After breakfasting at the Comfort Inn in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, we drive west to the California/Nevada border on Route 160 to Pahrump, NV. As I drive, Hannah says she’s not really fond of heading into the Unknown. I think – it’s not the Middle East; it’s not Antarctica; it’s not Mount Everest or K2. Who would have thought we’d ever get to Death Valley in our lifetimes! Clearly not Hannah.
I was not always so adventurous. When my parents drove us three kids in an old Ford woody station wagon West, I would have just as soon stayed home; playing tennis on the Radburn courts or baseball at Plaza Field back in north Jersey with my friends. But, I have to say, those family trips planted the seeds for my wanderlust.
Given the chance to spend six weeks with a French family in Algeria in northern Africa as a high school sophomore, I grudgingly agreed to go and spent 42 days being homesick and wasting what could have been a great experience. As a kid, I was a homebody. Finally, realizing that playing it safe as an Ohio college student was leading me nowhere, I rolled the dice and moved to the Wild West and transferred to Arizona State. I didn’t know a soul but had the chance to kick the tires on the unknown and its possibilities.
Once we have gone the 60 miles over the 5400’ Mountain Springs Pass to the desert community of Pahrump, we then take the Bella Vista Road out of town to the forsaken crossroads of Death Valley Junction. From there it’s very desolate Route 190 with little traffic to Furnace Creek, CA, home to the Death Valley National Park.
At 190 feet below sea level, Furnace Creek is 12 degrees warmer than it will be today in Las Vegas. The average daily high temperature here in July and August is 115F! Furnace Creek had been the center of mining operations with the historic 20 Mule Teams hauling wagons of borax across the Mojave Desert. By the way, borax is used in household cleaning products.
Death Valley itself is the lowest, hottest, driest area in North America. Located in the Great Basin, east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Death Valley was named by prospectors during the California Gold Rush in 1849. Unsure where to hike, we learn from the ranger of the most popular hike in Death Valley is the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch four mile loop hike.
There are a surprisingly lot of people, both families and the ever present retirees, on this first Tuesday of March. Before we find the trailhead, we chat up the clerk at the Furnace Creek Gift Shop; I ask about the summer here. She says, With temperatures in the 120s, Death Valley in summer is still more popular than it is in March. Death Valley gets less than two inches of rain per year. Phoenix gets seven.
The terrain in Death Valley is badlands, which is an area that has been extensively eroded by wind and water. Three miles from the Visitor Center, Golden Canyon is just down the Badwater Road to the trailhead. The trail accommodates all sorts of hikers. There is a 2.5 mile up and back trail down Golden Canyon to the base of the Red Cathedral Mountain. Through a canyon that was once a paved road, we see chunks of weathered pavement along the river bed.
Once a mile in, we rock scramble through a narrow passage way at the base of Red Cathedral with its fluted headwalls. Fluted headwalls? Grooved walls of sandstone on the mountainside. With little wind and under sunny blue skies, the 70F day is ideal hiking weather.
Once back at the loop trail, we climb into the golden mountains. The trail is a ribbon along the mountainside where the hiking is never perilous, but we do step carefully. At the top we view the salt flats and beyond is Mount Whitney at 14,567 feet, the highest mountain in the continental United States.
Marked with pliable four feet high plastic, the trail through the golden mountains is easy to follow in a land with almost no plant life. There is the occasional dried out mini-tumbleweed, but there is literally no vegetation around us. Death Valley seems appropriately named.
Climbing down the mountain we descend through the Grey Gulch dry river bed. Here, the trail is not well-marked at all; but it seems there is only one way to go – down the river bed. The occasional marker reassures us. We do some modest rock scrambling through the river bottom, but eventually we descend into the foothills for the ¾ of mile walk back to the trailhead.
Returning the 2+ hours back to the Vegas Metro area, we see many parallels to our one-time home in the Valley of the Sun in Arizona – the tract (look alike) homes in subdivisions one after another; a valley setting surrounded by mountains; interstate highways to move the transient population; shorts and sunscreen year round.
Our Comfort Inn has a free happy hour with a “Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra” octogenarian at the piano in the breakfast room. Even so, we opt for our Bud Lights up in our second floor room looking at the snowless mountains surrounding Las Vegas. For tomorrow in New England, there will be more snow than we’ve seen in 33 years living in Maine.
You might wonder what I do to plan our trips to escape the winter in New England.
As far as trips go, In Dan, Hannah Trusts. (in my dreams!)
Deciding where? For us, it is going somewhere in the 48 States, we think warm; we think hiking; we think far from population centers. This trifecta leaves out Florida and the Valley of the Sun in Arizona, but coastal California fits the bill as do the deserts of Nevada and Utah and the mountains of Wyoming and Montana.
Flights? I go to Expedia, which I find easy to negotiate. Orbitz, Travelocity, and CheapOair all have basically the same prices for flights. I check prices over a two week stretch three to four months before our planned departure to get a good sense of what’s a good price for non-stop flights. Nonstop is key for cross country flights. It’s worth the extra buckaroos. Traveling non-stop cross country for six hours from East Coast to West beats layovers that can make the trip eight to fifteen hours. A week and a half ago we got in the air from Boston and landed in Las Vegas on a day when 1500 flights were cancelled because of ice in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
One more thing. Once you have chosen the airline you want, go to their website to make the reservation. The price is the same as Expedia. If you have trouble and need to make adjustments with your flight, the airline will deal with you and not say, You made the reservation through a third party and we can’t help you. Please contact Expedia.
Rental cars. Start with Expedia or any other travel site to see what are the range of prices for the kind of car you want. Stick to national chains. We have been blindsided by local cheapy car rentals with all sorts of conditions presented to us once we reach the counter. As with airlines, go to the website of the car rental agency itself.
Be Flexible. If you are hiking, weather has a big say in when you can hike. Get a motel room for the first night of your hiking vacation so you have a place to stay when you first arrive by plane, but leave yourself open from there so you can adjust for weather conditions. The weather determines where you can hike. With rain in the forecast for Zion this past weekend, we were able to move up our visit by one day and hike both trails we wanted.
Bumbleberry Inn. Stay at the Bumbleberry Inn in Springdale, UT and breakfast at Wildcat Willies when you go to Zion National Park.