Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Death Valley National Park

On the road through the Mohave Desert
The road took us north out of Twentynine Palms and soon we were driving Kelbaker Road through the Mojave National Preserve on our way to Death Valley. The preserve is an enormous 1.6 million acres, about half of which is designated wilderness.

Cinder Cone in the Mojave Preserve.
There are Cinder cones in the lava fields along both sides of the road and we had our first sighting of the large sand dunes that are part of the dramatic landscape of the Mojave.
The Kelso Depot was a good halfway point to stop for lunch and to stretch our legs. Rascal looks forward to these breaks as much as we do. The depot is where the old Salt Lake Line of the Union Pacific Railroad had a stop. The depot building is home to the Mojave Preserve Visitor Center.
There is a lot history in this small stop in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The depot and clubhouse building was built in the 1920's with adobe walls, red roofs and high ceilings in Spanish Mission style. The lavish architecture was intended to attract passengers who liked traveling the Santa Fe Railroad known for its tourist friendly Harvey Houses.
This was a busy place during WWII years. Three shifts worked round the clock freighting iron ore from the Vulcan Mine located just south of Kelso to the steel mill in Fontana California.
General George S. Patton's troops travelled through the station on their way to Desert Training prior to deployment in North Africa. The Mojave was the closest environment to the conditions they would endure in combat.
At wars end the mine closed and diesel engines required few workers to maintain them. The railroad town of nearly 2000 became a ghost town. The depot and old Post Office buildings were preserved through local efforts before becoming part of the National park system.
We found ourselves driving part of old Route 66 as we passed Baker and continued our journey.
There were no vacancies at the  campgrounds in Death Valley National Park so we had made plans to stay a short distance away in Amargosa Valley Nevada.
The RV park was interesting, located right across the street from the Area 51 Alien Center which is a combination diner, Gift Shop and Bordello. The camp host also worked at the diner and encouraged us to try the breakfast menu. The omelets were as good as he promised.
Death Valley National Park has been on our list of must see places since we started this journey 3 years ago. I don't know whether it is from growing up watching 20 Mule Team Borax commercials during episodes of Death Valley Days or a desire to see desert sand dunes but we were happy to have arrived.

We spent 3 days touring the park.
The first day we decided to explore the southern corner of Death Valley National Park. This is a huge site covering 5262 square miles on the border of California ans Nevada, 91% of which is designated wilderness.

The Badlands of Death Valley from Zabriskie Point
We drove in from the Nevada side via rte 190 and made our first stop at Zabriskie Point. This is one of the most popular viewpoints in the park. It overlooks a spectacular area of badlands in golden colors that draw you into the landscape. The overlook is at an elevation of 950 feet. By the time we got to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center we were at 190 feet below sea level.
I was disappointed to learn at the Visitor Center that the wilderness areas were off limits to us, even with the Jeep. Minimum recommendations for visiting remote backcountry areas are 10 ply tires with 2 mounted spares. The sharp volcanic rock surface of Death Valley is deadly to the sidewalls of tires and the service fee for a tow or rescue is $2000.  We sadly decided to leave seeing the magical moving rocks of the Racetrack for another visit.
We consoled ourselves with a picnic lunch and headed for Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level.

Badwater Basin is an incredible sight. I walked a mile out to the end of the salt flat trail and it seemed to go on forever beyond me and I didn't feel any closer to the mountains that ring the valley.
We felt tremendous respect for those early explorers that survived this desolate place. I can't imagine trying to navigate over the sharp volcanic rock on foot or horseback. The sharp irregular lava stone is too big to provide stable footing but is not large enough to use as stepping stones. Walking on it in worn leather shoes and moccasins must have been like wading in broken glass. By the way that glass would have been covered in a crust of salt making the inevitable injuries even more painful.

The rough lava rocks of the salt flats.
Fred and Rascal met up with some climbers while I walked the salt flat (dogs aren't allowed on the trails). The young couple were very enthusiastic about their planned climb and were searching for the remains of a plane that had crashed many years ago. We wished them luck and headed back out toward Artist's Drive.

A distant view of the salt flat
The 9 mile scenic loop was named after the pooled colors on an artists palette. The one way road is narrow and winds between rock cliffs that hand out into the road in places. There was a new view of mineral stained rock around every turn. We stopped at a pull-out and climbed a hill to enjoy the colors of the rock on one side of the road and the vast salt flat on the other.

Artist's Palette
There was one more road on our agenda for the the day, 20 Mule Team Canyon. The canyon's dirt road is only 2.7 miles long but is very steep and gives you an idea of why it took 40 mules to pull a wagon load out of the valley to the train station.

