Although things got off to a bad start (with baggage going astray), at least we received a free night in Las Vegas out of the deal. Thank you Southwest.
After breakfast at Sunset Station (one of the many casinos in Las Vegas), we headed off for Death Valley. Once west of Beatty, NV, we found the Titus Canyon dirt road and headed off for our first Death Valley adventure. We were very glad that we rented an SUV. It’s needed on dirt roads in this area. After crossing a flat plain, we began to climb up to Red Pass. We passed by rugged valleys and mountains with impressive depths and heights. The switchbacks provided exciting thoughts of plunging over steep embankments as well as panoramic views of the surrounding hills. At Red Pass, we climbed out and took pictures of the hills set against a brilliant blue sky. I climbed partway up one of the hills for the exercise and a better view of the pass.
the way down the other side of the pass, we passed a dark canyon in black
rock off to our left. This area spoke longingly to me about exploration
but we didn’t have time. Time is a curse at various points in life.
Down the road a piece was Leadfield, an abandoned lead mining town that
boomed for less than a year. We got out and looked around at the
two rusted tin buildings, walked the now abandoned streets and listened
to the silence. I love desert silence. It’s so intense.
It contains for the most part a bit of a breeze and maybe a very occasional
bird call. It’s the perfect sound to silence the mind and heart.
If one sits still long enough, even your thoughts will calm down to nothing.
"Be still and know He is God." I wish I had the leisure to do that
now. I had fun poking around the buildings and also taking a slow
exposure of the gated mine tunnel. Other people were out and about
as well, enjoying Titus Canyon’s secrets.
Our next stop was Klare Spring. Mark and Susanne who were sitting up front spotted a bighorn sheep crossing the road. This situation shouted “Photo op!” The others trained binoculars on him as he meandered up the slope of the mountain, while I leapt over boulders and ran up banks to get some shots. When the excitement died down, we took time to look at the petroglyphs on the big rock near the spring. I joked that the Native Americans poked at rocks for after dinner entertainment, a primitive form of Pictionary. Why should the Indians act more solemn than the white man?
As we continued down the road, we entered the narrows of the canyon. I rolled down the window and leaned my head and shoulders out in order to get a fuller view of the depths and heights. This is when a convertible would have come in handy. The heat factor varied between t-shirts in the sun to light jackets in the shade if a wind kicked up. Perfect hiking weather. How can one go on to describe the canyon narrows and sense of awe to someone without having been there? It’s one of those “you gotta be there” scenarios. We eventually exited the narrows and popped out into the valley, stopping for a view of the vast desert plain.
Then we continued down the dirt road to paved highway and headed north to Scotty’s Castle. It was neat to ride up the valley with the mountains on both sides, rising 4-5000 feet vertically above the valley floor. The valley is in shades of brown, not the most thrilling color. Guess the effect lies in the awesome size of the place. I was reminded of a friend of mine’s remark “This place looks like a landfill.” He expressed this opinion in the southern section of Grand Staircase-Escalante which is practically all gray. I'm sure he might have made the same remark about Death Valley. We encountered a coyote along the side of the road who looked well fed. I thought it might be a dog inbred into the pack. I tried to get a shot and failed. We saw approximately 5 coyotes this week but I didn’t get a single photo.
Scotty’s Castle was a great example of Italian architecture. We opted out of the tour as it would have taken too long, and so simply toured the grounds. One special moment took place as I was taking some shots of a spiral staircase. (The pictures didn’t turn out though) As I knelt there focusing on the railings, someone was playing the organ inside. It created a neat atmosphere. The people who built the castle were Christians and felt this to be a spiritual retreat. I definitely understand why. As I toured the grounds, circling the separate bell tower, the clock struck the 15 minute hourly strike. Boy, was that loud. And to think that someone lives in the bottom of that tower!
Then I climbed the hill behind the “castle” to Scotty’s grave and took a shot. I noticed that behind the hill, were piles of logs. They were brought by the millionaire owner to burn in his fireplace. He was one of those people who really stockpiled for the future. There were also some rusted cars about so the motif of shades of brown were all around.
