Wednesday, April 20, 2011

4/20/2011 Home again!

We're back! That is, the boys and I are back from our camping trip to Death Valley National Park.

We left Saturday afternoon, April 16, and stayed overnight in Bakersfield. From Bakersfield, it took a stunning 4-1/2 hours to reach the Furnace Creek campground in Death Valley. I really underestimated that -- I thought it'd take 2 hours to get to "Death Valley." But "Death Valley" is 100 miles across in places. Getting to the border still means a long long drive in.

We still arrived Sunday afternoon in enough time to get one of the primo shaded campsites I'd planned on, though not the primo shaded campsite away from the RV generators. Still, the generators weren't bad at all (off at 7pm).

We set up camp and went about exploring the easy sights to get to : Artist's Drive, Zabriskie point (with some hiking), and general acclimation. We arrived in jeans, but it was over 100 degrees and we changed to shorts quickly.

On our way to Artist's Drive, we encountered a stranded motorist who needed only the most basic of equipment: jumper cables. Which of course I had -- doesn't everyone? He'd changed a flat earlier in the day, left his hazards on, and now his car battery was dead. Quick jump, here's some baby wipes for your hands, go get a beer dude! It was 102 degrees and below sea level.

A ranger held a bonfire talk at our campsite that night, where we were treated to a most remarkable moonrise. I wish I had my camera for that, I've never seen anything like it! It was almost like a sunrise in its drama and magnificence and changes, only at night. Meantime, we enjoyed a very animated talk about the wildlife adaptation at Death Valley from the ranger.

It was so hot that night, and the boys were fighting so bitterly, that Gabriel liked the idea of "sleeping under the stars." So he slept outside! Why not!

Monday morning my top #1 goal was to drive Titus Canyon, a 1-way 26-mile road through some amazing canyon formations. I've been through this before, as a passenger on a motorcycle (because mine wouldn't start below sea level, who knew?!), and loved it. It was great to do in a car anyway, and really great with my enthusiastic boys. We stopped to see a lead-mining ghost town, and some Indian petroglyphs.

There's a hike to Fall Canyon at the end, but we quickly realized that 3-mile hikes just weren't going to happen on this trip. Too hot. Well duh -- it is Death Valley. We enjoyed some chowchilla "Hila Monster" lizards, and a zebra-striped lizard, then had lunch in some shade in Titus Canyon, and were on our way to the next adventure.

Next stop: Ubehebe crater! Sounds Hawaiian: Oo-buh-hee-bee crater. A big crater that you can walk around, or down into and back up out of. The boys opted for the latter. Naturally it was easy getting down, but getting back up was brutal. Julian needed a lot of encouragement, but Gabriel had a point to prove, so he pushed it.

On to nearby Scotty's Castle for ice cream (which they didn't have). Julian wanted to take the tour because of the "Junior Ranger" program. The rangers give kids a booklet with things to fill out and projects to do, to show how they've learned about Death Valley. If they complete the booklet, they take an oath and get a handshake and get a badge and a patch showing that they're now a "Junior Ranger."

Julian took the Junior Ranger thing very seriously and really wanted to do a Scotty's Castle Treasure Hunt in the booklet, but I couldn't imagine keeping the boys composed in a "grownup place" for a whole hour. Gabriel was already complaining and didn't want to do it. So we looked at the amazing Scotty's Castle building from the outside and the grounds, but not inside. Julian was happy that he'd found a Desert Holly plant though, crossing off an item on the Bingo page.

Next stop: Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a boardwalk around a salty creek which hosts "pupfish," an unusually adapted fish for this harsh environment. They're small and very active in mating season, which is pretty much always for them. Julian and I walked along the boardwalk and found a ranger to ask questions of. he got to check off "pupfish" on his Junior Ranger bingo. Gabriel stayed in the car.

At the campsite, the boys made some friends. Our next-camp neighbors had 9-year-old twins and a very respectful 13-year-old Boy Scout, all in a military family. I was embarrassed at how poorly behaved my boys were by comparison! Two other boys from two other families joined the fray, and there was hide-and-seek (or rather, hide-and-shoot) going on for hours. They had a GREAT time. The boys went right to sleep this night, Gabriel "under the stars" again.

Tuesday morning, I was increasingly concerned about our total 8.5-hr drive home the next day. Also, we wanted to see Darwin Falls, which was 56 miles from our campsite, though only a few miles from a Panamint Valley Road, a way out of Death Valley.

Using my iPhone for recon, I made a reservation at an EconoLodge in Ridgecrest, and decided that we'd pack up, enjoy sights along the 54-mile drive east to Darwin Falls, then rather than driving back 54 miles west to the campsite, and doing it yet again east to go home the next day, that we'd save ourselves 108 miles of driving by de-camping, visiting Darwin Falls, then going straight south on Panamint Valley Road.

Good plan, and as it turned out, good plan! First stop: Visitor's Center, where we turned in Julian's Junior Ranger booklet that he'd so carefully filled out. He took an oath, shook the ranger's hand, and was awared a "Junior Ranger" pin and patch that he's SO proud of. And I'm proud of him!!

We stopped by a historical borax mining and refining site, but the boys weren't interested. I explored it quickly while they sat in the car. Even with all the windows open, and they're old enough to get out if they need to, I hate leaving them in the car if this heat.

