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Chapter #373: Death Valley Winter Camping 2019 - May 30, 2020


In 2019, Death Valley National Park celebrated its 25th Anniversary - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

Winter Camping in Death Valley National Park

Each year, I visit the Mojave Desert in late fall or early winter. My two favorite spots are the Hole in the Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park, farther to the north. I go to experience the unrivaled ecosystems and terrain of those wild places. The winter season is a great time to visit the desert. Crowds are small and attractions are often empty or nearly so.

In December 2019, before most of us had ever contemplated the need to stay at home or shelter in place, I headed alone to Death Valley. For four nights, I planned to camp and explore some sites I had not yet seen. This is how it transpired.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 – The distance from Simi Valley, California to Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley, California is 280 miles.The Sylmar Cascades are near the end of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the San Fernando Valley. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Departing the San Fernando Valley, I headed up Interstate I-5 North through the Newhall Pass. From there, I could see the historic Sylmar Cascades, which represent the terminus of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. That system of gravity-fed trenches and pipes transports water to Los Angeles from as far away as Mono Lake, in the eastern Sierra Nevada. On its final leg, powerful pumps raise the water, thus allowing it to take a final plunge down a concrete aeration channel and into the Van Norman Reservoir. From the high country near Mono Lake to Los Angeles, most of Eastern California consists of a parched and thirsty desert.

It took just over five hours for me to reach my destination. In that 280-mile stretch, I crossed the San Andreas, Garlock, Searles Valley and Panamint Valley Fault Zones. In July 2019 alone, the Searles Valley and nearby Ridgecrest, California experienced more than 80,000 earthquakes, including a 6.4 magnitude quake on July 6 of that year. On December 16, 2019, just a few days after my return, Ridgecrest registered a 3.5 magnitude aftershock.

Solar Farms, many owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power cover thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Along my way, I passed through the high desert community of Mojave. Over the past sixty years, I have traveled this route many times. On this trip, I reminisced about how the vast territory from Mojave, to Ridgecrest was once an almost uninterrupted stretch of desert. In the past decade, much of that formerly untrammeled desert has given way to thousands of acres of passive solar panels. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (DWP) owns many of these "solar farms".

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles notoriously bought up the water rights in and around the Owens Valley, north of Ridgecrest. More recently, Los Angeles has given up much of its water rights, but has quietly industrialized huge swaths of the Mojave Desert. These so-called “green energy” projects have disturbed more desert tortoise habitat and denuded more desert greenery than the L.A. Aqueduct ever did.

The vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley, with Telescope Peak above is hard to describe in words - Click for a larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With Death Valley as my destination, I had a choice of routes. On one hand, I could continue on California Highway 14 (“The Aerospace Highway”). Farther north, that highway becomes U.S. Highway 395. At Olancha (population 39), I could then turn east toward Death Valley. Instead, I elected to travel the more scenic route through Garlock, Searles Valley and the Panamint Valley.

The word “scenic” is wholly inadequate to describe that area. “Surreal” better describes the vistas and terrain. Traveling so quickly from the crowded confines of the San Fernando Valley to the vast emptiness of the Panamint Valley feels like going back a billion years in time. Near Panamint Springs, I turned east on California Route 190 and soon surmounted Towne Pass.

An afternoon view of the Panamint Range, from Towne Pass shows at least five distinct geologic layers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)While descending the long grade into Stovepipe Wells, a McLaren, a Bentley, two Ferraris and a Lamborghini passed me at speed. The designers at the great automotive houses of Europe never anticipated the whoopdeedoos on Highway 190. After dipping into each swale, the exotic sports cars bottomed-out, with sparks flying. Watching them fly off each successive alluvial hump was dramatic, to say the least.

Once I arrived at the Furnace Creek Campground, it felt like I was at home. In the past three years, I have camped there four or five times, so it has the feel of a local neighborhood. Two nights of dry camping on an asphalt pad, then two nights in a full RV hookup (water, power, and sewer) would make for a unique experience. For my first two days and nights, I had to live by my wits, my solar panels and my portable inverter/generator. Nights were cold and my house batteries ran low. I turned off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) and stayed warm in bed by wearing high tech base-layer garments and sheltering under three blankets.

An early sunset at Furnace Creek Campground, in December 2019 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Wednesday, December 11, 2019 – At Furnace Creek, the mobile phone and data coverage is surprisingly good. A mile away, there might be no signal at all. After staying up late watching YouTube, the quiet of Death Valley (and some earplugs) allowed me to sleep uninterrupted for hours. When I awoke, was it nine o’clock or ten o’clock? I do not know. Coffee and a banana helped ease my transition back into terrestrial life.