After finishing there, we drove off to the Death Valley Sand Dunes to catch the sunset casting its last rays onto the dunes. The air was calm so no blowing sand was about. We hiked out a small piece, enjoying that "sinking" sensation one feels when walking on sand. Couldn’t get as great of a shot as I wanted. The grains were definitely from rocks in the area as of course, it’s all brown.
Then we went down to the Furnace Creek campground (-193 feet below sea level) to set up camp in the swiftly darkening evening. After setting up camp, it was time to fire up the stoves to make hot water for some bagged pasta. Mountain House dehydrated foods taste pretty good, not your typical cardboard taste.
With full tummies we laid back along the seats of the aluminum picnic table and gazed at the stars. Even though the half-moon was lighting up the western sky, we were still able to see quite a few stars anyway. We saw 5 – 6 shooting stars. The first one looked like fireworks, slow and bright. Poor Misu was unlucky as she didn’t see one shooting star. It takes luck to see them. One has to let one’s eyes become lazy and then you seem to catch them out of the corner of your eye. The tent that I stayed in had a mesh ceiling and sides so one could glimpse stars through the branches of the tree overhead. Around 10:30pm and 4:30am the coyotes started yipping. It sounded like we were surrounded by a ring of coyotes. Good sound effects for a desert night.
Before breakfast I went for a small walk across a large baseball size field of dried mud near the campground. The sun hit the mountains to the west first, making them turn almost red, towards the pink end of the spectrum. Gorgeous. Across the road in the golf course a duck started quacking and a seagull answered. Who would have thought that water fowl would come into the desert?
At 8:30, we drove back up the Titus Canyon Road to the mouth of the narrows. After parking we piled out of the SUV and put daypacks on for the Fall Canyon hike. There isn’t any sign for Fall Canyon so one has to have either read or hear about it by word of mouth. An older couple (early 60’s and in great shape) who overtook us later said that they heard about Fall Canyon through a ranger talk the night before. They said they have been in Death Valley nearly two weeks and still haven’t seen the whole place. That is a very true statement because this is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. I wonder if any desert rat has seen it all.
We puffed a bit at first coming up over some small hills. What really wears one out is the gravel in the wash. It moves a bit like marbles putting you back a ¼ step or so for each step you move forward. I sure wouldn’t want to be in a wash after a rain storm. The walls of the canyon are about 3-400 feet high. I’m not really good at assessing heights but what I saw was very impressive. The canyon’s curves and bends make one wonder what lies just around the corner. I attempted to capture that effect on film, with some success. What can be more intriguing (or frustrating for some) than to see a picture which says “Come, follow this path and see what’s around the corner.”
About 2 miles or less into the hike, a steep 75 foot hill presented some fun in that after reaching the top, one could look over the edge into a small side canyon. It was crumbly towards the top, not fun to climb but challenging nevertheless. At the top one could put one leg on one side of the ridge and one on the other, straddling two canyons. It is so neat to be up high, looking down on the world from a slightly precarious position. We cautiously returned, trying not to launch a mini rock avalanche.
We meandered on for a ways and then stopped for a snack. This was a good place to hear the desert silence if one wasn’t munching.
After a short walk we came to the first side canyon that begged to be explored. We went up a short piece before being blocked by a 13-foot fall. These falls are dry waterfalls. This one had a slight incline but was mostly vertical. Mark challenged me to climb it and I demurred at first, then couldn’t resist the challenge. I climbed up about 7 feet and knew that my hiking boots would no longer hold me on the small rock ledges any longer. I also felt my center of gravity going backwards into empty space, so, I fell, with assistance to cushion the fall. Glad my camera didn’t get hurt. I wasn’t hurt and was now wiser (hopefully) about challenging falls. (Turned out later that I had only slightly learned that lesson. Do I have a hard head or what?) Mark attempted the fall but failed as well, not as disgracefully as myself. My diagnosis is that it can only be climbed by a skilled rock climber with proper equipment. The grotto above the fall promised to be exciting but sadly unattainable.
