Monday, February 25, 2013

A Trilogy of Excursions: Number 3 Death Valley

Okay, so another awesome adventure you can try if you're staying in Vegas or coming from Vegas and moving on elsewhere, is the rather scarily titled, Death Valley.

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Now as always we only had the day light hours to explore, so speed tourism came into play again. So here's how to do Death Valley in 8-10 hours.

Get up early.
Eat before you leave.
Fill up your tank on the way, there aren't many places to get petrol (gas) in the Valley itself.
Stock up on water, and lots of it. Yes it might go warm quickly, but warm liquid is better than no liquid.
And enjoy that morning desert light.

There are two main routes to Death Valley Junction, your first port of call. You can take the Interstate I15 , turn off on the 160 and join with Bell Vista Avenue. Or you can take the 95 North and drop down onto the 373 and over the border into California. Either way offers you scenic desert views and some creepy non towns, but your route will probably be determined by your sat nav, or where exactly you stayed in Vegas. We were at the South of The Strip, in which case there was no point winding all the way up North, though the journey would have only been a a few minutes longer. If you were staying North of Vegas then 95 route would be probably be easier for you.
Both journies were in the region of 1 hour 45 minutes, with the 95 North taking a projected five minutes longer.

Now we took the Bell Vista Avenue route and can't really comment on the other route, except to say that from the map there doesn't look to be much in the way of life. The odd little village but vastly spread out from the next one, so I can't guarantee you much in the way of entertainment. But if you go the way we went, here's what you'll see.

What I find funny, is the photo I took, above (on the 160...) is almost the same as the photo on Wikipedia if you google Blue Diamond Road, the nicer name for the 160. It's obviously a popular vantage point. 

So you get all the scenery, with some nice mountains and rock formations, plus the usual desert scrub. Then when you head towards civilisation in the form of Pahrump, a spralling town on the 160, that's when the real entertainment begins:

The road was littered with these election signs and it just so happened that two of the canditates had particularly amuzing names and these signs went on for miles! Judge Kim Wanker and Donna Cox. Nice!
Then I gave myself the task of finding Cox and Wanker, close enough together to get a picture of both at the same time. Now I'm not kidding this was difiicult. They were very well spread out,  probably for this very reason. Ha! But eventually I did it.

I never did find out who won. Ah well never mind, it kept us highly amused. But if silly names aren't your thing, then what about giants??????

Wow! Now that's a giant!

Now once you've trawled through Pahrump, you will take a left on Bell Vista Avenue and that's when you leave civilisation behind again. And there are a couple of moments of fear, when you see the abandoned bars and truck stops and you think of course they're abandoned, they're miles from anything and who in their right mind would risk stopping there anyway. (and breath). But it's broad daylight and horror stuff only happens at night, right?????

The hills really do have eyes.

 The road is long, and mostly empty.

You pass by Ash Meadows Wildlife Reserve as the road swings round to the left on the final drag up to Death Valley Junction. Now, don't let your map of Death Valley (if you have one, we printed one out from the internet before we came just so we had a rough idea of what was going on.) confuse you here. When it says somewhere to eat and somewhere to stay, please don't expect much. In fact, take some pictures and get the hell out of there. 

 This is pretty much all you get. A motel, an opera house, which I thought was a joke but is in actual fact a working opera house that puts on a show every Saturday, and a cafe that wasn't open. Yes I was desperate for the toilet but no I was not stopping here. I'm gutted the abandoned swing set photo didn't come out, it was the epitome of creepiness.

And so from here it's about another 25 minutes or so to the pay station, sign and hole in the floor toilets.

Here you can pick up a park map, which is slightly bigger than the one we printed off the internet and great for those who don't have one at all. It shows you the best view points and places to visit. It also gives you relatively up to date 'park news'. And from here, it's time to start exploring. Obviously those people who are brave and want to visit ghost towns and brave the outback (off the beaten tracks), then good luck to you. That's nice. Those sensible people who want to stay over and have a couple of days of Death Valley, then there are two or three hubs of conurbation sprinkled around the park. But those of you on speed holidays, then here's what you can hope to see in a small number of hours.

Dante's View, overlooking the salt flats. Mesmerising first glimpses of Death Valley. Well worth it not only for the views but the lovely winding, steep road leading up to it.

