Our First Trip to Death Valley


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Death Valley: Intro and Day 1 - A Day of Driving

Winters in the Pacific Northwest, (but perhaps especially this one) are tough to swallow when you like to get outdoors to explore and experience new adventures. The weather gets cool and wet, and it often takes a multi-state trip south to escape the gray.

No different from a weather perspective, this year is different for @mrs.turbodb and I from a availability perspective. And, because of that, when we heard that Ben (@m3bassman) and Zane (@Speedytech7) headed to Death Valley for New Years, we were immediately jealous. We'd been wanting to head that way for a while - especially having read and seen trip reports from @DVexile and @Crom, so we decided pretty quickly that even though it'd be a long drive - we were crazy enough to try it.

We had 128 hours - a little over 5 days - that we could be gone; more than that and we'd have to make significant arrangements for @mini.turbodb - something we didn't want to do.

With a little less than two weeks to plan, we took our time laying out our itinerary. Roughly, we thought we could:
  • Drive to Death Valley in a day and a half, entering the park through Beatty, NV.
  • Spend two and a half days exploring the park and nearby surroundings.
  • Spend our last day and a half driving back home.
With two and a half days, we wanted to hit as much as we could. Ben was nice enough to share their general route, and we used that as a general blueprint, adding a few side trips to points we thought could be interesting. In the end, our route was packed, but doable (we hoped).

Day 1 - A Day of Driving
January 17, 2018.

We'd gotten everything ready to go the day before - meals pre-cooked, truck completely packed - including the fridge (plugged into the 120v in the garage) - so that as soon as we dropped off @mini.turbodb at school, we could head south.

By 7:45am, we were on the road.

We'd chosen the fastest route south according to Google Maps - I-5 to US-26 and US-20 in Oregon, and then US-95 from Burns to Beatty, NV. And we made good time, stopping for lunch in Madras, OR in the early afternoon.

Unfortunately, as we continued south on US-26, we stopped for gas and to confirm directions in Prineville - and were steered eastward on US-26 and OR-380 toward Paulina (as a shortcut to Burns) rather than south on US-26 to US-20.

That "shortcut" ended up adding 2½ hours, with a couple of re-routes in order to avoid the same FS roads that had carried us through the Malheur National Forest on our Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route trip just a few months prior - good roads, but completely snowed in over the passes this time of year.

Lesson learned: just stick with the Google directions.

Despite the re-route, the scenery and company were enjoyable, and as the sun set we pulled over to capture what we hoped would be the first real sunset we'd seen in several weeks (having been socked in with rain at home).

And then we continued on - late into the night - our target Fallon, NV. Gas stops were our only break - neither of us hungry after a big lunch. At 11:45pm - exactly 17 hours after we'd left - we pulled into Fallon, looking for a place to unfold the tent and grab some shut-eye before continuing on.

At the south end of town, the Fairgrounds seemed like as good a place as any. We had the entire place to ourselves, and had the tent setup in no time. It was cold, and as we climbed under the covers to get warm we hoped that the night would be dry - with a plan to leave at 6:00am the next morning; we weren't going to have time to dry off the tent.

We were asleep by midnight.
Very ambitious outing for the amount of time you were gone . . . but from a fellow PNW'er, I understand that desperate times call for desperate measures to find the sun.

Great start to the write-up and looking forward to more.


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Death Valley: Day 2 - Colors Everywhere
January 18, 2018.

The alarm woke us at 6:00am. We were cozy under the covers but it was cold. It hadn't rained or snowed overnight, but dew had covered the tent and frozen, so the tent went away wet - not ideal, but we had places to be and weren't about to wait a few hours for the sun to come up and dry things out. We decided to forego breakfast for the time being, and were on the road by 6:38am, heading south.

After a quick breakfast stop in Luning, NV - a town of nothing except the Wild Kat brothel, and a US-95 rest stop - we continued south towards Goldfield, a town where we'd planned to fill up on gas and drive through, but had gotten a message from Pops about, telling us that we had to stop and check out "The International Car Forest."

He promised we'd never seen anything like it, and he was right.

While undoubtedly a bit strange, the art on the cars was pretty cool, and we were glad we'd made the stop and walked around the 40 or so cars that Mark Rippie had "planted" and which others had then used as a canvas for their art.

But we had a destination to get to, and so were on our way - unfortunately with no more gas - the last station in Goldfield had closed a year earlier - and so we continued on, hoping that we'd run across something before we got to Beatty.

If we didn't, we weren't sure we'd make it.

If we made it, we were going to be testing the capacity of the tank, and coasting into the gas station.

As the miles ticked by, we sped along - more slowly so as to eek out the best gas mileage possible. Unfortunately, as would become a theme for the trip, we were driving into a headwind, and we had a pass to climb.

We got to Lida Junction - total ghost town. Then to Scotty's Junction - abandoned, years ago. And then, with 35 miles to Beatty, the fuel light came on. I knew we were in trouble - generally, I can count on getting a maximum of 30 miles with the fuel light on. Of course, that's in the stock configuration of my truck - I haven't done any tests in the "adventure" configuration, but I knew that it would definitely be less than stock.

And we were still driving into a headwind.

But then, a bit of luck - a couple miles past Scotty's Junction, I noticed a guy walking around what looked like an abandoned "property" on the side of the road. "Property" was really more like "junkyard" in this case, but I hoped that being more familiar with the surroundings (and lack of gas stations for hundreds of miles) he might have some spare fuel, so I pulled off the highway and squeezed through the barb wire fence to introduce myself.

As luck would have it, after I explained our predicament, he did have a 5 gallon can of fuel, which he'd "Normally let me have some of for free," but he'd "just had back surgery, so that $10 I offered for a couple gallons would be great."