Back at the main canyon we pressed on to an 18-foot fall blocked by a boulder. According to the hiking book we looked for the side route. It was a doozy at first for those who are afraid of climbing. Suzanne was the only one with fear problems but I’m glad to note that she overcame them for the present. I climbed the small chimney first. Mark scrambled up after me to secure a rope. The rope really wasn’t used much but it was there for a sense of security and for safety reasons.
As we popped around the top of the fall, we noticed a nice rock art lizard. Someone had made a lizard out of colored rocks on a larger rock surface. Neat. There is something about these rock walls that inspires the artistic side of the soul. We decided to eat lunch right there at the top of the fall, watching the older couple cruise by. This lunch area was at the beginning of a nice tight narrows spot. If one is not moved by the awesomeness of the place, one has a thick sludge over their soul.
After lunch (a bit cool in the shade) we meandered along the narrows. The narrows curved gracefully through slickensides, for about ½ mile. The walls were mostly gray with some brown variations and marble textures, quite different from the orange and red canyon walls of Utah. I plan on visiting those slot canyons someday as well.
Misu picked up some hitchhiker cactus type leaves on her sweatshirt. Those leaves did not want to come off. They clung so persistently that she is going to throw away the sweatshirt.
At the end of the narrow section, I climbed up some type of stone which overlooked some more of the canyon. I also took a look at the cottonball cactus perched there. The rock had an unusual surface. It was laced with a network of lines like tic-tac-toe, that was very effective in helping you walk up a steep incline instead of climbing on hands and knees. Down in the wash we came across parts of the cottonball cactus that had dried up. Nice fluffy stuff.
By 2pm the sun had warmed up the canyon and so some of the bushes were releasing their scent into the air. The smell of the mesquite and creosote bushes reminded me of hiking in Utah. A most pleasant and fresh smell. Some of the mesquite bushes were sporting yellow flowers.
As far as wildlife was concerned, we noticed some small orange butterflies flitting about. They also seemed to be dieing, falling along the bottom of the canyon. Short life. We spotted some bighorn sheep or deer tracks near the low water holes. Something startled me as I rounded a corner near a rock ledge. I passed about 6-12 inches near something and saw him move out of the corner of my eye. My first thought was “Snake!” Instead, it was a foot long lizard lying on the rock ledge. I took some shots of him. I also saw other small 3 – 5 inch lizards in various places in the canyon. In one part of the narrows we came across our first tarantulas. Suzanne and Misu nearly plowed into them at first but leapt back in time. Those guys are hairy and scary. We made good time walking out which was faster than going in. The air temperature had also risen as well.
After stretching and piling back into the Blazer, we returned to the sand dunes for a better look at them. I wanted to feel the sand beneath my bare feet, and so removed my boots and socks. Eventually we all “lost” our shoes and enjoyed the soft sensations of cool and warm sand beneath our soles. Mud flats were located in between some of the dunes which Misu found interesting. While we rested, she went on to climb some of the higher dunes. I spent a portion of my time studying the lizard and bird tracks running through the sand.
One neat thing about Death Valley is that they use their snowplows for dirt plows as well. Both extremes may be experienced in Death Valley. They have to remove the dirt that tends to either wash or blow across the roads and the snow which covers the western pass into Death Valley.
Showers are an important part of camping…if they can be had. Good thing the “ranch” next door had showers. We had to use the pool area which provided the showers. As we walked up to the pool, there was country western style “old timers” music playing, which featured several older men playing fiddles and guitars. At first I felt like I was invading a party, but that was not the case. They were playing outside the pool area at the adjacent basketball court. Older couples were dancing the Do Ci Do or whatever step one does to that style of music. It was fun to absorb the ambience of old fashioned fun that the older couples were having. I could imagine my older aunts and uncles dancing to Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight.
