Friday, April 1, 2016

Exploring Death Valley National Park

I have always enjoyed hiking but as a recovery tactic since my knee surgery, I have added more trips into my schedule. I made three visits to Death Valley National Park within six weeks, exploring a different section of the park each time. I wanted to write this blog to encourage more people to visit this amazing park and to help hopeful visitors with their trip planning.

The park is divided into three main sections; Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Scotty's Castle. On each visit, I explored a different section.

Scotty's Castle Area
On February 14, 2016, we set our sights on the Scotty's Castle area. Due to a massive flood in October 2015, Scotty's Castle and the road leading into the park from Scotty's Junction, HWY 267, was closed for repair. We decided to enter the park from HWY 374 from Beatty, NV. A few miles outside of Beatty, we took the Titus Canyon turn-off. This is a one-way, 27 mile back country road over the Grapevine Mountains into the park. The dirt road is rough, steep and narrow. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. 

The first half of the drive is a winding climb to the summit. Once you cross the summit, you begin an immediate descent towards the ghost town, Leadfield. There are a few shacks and mines to explore. It was also a great place to take a stretch break. 

We then continued our way down Titus Canyon. This is where we began to enter the canyon narrows. It was really cool to be dwarfed by the towering limestone cliffs. 

The final three miles of the road are two-way. There is a small parking area and bathroom where the one-way meets the two-way. For the last few miles of one-way through the narrows, we encountered several hikers as they made their way up the canyon.

At the end of Titus Canyon Road, we intersected Scotty's Castle Road and turned right. We followed this road to the end where we got onto another dirt road called Racetrack Road. It is a 27 mile gravel road that recommends a high clearance vehicle. We took this road to its end, The Grandstand and The Racetrack. The Grandstand is on the north end of the Racetrack. It is a large island outcrop of quartz monzonite. You can see it behind us on the left edge of the picture.

The Racetrack is playa, dry lakebed, that is home to the moving rocks. Rocks from the surrounding mountains have fallen to the valley floor. Once on the floor, the rocks move across the level surface leaving trails as records to their movements. Some have traveled as far as 1500 feet! There are many theories as to why the rocks move but a more recent one suggests that a combination of rain and wind enable them to move. The best rocks to view are located in the southeast edge of the dry lakebed. We parked at the lower lot and walked across the playa for about an hour looking at all the different rocks and routes.

 After exploring the Racetrack, we drove back down the 27 mile dirt road to get onto the paved Scotty's Castle Road again. Right at that intersection is Ubehebe Crater. It is a large volcanic crater 600 feet deep and a half mile across. There are clusters of smaller craters to the south and west of Ubehebe Crater. We walked around the main crater's rim which was about 1.5 miles long. It is considered a moderate hike due to the climb and loose footing. 

Stovepipe Wells Area
On March 5, 2016, we explored the Stovepipe Wells area. Death Valley was experiencing a once-in-a-decade Super Bloom due to the extra rain the previous October so we did not want to miss our chance to see the flowers. 

We once again entered the park on HWY 374, Daylight Pass Road, from Beatty but this time we took the main entrance into the park. There are no manned fee stations at Death Valley so visitors are expected to be on the honor system and stop at the information booths or Visitor's Center to pay their fees. 

We began this day's exploration at Mosaic Canyon. It was the first left after Stovepipe Wells Village. The village had a store, gas station, ranger information, food, camping, and lodging. The road is a 2 mile gravel road that ends at a small parking area at the trailhead. The canyons start about 1/4 a mile from the parking lot. Mosaic Canyon is the drainage for the northern flank of Tucki Mountain. Periodic flash flooding continues to bring down sand, gravel and rock from the surrounding hills. 

The hike climbs for about 1.5 to 2 miles before it is blocked by a dry waterfall.

After the turnaround, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley as we made our way back to the car. On the west side of the trail, there was an option to take a higher route. My husband took that trail. Unfortunately, it was a dead end at the edge of a bluff and he had to scramble a bit to get down.

