March 31, 2010

Part 3: Wildflower Safari - Death Valley

(Continued from Part 2 - Carrizo Plain National Monument.)
Death Valley was the real reason for this trip. Last year I had read in a magazine about this cool bicycling route in Death Valley from the Furnace Creek campground to Badwater, the lowest point in North America (I think it is about 280 feet below sea level). So I did a little researche, booked a campground and took a long weekend to go to Death Valley. I thought I was going to be there during the desert wildflower season. Nope. I was two weeks too early, although the bike ride was wonderful but very challenging. So this year I book the trip two weeks later in March, but apparently they are having a late spring, so still I am two weeks too early. I knew this before we left, but I had already taken the Monday off from work, so I still wanted to go. And now, here I am.

We checked out of the hotel in Lone Pine and stopped for gas, ice, sunblock, etc. Lone Pine is a great place for the outdoors-person. In the summer, many stop through here on their way to Mount Whitney and other mountain backpacking trips. Right now, the mountains to the west of Lone Pine (including Whitney) had some nice snow.

After our pit stop, we made our way south on 395 to CA-136. Right at that junction is a Visitor's Center run by the Bureau of Land Management. I asked them about wildflowers and they gave me information on places to go outside of Death Valley. I kept the information for future trips. We continued on 136 where it was flat with a large salt flat next to us. We were headed east, stright toward the Inyo Mountains.
Highway 136

The road turned a bit when we got on Highway 190 and along it we went, like a wave at sea. These are the kinds of roads I like, they really add to the road trip adventure. Paul decided he would see how close to a roller coaster he could make this drive.
The Road Wave
Eventually we started to seriously make our way into the mountains. It started to get more and more desert-like with some dirt road "intersections". I always wanted to know where some of these dirt roads lead to.
The Dirt Road that Leads to Where?

We started to make our way higher and higher and higher. Just as we would begin our descent, there was the Father Crowley vista point, so we pulled off to take a look.
The Overlook

Closer-up (for scale)

We didn't linger too long and continued on the highway, down toward Panamint Valley. On our way down, we stopped at Panamint Springs resort where I dropped off Paul to do some work on the patio before our room there was ready. There was nothing else there except the cabin/motel rooms, the gas station, general store, restaurant and the RV campground across the street. It was rustic and seemed peaceful and it appeared that Paul would be happy hanging out there for several hours. I took off. I continued down into Panamint Valley where there was a long stretch of sand. It is a rather narrow valley and the road continued right back up into the Panamint Mountains.

On the other side of the mountains was the town of Stovepipe Wells, which had a lot more going on then Panamint Springs. There was also a park visitor's center, where I did not stop. I continued on through the town to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Last year this had been a good place to come during the nearly full moon. But this time we would have a new moon, which would be good for seeing stars. The day was hazy and kind of gray, there was no blue sky or many clouds to be seen.
Two People On a Dune

The problem with these dunes is once you start walking out to one, you want to walk out to the next one and then the one after that and so on. Eventually, you have to tell yourself to stop. I knew I was really here to find wildflowers, so I was not very patient with sand dune walking. My sneakers were getting full of sand and starting to get really, really tight. The Sand Dunes are cool though, because you really feel like you've stepped onto another planet when you are out on the dunes.
Another World

Back at the car, I dump out the sand from my sneakers and drink some water. I do not dawdle and I hit the road again and head toward Furnace Creek. There, I stop at the Visitor's Center to get my park pass validated, a map, and some information on the wildflowers. The park ranger that helped me mentioned there were some flowers along the road to Badwater and then some variety in Titus Canyon, so my new plan is to hit both of these places. First stop, Badwater. From the Visitor's Center at Furnace Creek I get on highway 178, which is the road to Badwater.
The Road to Badwater

The road to Badwater was green, for Death Valley anyway. There were patches of very small desert flowers along the way. I had brought a towel, to lay down in the dirt and try to capture a photograph of these tiny flowers.
 Wildflowers Along the Road

After my neck was aching from trying to get shots of these tiny flowers I decided finish the trek to Badwater, the lowest point in North America.

The thing I'll say about Badwater is it is kind of cool to think that you are 282 feet below sea level. Even scuba divers are not going to dive into the ocean and go this far down. You can see the tiny, tiny shrimp that live in the incredibly high concentrate of salt pond. You can also walk out onto the salt flats, where the thick salt crust was cracked and it crunches under your feet. But I have done this all before and this time I am really here to see wildflowers. So I continue on. On my way backtracking on highway 178. I decide to turn on the one-way Artist's Drive, which I wanted to do last year, but did not have the time.
Artist's Drive

This is a very beautiful drive and it goes around all the rocks with multiple color. There is one spot, Artist's Palette, that has rocks that are green, purple, dark red, and various shades of peach and brown.
 Artist's Palette

I walked into the tiny canyon and along a dry stream bed until I reached a large purple rock that looked like it had been crumbling off purple gravel for many, many years.