As noon approached, the sun warmed my coach and the solar panels recharged my house batteries. Soon, I was charging up my phone, earbuds, Bluetooth speaker and camera, all with the batteries and inverter circuit in my coach. As the sun rose further, I had a steady flow of “solar-power in” and an abundance of “electricity-out”.

In California, December daylight hours are short. From Furnace Creek, the sun appears to set behind the towering Panamint Range by 4:15 PM. Following that, is a long twilight, as the sun still shines up into the limitless sky, but not down on Death Valley. One way to avoid such an early sunset is to visit Zabriskie Point, which is on the east rim of Death Valley. From there, you can watch the sun set behind Telescope Peak. If you do, you will experience a phenomenon like no other. As the sun sets, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity comes into play.

Zabriskie Point at sundown creates a long-duration bending of sunlight - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As with Einstein’s faraway planet, which bends the light from a solar eclipse, the clouds above the Panamint Range bend the light down to each of us who are waiting in the plaza that sits atop Zabriskie Point. There is a redemptive quality to the experience. When the sun hits the perceived horizon, it does not set, but instead creates a parabolic bend of light. The delay of sunset creates a pause in time, which lasts for several minutes. Most days, it is impossible to tell exactly when the sun passes behind the ridge at Telescope Peak.

That concluded “day two” of my visit. At the time, I was still living off frozen food, well packed and enjoyed. It was a few degrees warmer that night, so adjusting blankets and then, turning off the furnace (at Furnace Creek) now made sense. Can you imagine the first Anglo emigrants, spending almost two years, marooned at Furnace Creek? That was 1849, ninety-nine years before my birth.

The Death Valley `49ers had no idea that their hardscrabble camp would one day be replaced by modern travel trailers - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)Their forced stay was the ultimate in unexpected self-isolation. It was freezing cold on winter nights and baking hot on summer days. In addition, the ragtag group enjoyed no contact at all with the outside world. As time passed, their situation became more desperate. A full winter and a full summer in the hottest and one of the driest places on Earth took its emotional toll.

Realizing their plight, the scraggly emigrants sent two riders all the way to San Fernando Mission, near Los Angeles. Local ranchers took pity on the riders, giving them three horses and a one-eyed mule to transport supplies back to those who remained at Furnace Creek. Retracing their steps along dry washes and old Indian trails, the rescue party rode one horse to death and abandoned the two others. Upon arrival back in Death Valley, they found only two families, with children had awaited their return. All the other emigrants had departed, trying to find their own way back to civilization. It is unknown how many survived and how many succumbed to the elements in Death Valley and beyond.

The Death Valley`49ers would have passed through the Panamint Valley and the future site of Trona, in the Searles Valley - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)After scraping together what remained of their belongings, the hapless but grateful families boarded their remaining wagons. From there, they faced an arduous 23-day trip across the Mojave Desert. Upon completion of their 250-mile trip to the Santa Clarita Valley, there were no parades or celebrations; only the relief of having survived. Just two years earlier, during the winter of 1846-47, the ill-fated Donner Party, trapped by heavy snow in the nearby Sierra Nevada resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the Death Valley ‘49ers, only one man is known to have lost his life during their ordeal.

Thursday, December 12, 2019 – On the morning of “day three”, I moved my coach to a “full hookup” site at the campground. The Death Valley ‘49ers, 170 years earlier knew nothing of running water, electrical power, wireless data or propane gas. Using those technologies, I resumed access to all the comforts of contemporary life.

At an estimated age of approximately 2,000 years, Ubehebe Crater, in Death Valley National Park is one of the youngest volcanic explosion sites in the Western United States -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) Ubehebe Crater. Actually, there are two craters at the site, but the smaller one gets no credit. Visiting that place is enough to give you the Ubehebes.

It is the second youngest documented site of a major volcanic explosion in California. Although Ubehebe Crater erupted prior to European or American exploration of the area, only the massive eruption of Lassen Peak in the early 20th century was more recent. Ubehebe is approximately 2,000 years old, or so they say. It is a strange site to see, in that its volcanic ash exploded up through ancient seabed sediments. Although it issued forth around the time of Yeshua, it still looks fresh today. If you like your volcanic explosion sites low-risk, this one is relatively safe. If it only explodes every several thousand years, what were the odds that it would explode on the day of my visit?

