The Death Valley Road Trip Challenge
Driving through Death Valley in the summer is probably not most holidaymakers idea of fun. In fact, it comes close to a mission but it is not an impossible one. On the map, the road from Las Vegas to Bishop (or vice versa) looks fairly innocuous but the experience itself is an unforgettable ride into the mouth of one of the most inhospitable places on earth.This is not a light-hearted jaunt into a mountain area surrounded by cows with bells around their necks and eagles soaring looking for carrion, this is a place where during the day nothing, and I repeat nothing stays in the sun for long.A Frenchman decided one day, to attempt to trek along its surface and he was found a few months later, with all the moisture in his body evaporated by the intense heat. So, this is not an expedition to be taken lightly. If you venture into the chasm be sure that you heed the warnings and ensure that you are well prepared.
Once you are all set to go you will be treated to one of the most magical places on earth. A stretch of highway that sun worshippers would otherwise die for; but tanning here really means burning as temperatures reach the very limits of the thermometers; and of course those that usually follow the sun like a little sea thrown in for good measure. Unsurprisingly, although Death Valley is subject to flash flooding where parts of the road get washed away, there isn’t any water, not that you can see anyway. It hides in caverns beneath the rock and can only be accessed by climbing down into hidden wells.
Global warming takes on a whole new meaning here and if you substitute the word warming for frying then you’d be describing it more accurately.
Every Trip Starts With A Beginning
Your journey starts from the centre of Las Vegas. A place already renowned for temperatures into the late thirties celsius, but cooled down by the shadows from buildings and of course the air-conditioning inside them.
Warning: For 20 miles of your trip into Death Valley, your air conditioning has to be switched off!!
I’ll come onto that later.
As you depart the gambling capital of the states passing such hotel decadence as ‘The Bellagio’ and ‘The Luxor’ on your 5 hour, 285 mile trip, the US-15 takes you south past McCarran International Airport seemingly heading toward Los Angeles. Las Vegas’ roadway quickly escorts you out of town and instantly into the wilderness where you merge onto the Blue Diamond road NV-160 swapping the sanctuary of the Palm trees and infinity pools for sparse gravel, shrub freckled mountains and sandstorms whipped up by the unfriendly desert.
Already, you are transported to some of Hollywood’s road movies like Breakdown (you really wouldn’t want that to happen) and The Hitcher (put you off picking anyone up for life) as the winding tarmac stretches into the horizon. This stretch of road runs parallel with the Nevada/California border heading toward our first destination of Pahrump.
Pahrump feels like the first and last outpost of the valley, an outcrop of the suburbs of Las Vegas like a piece has broken free and floated over the mountains settling in a new home. The towns name would make many children snigger, repeating it over and over again; the sort of game played out in the back of a car, ‘Pah—rump’: a half a sneeze! The name itself though is a derivative of ‘Pahrimpi’ which stands for ‘water rock’ as the area is filled with artesian wells.
The town has the requisite truck driving diners like Denny’s allowing those that perhaps want to bypass the consumers paradise for a less frenetic and cheaper experience the chance to break away from the norm’.
From here, the road straightens out flanked by an ever decreasing scrub that has run out of gas heading toward the natural end of Pahrump where you can continue on and head straight back into the north of Las Vegas, or hang a left and roll down an imperceptible descent into the maw of one America’s iconic landmarks.
It is ultimately the road known as Bell Vista Avenue (which transforms into the less glamorous State Line Road at the border between Nevada and California) that bisects the heart of this steaming beast and guides you up and out of it’s belly toward safety, but first you must pass through the fires of hell. Only the penitent man will pass (or someone that pays the 20 dollar fee to enter the park at a pay station – don’t worry you will see a sign telling you where to pay), but you will need to pack water and plenty of it just in case you ….. dare I say it…… breakdown!
Zabriskie Point is a great place to stop, park the car, take a natural break and make a small climb to see how nature has pulled together sediments from a lake that dried up 5 million years ago. How the scientists make these calculations is way beyond a wide eyed traveler like myself – I just say ‘Wow’ when confronted with these statistics, but popular culture would note the significance of the visit from rock group U2, photographing the cover of their Joshua Tree album in this location where the formation of the dunes is so striking.The views here change dramatically if there is any cloud cover but to a child it looks like a giant sculptured sandpit.
Just after passing the Furnace Creek Inn there is a left hand turn which will take you to the very famous Badwater Basin
Badwater Basin – An optional detour
A left hand detour (which will extend your travel time by around 45 minutes) can be taken just before you head down toward Furnace Creek.
The Lowest Point in North America
Along this road lies the boardwalk Badwater Basin where you reach the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
It is amazing to think that just 86 miles north west of this position lies Mount Whitney which is the highest point in North America.