Today was a “relaxing” day in that no long trips were planned, just short stuff. This morning we got an even earlier start at 8:00 and so proceeded up to the Harmony Borax Works. This historic landmark was up the road a small piece from the campground. The site held had some tall wagons which were the 18 wheelers of their day, and buildings that are crumbling down from the erosion caused by time.
Then we drove through Mustard Canyon which contains medium size hills that look like a petrified yellow sand pile. Not that thrilling. Kids would have fun playing in it though.
On to the Visitor Center to buy posters, postcards and miscellaneous, to view the exhibits and to pay our entrance fee. One could get by without paying it during the off-season since the rangers seem to be nonexistent at a couple of the entrance booths. But one should be a good steward and give some money to the parks for maintenance purposes.
Off to Artist’s Drive to have some fun exploring. As I read the book on hiking, it noted that the two Dip canyons were well worth climbing into. When the author mentioned a dip, he meant a dip, not some causal barely there hollow. So, we stopped off at the first dip and walked into the canyon. It contained a couple of scrambling points. The first was a decent 10-12 foot fall which was doable with tennis shoes. Mark and Misu went up first to explore while Suzanne and I waited below, ready to hand belay them on the way back down. Suzanne and I practiced, having her climb up and come back down the slope while I guided her feet. She needs to gain lots of confidence in her skills as a climber, and this can only be done by practice, like so many things in life.
Eventually they returned, and it was our turn to scramble up. No problem for me. I went on ahead and enjoyed “discovering” the canyon narrows for myself. Suzanne joined me later. This is a fun short canyon which is golden colored.
We worked our way back out and went to the Second Dip canyon. This one was more interesting in that this involved more boulder hopping and climbing sections. I forged ahead as usual, liking to meet all the challenges first. I love boulder climbing and rock scrambling. This canyon also held some good narrows. We had to stop at a 15-20 foot fall. I climbed up most of the way to a hanging rope left by rock climbers. In the alcove above, they’d left some webbing as well. I really acted stupid in climbing up that fall. I descended safely but it just wasn’t safe enough from getting the possible broken leg or arm. Remember yesterday? When will I learn? I took plenty of photos. I loved that canyon for its twists and turns. It’s so fun to explore. I guess these canyons make me feel like a child running through table legs and around behind furniture.
Next stop was the Artist’s Palette, a hills area colored by faint pinks, purples and greens. It was not as colorful as one computer shot I saw of it. A slight disappointment.
Then on to Natural Bridge. It’s another touristy place, but minus the throngs because one must drive up a dirt potholed road for about 2 miles. As the others gathered themselves together, I started to wander up the trail slowly, enjoying again the deadening sound of silence. I asked the first couple I encountered coming back down the trail as to whether they liked it or not. They said it wasn’t that thrilling, that is if you were expecting something like Utah’s formations. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dramatic as that…and it wasn’t because of the type of rock it’s made of, layered with that “lovely” brown coloring so prevalent in Death Valley. I also encountered an older, slightly overweight couple who said it took some real effort to get to the bridge. I guess it felt more difficult because of the pebble effect slipping under the feet. I had to smile after I passed them, thinking of what their comments would be about the medium sized canyon hike we did yesterday. They would never have made it to the mouth of Fall Canyon. The .5 mile walk to Natural Bridge wasn’t that bad.
Once there, it gave us some feeling of awe as the height between the span and the wash beneath was pretty impressive. Misu started clambering up onto the bridge and I had to follow suit. I can’t be outdone. I had Mark take my picture, something to scare others with. At one narrow point on the descent, I thought about vertigo and that was enough to cause me to be more careful. I didn’t experience vertigo, just thought about experiencing it.
Next stop was the famous Badwater pool and salt flats. This place held the most tourists since it's very accessible. There was a good sized puddle there and some people were dabbling their feet in it. I took some reflective mountain shots and also some of the salt crystal formations. I didn’t get to see the blinding white salt flats up close. The salt I saw near the puddle had some dirt mixed in with it.