That was of course fine with me, and as I transferred the fuel into my can, he told me that he had noticed the GMC Suburban sitting on this property and on closer inspection it looked "like a great vehicle to drive around the desert." All the fluids seemed to be in good shape, so he thought that he might be able to get it started - though with four flat tires, I wasn't sure what he'd do with it once he did!

Crisis averted, we headed to Beatty, where we immediately filled the tank, as well as 6 gallons of auxiliary gas. Should have done that before we left!

Excited to have "arrived," we decided the best place to eat lunch would be Rhyolite - a ghost town between Beatty and the Death Valley park boundary - so we made a quick jaunt over there to see what would end up being one of the best ghost towns of the trip.

As I walked around taking pictures, @mrs.turbodb made an awesome lunch, which we enjoyed outside the old train station; interrupted only by other visitors who had several questions - not about Rhyolite, but about the truck and CVT….

We should have opened the tent at this point to dry it out, but we didn't - we'd pay for that later, with damp pillows when we finally pulled over for the evening.


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Rhyolite it turns out, has two additional cool elements - a bottle house, and a visitor's center - covering the history of the relatively successful town, as well as a collection of desert art. Naturally, we stopped at both.

Meet "Shorty and his penguin." Shorty was the founder of Rhyolite, who famously said, "You're as likely to find gold in the desert as a penguin." And so, a penguin became the mascot of the town.

Our stop was quick however, because we were anxious to get on to the main attraction - we'd driven many hours to get to Death Valley, and we knew we had a lot to explore!

Starting with Titus Canyon.

Excitement built as we aired down and got underway, the dust of Titus Canyon Road visible in our mirrors.

As we neared the Grapevine Mountains, the rock and geology of Titanothere Canyon (on the way to Titus) was spectacular. We could see several trucks making their way up the road in front of us and realized that we needn’t be in a rush - we were clearly going to be travelling faster than them, and so we could enjoy the scenery.

Oranges, reds, and greens presented themselves as we made the climb.

And then, we reached Red Pass, the highest point between Titanothere and Titus Canyons. We understandably ran into a bit of a traffic jam here - a couple in a Jeep enjoying the views in both directions, and three trucks in front of us, taking the turn slow (for reasons we'll get into shortly).

Can't say I blame anyone for slowing down or stopping here. It was amazing.

As we headed down towards Titus Canyon, the going was slow. See, that traffic at Red Pass - it was a couple of dualies - fully aired up and with five passengers apiece. On an adventure that was pushing their limits, they eventually found a place to pull over and let us by.

Then, just before entering Titus Canyon proper, we came upon Leadfield. This ghost town "boomed" for only a few months in 1926-27, an example of fraud, deception and deceit at its worst.

Desert Magazine said:
This town was the brain child of C. C. Julian, who could have sold ice to an Eskimo. He wandered into Titus Canyon with money on his mind. He blasted some tunnels and liberally salted them with lead ore he had brought from Tonopah. Then he sat down and drew up some enticing, maps of the area. Miners flocked in at the scent of a big strike and dug their hopeful holes. They built a few shacks. Julian was such a promoter he even conned the U. S. Government into building a post office here.
Of course, with minimal lead, it wasn't long before residents abandoned Leadfield, leaving only a few buildings and mineshafts behind.



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And with that, we entered Titus Canyon. Here, limestone cliffs rise high above the broad wash; their folded layers revealing the work of great mountain building forces. No pictures can capture the majesty of this place. I was constantly out of the truck taking pictures, and @mrs.turbodb was soaking up the geology.

The entire way, the road seemed in great condition. Even as the canyon narrowed and cliffs towered above us -dwarfing the truck and @mrs.turbodb as she looked up - much of the road seemed graded, passable even in a family sedan on nice days like this - not that I'd recommend that!

But it wasn't just sheer canyon walls that captured our attention, the rock formations themselves were enough to make your jaw drop. From amazingly purple walls, to multi-story caves carved by water, we struggled to keep moving - knowing that left to our own devices, we could spend an entire day in Titus Canyon.

Too quickly, but necessarily, the 26 miles of Titus Canyon Road were behind us, and Death Valley opened up in front of us. We headed north towards our next stop - Ubehebe Crater.

Ubehebe Crater is a maar - formed as a result not of a lava explosion, but of steam and gas explosions that occurred when hot magma rising up from the depths reached ground water. The intense heat flashed the water into steam which expanded until the pressure was released as a tremendous explosion. Interestingly, Ubehebe Crater may be as little as 300 years old!

We arrived an hour before sunset, and only a few miles from our planned camp site, so we decided to take a stroll around the crater - easier said than done, given the loose gravel and steep slopes! But, as the sun poked in and out of the clouds, we were glad that we did.

Of course, even with our short hike, there is so much more to see at Ubehebe - a walk down into the crater for instance (and the difficult walk back out) - so we're sure to visit again in the future.

For now, we were headed south again, on Racetrack Valley Road, in search of a camp site. Along the way, even as the sun fell in the sky, we couldn't help but continue to stop - cottontop and silver cholla cactus with their brilliant red and golden halos being only two of the sights along the way.



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Finding a camp site ended up being harder than we expected - Racetrack Valley Road has essentially no offshoots - and we ended driving for 15 miles or so before finding a place where the grader had pushed material off of the road making a small pad that seemed like it would work.

So we backed in and then we just relaxed. We didn't setup the tent, we didn't make dinner - we just sat, reading and knitting for half an hour or so.

And when I looked up, the sky was on fire.

As quickly as I could, I got the tent setup - after all, how can you be a @Cascadia Tents ad without having the tent deployed?

Clearly, it was worth it.