Sunday, February 19, 2012

Death Valley National Park: our third visit.

Teloscope Peak reflected in Badwater Creek, floor of Death Valley.
    On two previous trips to California we have visited Death Valley National Park, but it has been a while since we have been there. I think Death Valley is another one of those sort of secret places to visit. Most people, especially those in the Midwest or East of the country,  don't associate it with beauty or fun activities. They just think it is a desert place where you could die. And indeed, in summer that is the case. But in winter, the temperatures are in the 60s and 70s during the day with brilliant cloudless skies and down to 50s usually at night. And there are really dozens of things to do and see. Temperatures of course are lower in the higher elevations bordering the Valley itself.

     Death Valley is a place of superlatives. It is the largest National Park in the country occupying over 3 million acres of wilderness. The actual Valley is the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below Sea Level. (The Dead Sea in Israel is the lowest in the world, 1371 feet below Sea Level and I've been there also.) The salt pan that covers the valley is 40 miles long and 5 miles wide. Located in the rain shadow of first the Sierra Nevada Mountains and then the Panamint Range immediately to the west of the valley, it is the driest place in North America as well. And it is the hottest place in North America. In the summer temperatures on the floor of the valley regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Its plants and animals have made extraordinary adaptations to survive the extremes here. For example, there are several species of pupfish which lives in some of the creeks and holes in the rock where the salinity is 4-5 times that of sea water. These fish have adapted to live their life quickly and reproduce in the few months when there is water in the creeks from occasional rain and snow melt.
Salt Creek. The white is not snow, but it is salt.
      The scenic views range from snow covered mountains, to badlands, to sand dunes, to canyons of marble, and foothills and cliffs of literally every color of the rainbow due to iron oxide, copper oxide, and other minerals which tint the rocks themselves, and the dust and gravel that wash off of these rocks. There are innumerable hiking trails with surprises such as rock arches, and in some seasons waterfalls at the terminus. In spring, after some rain has fallen in the winter, the desert surface can be covered with waves of wild flowers. One of our previous visits was in such a year. There are roads which require a 4 wheel drive and high clearance as well as 2 or 3 spare tires in the trunk. But the main roads are very drivable and there are many miles to travel since it is such a large park.
Badlands from Zabriski Point

Colored rock from Artists' Drive.

Stovepipe Wells Sand dunes from closer
Stovepipe Wells dunes from a distance
  Sunsets are dramatic here. There is an explosion crater and other geothermal activity here. There are hot springs. The swimming pools at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch use hot spring water in them and they are maintained during tourist season. Furnace Creek Inn closes in May but the Ranch stays open all summer for those who are brave enough to venture here then.
Sunset over Telescope Peak to the west of the Valley

Sunset on the Black Mountains east of the Valley, from Stovepipe Wells
     In addition to the nature, surprisingly Death Valley has a rich past human history and culture. The Timbisha Shoshone native people lived here for many hundreds of years, harvesting pine nuts and mesquite berries and living off of the local fauna. There is still a small tribe that lives here and was responsible for rejuvenating the mesquite thickets at the north end of the salt pan, which had deteriorated to almost disappear. They knew from their oral histories how to maintain these thickets and their restoration has provided cover for many of the animals of Death Valley.
     The evening ranger programs are full of the story about the 49ers. This was a group of people coming west to seek gold. They decided to take a shortcut across Death Valley and became stranded. Two of the men literally walked out of the area to get help and returned to save the remainder of the wagon train. Only one person in the caravan had died of natural causes, but this lead one woman in the troop to look back at the journey through the valley and name it as it is still called, Death Valley.
     At one time charcoal was made at Kilns which still remain at Wildrose in the west part of the Panamint Range. And to the east of the park are several ghost towns which remain from gold rush times. They are interesting to visit.
Two borax wagons and a steam tractor used only in Valley.

