“How could rocks and sand and silence make us afraid and yet be so wonderful?” – Edna Brush Perkins, The White Heart of Mojave, 1922
With a nod to Edna and Charlotte, we made our trek to Death Valley National Park in a Ford truck hauling a 22-foot trailer. No doubt traveling some of the highways and byways little changed since 1922, we approached the park from the West on Highway 190. Even at the end of September the outside temperature hovered in the triple digits and we could feel the sun roasting the truck windows, the air conditioner struggling to keep up.
Encountering some downhill, curving roads that led into a few hairpin turns it became necessary to drop the truck into a lower gear. We have found, in our travels, that it’s harder on the truck going downhill than it is to pull the trailer uphill. Tex weighs about 7,000 pounds and the truck can pull 11,000 pounds – but even that is a load challenge for this truck on seven or eight percent descents. It wasn’t long before we were headed straight down and we also (unknowingly) had picked up a decent tailwind. Concluding that the brakes were getting sorely tested we looked for a place to pull over; but, those are few and far between on this stretch of road and the shoulder was of course made of sand so there would be no help there. By the time we found a pullout the brakes were screaming an odorous spongy condemnation as we skidded to a precipitous stop. We ate lunch in the trailer attempting to escape from the 105-degree afternoon heat and crossed our fingers that the brakes would cool off and come back to life. After gaining enough courage we headed off in second gear, never touching the accelerator, and in no time we were moving at a brisk 50 mph. We limped in to the parking lot of the visitor center about three hours later (in reality, probably more like 20 minutes) and then headed a quarter mile down the road to the Furnace Creek Resort (aptly named) where we happily parked the trailer with full hook ups. Exhausted we turned on the air conditioner and tried to relax from our first real issue with Tex.
The ride highlighted everything we imagined a desert might be: hot, dry, hot, sand, hot, sun. Did we mention the heat! Rising early the next morning, we watched the sun creep over the mountains to light up the valley floor and chase away a pair of foxes (or coyotes?) hard to discern from a distance. The visitor center posted the number of annual deaths in the park and roadside signs warned of “Extreme Heat Danger”. Death Valley, we quickly realized, is a place you could die and yet, or maybe because of it, we longed to explore its depths and discover its charms.
While it was still early we made our way to the visitor center to take in the park film and plan the rest of our day. Armed with the knowledge that temperatures were predicted to reach only into the mid 90s we planned some hikes as seasoned Texans accustomed to such things can contemplate with a straight face.
Our first stop was the sand dunes where we left footprints and a handprint or two. A couple of straggly trees, bent and bereft of leaves, seemed fitting sentinels to the endless sand.
We then headed to Golden Canyon where we hiked through the gaping canyon littered with huge boulders and picturesque views of the cliffs (bonus factoid – some of the original Star Wars movie was filmed in this canyon).
With clouds gathering we decided to head out to Badwater Basin and the salt flats, which is situated 282 feet below sea level making it the lowest point in North America. At this elevation, up to a couple hundred feet above sea level, the view is similar – sand, some desert scrub and rocks. The true beauty of Death Valley is the mountain ranges that surround it and the rock formations that lie near them. Strange, though, to crane your neck a few hundred feet up to a sign that says “Sea Level”.
The weather was holding steady so we took in the historical Harmony Borax Works and Salt Creek interpretive trails.
Then, driving the nine mile Artist’s Drive scenic loop and taking in the absolutely stunning multi-hued colors of the surrounding canyons.
After a quick visit to the camper to eat and give Skyler a walk, we headed out to Zabriskie Point to gaze from one of the park’s most famous viewpoints accessible by a moderately steep walk from the parking lot.
We were really captivated by the beauty on Zabriskie Point where the rock formations distinctly change and you are treated to spectacular views no matter which way you look. Zabriskie Point is also a popular sunrise and sunset viewing location, but we choose instead to seek out Dante’s view for this particular night’s sunset.
Dante’s View is a mountain top overlook and is reached along a 23-mile paved road to an elevation of 5,475 feet, which gives you an absolutely breathtaking view of the park. Located above Badwater Basin the contrast in elevation is drastic and dramatic. Bonus: the temperatures were much cooler, causing us to put on jackets in the desert.
It was on the ride up and here at Dante’s view that we witnessed rain coming down across the park – a sight to behold and very rare indeed with average rainfall at 2.36 inches a year!!
The sun, refusing to be upstaged, made its glorious descent filtering clouds and mountains until we were left in the dark to return the way we came. It turns out you can get a lot out of Death Valley …. even in a Ford.
Up next: Sequoia National Park