Day 15: Death Valley, a Low Point

There was a lot of confusion going on this morning.  It was the Sunday of Daylight Savings Time ending, which meant we were to set the clocks back one hour.  Something I like to do when we fall back is “save” the extra hour and use it when I want to.  This only works if you don’t have an appointment or somewhere to be.  Here is how it works:  on that Sunday you might wake up and see it is 9:00 AM and think you should get out of bed.  But wait, you have an extra hour in your pocket and should you choose to use it, you could instantly roll back the clock to 8:00 AM and no longer feel guilty for sleeping in.  Spring forward isn’t nearly as much fun, by the way.

At any rate, I had convinced Jimmy to save our hour until the next day so we could bust it out when it would be convenient.   We went to bed at real time 10:30 PM and I woke up at what I thought was exactly 8 hours later, at 6:30 AM.  Perfect, I thought, it was actually 5:30 AM but in my mind it was still 6:30.  Jimmy was still asleep, which is a rarity that I woke up earlier, but I wanted him to be good and rested for the day’s activities so I kept very quiet.  Eventually he stirred and we got ready to go down for breakfast, amazed at how many people were up and at ‘em so early.  We ate breakfast and returned to the room to get ready and organized, in no particular hurry because we thought it was an hour earlier than it was.  But it wasn’t.  It turns out the room clock automatically re-set itself overnight and the time we were looking at in the morning was the actual time, not the fake hour ahead time.  We double checked our cell phones, my atomic watch that automatically syncs to the official US time agency in Colorado, and finally, because I didn’t quite believe all the other devices, I checked the internet for the current time in Lone Pine, California.  I’ll be darned – not only had we lost our hour and were no longer able to use it whenever, but we were now an hour behind where we should be.  Crap.

Alabama Hills

We loaded up the car and got moving, our first stop being a location that helps put Lone Pine, CA, on the map:  Alabama Hills.  Alabama Hills is several hundred (possibly thousands of) acres of very unique geological formations (one of Earth’s oldest) that may be better recognized for the many movies/TV series, particularly westerns, filmed there.  A few examples include:  How the West Was Won, Charge of the Light Brigade, Rawhide, Tremors, Gunga Din, High Sierra, Iron Man, The Lone Ranger, part of Gladiator, and a whole host of others I’ve never heard of.  Ok, I hadn’t heard of all on the list above, either.  It is such a unique area that it was worth a brief look-see.

(Tip:  if you ever go, from downtown Lone Pine turn west on Whitney Portal Road and you’ll come to Tuttle Creek Road.  Turn left on that and it will take you to what we think was the most interesting part of the area.  From there you can either do the entire loop around or turn around when you start to lose interest and head back out the same way.  There are few makers on-route to explain anything, so come prepared.)

A Joshua Tree, all alone.

After about an hour of pretending we were the Lone Ranger and Tonto (not really), we started making our way over to Death Valley.  Along the way we made a stop in the desert off Hwy 190 at what was supposed to be the site of U2’s Joshua Tree video and cover art, but we had some difficulty ascertaining the actual spot (the Joshua Tree they used blew over and died in 2000, but there is another supposed Joshua Tree very nearby and a memorial to the dead one.  We are not sure we found either).  Nevermind, we took some pictures and will swear by them if anyone asks.  Oh, yes, that is the spot, the exact spot.  Absolutely.  100%.  Yeah, we were there.

I’d like to take a moment to add something else:  make no mistake, I have no Snake Conundrum.  Or Scorpion Conundrum.  In fact, I have a strict policy not to ever live anywhere you have to keep your shoes overturned when they are off so nothing like that crawls into them.  I was on high alert when scrounging around the desert/scrub brush for the Joshua Tree site, but fortunately saw neither.  However, walking around this terrain really drove home how utterly inhospitable the land really is, with hard, rocky ground, dusty wind, dry and scratchy-looking plants, absolutely no shade or protection, and nothing but miles and miles of the same.  Jim kept saying how his hat was off to the first guy (or gal) who traversed it…  and lived.  I know for a fact I would have endured less than a day before saying, screw it, I’m going back to the Colorado mountains.

Coming into Death Valley

Our route took us further into the desert and eventually to the Panamint Springs Mountains, where we crested the Towne Pass at almost 5,000 feet.  Hoo, boy, we were now headed into Death Valley.  We then noticed on the map that it was bordered on the other side by what are called the Funeral Mountains and there is a feature in the park called Hell’s Gate.  Oh, how that should have been a sign, an ominous sign.

