Living it up, down in Death Valley

Death Valley is known for its highs and lows: the highest temperature recorded on the planet and the lowest elevation in North America. It’s also known for its once bustling mining towns and strange geology. We felt it was worth checking out.

Christine, Sam, Rece, and I — we really should make up a name for our group, since we travel all over the place together — set out on a 3-day, 2-night journey to view Death Valley National Park. With a rented 4WD SUV, and a few bags and cameras in hand, we made our trek across the desert.

As usual we brought along our GPS receivers, loaded with geocache coordinates along the way. The first of them was at the oddly named Zzyzx exit, followed by Baker and its oh-so-many sights.

The last 3 trips we’ve made out to the desert have given Christine reason to get excited about the prospect of visiting (and eating at) the Mad Greek in Baker, CA. Unfortunately for her, it has always been too far out of the way to justify the long detour. This time our route took us right to Baker, home of the Worlds Tallest Thermometer and also the Mad Greek restaurant (one of their many locations – but she had to go to THIS one).

Having filled our bellies with decent enough Greek-style food, I pointed the 4runner north, towards Death Valley. We stopped quite a few times along the way, either after spotting a point of interest (we stop for almost all historical markers on all of our trips) or to hunt for a geocache.

We’ve come to learn from our past trips that travel time is usually at least double of what it would be if the distance was covered without stopping. So it was already a known variable in our plans that we probably wouldn’t be entering Death Valley on the first day. This proved to be true and drove on to our first night’s stay in Pahrump, NV. I’ll admit that this was probably due a good part to the name of the town, but it was also the closest lodging that probably didn’t have a Norman Bates type of person running it.

Our hopes for word-play were dashed after discovering that we could not stay at Terrible’s Casino (they didn’t have a hotel at this one). Here’s a short list of some possible fun phrases we were unable to use:

  • We stayed at a terrible hotel in Pahrump, NV.
  • The hotel was terrible — and so was the casino!
  • After a terrible night’s stay, we awoke and enjoyed a terrible breakfast.

Then another catastrophe: the Nugget Hotel & Casino was more expensive than other places in town and had no more non-smoking rooms available. So we couldn’t say we stayed in “Pa’s rump nugget” or anything silly like that. We had to settle for the Saddle West Hotel & Casino, which wasn’t a bad place to stay — it just had a boring name, comparatively.

Day 2 began about as planned and we filled up at the buffet breakfast at our hotel. After backtracking to Shoshone, CA, then turning north we reached the southern most entrance to Death Valley. We thought areas of California state highway 395 were remote and desolate, but they seemed pretty crowded compared to Death Valley. Sparse desert hills for miles and miles — the only living creatures were a few crows.

We arrived at Badwater Basin, one of the lowest points in Death Valley (there are a few other points a few feet lower, but they’re difficult to get to) and found one of the largest groups of people we’d see for the rest of the trip. (As introverts, Christine & I enjoyed the lack of people.)

Continuing on our northern route through the park, we stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Palette, and Furnace Creek Visitor Center (central hub for the park).

Our primary destination for Day 2 was the Devil’s Racetrack (also known as Racetrack Playa) , which is located in a remote part of the park far up in the northern area. The Racetrack is a natural oddity that I just couldn’t miss. You can read more about it here. The road was 27-miles long and washboard gravel/dirt which added to the adventure. I think I took about as many pictures here as I did all at the other areas we visited in Death Valley combined.

With sunlight soon to be gone, we departed the Racetrack and made much better time on the way out than we did on the way in, having discovered that the bumps smoothed out more the faster I drove. How fun is that?

Driving into the night, we again had to modify our very flexible plans and change the town where we’d be sleeping. Beatty, NV turned out to be the closest option. Apparently it was better that we arrived at night when we drove through and decided to stay at the local Motel 6 — daylight revealed a different mood. The town seems to be in a slow, but steady decline. It had obviously seen better days when tourism brought more people through. But now it seems a little sad — or at least I felt a little sad for the town.

A nice fellow in the motel parking lot pointed out that our back tire looked a bit low on air and he told us where we could get it fixed in town. Coincidentally, the tire shop was next door to the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant we had decided to patronize the night before. Some yummy food and a $20 tire patch later we were headed back towards Death Valley.

A sign along the highway pointed to Rhyolite, NV, a ghost town we had read about while planning for the trip. This was another of our impromptu stops and an interesting discovery. Not only had the town been occupied and thriving a mere 100 years ago, but we also found an open air museum with some bizarre sculptures.

Just a few miles after getting back on the highway we detoured onto Titus Canyon Road. Another 27-mile washboard dirt/gravel road, but this time one-way and through, well, a canyon. Aside from one pickup truck and a mountain biker, we were completely alone. The road brought us by some mines and another old mining (ghost) town called Leadfield. Beyond the ghost town the canyon drive became quite narrow, which made us feel as though we were in an old Western film or an Indiana Jones flick.

With the canyon drive behind us, we made it back to California highway 190 and westward through the park. A few minor points of interest later and we again found ourselves on another dirt road in a desolate area on our way to see the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. These beehive-looking structures were quite remarkable.

Finally, after leaving Death Valley, our last stop was at yet another ghost town named Ballarat. The caretaker was an interesting fellow with a friendly and playful dog. He pointed out a rusty old truck on display and told us it used to be owned by Charles Manson. We didn’t really believe him until we looked it up for ourselves.

The drive home was uneventful, aside from learning that Carl Kartcher had passed away a month earlier when we went into Carl’s Jr. for a potty break and ended up buying a Captain Crunch Shake – it was the first day they started selling them (and they’re actually quite tasty).

As usual we took pictures. Lots of pictures. You can view them at:

Gabe’s photos

Christine’s photos

Sam’s photos

This entry still feels a little dehydrated.