Near the entrance road to Scotty's Castle, in Death Valley National Park, recent extreme erosion of a large alluvial fan is evident in this photo - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)On the way to the crater complex, I passed the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle, a remote desert mansion built in the Spanish Revival and Mediterranean Revival style. Completed in the early 1930s, the property was the ultimate self-isolation hideaway. Despite its name, Chicago industrialist Albert Mussey Johnson had it built as a getaway for him and his wife. During Mussey’s long absences, front man Walter Scott, known as “Death Valley Scotty” maintained and presided over the castle.

In 2015, the buildings and grounds at Scotty’s Castle experienced severe damage from thunderstorms and flash flooding. Since then, there has been a massive effort by the National Park Service to create new flood control channels and repair damage to the buildings. The road and buildings that comprise Scotty’s Castle will not reopen until at least the fall of 2021.

Compared to fuel stations outside of Death Valley National Park, gasoline and diesel fuel fetch a premium price - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)As I mentioned before, mobile telephone coverage in Death Valley National Park is limited mainly to the Furnace Creek complex. Yet, for reasons unknown, as I passed the entrance road to Scotty’s Castle, I received a call on my mobile telephone. It was a jarring phone message telling me that the IRS was after me for non-payments. Even though I knew that the IRS does not call you to request anything, it induced a brief feeling of panic in me. Then I hung up the phone and ignored what seemed to be a fraud call.

Upon my return, I visited the new “Ranch at Furnace Creek”. After purchasing some expensive diesel fuel for my truck, I headed out for nearby Salt Creek, which features habitat for the rare Desert Pupfish. That afternoon, there were no visible pupfish and no crowds. In fact, I was the only person at the trailhead.

Solitude is the major theme there in December. Unless a U.S. Navy Salt Creek in Death Valley is home to the rare Desert Pupfish - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)jet is thundering across the Panamint Valley or a Harley Davidson is on a nearby highway, the loudest sound you will hear is the ringing in your ears. If you do not think your ears ring, come here to Death Valley. You may experience silence for the first time in your life. There are no lawn mowers or leaf blowers here. If you are lucky, you may hear the rustle of a desert breeze.

Friday, December 13, 2019 – It was another day in Paradise, as we like to say in Death Valley. The local motto is,
“Death Valley - See it BEFORE you die”.

There was not much on my agenda for my fourth day. I could zoom down the road to Badwater (elevation 280 feet below sea level) and see all the sites, or I could enjoy midday in the comfort of my coach. Before 2 PM, I headed out to The Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley operated for only a few years in the late 1880s - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the Harmony Borax Works, only a few miles away. Most 19th Century mines or chemical production facilities in the West lasted only a few years. Towns like nearby Rhyolite emerged, produced ore and faced abandonment, all within a decade.

After the discovery of borax ore closer to the railroad at Mojave, the Harmony works closed down in 1888. For its brief productive era, a team of twenty mules pulled the semi-refined ore across the desert to Mojave. In the 1960s, none other than future U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted a quasi-documentary television show titled Death Valley Days. The prime advertiser on that show was "20 Mule Team Borax". The main attractions at the old Harmony Borax Works are two original Borax wagons and a matching water-tender. With the arid desert to preserve it, this Two ore wagons and a water tender made up the heavy load pulled by the famed twenty-mule teams of the Harmony Borax Works - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)original rig looked ready for twenty mules to hook up and pull the wagons across the desert.

Leaving the defined pathway at the Borax Works, I ascended a draw and hiked among hillocks of soft sediment. The sandy soil had a crust of clinkers and small rocks, distributed randomly. Likely, they had rained down from various prehistoric volcanic blasts. From the crest of a final hill, I could see the heart of Death Valley. Within my field of vision, there were no roads, buildings or other human made objects. Other than my sandals scraping along the rocks, there were no sounds. I felt like Yeshua, mounting a hill and beholding the Sea of Galilee.

Saturday, December 14, 2019 – Before noon, I departed Death Valley, heading for home, 280 miles away. In four short days, what did I learn there? I learned Author, Jim McGillis at sundown, at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)that if you feel compressed (or depressed) by the conditions of your human life… the ticking clock, unwanted crowds or the snarl of traffic, then come to Death Valley in December. You might find peace and quiet here. My visit offered me a time and place to rest, rejuvenates and prepare for the unknown events of the coming New Year, 2020.

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