Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Death Valley National Park Trip

Death Valley, April 17-19 2011

We went to Death Valley National Park!!

Why Death Valley?!

Mostly because of when the boys' school "spring recess" falls, in mid-April. In most places in California, it's still too cold or snowy to camp. But not Death Valley -- in fact, mid-April is pushing into the "off-peak" season.

We caught the very beginning of "off-peak," when you can no longer reserve campsites, and the weather is transitioning from pleasantly warm to dangerously hot. Death Valley is a so-called "winter park," because of its unique status of being "hottest, driest, and lowest" in the USA.

And Death Valley is a National Park after all. You can't miss on those. I'd been there before, on a motorcycle, and barely scratched the surface of its amazingness.

We left Sunnyvale on a 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 the park. I really underestimated the time -- I thought it'd take 2 hours to get to "Death Valley" from Bakersfield. In fact, it did -- to the western park border. But "Death Valley" is 100 miles across in places, and our campsite at Furnace Creek was closer to Nevada than it was to California. Yikes!

Sunday April 17, 2011

Just the drive from Bakersfield had its share of interesting aspects, starting with a cow delay on scenic Hwy 178 to Lake Isabella.

I also think I took the long way around by taking 395 north up to CA 190, instead of east on 178 to Panamint Valley Road. But we did get to see some fascinating desolation -- and contrasting snow-capped mountains -- along the way.

Crowley Point just entering the Park.

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

I left the boys at the campsite to go to the ranger station to get a camping permit. Looks like we were camping at well below sea level. Cool!

Gas prices in Death Valley -- well above sea level. But what are you going to do?

The Rangers told me about a Junior Ranger program, in which kids are given a booklet filled with activities and games. If they complete a selection of the activities, a real Ranger can validate it and then swear in the kid as Junior Ranger.

Typically, Gabriel poo-pooed it, and Julian took it very seriously. He brought his booklet everywhere, and everything we did had to be relevant to seeing a sight or answering a question in his booklet.

We arrived in jeans, but it was over 100 degrees and we changed to shorts quickly.
We set up camp and then went about exploring a few easy sights to get to.

Zabriskie Point

We started with Zabriskie point. I was very paranoid about doing any hiking without being completely prepared, but a few hundred meters away from the parking lot wasn't really that big a deal, even if it was over 100 degrees.

Incredibly, though it was so hot where we were standing, snow-capped mountains were in view.

Fascinating views, including a peak with frozen lava spilling over it.

The boys wanted to go down into the valley -- though we weren't prepared, I figured a short hike keeping close tabs on the viewer overlook would be OK. And it was.

Incredibly, in this super-harsh climate, some flowers push through and live!

This is one of the easier sights to get to in Death Valley, but no less rewarding.

Artist's Drive

After Zabriskie Point, we drove to "Artist Drive" nearby.

We encountered a stranded motorist who needed only the most basic of equipment: jumper cables. Which of course I had -- doesn't everyone? Turns out, no.

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.

Then, on to scenic Artist's Drive.

Including a few stops to gawk at views. The pictures don't capture it, but the assortment and arrangement of colors (all earth tones, of course) was amazing.

We did a little sightseeing, as Julian was determined to fill in some of his Junior Ranger book, but mostly drove to see the sights in the comfort of the car's A/C.


Our first night, a ranger held a bonfire talk at our campsite. During the talk, 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 cooled down to about 95 degrees that night. Heat or not, marshmallows were a must!

Still, it was so hot Sunday 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 April 18 2011

Titus Canyon

Monday morning my #1 goal was to drive Titus Canyon, a one-way 26-mile road through some amazing canyon formations. I've been through Titus Canyon before in 1994 I believe, as a passenger on a motorcycle, and loved it. It was great to do in a car anyway, and really fun with my enthusiastic boys.

To get to the start of the road, you actually have to drive east out of the park boundary and into Nevada, and then west back into the park.

The start of the road...

...and back into the park.

The first part of the road is straight and easy, we could go about 50mph here.

Kicked up a lot of dust though! (Gabriel took this photo out the back of the car.)

Slower going later through Red Pass. Video-ing while driving -- and to think, people worry about cell phones!

Red Pass. This was much hillier, twistier and redder than most of the road. Really fascinatingly starkly beautiful. Fortunately, sheer dropoffs don't bother me much when there's this much room. Gabriel comments in the video: "I'm scared too, but that's the whole fun!"