Next we made our way to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These dunes are the best known and easiest to visit of the parks dunes. It is located directly off the main road, HWY 190, near Stovepipe Wells Village. The dunes cover a vast area but the highest peak is only 100 feet high. We picked a peak to hike to and made our way there. It was not the highest but it was uninhabited and that was why we chose it. We ate our lunch on the peak and then spent about an hour sitting/laying there enjoying the day. 

After lunch, we stopped at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. It offered a one mile out and back boardwalk trail along a seasonal stream of salty water. It is the only home of the rare Salt Creek Pupfish. 

As the day was drawing to an end, we started to make our way out of the park but didn't want to miss the flowers. We took the Beatty Cutoff back to HWY 374. This is where we saw most of the wild flowers. It was very beautiful! 

Furnace Creek Area
On March 27, 2016, we explored the Furnace Creek Area. We entered the park on HWY 190 from the Death Valley Junction. Just after we entered the park, we took the turn-off to Dante's View. It was a 13 mile out and back paved road that led to a 5475 feet high overlook on the Black Mountains. It is considered to be one of the great photographic spots in Death Valley. There are a few small trails leading from the parking lot. We took the one to the west. It was steep but worth it because the view was breathtaking. 

We then made our way back down to the valley floor. Right after we passed the Furnace Creek Inn and right before we reached the Sea Level sign, we turned onto Badwater Road. As we slowly descended, we were greeted with great views of the salt flats. After about 11 miles, we turned onto a dirt road towards the Devil's Golf Course. It is a short drive and definitely worth it. It is called Devil's Golf Course because the immense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires so incredible serrated that "only the devil could play gold of such rough links".

Next, we continued down Badwater Road to Badwater Basin. Badwater is the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level. This is an area that you are allowed to walk as far as you want. The beginning of the trail has a boardwalk area that boarders a small amount of water. Once you leave the boardwalk, you walk onto the salt flats and are allowed to explore until your heart is content. Expect to walk quit a distance to see the nicer salt flats because the high traffic level has crushed the salt formations. 

Once we finished there, we began our drive back up Badwater Road towards Furnace Creek. We turned onto Artist Drive which is a one-way, 9 mile paved scenic loop. We drove through multi-colored volcanic and sedimentary hills. About halfway through the drive is a short turn-off to see the Artist's Palette. That is where you will see most of the beautiful colors on the hill. You can hike all among the hills at this stop. This is where we ate our lunch. We then finished the loop and continued north towards Furnace Creek. 

We then went to Furnace Creek. This is the hub of the park. There is a general store, restaurant, hotel, gas station, visitor center, Indian reservation, campground, and much more. We stopped to shop at the store and bought some ice cream treats. We enjoyed them on the patio as we people and dog watched. After we finished our treats, we drove over to the Visitor Center. The front of the center has a digital thermometer which is fun to see how warm it is while you are there. We walked through the museum, watched the informative video, read information on Scotty's Castle, and shopped the parks store. When we left, the thermostat read 88 degrees.

We continued our drive up HWY 190 to the Beatty Cutoff. We took that road in hopes to see the flowers again but we had no luck. There were still flowers within the park but they were a lot sparser than when we were there at the beginning of the month. We then connected back to HWY 374 and headed towards Beatty. 

About 4 miles west of Beatty, we turned north to see Rhyolite Ghost Town. This town sprang up in 1905 and by 1906 it held a bank, stock exchange, Board of Trade, red light district, hotels, stores, a school for 250 children. an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries, machine shops, hospital, railroad station, over 50 bars and even an ice cream parlor. A financial panic in 1907 took it's toll on Rhyolite and was seen as the beginning of the end for the town. By 1910, only 611 residents remained. By 1916, the lights and power were finally turned off to the town. 

There are several buildings and remnants of buildings to explore. My favorites were the three story bank and Tom Kelly's Bottle house. He built his house in 1906 with 50,000 beer, liquor and medicine bottles. The house was restored in 1925 by Paramount Pictures. 

There are many more things to see within and around Death Valley National Park. These are just a few of the more popular things. Death Valley is about 2 hours from Las Vegas and makes for a great day or weekend trip. There are lots of options for lodging and camping if you would like to make a weekend out of it. I hope that this has given you some idea of the amazing things to see and do at one of our nation's largest National Parks. Now go out and explore!