Then we stopped by the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which is really the quintessential desert experience. Boys were not happy; dragging and complaining. It wasn't even "that" hot for Death Valley -- about 94 and with a breeze, so I don't know why they were so lethargic.

Then Mosaic Canyon. Lots of complaining at first, but once they saw how much scrambling there was to do on rocks, they perked right up!! The more technical and interesting the climbing, the better. It was a lovely canyon, and we took a few detours, and they loved it. So did I.

Next stop: Stovepipe Wells, a built-up town, for some water and ice cream, and a few souvenirs. Revived, they were ready for our last adventure: Darwin Falls.

This was an oddball hike in that if you weren't in Death Valley, it'd be just like any other old hike to a falls. But this was Death Valley -- permanent water sources just aren't the norm. The walk through the wide part of the canyon was delightful, then it got narrower and more technical as we had to scramble back and forth across the stream to reach the falls. We did, and found the falls very pretty, but the pool under it very cold. It felt just like melted snow -- and ding ding ding! No wonder! We'd seen plenty of snow-capped mountains from our 100-degree sea-level perspective.

After some fancy hiking back to the car, I got a final test of my offroad motorcyling chops in a big heavy car with 4 wheels (same principles, just applied to a much heavier more cumbersome vehicle with a great deal more mass). The road to Darwin Falls was short (2.5 miles), but with more washboard and big rocks than Titus Canyon had had. Years of un-learning the instinctual Death Grip on steering devices and being comfortable with drifting and sliding served me well here. I'm no expert off-roader, but I'm a lot more comfortable than most paved-only driver, and found I was going much faster than most other cars on the non-pavement.

Once back on the pavement, it was time to say regretful goodbyes to Death Valley.

Panamint Valley Road was only a few miles from the Darwin Falls turnoff, and turned out to be just as fast if not faster than 395N to 190E that I'd taken into Death Valley, and at least 30 miles shorter. Way better.

And so interesting. I've never seen such desolation -- miles and miles of not so much as a road sign or power pole or anything indicating humans other than the road itself. Amazing.

This brought us to Ridgecrest, where we had traffic lights, Denny's, a motel to stay in, and a U.S. Naval Weapons Center that was launching fighter jets on a regular basis right outside our motel. I was in heaven before they were!

Quick breakfast at the motel (thank you!), then we left Ridgecrest at 8:30am and arrived home at 2:00pm, buzzed but gloriously satisfied. Our drive from Ridgecrest was epic -- 5.5 hours with only one short stop for gas, clean windshield, granola bar, bathroom break. This with no DVDs, electronics or food in the car for kids. I'm a hard-core road-tripper, and they're gonna be too! All in all, the trip back was 475 miles, with perhaps 125 done on Tuesday and 350 done on Wednesday (I didn't keep track of the split).

I wasn't so happy about the boys' reluctance to help me unpack the car -- this really has to change -- but we got at last part of the de-camping done. My car is so dusty I don't want to touch it.

This was really an amazing trip. California has so many national parks -- why Death Valley of all places? Simple: because the boys had off school in mid-April, and because most campsites in mid-April are too darned cold. Many of them will be snowed under for months yet to come in fact. There are other places to camp besides National Parks, but there's never any disappointment in those.

Turns out, there are some serious advantages to camping in a Death Valley climate: it's warm. OK, it's hot depending on time of year, but it's nice and warm at night. No heating up water to wash dishes, no setting up tents in gloves, no dreading getting out of the tent in the morning. No foragers in your garbage (but do batten down your bread against birds), no bear risk, no bugs to speak of, and no poison oak. Not a lot of shaded campsites, but #85 in Furnace Creek was one, and worked just fine. And you can sleep outside if you can't stand sharing a tent with your brother.

We couldn't hike as long as I'd expected; the boys pooped out fast in the heat, even on Monday when the temps stayed in the double-digits. I'd have thought the sand dunes would be a huge hit, but they dragged and complained on those. Mosaic Canyon, on the other hand -- the bomb! Lots of cool climbing and features. They loved that. So did I. Quality over quantity for them.

Darwin Falls was probably the highlight, but it struck me that if not for being in Death Valley, it wouldn't be such an unusual hike. Hikes that involve crossing streams multiple times on logs and stones and scaling canyon walls with the climax being a waterfall are dime-a-dozen -- except in Death Valley.

California is an amazing place. Two days ago, I was gazing up at snow-capped mountains from below sea level in 102 degree weather, thinking that a week ago, I'd been skiing. There are more National Parks, National Seashores, National Monuments, National Recreation Areas and National Things that are run by the National Park Service than I can count -- just in this state alone!

I was talking to Gabriel about Yellowstone, and he asked, "isn't there another one in California that starts with 'Y'?" Uhhh, yeah, like, hello, YOSEMITE?! Why haven't we been there?! We live in California for Pete's sake, it feels like a damn-near responsibility to honor these amazing places. And there are yet more remarkable places that aren't National Parks. Where are we going to next?!

Well, for now I can enjoy another lovely memory of a fascinating trip with my wonderful boys, and be so grateful and happy that we have each other to do them with together.


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