The first point of interest after Red Pass is the ghost town of Leadfield. This was a thriving lead-mining town, complete with a post office, for a few short busy years.

We looked at the smattering of old buildings...

...and the mine entrance. People used to live and work here?! Seriously??

Back on the road, we were treated to some more amazing canyon formations. This is entering the actual canyon known as Titus Canyon.

Geologist heaven.

Soon we came across the site where ancient Indian petroglyphs could be found on rocks.

Julian and I climbed up a ways looking for the petroglyphs.

Some joker put a smiley-face here -- this isn't a genuine petroglyph.

Finally Julian and I found the real things.

Back on the road....darn, traffic! This was the 3rd car we came across, so we weren't alone.

The westernmost part of Titus Canyon, toward the end of the one-way road.

Clouds! A rare sight here, as we emerge from the Canyon into the expansive Death Valley itself.

The end! We parked and then walked back in a little ways to find a shady place for lunch and to see it on foot.

We were treated to one of Death Valley's amazingly adapted animals, three chuckwalla lizards (also called "Gila monsters," pronounced "HE-la monster.") They're at least a foot long.

From the Titus Canyon parking lot, I' hadd expected that we'd hike 3 miles to Fall Canyon. But after we set out, it became immediately apparent that 3-mile hikes just weren't going to happen on this trip. Too hot. Well duh -- it is Death Valley. We turned back quickly when it became clear the boys were just not up for any walking-type hiking today.

But not before we saw a zebra-striped lizard. Julian the Junior Ranger candidate recognized it right away.

At least Julian found his Desert Holly plant for his Junior Ranger booklet (even if it was right by the parking lot's permanent port-a-potty).

We were all ready for sit-time after this adventure! We got in the car, cranked the A/C, and drove north to the next sight.

Ubehebe Crater

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.

Amazing geological layers at the top.

That is one deep hole at the bottom!

Though I didn't see the need, the boys really wanted to go down into the crater. I warned them that going up would be a lot more work than going down, but they were all for it.

The boys on their way down (lower right).

At the bottom! Apparently a roughly 700-foot drop.

We made it!

But getting down was the easy part. Running back up from Ubehebe crater -- at first. The boys started off OK, playing and messing around on their way up.

But they weren't running for long! The trail is deep gravel and it's really steep at the top. Julian pooped out soon, and I had do a lot of encouragement and hand-holding to do to get him up the long, steep, slippery climb. Gabriel had a point to prove, so he pushed it and got up quickly himself.

By now we were hot and tired, and ready to search for some ice cream! First order of business: emptying shoes.

We headed to the closest civilization: nearby Scotty's Casey.

Scotty's Castle

Scotty's Castle is a remarkable oasis in this desert, a lavish mansion built by a swindler in the 1920s. Scotty swindled his Eastern friends into thinking he was making tons of money mining -- and hence needed their investment dollars for more equipment. Instead, he was using their money to build this elaborate mansion.

Julian wanted to take the tour of the house because several items in his "Junior Ranger" booklet scavenger hunt only appeared in Scotty's Castle, but Gabriel didn't want to and I wasn't about to drag him along on a one-hour tour.

There was no ice cream in the Visitor's Center, but I was able to appease them with some Gatorade.

Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

We drove south back toward the campground -- a good 40 miles. On the way, we stopped at Salt Creek. Gabriel was exhausted and stayed in the car - all windows open of course, but I'm sure it got very hot in there.

Julian joined me to check out the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail.

The interpretive trail is a boardwalk around a Salt Creek which hosts "pupfish," an unusually adapted fish for this harsh environment. These fish are small and very active in mating season, which was now.

And we did get to see some very active pupfish.

Julian and I walked along the boardwalk and found a ranger to ask questions of, and Julian got to check off "pupfish" on his Junior Ranger bingo.

Even in 99-degree heat, park rangers are very accommodating and friendly to kids.

Salt Creek itself, a rare salt-water creek that dries up entirely in the later part of the summer.

We piled back in the car and cranked the A/C.

The boys were very happy to be reunited with their new camp friends when we got "home." Two more boys joined the fray, and there was hide-and-seek (or rather, hide-and-shoot) going on for hours. Gabriel and Julian spent hours with several other boys playing some variation of hide-and-seek and annihilating each other with Gabriel's archery set.