The Badwater Ultramarathon
From here, each year the race to Mount Whitney begins and just to ensure that the human condition is tested to it’s absolute limit the competitors have to complete the race in July which is the hottest month of the year. In order to be able to complete the 80 miles each runner has to provide their own support vehicle with fluids, ice, food and first aid.
The basin itself provides a dramatic start line as it is a dried up salt lake that offers a desolate but photogenic vista in all directions.
Furnace Creek – Death Valley’s Oasis
The aptly named Furnace Creek (not the Furnace Creek Inn) is your next stop and this is a place where on the one hand you will be pleased that an oasis in the desert exists for a refreshing break, and on the other making the small walk from the car to the inside of the store is like stepping into a sauna that has just had water poured on it.The store itself is filled with all the Vitamin Water, Coke, Lemonade and Red Bull you can drink. It is very important to stock up here as you will no doubt want to stop and take more pictures en route and you will be amazed how quickly you can become dehydrated even with cloud cover.Some other highlights here are the souvenir T-Shirts with Death Valley written on them or any number of fridge magnets, postcards or locally made ornaments.
Back to the 190
Leaving Furnace Creek with it’s Palm trees and incongruous slab of green fauna and heading back out onto the 190 feels like something you shouldn’t be doing. In your head, this is the moment when you are jumping off that cliff with a parachute or making your first scuba dive, the road from here is a squirming barren wilderness but one that must be savoured.
Perhaps it is the emptiness that grabs you first. The road is a motorcyclists (and cyclists) dream with lots of sweeping bends; but it is well kept as if it was laid especially for your visit with no discernible holes on a tarmac which endures extreme heat and bitter cold.The road eventually arcs left toward the mountain and the next town on the map which is Stovepipe Wells,but before then, there is a small but significant surprise
The Mesquite Sand Dunes
Wherever there is a car park in the world and especially when the terrain is as unfriendly as this, you know there is something special to see.
The dunes are first seen in the distance on the 190 but the closer you get the more you are reminded of the Sahara, more especially Egypt where the dunes here form pyramid shapes.The walk from your car to reach one of the dunes is a significant one and perhaps shouldn’t be attempted in the heat of July but take a few steps and you can enjoy all the panoramic eye candy you want.
As you leave heading for Stovepipe Wells if there is any wind in the area watch out for the sand rushing across the road leaving a haze in the sky but also blurring the traffic.
Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley – A place of Burned Wagons
It comes as a relief when you see a town again after many miles on the road, but Stovepipe Wells is both a place to re-fuel your vehicle before heading into the Panamint Valley and a stop-off with significant history you shouldn’t bypass before seeing signs that tell you to switch off your air conditioning for 20 miles. Be Warned, it’s better to warm up in the front of the car than to have it splutter and fail on this stretch of road.
The burned wagons I refer to here is not the ultimate fate of your hire car if you don’t heed the advice, but a memorial in Stovepipe itself to the 49ers, gold seekers who entered Death Valley looking for a short cut to the mines of central California. It was here they burnt their wagons, dried the meat of their oxen and continued their quest for fortune on foot.
The Panamint Valley
The road into and out of the Panamint Valley is the most spectacular part of this trip. Many people park on the side of the road as they wind round to the long straight that heads up toward the mountains to take the quintessential road trip photograph. The backdrop and foreground have been seen on a million rock and country albums but it doesn’t dilute your enjoyment whilst you fill up the space on your SD card or internal phone memory.Only a month after our visit, one of the roads that heads south out of the valley was washed away by the rare but devastating flash floods in the area so check the weather before you go as this could affect your trip. At this stage there is only one road in and out of the valley. As you finally begin to ascend out past the Panamint Springs resort and up into the mountains, be sure to stop and look back.
Although wait until you see a natural place to stop, these roads have quite a few blind bends. From here, you can see the whole valley and a plaque memorial (Padre Crowley Point) to another 49er, Father John J Crowley hailed here as leading people to ‘wider horizons’
The Last legs of Death Valley
The highest place in America
All good things come to an end but Death Valley doesn’t come to an abrupt halt, it kind of eases you back toward civilisation. Another series of bends meandering for miles give way to the trusty telegraph pole, some bent in the wind (it’s a while since we saw those) and in the distance the highest peak in North America, Mount Whitney.
Now, watch the temperature gauge on your car begin to recede.At it’s peak, the day we headed through the valley the temperature was 120 Fahrenheit. A couple of hours later, and with a rain shower, the gauge was 68 degrees and behind us and around us the sunset pink on our way to our final destination turning right onto the US-395 toward Bishop via Lone Pine.We had seen all the colours of this mysterious place and the red sky at night indicated a shepherds delight!
I cannot think of a better drive anywhere in the world!