After I finished enjoying Artist's Drive and its many colorful rocks, I turned back onto Highway 178 and continued back in the direction of the Furnace Creek visitor's center. I passed the visitor's center and kept going until I hit Scotty's Castle Road. This road is under construction and many parts of it has faded and worn away asphalt or nothing but extremely bumpy gravel. The travel was slow going and I was worried that I would not reach my second destination, Titus Canyon, in time.
Scotty's Castle Road

The further along I got, the more wildflowers I saw, that I had not yet seen on the road to Badwater. Of course, I wanted to get to Titus Canyon, since I had no idea what amount of wildflowers it might bring, but I could not pass up the opportunity to examine and enjoy these wildflowers while I had the chance.
Purple Desert Wildflower

I also saw some small yellow and some white flowers as well, but the purple ones seemed to be the most plentiful. After taking some photos I continued on to the sign for Titus Canyon. This road was a very rough gravel road and I was beginning to think that my low-clearance vehicle was not meant to be driving here. But I continued on very carefully and I eventually found the parking lot. There I saw some nice yellow desert wildflowers.
Yellow Desert Wildflowers

I made my way into Titus Canyon. All it was, was a continuation of the road I had just been driving on into the rock mountains. You could hardly see it, but there was a narrow break in the mountains, wide enough for one car to pass through. I swerved and wound around the steep, rock walls.
 Titus Canyon

There were many individual instances of wildflowers I had not yet seen. There were purple, yellow, white flowers of many varieties. The sun was going down, and the narrow canyon was making me a tiny bit claustrophobic. It was impossible to determine how far you had gone and how much further you could go and how much further it was to go back to where you came from, since you really couldn't see much before you or behind you. The tall rock walls blocked out the light, so it was really hard to see how low in the sky the sun was getting and I didn't have a watch. So, I started back out of the canyon, but I noticed two backpackers emerge from around a corner and were also headed out.

I was a bit relieved to exit the canyon. It had been really cool, but now I could make better judgments on time and distance, I did need to be getting back to Pananmint Springs, since Paul was waiting there for me. I chatted with the backpackers for a little bit about their one night trip and then went back down the tough, rocky road back to Scotty's Castle Road. I really made a bee-line for highway 190, but I did notice the amazing sunset in my rear view mirror, so I did take a little bit of time to get some photographs.
Death Valley Sunset

With the sun down and the new moon, it was very, very dark in Death Valley. I was glad to be off of Scotty's Castle road, where I was a little paranoid that one of the extremely large rocks that hit the bottom of my car, coming down from Titus Valley, was going to strand me on the side of this less traveled road. But the car seemed to do just fine. I joined up with highway 190 and drove to Stovepipe Wells to get gas. I also tried to call Paul, but it was no use, since there was no cell phone reception.

After fueling up I made my way up the mountains and then back down, getting caught behind a very slow car. The weather cooled down really, really fast and I hoped Paul wasn't cold in just a t-shirt, since I had all his luggage in the car. Eventually, in Panamint Valley I was able to pass the slow car and head back up the mountains to Panamint Springs resort. I arrived at 8pm, exactly 8 hours since I had left the resort and Paul. Paul was sitting outside our cabin, with a newly bought sweatshirt on, while working on his laptop. We walked over to the restaurant and had hamburgers and a beer each. It was nice sitting out on that patio. The air was so fresh, not like plant-life fresh, but absent-of-smog-and-pollution fresh. We hung out on the porch for a while and I noticed that no one around us was speaking English. Oh wait, there was one table, but they all had British accents. We might have been the only Americans, other than the people running the place. Eventually we retired to our room, which was clean and nice, although not exactly charming. There was also no phone or tv, they really try to make it a resort away from technology (although they have free wireless internet throughout the property). I had a hard time falling asleep, but was so glad, when it finally came.

Next, the last portion of our wildflower safari,  Part 4 - Highway 178/In & Around Kernville.

The Details:
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is approximately between the Inyo mountains and Las Vegas, Nevada. It is the hottest, driest place in North America and the best time to visit is in the winter. For information on camping, where I recommend the Furnace Creek campground (to be in the center of the action), see Death Valley Campgrounds. It is recommended during the winter months and especially during wildflower season to make your reservation at least one month in advance.

Accommodations: Panamint Springs Resort (along highway 190 about 40 miles from Lone Pine, CA). This is a very remote location with limited amenities and availability.
Panamint Springs Resort

From US-395 in Lone Pine, CA.
1. Go south (from Comfort Inn, go left) onto US-395/Main St.
2. Not far, make a left onto Highway 136. There is a visitor's center on the right as soon as you make the turn. Go about 17 miles.
3. Continue onto Highway 190 for about 86 miles (you will pass Panamint Springs resort) and enter Death Valley.
4. Turn right at Greenland Ranch Rd, and visit the Furnace Creek visitor's center.
5. Exit the visitor's center and turn Right onto 190, go 1 mile.
6. Turn right onto Badwater Rd (Highway 178) and go for 18 miles to the Badwater parking lot. Visit Badwater.
7. Out of the Badwater parking lot, retrace you route by turning Left and continue for over 9 miles.
8. Go right onto the one-way road, Artisit's Drive. Follow this road 8.8 miles until it dead end back at Badwater Rd. (Highway 178).
9. Go right onto Badwater Rd for almost 5 miles.
10. Go left onto highway 190 W, continue for about 18 miles.
11. Go right onto Scotty's Castle Rd for about 15 miles.
12. Watch for the signs and make a right onto Titus Canyon Rd., continue slowly up the rocky road for almost 3 miles to the parking lot. (It is one-way traffic in the opposite direction the rest of the way on Titus Canyon Rd.)
13. Visit Titus Canyon and when finished, continue back down Titus Canyon Rd to Scotty's Castle Rd.
14. Make a left onto Scotty's Castle Rd. and continue for 15 miles.
15. Make a right onto Highway 190 and continue for about 38 miles to Panamint Springs resort, which will be on the Left.

(from Comfort Inn - Lone Pine)

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