Today’s drive would be a more manageable at six or so hours and so; after a stop at a Starbucks for a Venti vanilla latte, we hit the I-40 and motored west. Our many trips over the years have brought us along this route and thus the landmarks have become familiar. Knowing we’d be arriving at Stovepipe Wells later in the day, we stopped at an In-N-Out in Las Vegas for a big lunch, meaning we wouldn’t have to worry about cooking once we arrived at camp.
We got to the campground midafternoon which was fortunate as it was busier than we anticipated and so we grabbed one of the last tent sites, perched on the northern edge of what is essentially a large dirt RV parking lot. For many years we came here for Thanksgiving weekend along with Ron and his kids, Heather and her daughter, Joanna’s sister Debi and her family when the children were younger, and then again in 2009 after we’d moved to North Carolina and those kids, now nearly grown, were all in college.
The first temporary settlement at Stovepipe Wells came into being when a road between Rhyolite and Skidoo was begun in 1906 to improve the approach to the mine at Skidoo. A collection of tents was erected to serve travelers with food, drink, and lodging. During the bonanza days of Rhyolite and Skidoo, it was the only known water source on the Cross-Valley Road. When sand obscured the spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker; hence, its unique name.
In 1925, entrepreneur Bob Eichmann began construction of the hotel at Stovepipe Wells, along with a scenic toll road through Death Valley. This marked the beginning of the transition from mining community to tourist destination. The settlement is now registered as California Historical Landmark #826.
It would be a smaller group this time, just us and friend Steve from our MBA days together at Loyola Marymount, and of course Ron. We set up camp and waited for Steve to arrive as Ron wouldn’t pull in until later that night. Dinner would just be bag salad and conversation, the first time we’ve seen Steve in several years. We camped with him several times in years past, often at McGrath State Beach Park and once at Big Sur. Mid evening, we walked up the lodge complex to stop in at our favorite Death Valley watering hole, the Badwater Saloon for a quick nightcap.
Ron did show up later that night and the next morning the three of us decided to head up to the Toll Road restaurant at the lodge for some breakfast. Joanna and I would split an order of French Toast and Sausage and were pleasantly surprised at the quality and reasonable price point for the food, as is often the case now a days at the National Parks.
Later that day we all jumped in Ron’s van and took off for a driving tour down to Badwater Basin, this being Steve’s first time in the valley. The 42-mile drive takes about an hour as you drive almost straight south past Furnace Creek and the turnoff for highway 190 that takes you to Zabriskie Point and out of the valley. Badwater is an endorheic basin (a drainage basin that normally retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies of water) noted as the lowest point in North America and the United States, with a depth of 282 feet below sea level. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, is only 84.6 miles to the northwest.
The site itself consists of a small spring-fed pool of “bad water” next to the road in a sink; the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name. The pool does have animal and plant life, including pickleweed, aquatic insects, and the Badwater snail, but it is not the lowest point of the basin (which though is only slightly lower) lies several miles to the west and varies in position, depending on rainfall and evaporation patterns. The salt flats are hazardous to traverse (in many cases being only a thin white crust over mud), and so the sign marking the low point is at the pool instead.
Finished at Badwater we backtracked towards Furnace Creek, turning off on Artists Drive Scenic Loop, a one-way road that takes you to Artists Palette. Here one marvels at an array of colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green) that are splashed across the hills, the result of volcanic deposits rich in compounds such as iron oxides and chlorite, which creates a rainbow effect.
A stop at the Furnace Creek Ranch (the lower cost option to staying here compared to its fancy cousin up the hill, the Furnace Creek Inn) netted us some ice cream and a stroll around its improved infrastructure. Gone are the days of rustic bungalows and low-key retail; the older accommodations have been removed to soon be replaced by eighty cottage style bungalows. While I will admit the older options were a bit primitive, they were remnants of an older, more affordable Furnace Creek. Rooms there now start just south of $300 a night and much like at Yosemite, these prices make staying here out of reach for many travelers.
We returned to camp for a dinner of chili and retired early. Our last day in the valley would be a quiet one, not venturing out and enjoying doing not much of anything but reading and conversing. Later in the day we’d head up to the Badwater Saloon for drinks and dinner, a beer for me and margarita for Joanna and to eat while I’d get a good Ham and Swiss Sandwich and Joanna would enjoy her Ancho Tortilla Soup (Vegan vegetable broth thickened with corn tortillas and a spicy smoky finish) served with Cotijas Cheese and Tortilla Strips.
Another lovely visit to Death Valley was ending, reminding us of why we like the place so much, it’s compelling beauty that takes some time to appreciate, the wide-open spaces, and the quiet provide an environment so unique it would be hard to find it somewhere else. And this is why we return time and again.
McGrath State Beach: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=607
Badwater Basin: https://www.nps.gov/places/badwater-basin.htm