There are a couple of short little trails you can take when up there and I warn you it is quite chilly up there, despite the sun, so make sure you have a couple of extra layers at hand, you will need them.

You begin to understand where they get the Death bit from......

An interesting point they make in the park guide is that there are hundreds of disused, abandoned mines around, but the park is so extensive that they are still discovering new ones and currently have no tally for how many there are. They also urge people not to be complete dicks and go exploring them. I mean, if you're that stupid then you sort of deserve what's coming to you but if you could please leave the nice abandoned mines to their own devices, that would be great! And people exploring the outback, watch your step, you never know what you could stumble into. 

Yay. Creepy abandoned mine.

We stopped here and got out of the car and the most terrifying thing was the silence. Actual silence. I had never experienced anything like that before. There wasn't even the stir of a breeze, nothing. I half expected the mining machinery to just burst into life. But there was nothing. I've never liked the idea of silence and now I've actually experienced it first hand, I hate it! Still that's something you definitely have to try and capture yourself. Though if you go in peak times you might struggle due to car noises or other tourists. Still the place is so big you should be able to find somewhere where you can revel in the silence.

Driving times between points of interest are often around 30-40 minutes, so just take opportunities to pull over and jump out of the car when you can. Some of the rock formations are incredible, the way they undulate and flow into one another. The colours vary as well as the shape and if you have a decent driving playlist, stick it on. This mighty place deserves a sountrack of epic proportions.

A literal coach load of 'em.

Awesome van thing, with a proper farmer Giles type in there with dungarees and the hat. All I needed was him chewing on straw and the look would have been complete. People watching is a must!

You probably can't see this very well but the sign says dip. The roads are essentially like roller coasters in parts. The dips are huge. There's lots of 'weeeeeeeee' and 'oooooooooo' as you complete the rally course. 
Continue on the dip road for only a few minutes and you arrive at Furnace Creek, the biggest village in the Valley of Death and home of The Death Valley National Park Visitor's Centre. 

We cheekily nipped in for the toilets but there's a cute gift shop, you can pic up more detailed maps and guides. There are post cards and books about Death Valley, animals that live there etc. Of course the one I picked up had to have a massive spider in it which made me paranoid the whole day. Ha! There are also rangers there to give advice and talks. And the best bit, in the toilets are the dehydration pee indicators. Just what colour is your pee? Are you dehydrated? Drink lots of water! Love it!

 Life in Death Valley
Around now, you're probably a little peckish, so just down the road in Furnace Creek is a hotel, golf course, general store, cafe and restaurant. Brilliant! Oh and just one tip if you're eating outside, don't feed the birds. I hadn't seen the sign until after I took pity on the lovely little birdy, but they probably are a menace especially when it's busy. Oh and if you don't want to splash out on the cafe, there are loads of sandwiches, fruit, snacks and stuff in the general store. 

Nice birdy, just don't feed him or the locals'll go ape shit.

Now to the reason for the name Death Valley and the chart of wonder:

 It was 27 degress centigrade on a late October day. Imagine July and August.....melting traveller.

Make sure you're suitably fed, watered and toileted, especially as you never know when you might find a flushable toilet again, and then it's time to continue the adventure, with Bad Water Flats. It's another 30minute drive or so, but this time you're in the heart of the valley, way below sea level. Watch out for the cayotes.

Yeah, he had no intention of moving out of the way. Wily little thing.

Now, you really are exposed out there, so sun hats, sun cream and probably a covering of some sort are advisory. Or you could prance around in tiny shorts and a bikini top like some random idiotic woman whilst I was there. Asking for sun stroke. Honestly, just a few minutes out there and you're frazzled. There ain't no shade, just non stop heating. Walking on the salt is really cool though, so go as far as you can, but make sure you bring that bottle of water out of the car with you, you will need it!

Also, look out for the Sea Level sign, half way up the mountain behind the car park. That for me was a dodgy moment as I thought of the sea filling up the valley we were in. (Shudders at thought). Am not a fan of deep water and the idea of being 242ft within deep water was not a good thought for me. 

Anyhoo, next we made our way back down Bad water Road, to take in the sights on our way back towards Furnace Creek. First stop: The Devil's Golf Course. You have to take quite a gravelly road to get there, not the beautifully paved roads previously, so it will be a bit bumpy.