First, let me start off by saying this: the average weather for this time of year in Death Valley National Park is something like the low 70s, so it wasn’t inconceivable when Jim checked it the day before and saw it said it would be a high of 62 degrees.  Perfect, that is a great temperature for hiking in the desert.  I planned out my outfit very carefully, so as to be a smart desert hiker.  It was to be jeans, a CuddlDuds long-sleeved undershirt, and a t-shirt over that.  I thought the CuddlDuds would not only provide warmth against a chill but also keep the desert sun (and scorpions) off my translucent-white arms.  For those not familiar, CuddlDuds are a brand of long-underwear-type clothing you can layer with and they are very soft.  Jim was smartly dressed in a t-shirt and cotton pants.

Nothing but pavement and heat

After entering the official National Park we set out on hike number one of the day, the Mosaic Canyon hike.  In order to get to the trailhead we (Jim) had to drive 2 miles (with a 1,000 foot elevation gain) over the bumpiest gravelly road on Earth.  What is going on here, we signed up to visit Death Valley, not Death Foothill, and we certainly weren’t aware our hikes would be uphill.  And in general, you do not want to have any car issues while in Death Valley, especially an overheated radiator or more than one flat tire.  Nonetheless, we pressed on and set out on the hike.  Boy, oh, boy, it was feeling warm.  Is this how mid-60s feels in the desert?  Wait, it isn’t mid-60s, the temperature was reaching 90 degrees.  And here I was, in CuddlDuds and dressed more like I was headed out to check on the polar bear population.  Maybe only wearing a pair of black leather pants would have been more inappropriate.  It was too late to change and I needed the sun protection on my arms, so… off we went.

Mosaic Canyon

The Mosaic Canyon hike was pretty, taking us through narrow canyons made of polished marble.  It was a fairly  short hike overall, about ½ – ¾ of a mile each way, but there was an elevation gain of over 300 feet and it was hot.  Very, very hot.  There and then we discovered we aren’t really desert people, and we really aren’t desert hikers.  Besides the heat, the scenery is all rock and random bushes over and over that is interesting at first but loses its charm after a few minutes.  I suppose this is fascinating to geologists, but geologists we are not.

After completing the hike we cooled down in the car and contemplated our next move.  I had noted 6 different hikes we could take, but after the first one we lost a bit of our enthusiasm for many more.  And I was roasting like a chicken in my CuddlDuds, Jim not faring much better in his long pants.

Yes, it reads 90 degrees and it’s still early afternoon

We drove on to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, as it was their Grand Re-Opening weekend and we thought we heard there might be a cake opportunity.  Cake makes everything better.  It was nice to be in an air-conditioned building for a few minutes as we looked around amid several hundred other people who found themselves in the desert, too.  Unfortunately, the cake hadn’t been rolled out yet so we moved a few miles down the road to our next spot, the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail.

See how little the people ahead look?

The Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail was a 2-miler with another 300 foot elevation gain.  Apparently we didn’t learn our lesson from the first go-around.  It was now only hotter outside and I was still in that drasted CuddlDud shirt.  Oh, let’s go have some fun, dammit.  We hiked up through the colorful canyon that, to be honest, didn’t look that much different from the first set of rocks we’d seen earlier in the day, and made our way up to the Red Cathedral, took pictures, and headed back down.  Phew, check it off the list.

More rocks and dust and heat and…

Next up was supposed to be the Natural Bridge Canyon hike, and we drove down the road in search of that turn-off.  What we discovered was another long, gravelly, uphill, bumpy road to get there and made it up about ½ mile before taking a vote to scrub the mission.  We were over Death Valley, having never really gotten into it in the first place.  This was a low point in our trip, both figuratively and literally, because as much as we both love the mountains, we do not love the desert.  And here’s a tip:  when hiking in the desert, don’t wear CuddlDuds.  They would be great to wear on a crisp fall evening or an Antarctic cruise, instead.

Before we left this God-forsaken place, we had to make one more stop at the Badwater Salt Flat, which is officially the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  We did one more brief jaunt (I can’t even call it a hike) out onto the salt flat to see it up close and personal.  Yup, it’s salt, and yup, there is the elevation sign, now let’s head to Vegas!

There she is, the lowest point in the US

In the car on the way to Las Vegas we discussed Death Valley at length, and determined that for us, at least, it is a unique and interesting place with a very distinct (but repetitive) beauty and worth a drive through with no need to stop.  We are both glad to have seen it but neither of us ever want to see it again.

We arrived into Las Vegas around 7:00 PM after another very long, full day, and all we wanted was a shower to wash all the day’s grime off.  Check-in at our hotel, Paris Las Vegas, was easy and we were soon clean as whistles and rejuvenated.  After the day we had, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, where Jim’s steelhead and my steak made the day much better.  The lemondrop martini helped, too.

After dinner we gamed a little bit before completely throwing in the towel and falling into bed.  Soon, Death Valley would be a distant memory that will likely get better with time.  Ask us in a year if you should visit and you’ll likely hear, yes, definitely, it’s a fantastic place.  But don’t take our word for it – we’ll be lying through our teeth.

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