Friday, March 11, 2016

Death Valley Comes Alive

It’s spring in California, and this El Nino year has brought enough rain to produce Death Valley’s most spectacular bloom since 2005.

I’ve been to Death Valley many times back in the days when I hung out with geologists, but never during the spring bloom. It’s been on my bucket list.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark and I grabbed a little window of time on a sailing-free weekend, packed up the pop-up camper, and headed down Interstate 395, arguably one of the most beautiful highways in America.

When the desert is in bloom, you can’t just put it off for a couple of months. You gotta get there before it’s all gone.  Now, two weeks on, the yellow carpet we saw on the valley floor has faded, but the good news is that the higher elevations, where there’s more variety, are now in bloom. I might have to persuade Mark to make another trip …

Mark planned the trip: first night camping in the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, second night camping in Death Valley, and the third night luxuriating at the Hotel Mizpah in Tonopah, NV. In this post, I’m focusing on Death Valley but, inshallah, I will find time to write about the other two places, which are also blog-worthy.

We entered Death Valley National Park – the last time I was there it was still a National Monument – from the west via Highway 136. We were so eager to get into the park that we didn’t bother to stop at the visitor center in Lone Pine. Maybe next time.

We did stop for lunch in Panamint Springs, which is owned by an old colleague of Mark’s named Tim Cassell. He wasn’t sure if they guy still owned it, but when we asked the waiter at the restaurant, he said, “Oh, yeah. He still flies in here every few weeks. Did you know he crashed his airplane about a year or so ago?" It’s an amazing story, which you can read here on the Panamint Springs Facebook page. BTW the pizza was good and the salads, which other people were eating, looked beautiful. No iceberg lettuce here.

The outdoor seating was full, but we were invited to join a couple from Tehachapi at their table. As I had suspected, they were among the many day trippers who were thronging the place on the weekend. They advised us that we would see lots of flowers just driving on the main roads.

It seems ironic, but it’s true, because many wildflowers (including those called by their other name, “weeds,”) grow well in the disturbed roadside soil – and in the washes, where the runoff carries soil and seeds.

Cars were parked along the roads everywhere, and people were out wandering in the Desert Gold fields.

We camped for the night at Furnace Creek. I recalled camping there one Easter when my kids were in grade school. There was a little motel with a pool, and a tiny store – that’s all I remember. Man, has that place changed! There are now several campgrounds, and a huge visitor complex. Our tax dollars did a nice job!

The beautiful 1920’s era Inn at Furnace Creek is still there, of course. I’m going to advocate for spending some time there on our next trip, even if it’s just for a cocktail.

In the morning, I persuaded Mark that we should go to Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level the lowest point in North America. The lowest point on Earth is the Dead Sea – I’ve been there, too!

It was great to get out of the car for a walk. Next time, I’m going to insist on some real hiking but this trip, we just didn’t have enough time.

A spectacular and fun detour is Artists Drive, with a stop at Artists Palette, where you can view splashes of color produced by the oxidation of metals in the volcanic rock. I can just imagine the explosions that occurred here!

It’s a fun road to drive, too. Don’t worry; it’s one-way.

We took the Beatty Cuttoff to the northeast, which took us to Highway 374 through the beautiful Amargosa Range, where we enjoyed more vistas with Desert Gold in the foreground and purple mountains’ majesty on the horizon.

Our next stop was the ghost town on Rhyolite – I love ghost towns! – but that’s another story.

If you want to get the latest on the bloom, click the link and check out the Wildflower Update.

Cheers, and thanks for reading!

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