THE BIG EMPTY
A recent work assignment sent me to Victorville, California. Victorville is in the high desert northeast of Los Angeles. I worked here once before, back in 2007. At the end of that trip I stayed over the weekend and visited Joshua Tree National Park. This time, I stayed an extra day so I could experience Death Valley. Death Valley is a long drive (4 hours) from Victorville, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I’d never been to Death Valley, and it was the perfect time of year for a visit.
The job assignment was grueling, and I didn’t finish it until 5pm on Thursday. After work I headed straight for Death Valley. There are two routes from Victorville. The main route goes through Barstow and then north and into the park from the east. The other goes up the Owens Valley and into the park from the west. I decided to approach it via Owens Valley and return through Barstow.
I was almost to Ridgecrest when I reached the turn for a short cut that would take me to highway 178, which leads to Panamint Springs on the western edge of the park. I made the turn and passed a sign that just barely caught my attention. I slammed on the brakes and backed up to read it again. It said, “Road to Death Valley closed 52 miles ahead due to flooding”. This was both ironic and extremely inconvenient. Apparently I should’ve gone through Barstow.
As luck would have it, I had no cell signal there, so I couldn’t access the map on my phone. Luckily I vaguely recalled another route that heads east from near Lone Pine. That was my only realistic option, as going through Barstow would’ve required backtracking most of the way to Victorville. I crossed my fingers, because if that route was closed, I’d never make it.
I bypassed Ridgecrest, which was my second mistake. I hadn’t eaten dinner before leaving Victorville. I thought I’d see some restaurants along the way, but there was nothing around. I knew there were a couple of restaurants in the park, but I wasn’t sure if they would be open by the time I finally got there. I also wanted to fill the gas tank before I headed into the park.
I was beginning to think that I should’ve taken care of both of these things previously when I spotted a gas station with a Subway. Oh boy! I’d had Subway for lunch that day, and had saved half of the sub for lunch the next day. Did I really want Subway for dinner, too? No, but what other choices did I have? What if I didn’t pass any restaurants on the way, and everything in the park was closed when I got there? Even if I did pass a restaurant, it was likely to be some godforsaken place with a name like “Last Chance Diner”, where the owner / cook / waiter has one eye and a hook in place of one hand and a number of open infections and everything on the menu is deep fried in 10W40 motor oil. So I got a sub after I filled up the gas tank. The sub was crappy, but it was still a good choice. I didn’t see anything before reaching the park. I passed one restaurant in Panamint Springs, but there was only one car in the parking lot, so it was probably closed. And gas in Death Valley was going for $5.15 a gallon.
The last part of the drive was exciting, with lots of hairpin turns on cliff edges in total darkness. It was a little spooky driving into Death Valley in the dark, and it was a relief to reach the Furnace Creek Campground. I had reserved campsite 150 a week earlier, and headed straight there. I pulled in around 9:30, a little over 4 hours after leaving Victorville. I pitched the tent and organized my clothes and hiking gear for the next day. The campground seemed pretty nice, though I was only there briefly. I slept fitfully that night, as a bright moon kept me up initially. Later it got surprisingly cold. The forecast was for the upper 30’s, but it felt colder than that. I ended up snuggled up in my 25 degree sleeping bag, wishing I had put the fly on the tent.
I got up at 5 the next morning. Unfortunately, I had less than a full day to explore the park. My flight home was scheduled to depart the Ontario (CA) airport at 7:30 that evening. Since the drive would take over 4 hours, I needed to be on my way shortly after noon. I was determined to make the most of my limited time. That meant getting up in the dark and breaking camp. I was tired and cold, but the stars were spectacular.
First on my agenda was a visit to the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. I drove back towards Stovepipe Wells and found the signed parking area without difficulty. I put on a fleece, a warm hat, and my headlamp for a hike into the dunes. The largest dune is about a mile from the parking area. Originally I hadn’t intended to hike to it, but it was too cold to stand around waiting for sunrise. Once I caught sight of the highest dune, I was drawn towards it. I hiked through the sand, climbing and descending lesser dunes as the southeastern sky gradually brightened.
I reached the crest of the largest dune before actual sunrise and took it all in.
