17. May 2015
Although we were keen on seeing and doing as much as possible in the National Park, we did need the rest, and so we slept until almost eleven on the morning of New Year’s Day. By the time we had reluctantly emerged from our warm and cosy sleeping bags and packed our equipment, it was past noon again. For the moment, we left our packed backpacks at our camping spot and ascended the same hill as in the previous night, carrying only our breakfast.
We spent about two hours sitting in the Californian winter sun, watching over Panamint Valley and lazily discussing life, the universe, and everything. Some small part of that everything was the plan for the day, and eventually we left our scenic breakfast spot to return to our backpacks and then to our car.
Cyprien wanted to reach the Visitor Center at Furnace Creak before it closed at 5pm, so we set off straight away. We had about one and a half hours and one hundred kilometers left. (Here the map of the National Park.) The low sun kept reminding us of the late time during the whole drive, and when it set we had just reached Stove Pipe Wells, Death Valley’s first tourist resort dating back to 1925, where we stopped for gas and paid our entrance fee.
The area was beautiful and otherworldly, the saloon, even the rudimentary gas station about which everything appeared to be creaky, seemed to have been there since the 1920s, preserved by the dry air and covered in a thin layer of dusty sand. Somehow the campground across the street with a few dusty-white caravans felt out of place. I would have loved to stick around for a bit, but Cyprien insisted on hitting the road and so we continued after only a few minutes in Stove Pipe Wells.
We reached Furnace Creek ten to five. I would say that we quickly hopped into the shiny and fashionably new visitor center, but everything had already been covered with a fine layer of dust greying out all bright colors. Furnace Creek is home to the National Park’s headquarters and 24 inhabitants, according to the 2010 census. The majority of these 24 inhabitants are Native Americans of the Timbisha tribe, formerly known as Panamint Shoshone, which had been around Death Valley for centuries. Of course, they never called it Death Valley, but named it after some clay in the valley that they used for red ochre paint.
The valley received its English name in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. Some pioneers were lost in the valley in the winter of 1849-1850 and assumed they would die here, but then they finally managed to escape via the Panamint Mountains, and one of the men turned back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”. Of the group, only one man actually did die in the valley.
Death Valley itself and its surrounding mountains were home to many mines, gold and silver since the 1850s, borax since the 1880s, and plenty of other metals and some salts. Large-scale mining in Death Valley ceased during the early 1900s, and the last borax mine finally closed in 2005. Today, numerous ghost towns are testimony of the mining past in Death Valley, and we hoped to visit one.
Back to Furnace Creek. The highest temperature in the world was recorded here in 1913 with almost 57°C, although there is some scientific disagreement about the accuracy of that measurement. Nevertheless, the average temperature high in Furnace Creek is 19°C in January – and 47°C in July. To quote wikipedia: “The greatest number of consecutive days with a maximum temperature of 100 °F (38 °C) or above was 154 days in the summer of 2001. The summer of 1996 had 40 days over 120 °F (49 °C), and 105 days over 110 °F (43 °C).”
The nights when we were there, however, were around 0°C at the valley floor, and daytime temperatures did not rise much beyond 15°C. This might explain why the time around New Year’s is considered the best season to visit Death Valley.
The visitor center was well visited and had tons of information about the National Park. We mostly asked about current road conditions and the conditions on some hiking trails. During our night of detailed planning I had suggested to climb Telescope Peak or some other mountain close by, and now that the ranger informed us that the last group going up had had to use crampons and ice axes, it sounded more like it would be the other mountain close by. But that could be decided the day we actually went there, now let’s just grab the newspaper-style visitor guide and be complimented out of the office. We used the toilet outside the visitor center, the only time while in the National Park that we actually got to sit on a toilet, running water to wash our hands, aah! Then, armed with plenty of maps from the ranger and fresh information on backcountry camping, we set out to find our next camping site.
We could practically camp anywhere, as long as we went one mile away from any paved road. We figured that in the largest U.S. National Park outside Alaska, that should be plenty of space. We decided to continue driving towards Cyprien’s must-visit sight, Badwater Basin, which possibly was of some slight interest to me, too. Just a few kilometers before the Basin the map shows a short unpaved road leading to a place called “Natural Bridge”, from where it seemed like it was possible to reach legal grounds for camping within less than a mile of walking. And sure enough, the road lead to a small unpaved parking lot from where we could set off on foot on a broad trail.
On the way to Natural Bridge I read some of the news in the visitor guide-newspaper to Cyprien. We learned that single-vehicle rollovers are the single leading cause of fatalities in the National Park, typically caused by a distracted driver who subsequently overcorrects when he feels the vehicle’s tires hit the gravel road shoulder. We (re-)learned about the Hantavirus that may be encountered in the park and should be avoided (“Avoid camping near rodent droppings, nests, woodpiles or dense bush frequented by rodents.”). We learned about possible flash floods in the canyons, about such friendly creatures as rattlesnakes, scorpions, or black widow spiders (“never place your hands or feet where you cannot see first”) and about the reliability of the emergency number 911 (“Cell phones may not work in many parts of the park. Do not depend on them.”). Oh yeah, and Mars would be visible in the west after sunset – the night skies in Death Valley are “very dark and minimally impacted by city lights”. Since we were close to full moon, our nights were not exactly dark, but we did see very little artificial light.
A few minutes into the trail we discovered why it was named “Natural Bridge“, the trail was passing under a broad rock arch that was spanning both sides of the walls of the canyon that we had walked into. We continued walking beyond the bridge and followed the less and less well trodden trail up the narrower and narrower canyon. We started to have to climb occasionally, until we reached a wall that I could not manage with the backpack. That I could not manage without the backpack, either. The scary climb was aggravated by me having no clue how to get down this wall the next morning, and I doubted that some daylight would have helped much. We walked back a bit and tried to find a good spot for climbing up and out of the canyon – my plan had been to wake up to a nice view over Death Valley! We did find a spot that I might have been able to climb up had I not been tired and scared already and thus felt more unsecure than is good for a safe climb. Eventually, I chickened out from this easier climb too and we started heading back towards the bridge.
Having descended another small step wall in the canyon, we started wondering if we could not simply place our tent inside the canyon, right here. Even better, since the canyon protected us from the wind, we would not even need to set up a tent at all! The day had been very clear, so I did not worry much about being washed away during the night by a flash flood, but in my head I did see a scorpion or two crawl into my shoes and into my sleeping bag during the night, neither of which actually happened, of course.
We were both quite exhausted, partly from the long drive the day before. We laid the tent flat on the ground, had some dinner, and crawled into our sleeping bags. Both looking up at the moon and a few bright stars in the narrow strip of sky above us, we talked for a while until we fell asleep.