Friday, April 17, 2015

Death Valley National Park

After leaving Mono Lake we headed toward Death Valley National Park to camp for the night. We were somewhat on a time table that allowed us solely to enjoy the park by car. I was okay with this since (#1) it was getting late and (#2) the temperature outside was somewhere in the 80's and the thermostat got higher and higher the closer we got toward the park.

Our lack of activity planning worked in our favor when we discovered that the not so smart iPhone tried to route us into Death Valley via a 21 mile dusty gravel back road (Big Pine Road) that traversed up and over one of the mountain ranges in the northern end of the park. As soon as the sign appeared forecasting the pavement ending and a skull of a cow dangled on a board overhead we turned the car around (I neglected to get a picture of the skull). At the main highway we rerouted the Samsung Smartphone GPS and looked over some maps and realized we still had another 2.5 hours until we reached our final destination. By then it would be 7:00-7:30 and we would need a campsite for the night. Like I stated, I'm glad we didn't plan anything for the afternoon.

We turned west into the belly of the beast, and the Sierra Mountains slowly drifted away to the east like a distant memory. As we began to drop down from 3,700 ft. to sea level, the mountains became layered with reds, and browns, and purples.

We headed north up through the park toward Furnace Creek campground which would be our stopping point for the evening. The name Furnace Creek campground should have been clue to how miserably hot it was going to be. Unlike every other desert we had slept in that grew cool at sunset, this one would not. It didn't help that I only chad a 10 degree sleeping bag to help suffocate me.
I would later come to learn that Furnace Creek has the distinction of holding the record for the highest recorded air temperature in the world, reaching 134 °F on July 10, 1913, and the highest ground temperature, 201 °F , on July 15, 1971. In other words we slept in one of the hottest places in the world.

After a sleepless night we packed up the tent early and headed over to the restaurant in Furnace Creek for coffee and eggs. Then it was south toward Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States (282 ft. below sea level).

Salt Flats

Close up of the salt
Badwater got its name from the small pool of water near the salt flats. Legend says that a surveyor working in the area came across the spring and tried to get his mule to drink from it, but the mule refused. The surveyor wrote "bad water" next to the spring on his survey map and the name stuck. It turns out that the water isn't bad or toxic, it's just extremely salty.

Badwater Basin is also the start of the Lowest to highest (L2H) route which traverses 135 miles from Badwater Basin to the highest point in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney. Routes are different in trails in that there is no one, single hiking path. The route is a hodge-podge of various existing trails and dirt roads and also involves some cross country navigation.

Similarly, Badwater Basin is also the starting point for the famous Badwater 135 Ultra-marathon. Like the L2H route, this ultra stretches 135 miles non-stop from Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It is the most demanding and extreme foit race offered anywhere on the planet. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 13,000 ft. of cumulative vertical ascent and 4,700 ft. of cumulative descent. I'm not sure how closely the Basin 135 course and the L2H route follow each other but my curious now peaked to find out more.

But I digress.

After we left Bad water basin we made our way out of the park and into civilization where we could shower and do laundry for the first time in over a week.

Although Death Valley isn't somewhere I've dreamed about going there are some things I would like to go back to visit. The first is to go back and hike to the top of Telescope Peak, the parks highest point (11,043 ft.). Access to the trailhead requires 4 wheel drive so coming back here will take some planning.

We also missed the famed Artist Point scenic drive which is known for its multi-colored mountains. We should have taken this 9 mile drive on the way back from Badwater Basin but we didn't know any better at the time. I guess that's what happens when you completely wing a national park tour. Next time. And despite the heat, I'm fairly confident there will be a next March ;).

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