A week in Death Valley

Hudson Henry, atop Ubehebe Peak, or thereabouts. (Photo credit: Susan)

After a lovely three-day drive down through Oregon, Nevada and California, we landed in Death Valley National Park, the first destination of this year’s travels.

Despite its reputation for inhospitality, Death Valley is an unbelievably interesting place to stay, especially in the spring, before the high heat of the summer arrives. The main basin is at or below sea level, but it is surrounded by multiple mountain valleys and dunes, with plenty of wildlife (and wildflowers at the right time of year), beautiful vistas and more. Like many of the larger national parks, it’s just about impossible to see the whole thing in one extended visit.

Rick cooking in the outdoor kitchen at our campsite in Mesquite Springs. (Photo credit: Susan)

We spent seven nights in the park, staying at the Mesquite Springs campground in the northern part of the park. It was a great place to stay, largely off the beaten track, with spacious sites scattered through the campground. It was only full for one or two nights during the week we were there, and was definitely a place we’d go back to if we were passing through.

There was a serious storm front hitting the West Coast during our visit (according to friends, it is still raining in Portland), but, with the exception of one stormy night, we had gorgeous weather: temperatures during the day stayed in the high 80s, and in the 50s at night, with big puffy clouds passing overhead (including a few lenticular clouds here and there). As is the case with most of the desert climes we’ve visited, we had to deal with the wind, but it wasn’t bad enough that we felt the need to leave early.

Sunset from camp, complete with budding lenticular clouds.

For the first part of our stay, we were joined by our dear friend (and adventure photographer extraordinaireHudson Henry for some photographic and hiking adventures. Hudson had just climbed nearby Mt. Whitney with some friends, and went from being at the highest point in the continental U.S. to the lowest point in a matter of days.

Getting a sense of scale

When I was young and thought of what a desert would be like, I knew that it would be expansive, but very little prepares one for the crazy ‘bigness’ that is a place like Death Valley. The valleys (there are many) are vast and open, the mountains and hills huge, the canyons large, and the vistas go on for miles. (One day, Hudson and I drove from under 500 feet of elevation to 5,500 feet in the space of 90 minutes) Susan and I have been through some ‘big’ places in our travels (Moab and Canyonlands come to mind), and Death Valley was right up there.

On our first full day in camp, Susan and I hiked around Ubehebe Crater, not far from our campground. There are two craters there, actually, a big one and a little one, and the hike around the big one was brisk, with some elevation gain. But, if you look at the picture below of the big crater, you can get a sense of scale of the crater: try to find the tiny cars directly across the crater. That’s the parking lot where the FJ was sitting.

We didn’t visit a lot of the ‘easy’ places in the northern part of the park, and on our second day, we decided to go to the Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed (much like a smaller version of the Alvord Desert) that is home to the famous “sailing stones” of Death Valley. The 2-hour drive to the Racetrack was pretty gnarly, 25 miles of rutted, rocky, washboarded dirt road, but it was worth it: we had beautiful skies for the majority of the day. Susan, Hudson and our new friend Michael—who works for one of Hudson’s sponsors—hiked to the top of Ubehebe Peak, above the playa, where Susan got that amazing shot that’s at the top of this page (that’s the shot of the week, in my mind). They think they actually missed getting to the top of Ubehebe Peak, but they did a pretty tough climb, regardless. (I knew my knees wouldn’t make it easy, so I stayed below, working on a time lapse on the playa.)

We had planned to stay overnight at the Racetrack, to shoot dawn over the playa, but the winds came up pretty strong, and the skies looked a bit threatening, so we ate a quick dinner and drove home in the dark, arriving safely in time for bed.

Halfway to the top of the pass out of the Saline Valley.

