Surviving Death Valley

Pahrump NV
Pair-a-Dice SKP Co-op
Nights: 2
Laundry Loads: 6

After our week in Joshua Tree we intended to hit a grocery store before heading to Mojave. Unfortunately we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere and the only place we found on the way was a Dollar Tree. Luckily we had enough to get by, but after Mojave we desperately needed supplies and a laundromat before heading into Death Valley. Reading campground reviews (thank you campendium.com) someone mentioned Pahrump NV was the closest grocery store to the park. It was along our route and even better we found it had an Escapees park. After our great experience at the Escapees park in Yuma we decided 2 nights there would be perfect for re-stocking.

Pair-a-Dice is another Escapees co-op park, meaning it’s sites are individually owned. Even though this park is quite a bit bigger than Yuma none of it’s nearly 200 spots were open so we ended up dry camping. This suited us just fine, especially since it was free the first night and only $7 the next (plus we paid $7 to dump). The dry camp was at the entrance to the property so it was a little busy with folks coming and going, but we had a nice view of the hills.

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You never escape laundry!

Arriving in the early afternoon we decided to get laundry out of the way. I’ve come to love doing laundry at SKP parks (well as much as one can enjoy doing laundry). For one it’s cheap ($1 to wash and 50 cents to dry), but also it’s more relaxed than a laundromat. At Yuma we always went back to our trailer to wait out the cycles, but here we opted to hang out in the huge clubhouse. I explored their craft room. Chuck found homemade peanut butter cookies for a quarter and used the wi-fi. The folks here were friendly, but we got a less vibrant vibe at this park than we did in Yuma.

The next day we hit town to pick up some things at Home Depot (yep they have things even a home on wheels needs), grab lunch (Mom’s Diner was disappointing), hit the Albertson’s (not very great produce, so opt for Smith’s if you’re in the area) and fuel up the truck. Now we were ready for the desolation of Death Valley, or so we thought.

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An April Fools ad for Death Valley from the early 1900s.

Death Valley
Texas Spring Campground
Nights: 3 (we planned to stay 4 but it was too hot!)
High Temperature: 98 at the visitor’s center in Furnace Valley, 105 on the car readout

Hot. Beautiful. Dry. Beautiful. Dusty. Beautiful. Windy. Beautiful. Hot. Hot. Hot!

Even during the mild season, the heat rules the day here. By the end of March hiking is no longer recommended. With it being mid-March and 10-15 degrees above normal, we got a good taste of the hottest place on Earth—it once hit 134 degrees here. It’s not just the heat that gets you, but the extremely dry air that sucks all moisture away, leaving you dehydrated.

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I couldn’t drink enough water to keep up, my feet puffing up like marshmallows. During summer they say you lose 2 gallons of water just sitting in the shade. It felt like we had returned to Badlands NP in August. Only here there was no grass or trees, only a few bushes in some of the washes.

Death Valley is a land of huge barren mountains and rocky hills surrounding a salt crusted valley. The astounding part is the variety in the rocky terrain. There are golden mounds of badlands hills, craggy dark lava peaks, angled layers erupted to the sky in palettes of orange, white and gold and white sculpted valleys splashed with red, yellow, green or chocolate. Sometimes all these are right next to each other or layered together. Most of the hills exhibit layers pointed at a 45 degree angle toward the sky showing the huge uplift that has taken place over the years. As those mountains tip one side up the other side goes down creating a valley that sits below sea level.

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With only 2 inches of rain a year, the salt and everything else around here bakes into a crust. I think I know how it feels. It was so hot all of our energy was sucked away. A sign in the visitor’s center said walking after 10am was not recommended so we only ventured out in the morning. The rest of the day was spent listlessly sweltering in the heat, guzzling iced drinks, and perhaps an ice cream bar from the nearby Furnace Creek Store.

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Thank goodness we brought some shade!
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Our campground view

With our campground little more than a rocky parking lot it wasn’t much of a respite from the harsh weather. We even broke down and turned on the glorious AC one afternoon for an hour thanks to our awesome solar/lithium setup. At least once the sun went down it started to cool a little.

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Golden Canyon cliffs

Even with the energy sucking heat, we managed to see quite a bit of the park. We took what our National Park Guidebook correctly billed as the best 1 mile trail in the park, Golden Canyon, opting to add the spur to Red Cathedral. As we headed into the canyon, even in the morning, it was warming up fast so I tried to stick to the shade provided by the canyon walls. Following the dry wash, the cliffs were an amazing mix of colors and shapes. After taking one wrong turn, we found the spur to Red Cathedral and squeezing between rocks climbed up to a little room at the base of the red spire hills.

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A faint, loose path led up the ridge and I scrambled up to see the view. As we ate lunch Chuck commented that I’m more adventurous now and I wouldn’t have scrambled up there when we set out. I think perhaps he’s right.

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One evening we took the drive to Dante’s Peak which gives a nearly 360 degree view of the park and a respite from the heat. I felt almost chilly looking from 5400 feet down to the sea level valley below. The rocky mountains in the distance seemed almost unreal. It was definitely worth the steep drive.

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From Dante’s Peak it looks like water below but it’s the salt flats.
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At last, a cool breeze!

Also worth it is Artist’s Drive, which was reopened after extensive roadway repairs following flooding the day we were here. Curving in and out of the sometimes narrow hills, the surprising rocks formations full of color are amazing.

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One of the many stunning views along Artist’s Drive.

At Badwater, the lowest point in the park you can walk on the salt crystals. At first it was so packed that it seems like finely polished cement, albeit bumpy. Then it got a bit soft and grainy where there was more moisture just underground. In fact in places visitor’s had dug shallow holes which were filled with muddy water. Further out, where not as many people ventured, there were sharp crystals crunching underfoot, the sun blinding as it reflected off all the white, and hot wind whipping at our hats.

Later visiting the 20 mule team Borax mine, I wondered how the workers survived harvesting the salt in these conditions and then processing it to remove the borax. Luckily they shut down in summer because borax doesn’t crystallize at temps over 120 so they couldn’t refine it.

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Sadly, Scotty’s Castle is closed after major flood damage so we’ll have to save that for a return visit once we’ve forgotten how unbearable the heat was. We also missed the small museum at Furnace Creek and a visit to the Stovepipe Wells area. But on our third day the winds picked up and as we sat sweltering in the heat watching tents being flattened and trash and dust flying across the campground, we decided it was time for us to leave this desolate place!

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A beautiful reward for enduring a hot day.

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