And to think, kids give up this aggression and violence for the passivity and focus and safety of video games!

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. Their parents call for them and they stop and answer, "OK Mom!" I call for my boys and they completely ignore me.

At least my boys went right to sleep this night, Gabriel "under the stars" again.

Tuesday April 19, 2011

Today my goal was to see Darwin Falls, which was 56 miles from our campsite at the far western side of the park -- and quite close to the road we'd take to get home.

But I was increasingly concerned about our total 8.5-hr drive home the next day. We were going to drive over 50 miles to get to our hiking trailhead today, then 50 miles back to the campsite tonight -- only to drive back the same 50 miles again the next morning to get out of the park to get home? No. I decided we should pack up camp this morning, drive 50 miles to our hiking destination, then head out of the park.

Using my iPhone for recon, I made a reservation at an EconoLodge in Ridgecrest, then spent an hour and a half packing up camp while the boys played with their camp friends. I only had so much energy to insist they help pack up, but luckily our boy-scout camp neighbors pitched in, showing the boys how to roll up their sleeping bags.

First stop: Visitor's Center next to our campground. For now, it's a temporary building in the Furnace Creek settlement while the real one undergoes renovation. It has very unlikely views, like, a lawn?!

It also has a historical 20-mule wagon on display. Fascinating -- how could 20 mules haul enough water for themselves, let alone enough borax, to make their masters profitable -- and alive by the time they got through the Mojave desert?

OK, enough sightseeing. We went into the Visitor's Center to turn 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. I was very proud of him!!

Old Harmony Borax Works

With camp and car packed up, and Julian beaming proudly at his Junior Ranger badge, we headed north to Darwin Falls.

Along the way, I stopped by a historical borax mining and refining site. The boys weren't interested, so I explored it quickly myself while they sat in the car. I hated leaving them in the car in the heat, but they're old enough to get out if they need to.

Borax was the only mineral mined in Death Valley that was ever profitable. It's incredible that any manual labor or transportation ever occurred here. It's actually pretty eerie seeing these buildings in the midst of otherwise desolation.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

The Mesquite Sand Dunes is really the quintessential desert experience -- shades of the Sahara. I'd been there before and found the rolling dunes fascinating.

But the boys were not happy about the sand dunes. They dragged and complained immediately on the short walk we did. 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.

I thought it was pretty amazing, but I had to cram those thoughts into about 20 minutes, which was about their max.

Lots of sand in their shoes though!

Mosaic Canyon

Next stop: Mosaic Canyon.

I had low hopes for another hike after the sand dunes, and indeed endured lots of complaining at first. But ahoy there -- lo the rocks!

Once they saw how much scrambling there was to do, they perked right up. The more technical and interesting the climbing, the better. It was a lovely canyon, with fascinating beautiful rock formations, smooth and elegant, and filled with interesting twists and turns and textures, and lots of shade.

We took a few detours, some for climbing, others for views, and this was great fu. The boys loved Mosaic Canyon, and so did I. This was by far our best outing, we all loved it.

I can't imagine being in this canyon when it rains and it flash-floods!

The interesting part of the canyon is pretty short, leading out to an open dry riverbed. The trail goes far past that, but I'd learned my lesson about hiking here: keep it short.

This rock is amazing -- so pretty and so smooth in places.

Like Titus Canyon, a geologist's paradise. Awesome tilted layered rock formations.

Once we reached the "end" of the tall canyon walls, we played a little. Gabriel climbed up this big rock, so Julian and I couldn't resist following him.

Across the dry riverbed from our climbing rock, the boys climbed up to a little ledge on a cliff.

Then they wanted to walk up to a vantage point.

From there, we could look down on the open dry riverbed area. That big rock island sticking out is not where we climbed up to get photos -- the eensy teensy tiny one on its left is.

The view from the top.

Don't look down!

(Behind them and about 50 feet down is the trail we took to get here.)

We found a shady spot and had lunch, then walked back to the parking lot. This was easy -- slightly downhill, and it looked like a totally different hike in the other direction.

Julian especially had a great time running around the remarkable rock formations, and showing off how much fun he was having.

A place of contrasts -- this beautiful canyon behind me, then this vast flat valley in front.