Day 2 found us heading to the Nevada portion of the National Park.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is designated a Wetland of International Importance. It is a desert oasis with 7 natural springs and numerous seeps. This unique environment is home to several threatened and endangered species.

Crystal Spring
We enjoyed a walk through the visitor center and a guided tour on the Crystal Spring boardwalk trail where the volunteer guide pointed out several species of birds and native fish. We were lucky to see some of the brilliant blue Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish in one of the refuges springs.

The tiny sliver of Devil's Hole visible through the mesh.
The deep cavern of Devils Hole is the only known home of the Devil's Hole pupfish. Devil's Hole, surrounded and protected by the wildlife refuge, is part of Death Valley National Park. We drove a little deeper into the refuge and climbed a rocky trail to access it. The spring is very deep, divers have not found the bottom. A small rock shelf near the surface of the spring is where the entire population of the Devil's Hole Pupfish lives. These little fish were made famous in 1976 when the Supreme Court ruled that groundwater diversion be limited enough to protect their rock shelf. The water was being extensively redirected to a local farm in an attempt to grow corn commercially in the desert environment.
The rock shelf of Devil's Hole only gets direct sunlight for a couple of hours a day. Our timing was right but even with binoculars we weren't able to spot any of the elusive swimmers.
We completed our tour with a short hike on the Point of Rocks Boardwalk. I love how the boardwalks at Ash Meadows let you the fragile ecosystem with minimal impact to the environment. We were able to see another spring and also get close to the rocks where there are caves to explore and desert bighorn sheep to spot in the peaks.

With one more day to enjoy the park, and restricted from wilderness areas we decided to start our tour with a visit to Rhyolite Ghost Town near Beatty Nevada. Quartz with gold inclusions was discovered in the these hills in 1904. It didn't take long for miners to arrive and for camps to be established. By 1906 the town of Rhyolite was thriving. The downtown included a school, a 3 story bank, a stock exchange, a hotel and a number of retail establishments. The Opera House held weekly musical events and shows. Baseball, Tennis and Basketball were played. There were dances and parties and even a symphony all paid for in gold from the 2000 mining claims in the nearby hills.
The bank Panic of 1907 had a big impact on Rhyolite. Mines started to close, the banks failed and newspapers went out of business. People dwindled away. The largest mining operation and only employer left in town, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine closed in 1911 and by 1916 Rhyolite was completely abandoned.

Rhyolite Ghost Town
The foundations and walls of some of those buildings remain. A once grand Hotel at the top of the main street is mostly intact. Beyond the ruins you can still see boarded over mines in the hills.

Boarded over gold mine.
It's an interesting place. We found ourselves trying to imagine it as part of a bustling old west story but all I could think of was No Name City from Paint Your Wagon and how it all fell apart.

Wall of the Bottle House
There are some interesting bottle houses in Rhyolite. Tom Kelly and enterprising man and former miner wanted to build a home in Rhyolite. Wood was scarce but the town was home to 50 saloons and the saloons all had an excess of bottles. In 1906 Mr Kelly collected 50,000 of them and used them as building material. He stacked the bottles, mortaring them together to create enough space for 3 rooms. There are a few broken bottles but the house made of glass is the most well preserved home in Rhyolite.

Sand Dunes
We drove back into the California side of Death Valley to walk the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These rolling drifting sand dunes are what I always pictured the desert would look like. MIles of soft hot sand with shapes that change from day to day. They were as impressive as we had hoped and look amazing with the Panamint Mountain range behind them.

Fred and the borax wagon
 Our last stop of the day was Harmony Borax Works. The plant was in operation for about 5 years in the late 1800's, processing up to 3 tons of borax a day. There is a display at the borax works of one of the double wagons that would have been pulled to the train station in Mohave by mules. You can still see clumps of Cottonball Borate ore in the flats near the plant.

Wild burro on the road home.
Fred and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Death Valley. It has been high on our list of unusual places to see and it lived up to our expectations.
When you visit be aware that Scotty's Castle is closed due to flash flood damage and is not anticipated to be open this year. The road to Dante's View is under construction and will not be open until the end of May this year.

Death Valley National Park
328 Greenland Blvd
Death Valley, CA

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
610 E Spring Meadows Rd
Amargosa Valley, NV

Rhyolite Ghost Town
Beatty, NV


  1. Excellent write up, Bonnie! So much to see and do in Death Valley. Love the bottle house!

  2. The bottle house was fascinating. There are some in Prince Wdward Island and one near Carrabelle Florida too. I haven’t found one yet that was open so you could see inside. It must be like a giant stained glass window.