Next there's the Artist's Drive which is a one way loop road, taking you through 3.7 miles of amazing colours. The road weaves right through the mountains, but it will take you quite a while despite it's relatively short milage. (It becomes a bit like English country miles.) 

Now at this point, we knew we had to start making our way out, essentially as we were planning to be in LA around 10ish. So we had a few decisions to make on what we could see before we left. Now there are so many other amazing things to explore but we chose to head for Stovepipe Wells taking in The Devil's Cornfield and The Stovepipe Dunes. But not before another Cayote held us up. I swear they moonlight as traffic wardens. Not that there was much traffic to warden.

Looking across The Devil's Cornfield and Stovepipe Dunes.

It feels like someone just air lifted a section of the Sahara and dumped it. Truly bizarre but also incredible to see. And some of them are huge!

There were hole in the floor toilets here but they were completely infested with flies, so much so that you couldn't even lift the lid up. Nasty! If you are desperate here, do no fear, Stovepipe Wells Village is only a few minutes up the road and has a general store, hotel and a real flushable toilet with soap and everything. Amazeballs!

Non creepy Stovepipe Wells Village. A much needed stop off before the heinous drive out.

Okay, so if you're speed tourists and you want to be heading off elsewhere or in our case to LA, then this is around the time you want to be heading out of Death Valley. And believe me when I say this is easier said than done. No one tells you how long and difficult it is to rid yourself of the barren landscape and miles of nothingness. So I am telling you. The roads out of Death Valley are long, mostly empty of other vehicles and once the sun goes down, dark and creepy due to no lights. So, take off when you can and enjoy the sunlight before it disappears. Again there are a couple of options for getting out if you're heading to LA. I wanted to go one way but the sat nav told us a different way. I still think my way could have been less harrowing, but who knows.

The options are to take the 190 West and the 14. Or to take the 190 West and the 395. Now instead we took the 190 west for a while and then the sat nav said, oh take the Panamint Valley Road which sort of cuts across country and leads you to the Trona Wildrose Road and straight through the delightfully terrifying town of Trona. Trust me, don't take this way unless you enjoy fields of burnt out caravans and fearing every set of headlights behind you. I implore you to take one of the other routes and ignore the stupid sat nav. Because once you run out of daylight, you're at the mercy of Mr sat nav. And it ain't always fun. There is a distinct lack of civilisation on every route so hold in that wee and try not to drink too much. Also make sure petrol doesn't become an issue and that you have at least something to snack on. The last thing you need when you're unsure of your exact location is a grumpy man or woman. Sugary/salty snacks are great to keep the temper down and the hunger at bay. Believe me, you won't be eating for quite a few hours. 

Each route takes over four hours and so prepare yourself with a decent playlist, you will not be picking up radio here, and try to keep things light. Even if you're terrified. There will be a few signs of life the closer you get to LA but surprisingly, not that much. I honestly didn't realise it went LA and then nothingness and then Vegas. Even a mere 100 miles out from LA there's still only a distant flicker of lights on the horizon, foretelling what make come. And believe me, once you see those lights and the Dunkin' Doughnuts on every corner, you know you're safe. 

Sorry I couldn't sugar coat the way out but it was quite scary and difficult to escape. Saying that though, I'm sure if you didn't take the stupid sat nav 1st choice and took one of the other routes, it could have been much more pleasant. 
Some may think six hours drive to get in and out, with only around 6-7 hours there exlporing, is a bit much, but it is totally worth it. Death Valley is incredible and obviously if you stay over in the lovely Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells then you don't have to do your drive out in the dark, which would of course be lovely.

Okay, so that is speed tourism in Death Valley and the completion of The Trilogy of Excursions from Vegas. You see, it's not just casinos and insane hotels, it's state hopping, dam busting, canyon exploring, valley escaping and so much more. Next time I'll be frollicking through the streets of LA, quite literally and cycling the beaches. Now you can't do that in October in Britain. Well you could but they'd probably put you away for insanity or hospitalise you for hyperthermia.

Until then, keep travelling.
The Sarky Traveller. 

(Yes I realise how much that just sounded like the sign off from Strictly Come Dancing. Was unintentional.)
(Oh and my spell check is not working so if I've made some stupid errors then, oops.)

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