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Trip Report: Spring Break in Death Valley 2006

So, what does a Death Valley trip entail? I took four days, with the option (not exercised) of a fifth day to come home via the eastern Sierra.

(Note on 4/15/06: I have posted many photographs from this trip at my photoblog site. A few pictures are also posted at this site – see the sidebar for links.)

***Sunday
– I left the Bay Area relatively early and headed down I-5, cutting over to Bakersfield and then heading east toward Mojave, then to Ridgecrest, and finally to Death Valley via the route past Trona and up Panamint Valley and over Hiway 190 to Stovepipe Wells. The original plan had been to camp there on Sunday and head out to Racetrack Playa on Monday, however the possibility of deteriorating weather and the fact that I arrived at Stovepipe Wells fairly early convinced me to keep going. I took the left turn and headed up the Valley to the turnoff for the short paved road to Ubehebe Crater. From there the road is gravel and quite rough with extreme washboard conditions. Quite some time later I arrived at the Playa, but too late for photography, so I headed on a bit further and quickly set up camp in the back of my car as darkness arrived.

***Monday
– I was up very early – before dawn – and I quickly grabbed something to eat before heading back to the south end of the Playa where the biggest collection of “moving rocks” is located. They apparently come off of a small hill at the end of the playa, a hill which is perhaps a half mile from the roadway. At this point the sun was just beginning to hit some of the surrounding hills, but a stubborn clould over the ridge to the east keep the playa in shadow. The wind was screaming across the playa; I can certainly understand how it could be strong enough in bad conditions to move rocks! I photographed in the area by the small hill for awhile and then moved out north and west onto the main portion of the playa. My timing turned out to be just about perfect, as I arrived at a couple of picturesque stones just as the cloud began to clear and large areas of sunlight began to dash across the playa.

After two hours on the playa I decided to start the drive back to pavement. With a number of stops along the way, I arrived back an Ubehebe Crater (where the wind was not even stronger!) around noon and then drove up to Scotty’s Castle to eat my lunch on the lawn there.

After lunch I began my drive south toward Furnace Creek as I watched the north end of the Valley get socked in by the approaching cold front. By the time I got down to the original Stovepipe Wells site the sand was blowing pretty well, and I could see that it was raining at the north end of the Valley. I continued on to Furnace Creek where I got a campsite and then drove up to Zabriskie Point and then on to Dante’s View. Dante’s view was spectacular, but the weather was really starting to get rough with extremely strong winds and rain starting, so I only stayed there a short time before heading back to my Furnace Creek campsite.

***Tuesday –
This was another full photo day. I started by arriving at Zabriskie Point just before the sun came up, and I stayed there for quite a long time photographing the rocks and the far ranges as the sun began to light them up. After finishing here I did the “tourist circuit” of the area south of Furnace Creek, hitting Badwater and Devil’s Golf Course. I went back to Furnace Creek in the early afternoon to get a campsite for another night. Afterwards I did the hike up Golden Canyon to the base of Red Cathedral in surprisingly hot and dry conditions (did I mention the wind?) before heading back up to Zabriskie Point to spend a couple more hours photographing the sunset.

Sunset there had its moments, but the weather was getting more serious once again. It rained hard enough at one point that I had to grab my gear and take shelter in the car for a short time. During the dry intervals the shafts of light coming through the clouds over the Panamint Range were quite spectacular, but the sky was completely covered my clouds by the time that sunset occured. That evening back at Furnace Creek it RAINED… hard. I must bring this weather to Death Valley. It has rained all three times I’ve been there and on one occasion we actually got a few flakes of snow at Scotty’s Castle.

***Wednesday
– I had originally thought about heading over to Bishop and an inexpensive hotel on Wednesday night, with the idea of photographing the eastern Sierra late on Wednesday and again on Thursday morning. But the weather still wasn’t clearing up and the idea of driving all the way up Hiway 395 and then over the crest in snow was not appealing. Instead, I decided to go with “Plan B” and start home. I was on the road early, so once again I saw a colorful dawn over the Panamints. Although I thought I might be driving out of the weather as I went south and west, I was surprised by rain soon after Ridgecrest and as I crossed the pass to Bakersfield I actually drove through light snow. There were tremendous rain squals in the Central Valley, but it finally began to clear up as I got closer to home.

Once again, I realize that Death Valley is a land of extremes: hot, dry desert with snow on the surrounding peaks, extreme winds, huge scale of landscape, long gravel roads, vast areas that are perhaps almost never visited.
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April 7, 2006 - Posted by | Trips

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