Teresa and I had both wanted to visit Death Valley National Park for quite sometime. We had tried to plan a trip in winter 2004/2005, but the main road through the park had washed out due to hundred year flooding. This time, the friendly grim reaper smiled upon us and allowed us to enter the valley, which sits mostly below sea level, on the newly repaired highway. Death Valley is also the largest National Park in the mainland USA. The valley is so named due to the extremely hot temperatures that occur in the summer. A record of 134 degrees Fahrenheit occurred in 1913. According to eyewitnesses, birds dropped dead to the earth in mid flight! Why does this occur? The topography is a dead giveaway. Salt laden water enters the valley but cannot escape, forming a dry salt lake. Like the water, the high mountains surrounding the valley trap the hot air too. So you might be experiencing a typical summer day in the valley at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but head up to the mountains (which reach 11,000 ft) and it might only be 80 degrees. Teresa and I experienced a night in the 20’s up in the mountains, followed by a somewhat uncomfortable night in the 60’s closer to the valley. This 40 degree difference is typical between mountain and desert floor. Oddly enough, even with all of that heat, Death Valley has more water than we were used to seeing in many desert valleys, perhaps due to it’s elevation below sea level.
For us, the Death Valley name turned out to be quite accurate, especially with relationship to our vehicle. There’s plenty of backcountry roads in the park to explore, and some are extremely remote. Rangers recommend bringing at least two spare tires, camping/survival gear, and plenty of water in case you are stranded. We had a fascinating visit to Scotty Castle and Ubehebe crater.
Afterwards, we headed out on one of the most heinous roads I’ve ever driven. We drove this road to visit the famous Racetrack Playa. Large rocks appear to move along the dry lake bed, leaving tracks in their wake through the mud. No one has ever seen these rocks move, and two main theories exist as to how they move. Both theories involve heavy wind (which we experienced), but one suggests an icy playa surface is required while the other suggests that a slick muddy surface (recent rains) is all that’s needed to allow the rocks to move. Why no one has figured this out yet is beyond me. Why no one has seen them move also confounds us. But maybe one of those weirder theories might explain the mystery of Racetrack Playa: Aliens perhaps?
So here we are driving down 27 miles of this wash-board gravel road with only one spare tire. While the road wasn’t technically difficult, I have NEVER seen such intense wash-boarding on a gravel road! (Remember, I’ve driven plenty of gravel roads). On our way out, we saw a brand new abandoned Volvo XC90. We learned later that it had a broken tie rod end (basically, the part that helps hold the wheel on) and required a $1500 four-wheel drive tow job. Oddly enough, we even saw a few sedans driving down the road (and you can be sure none of them had extra spares)! We feel pretty secure with our 10-ply Bridgestone AT Dueler Revos. We enjoy a night and a day out near the playa, exploring the paths these rocks have made in the lake bed, as well as an interesting rock outcrop known as the Grandstand. On our way back, I notice a funny smell. I explored under the hood, but found nothing. It’s cool enough that I know my car couldn’t be overheating, but I turn off the air conditioner just in case (and to make Teresa happy). Beyond the gravel, we stop at a gas station, I look under the rear of the car and see this:
Basically, our shocks started leaking this stinky oil, allowing a friction heat build-up from the intense wash-boarding. As you can see from the photo, my rear shock casings melted! We ended up spending two days and about $300 in Tonopah, NV having both rear shocks replaced.
Because we had lost two days, upon returning to Death Valley, we kicked into high gear for a couple of action packed days. We enjoyed our exploration of well preserved Charcoal Kilns, exploration of the old gold mining town of Skidoo, a beautiful sunset and sunrise at Zabrinski Point overlooking multicolored badlands, a 5 mile loop through Golden Canyon, Red Cathedral, and Gower Gulch through the badlands (as viewed from Zabrinski Point), a short hike out to a natural bridge, and a drive by the Artist’s Palette (multicolored mineral deposits on the side of a mountain). We also visited the Devil’s Golf Course. The “golf course” is part of the salt basin where the salt and minerals are so concentrated that the crystals create bizarre, jagged formations. It is said that only the Devil himself could play a round of golf on this course. People have gotten cuts, bruises and even broken bones trying to simply walk on the Devil’s Golf course, much less, play a round of golf. Have at it Tiger!
We ended our Death Valley and Southern California experience with an anticlimactic stop at Badwater Basin, shared with hundreds of other tourists. This is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 ft below sea level. Not too surprising, there is actually water at this low point, but the water was considered “bad” when an early explorer’s mule would not drink from it due to the high salinity. We continued south out of the park, seeing maybe six cars during the 50 or so miles we drove (apparently, no one visits the South end of Death Valley National Park). That night, we ended up camping on some BLM land just outside the park and saw a kit fox that was very interested in our cooking.
We’ll see you in Vegas baby!
PS We are currently in a very “compressed” part of our trip. Unfortunately, we have a few appointments which are causing us to race through some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. We’re still having fun, but will not have the time to provide you with many videos or blog updates for the next 2-4 weeks or so. We should be able to catch up, including new videos pictures when we have time to “rest” in Colorado in June.