Next stop was the Devil’s Golf Course which is made up of humps of salt mixed with dirt that hold tiny salt formations inside them…if you are lucky enough to find a good formation.
Then our last stop of the day was to drive up to Dante’s View, about 5,000 vertical feet above Badwater. Along the way we passed an active mine called the Billie Borax Mine. It’s outside the valley but still in the park. It was cooler on the viewpoint, a welcome change in summer I’ll bet. I followed both trails from either side of the parking area, taking in the views of the valley, admiring the silence yet again.
On the way back, the sky really put on a show of pinks and reds.
This morning was cloudy, not overcast, just lots of clouds. While we ate breakfast a coyote came jogging along the golf course road which is next to the campground. We heard their howls last night as usual.
We started out on our trip to Marble Canyon. I changed the trip from Grotto Canyon which contained lots of climbing, to Marble per Suzanne’s wish. She wished to forgo the climbing in lieu of viewing petroglyphs. The hiking book promised some good narrows in Marble as well, so that was good. After one wrong turn we tried an obscure road that led past an airstrip at Stovepipe Wells campground and then finally saw the sign for Marble and Cottonwood canyons. We scooted across the sand on Mesquite Flat for about 8 miles before getting to the mountains. They (the mountains) look closer than they appear out there in the desert air. As we neared the mouth of the large main wash, we came across a VW van parked in a large area that looked neat for solitary camping.
Then right after that spot, things started to get rough. We went down a small incline into the wash and Suzanne started becoming concerned about the weather and the condition of the road. When we stopped for some things at the store this morning, I checked in at the Furnace Creek Ranch front desk for current weather. It was supposed to be cloudy and windy. Well, the clouds were there as I mentioned previously. Since we were driving up a large river size wash, Suzanne was convinced that it was going to rain and that we were going to get hit by a flash flood. I mentioned once to her that the weather forecast did not foresee this, although I must admit that the clouds looked black and ominous. She even had me a bit concerned about the possibility of flooding. Driving in a riverbed can be thought provoking but I wouldn’t have suggested the trip if there was even a hint of rain.
After bumping along for 45 minutes or less, we found a place to park the Blazer on higher ground. The track was becoming more indistinct by the minute. We got out and continued walking up the canyon. It was neat to be out in a little traveled area again. We didn’t meet anyone on this hike, or any other vehicles except the VW van. I forged on ahead as usual, mostly putting on speed to distance myself from Suzanne’s insistence that we go back. “Never retreat!!” The desert silence surrounded me except for my feet making crunching sounds on the wash gravel underfoot. I imagined what it would be like to camp alone in the desert for a few days. Lots of modern people would not be able to handle the solitude. They would have to think and face themselves and their problems square in the face. The desert or any quiet place in nature, is definitely a place to do a little soul searching.
We followed some Jeep tracks into the canyon and watched how they went over some seemingly impassable stuff. I looked continuously for petroglyphs. The author of the hiking book wouldn’t say where they were, in order to defeat further graffiti over them. After about a mile of walking from the parked Blazer, I stopped at a narrower part of the canyon and waited for the others to come into view.
On into the canyon, craning the neck at the tall walls, looking for petroglyphs, trying to think like an Indian bent on "graffiti". The first narrows we came to were good, a bit on the mysterious side.
After the canyon opened up again, we came to the first side canyon and stopped for a snack break. Suzanne and Misu decided to eat their lunch at 10:30 instead of a snack, since they were hungry. I meandered up the way a bit and decided to write my name on a rock using a smaller rock. I scrambled up to a ledge, inscribed my name, and drew a picture of a lizard. Lizards seem to be a motif here. Took a picture of my pictograph and went back. I guess the next few rains may drip under the ledge and wash it away, or the scouring sand will obliterate it.
We came to a chock stone blocking the canyon and followed the bypass around it. It’s been there for quite some time because its edges have been rounded off. The power of water is mighty.