   Not much gold was discovered in Death Valley, some silver was discovered,  but there was a mineral that became just as valuable as gold and silver. The surface of the Valley and its salt pan contained borax, and so did many of the surrounding cliffs and canyons. The endeavor to harvest this mineral and get it out of this remote area created  and became a famous source of culture in the valley. First of all, hundreds even perhaps thousands of Chinese laborers were brought in to harvest the borax off the surface. Later mine shafts were dug into the cliffs and a multitude of these mines still exist though they are off limits due to their lack of safety. There is a movement to restore some of the shafts so that they can be visited. Getting borax out to the nearest rail head in Mojave, CA, 165 miles away lead to the development of the 20 mule hitch pulling a wagon full of borax and one or two water tanks. Each wagon was 16 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet deep. Loaded, the wagon weight 36 1/2 tons. The 20 mule team pulled on an 80 foot lead chain. The wheels were 7 feet tall.   Try getting this team and its wagons around some of the curves and over the passes that had to be traversed.  The back 3 teams of mules had to learn how to jump over that 80 foot lead chain when it was turning corners and each pair of mules depending on its location in the team, had to know its name and the words Stop and Go so that they could be deftly managed around the turns and through the canyons. The trip was managed by a so-called muleskinner and his cook (swamper) in 10 days, about 17 miles a day. These wagons only ran from 1883 to 1888 but they still are responsible for many stories told in Death Valley to this day. The Harmony Borax works is still a nice little stop on a tour of the Valley. There are a couple remaining wagons so that you can get an idea about the size of these mule trains. The Borax Soap company used a photo of one of these 20 mule wagon trains in its advertisement.
Scotty's Castle
      One of the most interesting stories and charming sites in Death Valley is Scotty's Castle. Walter Scott was born in 1872 in Kentucky but ran away and worked odd jobs all over the growing United States. For a while he even performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. In the early 1900s he set off for the west to go gold prospecting. But Death Valley Scotty's greatest talent was that of a con man. While pulling his mule all around the Death Valley area, he convinced several businessmen to invest money in him and his supposed secret gold mine. One of these businessmen was Albert Johnson of Chicago, an insurance magnate and millionaire. Scotty conned a lot of money from Johnson but eventually Johnson went out to the desert to see Scotty's secret mine that he was supporting. Scotty knew that Johnson had arthritis and thought that one half day trip with his mule into the heat of the desert and Johnson would disappear. But Johnson loved the desert. His aches and pains got better in the dry air. Eventually Johnson and his wife Bessie who was from California decided they wanted to build a vacation home in Grapevine Canyon Oasis in the north end of Death Valley. Probably Johnson knew that Scotty had been swindling him but he didn't seem to mind. He enjoyed Scotty's humor and he loved the desert where he felt better than back in Chicago with its winters. So apparently the story goes, Albert Johnson paid Scotty to supervise the building of first a ranch and later a multimillion dollar Spanish-Mediterranean style mansion in the Oasis. In addition, Johnson had gone to engineering school and wanted to use his engineering skill in building this mansion. It has various engineering marvels in it that worked a gravity water system and swimming pool, battery operated lighting, a wind pipe organ, various peepholes, and other nuances as well as a clock tower, all designed by Albert Johnson. In the 1920s it became a destination for rich friends of Albert and Bessie and later was even open to wealthy tourists. The Johnsons died in 1920s and Scotty died in 1954 but lived the last two years of his life at the Castle. There are several tours available of the Castle and its workings, as well as the Grapevine Ranch which was Scotty's base for much of his life. The docents dress in 1920s clothing and treat the tour group as though they are visiting wealthy friends of the Johnsons from the 1920s. They are very entertaining tours.
Jack rabbit
       It is also interesting to drive some of the loop roads outside the National Park to the east. Death Valley Junction has the Amargosa (means" sour water" in the Paiute language) Hotel and Opera House built in 1923 by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. This building had fallen into disrepair in the mid 20th century but was purchased in 1963 by Marta Beckett, a singer and actress. She paid for restorations and brought back an evening show on the stage. It is still operating, run by a non profit organization. There is a legend that it is haunted, and some stories are still told by current rangers in Death Valley about certain paranormal experiences while staying there.  Driving the loop northeast of Death Valley, one reaches Beatty, NV. Here is one of 4 nuclear waste disposal sites. Also near Beatty is Rhyolite, a ghost town with some preserved building facades and a small home made of bottles embedded in mortar. It is kind of interesting to visit these sites during a drive around the park.
     I can't close this description of the highlights of Death Valley without commenting on the night time sky. Though you can see a small crescent of pinkish light pollution from Las Vegas to the southeast, the night time sky in Death Valley is one of the darkest in the country. Therefore star viewing is phenomenal. I am always so happy to see the Milky Way out there. Whereas back home, I don't think I have seen it since growing up on a small farm in northern Illinois, about 60 years ago. Several night time star gazing talks are presented by the rangers. And the Las Vegas Astronomy Club comes out there several times a year to give presentations. That makes sense because otherwise this Las Vegas club would be bereft of seeing any stars. The Strip makes sure of that.
     We en;joyed out trip to Death Valley this time as in the past even though it was not as much of a surprise. For anyone traveling to California in the winter, I would heartily endorse a trip to Death Valley. If you are poor, stay at Panamint Springs, or Stovepipe Wells. If you are of medium financial reserves, stay at Furnace Creek Ranch, and if you can afford it stay at Furnace Creek Inn where you will be treated like visiting royalty.
Furnace Creek Inn at dusk nestled against the Black Mountains


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