What a delightful hike! I really learned my lesson from this. The more climbing and scrambling and contours and obstacles, the better. The boys don't do well with just plain old "walking" sorts of hikes -- they need to use their hands.

We drove to nearby Stovepipe Wells, the second-largest settlement in Death Valley, for some much-deserved water, ice cream, and souvenirs. Revived, we were ready for our last adventure: Darwin Falls.

Darwin Falls

This was an oddball hike in that if it weren't in Death Valley, it'd be just like any other old hike to a falls. But this was Death Valley -- leafy trails along gurgling creeks just aren't the norm, so we just had to see it.

The drive to Darwin Falls was a short (2.5 miles) dirt detour off the main road, but with more washboard and big rocks than Titus Canyon had had.

We found the pitted, bare-bones parking lot with barely a sign to indicate the Darwin Falls trailhead. I noticed that the road continued on with dire warnings of 4WD only. Maybe next time!

The walk through the first wide part of the canyon was delightful and started out easy. They boys were in a great mood, and both wanted to hold my hand. We had so much fun talking about what was around us and what the falls would be like.

Lucky us -- another zebra-tailed lizard! Junior Ranger Julian took note of the species with authority.

Green started to appear on the trail. Then a most fascinating rock appearing to teeter atop another looked like it'd tumble off any moment.

Soon the trail got narrower and more technical, and we had to scramble back and forth across the stream as the trail meandered along it. Many areas could only be crossed by teetering on narrow logs that were lain down across shallow river-soaked trail.

In some places, we had to decide if we wanted to climb up across rocks or try to balance on logs across water. Gabriel and I decided to climb in sections like these. (Notice how he hums to himself the whole way.)

As we got closer to the falls, and the "trail" got trickier. I really had to help Julian across this part.

We're there!

We found the falls very pretty, but the pool under it very cold. I think Gabriel thought we were going to play in it like a regular pool -- no way! It got deep too fast and was truly icy cold. And no wonder -- we'd seen plenty of snow-capped 8000-feet-high mountains nearby. This water is the snow runoff.

Getting your feet wet was invigorating, once you got used to it.

Julian opted to play on the trees nearby, and never went into the water.

After some granola bars and creative foot-drying (hankie, anyone), we got our shoes back on and crossed the stream again. Getting back across was just as tricky, but at least we knew what we were in for.

After crossing back from the falls, we took a little climbing detour to get a better view of the falls.

This was a pretty technical place to climb up -- and down. Though Julian is a more agile climber than Gabriel, Gabriel is braver, and went up higher here.

Getting down is always harder!

It always seems faster on the way back, but it was still technical in spots.

Once we were out of the canopied area, the sun was getting low in the canyon, making for some lovely colors.

That was it!

Once we drove back to 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. This road was remarkable in its desolation -- apart from the road itself, there was absolutely no sign of human habitation. For long stretches, there were no signs, no poles, towers, grates, let alone houses. And forget cell service!

It was about 90 miles to Ridgecrest, where we went straight to a Denny's, where milkshakes were our grand welcome back to civilization.

We stayed in a motel right next to a U.S. Naval Weapons Training Center that was launching fighter jets on a regular basis right next door. I was in heaven before the F-18s were!

The next morning, it was a quick breakfast at the (thank you!) motel, then an epic drive from Ridgecrest to Sunnyvale starting at 8:30am, with only one short stop for gas/bathroom/snack/clean windshield. I'm a hard-core road-tripper, and they're gonna be too! This can be done with no DVDs, electronics or food in the car with kids if you're willing to put up with some activity. The boys read much of the time, but at least an hour was spent with, lively entertainment.

All in all, the trip back was 475 miles, with about 125 done on Tuesday and 350 done on Wednesday in 5 hours. We were home by 2pm.

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 beautiful scenic lush national parks -- Death Valley is spectacular in a different way. Plus it's available at a different time of year than others. In April, many park campsites will be snowed under for months to come.

In Death Valley, 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 foraging raccoons 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 down 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. I gazed 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.


(Note: this post was actually completed July 10. It took months mostly because of an excessive number of poor photos taken by a poor photographer with a poor camera. It incorporates the initial thoughts I wrote when we first returned from the trip with photos and video, which say far more about our trip than words can.)

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