Scattered clouds on the horizon lit up first, starting my day with a splash of color. Before long, I was able to take in my surroundings. I was in the middle of a vast maze of dunes. Beyond the dunes, I was almost completely surrounded by mountain ranges. Those peaks turned pink with morning alpenglow as the sun rose. It was a dramatic way to get my first view of Death Valley. Since I drove in after dark, I really had no idea what my surroundings looked like until that point. Even better, I had one of the nicest pieces of Death Valley all to myself.
I hiked back quickly, and was actually rather warm by the time I reached the car. From there, I drove back to Furnace Creek and down Badwater Road. After a couple of miles, I reached the trailhead at Golden Canyon. My main hike for the day would be a 4 1/2 mile loop combining Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch. The hike also offers an extension to Zabriskie Point, which would add 1.5 miles. However, Zabriskie Point is on the main park road, and I would be driving right by it on my way out. Since I didn’t have much time, I decided to skip that part of the hike and hit the overlook at the end of the day.
The walk up the canyon was pleasant and quiet. The hiking was easy, and the scenery was nice, with views of rugged cliffs above. After a mile I reached a junction. The route to Zabriskie Point and Gower Gulch climbs out of the canyon here, but I continued ahead. I followed the canyon to its head in the Red Cathedral, an impressive redrock cliff. There I scrambled up an adjacent ridge for even better views of the cliff and Manly Beacon – an dramatic spire towering above the canyon.
I backtracked to the junction and began the climb. The stretch of trail connecting Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch is fantastic. It featured endless views over the surrounding badlands. The trail eventually took me directly below the cliffs of Manly Beacon. Before long the actual Death Valley came into view below. Beyond were some impressive mountains, including Telescope Peak, which was snow-covered. That peak is the highest mountain in the park, at 11,049’.
I reached the junction with the spur to Zabriskie Point, but continued ahead, descending into Gower Gulch. Gower Gulch was less exciting, as it is a broad, rocky wash. Eventually it narrowed a bit, and a couple of stretches required some mild scrambling. I ran into two large groups in Gower Gulch, which was a bit startling, as I’d seen only 3 people up until that point.
I descended to the brink of a dry waterfall. From here I followed a good trail along a bench that runs parallel and above Badwater Road. This stretch of trail featured great views across Death Valley to the Panamint Range and Telescope Peak. I returned to the car at 10:30, about 2 hours after starting out.
From there I drove down Badwater Road to Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is famous for being the lowest point in North America, at 289 feet below sea level. Visiting it for the novelty was a necessity. I had summited Mount Whitney back in 2007 at the end of my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail. Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous U.S., so it was only appropriate that I visit the lowest. Ironically, the two places are only about 100 miles apart.
Badwater Basin features a vast salt flat in the heart of Death Valley. It also has actual water! Badwater Basin has a small pool that reflects the surrounding mountains. The water isn’t poisonous, but it’s too salty to drink. My favorite part of Badwater Basin was probably a sign high on the cliffs behind the parking area marking sea level. From Badwater Basin, it requires a serious climb just to get up to sea level!
From there I drove back up Badwater Road. However, I allowed myself one diversion, touring Artist’s Drive. This one-way road climbs up into the badlands above the valley. The surrounding cliffs are quite colorful, particularly at Artist’s Palette, which is an area that featured volcanic activity many centuries ago.
It was 12:30 by the time I finished the scenic drive. At that point it was still only 61 degrees. It can easily be double that in the summer! From there I headed straight back to Ontario, only stopping briefly at Zabriskie Point. That stop was well worth it though, as it features a spectacular view across the badlands I’d hiked through earlier. Death Valley is far below, and the highest mountains in the park are beyond.
On the way out of the park I passed through a tiny community. One of the buildings was the Death Valley Health Clinic. That really appealed to my sense of irony.
I would definitely like to return to Death Valley someday. It’s a huge park, and my brief visit only allowed me to see a small part of it. The Scotty’s Castle area features some old volcanic craters that sound fascinating. Dante’s View apparently has the best overlook in the park. If I ever visit in warmer weather, I’d like to include a climb of Telescope Peak. I’ll be the view from there is incredible, as it is situated between Death Valley to the east and the Sierra Nevada to the west. Early spring is another good time to visit the park. The temperatures are still reasonable then, and if there are any winter rains, the wildflower bloom can be spectacular.
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