Travels in the American Southwest

Death Valley 1997

Well it's Friday morning and the weekend rates kick in, so that means it's time for an extended road trip. This year's destination is Death Valley National Park, Stovepipe Wells to be specific.

Day 5 - Drove out. About 2 1/2 hour drive along virtually empty two-lane roads. Typical desert scenery. Lots of creosote bushes and open space until I got to Furnace Creek. An oasis in the middle of Death Valley, this area is a magnet for European visitors. "There ain't no place like this place anywhere in the world" and foreign visitors make the trek to see the desert bio-sphere. I checked out the Death Valley National Park Museum. A large topographical map helped me orient myself in preparation for a couple of days of exploring. Perhaps a couple of dozen display shelves touch on the history of the region beginning with the time the entire valley was under water eons ago. The displays cover desert plants and animals, The Gold Rush years, Native Americans as well as other topics.

If you are planning a side trip to Death Valley, stop by the visitors center, pay your $10 admission fee and pick up a map. To the right of the cash registers is a large white three-ring binder which contains in depth reports on the many sites within the park. Reports are available from the rangers and will enhance your enjoyment of the park by explaining features in greater depth than is usually found in guide books. I did chuckle at the luscious, thick green lawn at the visitors center. Talk about your oxymorons!

Headed north to Stovepipe Wells where I found my room wasn't ready so I took a dip in the "mineral water"-like pool. The water there was naturally warm (being 90 degrees that day) and felt great after the drive. Did a little hiking around the sand dunes, had a quick bite at the restaurant and hit bed in preparation for an early start.

Day 6 - Headed up to Ubehebe Crater, the remnant of an old volcano. Just as I pulled into the deserted parking lot, the sun rose over the lip of the crater. Magnificent! I turned around and watched the morning light color the mountains as the sun rose. Double magnificent!

ubehebe crater

From there, I headed off on a dirt and gravel road in search of the mysterious  Sliding Stones of Racetrack Playa. This is the place where stones move across an extremely flat dry lake leaving behind a small trench as they move. The Racetrack is 30 miles from the crater on rough roads. Bring a can of fix-a-flat! When I arrived at the north end of the playa, I pulled over to take some pictures. A low drone caught my attention. A small plane with "Ranger Patrol" printed on the underside of the wings approached me perhaps 500 feet up. I tipped my hat and he circled a couple of times and flew off. Was kind of pleased that the rangers were checking the backroads...just in case!

Drove another 8 miles to the south end of the playa where the Sliding Stones have been reported. Sure enough, there was a sign indicating that this phenomenon has been observed since the early 1900s and probably before by the native population, but NEVER firsthand. There's no proof that the  stones move except for the path left behind them. Hiked to the far side of the playa (couple of miles) and shot a roll of film capturing the rocks and their trails.

sliding stones   sliding stones

It was then another car drove up and parked next to mine, but from a mile away, I couldn't see much. As I hiked back, the car became clearer. I gave the occupant a hearty good morning as I approached because the occupant was Ranger Dan in his Park Service Humvee and you never want to startle people wearing guns! Well, it seems that some folks were camping up where the airplane saw me stopped. Not only is camping unlawful in this area of the park, the morons ripped up the vegetation and had a big bonfire. Idiots. Once Ranger Dan saw my motel key from Stovepipe Wells things got off on the right foot. We spoke for an hour about Death Valley in general and the Sliding Stones in particular. He noticed a beer bottle in a small crevice by the side of the road, picked it up and sniffed the inside. "Four, maybe five days old," he said. I didn't laugh out loud!

While heading back to the motel, another car approached on the narrow road. Turned out to be folks with whom I had exchanged e-mail on their semi-annual pilgrimage to see the stones. Pleased that we didn't miss each other, I invited them for a drink and swim. Much fun was had by all.

Day 7 - Off to Dante's View which offers a panoramic view of Death Valley from over a mile up. Much cooler up there than down at sea level!

Dante's View

From here, you can see what appears to be an intaglio etched into the dry lake bed. From this elevation, it appears to be a large bird-like drawing, much like the famous Nazca lines in South America. When rangers are asked about the lines, they clam up and claim no knowledge of them. There have been rumors of dissatisfaction among the native population (Shoshone) with the Park Service. It was suggested that they may have something to do with the lines but that is pure conjecture!

Of course being a person of contrasts, I headed right back down to Badwater which is 282 feet below sea level. I chuckled at the sign the Park Service installed part way up on the mountainside. "Sea Level".

A cute young lady asked me to take her picture by the Badwater sign. I complied and asked her to do the same for me. She smiled and took her camera and jogged back to her car. Damn language barrier!


Time to head back to Vegas, which I made in record time. Never knew a rental car could go so fast!

And so ended Days 5, 6 & 7.

More Information
Death Valley National Park's Visitor's Guide
Ubehebe Crater with map from Las Vegas
A Virtual Reality look at Dante's Peak

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