We did a few more hikes through the week, but Hudson and I decided to go for one more adventure before he left: we took another very long drive over washboarded dirt roads—and through two amazing valleys—to see the Eureka Dunes, which are the tallest sand dunes in the U.S. When we started out, the day was perfect; our drive through (and up out of) the Saline Valley was beautiful. As we climbed about halfway (to 2,500 feet), we stopped and took a few shots of our surroundings. At the top of the ridge, we came upon the remnants of an old, abandoned sulphur mine. We stopped for a bit to take a few photos, and headed down into the Eureka Valley, where we got to witness a storm moving across the valley floor. We stopped again; I took a few photos, while Hudson did a timelapse of the moving storm. While the skies looked foreboding, we were within a few miles of the dunes, and wanted to push on. (The skies changed pretty quickly from clouds to clear during our time in Death Valley, so it was entirely possible that we’d still have some good light at the dunes around sunset.)

Storm passing across the Eureka Valley floor.

As we approached the dunes, what hit us most was again the scale: these dunes were massive! And, as we got closer, the sheer size of the dunes made it clear that photographing them was going to be a challenge, no matter what the light was like.

We drove along the largest dune for a while, and got out to take a look at the scene. The skies were darkening, but we could still see shafts of sunlight here and there (and big blue skies with puffy clouds over in the Saline Valley behind us). We each took a few more photos, but ultimately agreed that the light wasn’t going to be our friend on this day, and that we’d have to move around to try and find a good angle to capture something decent.

As we drove behind the big dune, the skies kept getting darker. We didn’t feel any rain, and we still felt that we might see this pass over us. Hudson set up a timelapse, and I played around with some ultra wide angle lenses, seeing if I could get something salvageable out of the trip.

Ultimately, the weather won: in the middle of Hudson’s timelapse, the winds started picking up, and we were greeted by a couple huge bolts of lightning up in the mountains behind us. With that we wrapped up the timelapse, put our stuff into the FJ and hightailed it out of the valley. The ride back was bare-knuckled driving for me: as we climbed higher to the top of the pass, the temperature kept dropping, and as we approached the summit, it was 37°. That was when the sleet started coming. When we drove by the abandoned sulphur mine, there was a coating of slush over everything, and the road was extremely slick. Luckily, as we dropped in elevation, the road was passable, and we were able to get back to camp just as the worst of it was upon us.

The storm is upon us. (Shot with an ultra-wide angle lens, which is why the dune looks so small.)

The three of us had a cozy supper in the Escape, and we introduced Hudson to Five Crowns, our regular after-dinner card game. When we bid adieu to our friend the next morning, the skies were clear and the temperature perfect. After Hudson left, Susan and I spent a quiet day around camp, puttering around and getting ready to leave. We had one minor consequence from the Eureka Valley drive, a small leak in one of the FJ’s tires, but I swapped out the spare, and we were ready to go.

What’s next?

Right now, we’re camped in Lake Cahuilla County Park, on the outskirts of Palm Desert. This was the place we started our travels last year, and it’s a nice place to camp for a few days. We’ve showered, done our laundry, and reprovisioned for another week in the desert. This time, we’re headed to the southern part of Anza-Borrego State Park. We drove around yesterday, scoping out potential sites, and found a nice remote campground about 20 miles north of Ocotillo, California. We won’t have any services out there, but the Escape is ready, as are we.

We’ll see you on the bitstream again soon.


3 thoughts on “A week in Death Valley”

  1. Hey, is that an oldie but goodie Coleman camp stove at the other end of the table? Mum cooked for 8 on ours as we camped across country and back, year after year, while I was growing up. I think one of my sisters still has it. We drove through Death Valley hauling a Nimrod tent camper on our way somewhere and had a flat. We have pix of everyone crowded under a cactus – the one bit of shade for miles. One of the hottest places I have ever been (and Zion and Bryce were very hot.) Learned a lot I never knew about DV by reading your desert travelogue! If you don’t have any “services,” does the Escape have a generator or backup battery power? Stunning photo of the storm clouds over that dune. I think that is your photo of the week! Happy and safe trails.

  2. Hey you guys… What a blast that was! Can’t wait to see your adventures as they continue. Rick, when you’re not around… Susan can be my 2nd official photographer. What a cool photo of me! You tell her she rocks.

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