyon again.

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These were my favourite parts of the hikes  – touching rocks that are 1700 million years old. I have no idea what I just wrote – that number makes no sense to me.

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There are a number of stunning drives within the park – the Artist’s Drive is one. It is a 9-mile one-way drive with an exciting blacktop ribbon of a road that dips and loops beside multicoloured hillsides.
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Our camp host Jackie (an American who has lived in Squamish, B.C. for many years) LOVES Death Valley. As a dual citizen, she is able to volunteer from November through until March, and still finds something new here to enjoy each year. She told us we would likely hear coyotes howling each night and early morning – sadly we never did – I love that sound. A meteor shower happened on our last night in Death Valley, but as Jackie told us, the moon would be too bright to see it. She was right. We love the camp hosts, map operators and park rangers – their enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for the outdoors is such a big part of the experience.

We’re on our way now – we had a rough start, followed by two weeks of feeling hugely out of our comfort zone, and now the switch has happened. Our trailer is our home – so comforting to stop and make a sandwich or a cup of tea and then carry on. It is comfortable, well-designed and does exactly what we want it to. We’re not afraid of it anymore.

We’ve learned how to drive differently. In the old road trip days we would pack up our car and drive like mad fools – pushing our days to 8 hours, 9 hours – neither safe nor fun.

Now, we take it one day at a time. We drive no more than 200 – 250 miles a day, no longer than five hours. If our map tells us the distance take four hours, we plan on five. We don’t rush, don’t stress, and plan ahead.

And now – a four-day break from the road – in Las Vegas. We just arrived at the Tuscany Suites – have our trailer safely stowed in the back parking lot and are languishing in a 650-sq.ft. suite, with a sofa, TV, small kitchenette, king-size bed, and both a shower and bathtub. The property is on 27 landscaped acres, with two pools and a casino. We could park four of our trailers in this space.

We’re meeting our friends Lorne and Anne here in a couple of hours and the fun will begin. I can’t even begin to imagine Vegas – we’ll be back again in a few days to tell you all about it.