Death Valley

Next morning was clear and cold, with a north wind.  I was eager to be on my way to the warm country.  My original plan was to be in Death Valley for this night of the trip, but the drive was simply too long and I didn’t want to set up in a strange place at night.  When I left Tonopah, the temperature was near 40F, but I had my window open in less than 1/2 hour enjoying the fresh desert air.  The elevation drops quickly, from 6,000 feet, to 4,000 feet at Scotty’s Junction.  Now there is a town name, Scotty’s Junction.  I had visions of Montgomery Scott calling the Enterprise for a beam-up.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  There is almost nothing there, an old building and a pullout for trucks and RVs.  Miles of open desert speckled with creosote bushes and abandon mines.  Scotty would have never been there in the first place.

Dropping into Death Valley from this route is pretty quiet as this road is not a popular access compared to others throughout the park.  I was intrigued by the road descending through a dry wash to the park.  The road was paved right in the bottom of a narrow defile and any runoff would have to travel down the center of the road, which was very narrow two-lane.  I would stay away from this road if there were any thunderstorms in the area.  Suddenly, the canyon opened up and there were signs everywhere declaring "Scotty’s Castle".

This gigantic ranchero was built as a summer house in the 20’s and has been taken over by the National Park Service.  It is stunning and beautiful, the attention to detail is incredible.  Follow the above link to get a complete description.  I don’t have the writing ability to do this site justice.

The unfinished swimming pool.  In this hot, dry climate there is actually enough water in the nearby creek to fill and operate this huge pool.

The courtyard and the clock tower.

Too bad, I was fresh out of roadrunners for Wile E. Coyote.

The above photo is four separate pictures stitched together for a panorama looking south from the base of the valley about 5 miles from Scotty’s Castle.  The picture quality in the upload is poor, I can email the original to readers on request.  The view in the original is stunning, it’s almost like you are there.

I wound through the valley and parked for the night at the RV park at Furnace Creek.  There is no free camping, you must park in an approved site.  It’s not cheap, but looking at the scenery makes it worth the hassle.  Looking at the Visitor’s Center program, I found a children’s talk at 4:00pm about the wildlife in the park and a demonstration with some live animals.  I couldn’t resist and I had to show up and watch, after all I had a few hours to kill.   The guide mentioned she would be at Devils Hole the following day (Thanksgiving) and invited us all to attend.  I got all excited and decided to talk with her afterward. 
I am a federal government salmon researcher and I’ve always found the story about the Devils Hole Pupfish to be fascinating.  As I explained my interest and credentials, she agreed to give me access to the site to see and photograph these extremely endangered fish on the following day.  Wow!

The next day I drove the 30 odd miles from the floor of Death Valley, to the Devils Hole site.  And here it is…

This incredible site is 100’s of miles from the nearest free flowing river with ocean access.  Somehow these fish got down into this hole thousands of years ago, perhaps during an ice age.  How they actually got there is debated, the topography of the land does not lend to any free flowing water getting washed into the hole.  Occasionally a cloudburst will roll debris down the hill and into the water.    I studied the area carefully and concluded that there had to have been a natural dam backing a stream up and that overflowed into the hole.  However, there is no sign visible that indeed happened.  All evidence of how the fish got into the site has been erased by time.

I was allowed through the locked gate and also allowed to approach the water to see the fish.  I absolutely had no plans to touch the water.  No way I wanted to be credited as the person that caused the Devils Hole Pupfish to go extinct (I can hear it now. "Yep, those fish caught the dreaded "Curious Researcher Ukky Disease (CRUD)" brought in by Ken McIntyre and they all died…").   But I peered into the water for 15 minutes and never saw a fish.  I’ve heard fishermen say all my life "You should have been here yesterday, the fishing was great!"  Grrrrrr.  I lived that saying that day.  But I was grateful for the opportunity and I will always cherish that day, the day I had a chance to see these rare little fish in person.  I will have to be satisfied with television footage.  As a bonus, I saw that the researchers were using the exact same type of water quality monitor that we (NOAA) use to monitor salmon spawning streams in central Idaho.  I occasionally go into the back country to help service the probes and download the raw data.

If you look closely, you can see water nearby.  Two miles away in the center of this photo.  Nah, just kidding.  The water is there alright, a large spring flows from some rocks and sustains another species of pupfish.  The area is so dry that vegetation is sparse, even near that stream.