The wind report came into action, causing us to get wind burned later. Hearing that wind whistle through the next set of narrows was a bit scary as one could easily imagine a wave of water coming down the chute. We heard military jets just out of sight which took away some of the peacefulness and added to the thoughts of rushing water. As we entered the second narrows, I could've sworn I heard a tarp blowing up on a ledge just out of sight. Mark went to check it out but didn’t see anything. Maybe it was up on the ledge just above that one. Don’t know how you’d camp up there unless you were a rock climber.
The second set of narrows were awesome! Nice smooth gray walls. We finally spotted some petroglyphs. They did have graffiti over some of them caused by people carving their names and dates into the walls over the faint and older petroglyphs. One neat example of graffiti was of a person from 1913 or 1906 indicating water 5 miles away. Prospectors I bet. I wonder if they were awed by the narrows as well.
Just past the narrows we stopped for lunch again. Quite windy. Sat there listening to the jets practicing. Even got to see one shoot out over the wall of the canyon. I was pointing and yelling from excitement because I'm still a "jet freak" someone who loves airshows.
I noticed more rock art in the mud and sand near my lunch spot. Someone had made a cross with a circle around it. The sun came out in full force so most of Suzanne’s fears were allayed. Misu was in full climbing attitude and climbed quite a ways up in a couple of places.
I explored a small side box canyon. You could see where water comes down off of a ledge during a rain storm. Nothing to photograph. Another area offered a good photo of a cottonball cactus. Followed a path up a gully a small piece and I think it was a bighorn sheep trail.
Then it was time to go back down the trail since Suzanne was still a bit antsy. I lagged behind to enjoy some more silence and photography. Earlier on our trip we came across a pair of tarantulas. On our return we found them again…except that one of them had disappeared and the other was dead. Maybe they did battle while we were gone. A dead tarantula is a good tarantula.
Emerging back out of the canyon, we walked our mile back to the vehicle, trying to walk along the packed mud stream rims instead of the rolling pebbles. That makes quite a difference as one felt like one was moving faster. It feels like the difference between trying to walk in rollerskates vs. tennis shoes.
Poor Misu took a spill, in that she tripped right over a stick and fell flat. After climbing high rocks and escaping without a scratch, the stick did her in. It’s not the rock climbing accidents you have to think about, it’s the fall down the basement steps that will put you in traction. She split a small portion of her knee open, not enough for stitches but it cut a gash. I whipped out the first aid kit and used bandages and antibiotic cream. She managed to hobble out the rest of the way. We were quite glad this happened at the end of our hiking adventures rather than at the beginning.
Then we drove back the cobblestrewn road, jerking our heads about until I had somewhat of a stiff neck. A small price to pay for solitude.
Misu wanted to see Ubehebe (oo-ba-hee-bee) Crater so we drove up there right before sunset. It was a neat dark and deep crater, small I guess by some volcano standards. I liked the small rounded gravel along the rim which reminded me of small kernels of Capt’n Krunch, albeit black in color. We also took some dusk gathering minutes to plod up the hill against the cold wind to Little Ubehebe Crater adjacent to Mama.
On the way back to camp, I wanted to stop by Mesquite Springs campground. We meant to camp there on Thursday night but were waylayed by the missing luggage. After driving around it looked like we didn't miss anything by not staying there
It was still windy as we packed up the tents, attempting to sweep them out. Good thing we’d put on the rainflies yesterday because that prevented a lot of sand from coming into the tent. I did shake some out of my clothing this morning that had lain on top of my sleeping bag the previous night.
On our way out of Death Valley, we stopped at Zabriskie Point for some photos. The shadows were just right on the landscape which would look quite nice in black and white photography. Who knew that browns could be so beautiful?
Then it was adieu to Death Valley. Will I come back again? Who knows. One thing I didn’t count on was hitting CA twice in one year. And yet another adventure given to us by the Maker of the Universe. I am glad for so much diversity of scenery in the earth.