Here is that spring and if you look carefully, you can see 10 or so fish in the lower photo.  They are easy to see in the original.  So I got to see pupfish, just not the species I was originally after.  There was easily 100 gallons a minute coming from here,  The water goes a few miles into a marsh and then evaporates.  These fish are not quite as landlocked as their brethren in Devils Hole, but they are a long long way from any other moving water (other than backpacker’s water bottles).

There is another species of pupfish near Furnace Creek in Death Valley proper.  Those fish are well below sea level, another amazingly landlocked species of fish.  Either there has been a huge climate change (hotter, drier)  since the fish swam to these places, or Nigel the pelican from the movie "Finding Nemo" dropped them off after he dropped off Marlin and Dory.  A busy pelican.

As I drove back, I spotted a sign proclaiming "Dante’s View".  Intrigued, I turned left to investigate.  A 15 minute drive on a very steep and narrow road produced this reward…

My trailer was parked 19 miles away in the right center of the picture.  In full view.  If you are Superman.  I borrowed a spotting scope the following morning and was barely able to make out cars and people looking from camp towards the overlook. 

Devils Hole is on the far ridge in the center of this photo, taken at
Dante’s View looking the opposite direction from Death Valley.

Bad Water Basin.  This is the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  You can’t actually see that point from here, it is tucked under the ridge in the foreground.

I had planned on hamburgers for Thanksgiving dinner.  My neighbors pointed out a dinner available at Furnace Creek lodge.  Hmmm, hamburger or turkey with all the trimmings?  I chose the latter.  They were nice enough to let me accompany them so I wouldn’t have to eat alone.  It was wonderful dinner.

The next day I hooked up and took off for Henderson, Nevada and the parking lot at Railroad Pass near the intersection of highways 93 and 95.  There wasn’t a lot of reason to hurry, so I took the long way south out of the park.  First stop was Badwater.  I was  parked behind the motorhome, and sea level was the white sign (spot) on the cliff in the top center of the photo. 

The sign said the water wasn’t poisonous, so I touched the water and put my fingertip to my mouth.  Bitter, salty, what did I expect?  It was a cold morning, it’s surprising how cold the desert gets at night. 

Off to Henderson, or so I thought.  Railroad Pass said that RVers couldn’t dry dock in their parking lot any more, an ordinance had been passed that forbade it.  Balderdash, they just wanted business in their motel.  No way.  I took off for Kingman, AZ and the Zuni Village RV park.  I figured 1 and 1/1 hours to get there.  Wrong.  Traffic was backed up at Hoover Dam.  1 mile long to get through the check station.  I sat in line for 40 minutes to get through.  Then a slow crawl to the dam.  I was amazed, I’d never seen the place so crowded.  There were 1000’s of tourists gawking at the structure.  The backup turned out to be at the crosswalks crossing the highway on the dam itself.  The police would stop traffic and 100’s of people would cross.  Then stop traffic again 2 minutes later and 100’s more were ready to cross.  Astounding.

Support columns for the new bridge on the Nevada side of the Colorado river.

I wanted to stop and get some evening pictures of the dam and canyon, but that was totally impossible.  Cars were backed up solid from the east side of the dam, winding around the S curves and up out of sight.  There was no place to park an RV.  So I drove at a crawl; over the dam, out of the canyon, passing the backed up west bound cars.  Mile Post 1.  MP2.  MP3.  MP4!  MP5!!!  Finally, after 5 1/2 miles, I got past the westbound traffic jam.  I was sure glad I was going east, I was able to reach the speed limit as the traffic dispersed.  Then another 1/2 mile backup at the eastern check point.  I asked and it turned out all the people from Arizona were headed to Vegas for the weekend.  Their loss.

I’m not going across the dam again until the new bridge is completed.


About Ken

I am a federal employee that loves to travel. I don't get any time off during the busy salmon tagging season, March through November. So, I save my leave and explore the warmer parts of the world during the winter.
This entry was posted in 2007 RV trip to Navajoa, Sonora, Mexico. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Death Valley

  1. hitek says:

    Not sure if you\’ve already found it or if it\’s in an area you want to explore, but there is some free camping near Death Valley. <a href="">Power line road</a>

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