Death Valley – Now I know what a baking biscuit goes through

Full set of Death Valley photos are here

While the entire Eastern side of the Sierra mountains is dry, nothing quite prepares you for the hellish nature of Death Valley. You enter the valley through a 5000 foot high pass. Getting out of the car here it feels hot but not unbearably so, like a nice warm summer day. By the time you reach the valley floor, which is at sea level, the heat is oppressive. We took a very short walk on some sand dunes and even with our Australian upbringing (or maybe because of it) we didn’t take long to figure out that it was too hot to be strolling around in the middle of the day. The heat coming from the ground felt like it could melt our shoes. It’s no place for a picnic. There are signs by the highway telling you turn your A/C off for the next X number of miles as you climb up to 5000 feet again before the road plunges down to sea level once more. The map shows where spare radiator water is located. Amazingly we saw a runner making his way down a dead straight stretch of road with the temperature heading well over 40. It would be a dispiriting place to do any form of exercise, the distances are so vast, straight and blisteringly hot.

Legend has it that Death Valley was named when a group of settlers became lost trying to get to California. The story goes that the one guy with a map got sick of waiting for them to cross a river with the carts somewhere in Nevada and decided to abandon them. These poor guys then wandered West in the hopes of finding a pass in the mountains and ended up wandering into Death Valley. Luckily for them it was winter, but even so it’s not the kind of landscape that’s rolling with water. They cooked their oxen over fires made from wood salvaged from their carts and continued on foot, eventually getting close enough to California to be discovered by ranchers.

Death Valley seems like a likely spot to have a few minerals lying around but mining attempts here always failed. It has become much more successful as a tourist destination where the novel temperatures attract quite a crowd of sticky beaks. The valley gets particularly hot because of its geography. It is incredibly dry. Some years it doesn’t receive any rain at all. There are so many mountain ranges between Death Valley and the coast that all the moisture gets sucked out of the clouds long before they make it to the valley. It is also a very narrow valley surrounded by mountains. The hot air that rises from the valley hits the mountains as it rises and is recycled back down, increasing the temperature even further. When we were there in early Autumn it hit 46 degrees. Death Valley holds the record for the second highest temperature ever recorded, 56.7 degrees.  The highest ever recorded belongs to Libya.

Despite being inhospitable Death Valley is really fun to drive through. The road is most often dead straight but has all of these dips so that it feels like you’re riding in the swell of the ocean. There is a one way scenic drive that would make a hell of a go kart track as it dips and twists its way through the cliffs.

We also made a trek up to a ghost town just over the state line in Nevada. It was formerly a mining town and at its height supported 10,000 people. There are eerie photos displayed as you walk through which show the town in its height when expectations were high and the streets bustling. There are just crumbling ruins now sitting on the mountain side looking down on the baking valley floor. Despite its appearance even this ghost town is not remote. Tourists are not prolific but in the ten minutes that we were wandering around about three cars did a slow tour. No-one else got out of the cars and I don’t really blame them.

We drove out of Death Valley to the south past all the main attractions. The pictures will do then better justice than my words but you have to imagine it all with a searing dry heat and blistering short walks to the lookouts. This was broken up by lunch featuring waiters with impenetrable accents who served me a prickly pear margarita, bless them.

The other notable feature of Death Valley are the dried up lakes. These are not dried up lakes in the sense of Lake George near Canberra, which when dry (which is most of the time) looks like a paddock. You could not graze cattle on the dried up Death Valley lakes. They leave behind piles of salt, some forming crystalline shapes on ground resembling a cracked cow paddock, others on salt flats as level and white as a skating rink. Tourists scrawl messages in the pristine salt. The salt gathers there, washed out of the mountains by the rare flooding rains, then dried by the burning sun. This is the lowest place in America, something like 282 feet below sea level.

Our days in Yosemite and Death Valley were long and tiring but we have the 1300 (unedited) photos to prove that there was a lot of amazing scenery. That night we drove out of Death Valley under a pink sky, once again heading into the night in a national park driving a rental car and not sure exactly where we were going to sleep. Confounding the naysayers it all worked out perfectly. We pushed on the the little town of Baker and found a typical Californian motel with a pool which was warmed by the desert sun. Looking up at the stars while lying on your back in a pool after a long and hot day driving is just about as restorative as an ice cold beer.

Baker was not the quaint little town we were expecting. As we drove into town and surveyed the two available hotels you could see the line of gleaming headlights coming back from Las Vegas. Baker was a strip mall next to this highway. Lined with fast food joints you would think it offered nothing for the passing tourist, but this being California, no town is without an attraction. Baker has two. The first sounds impressive but the reality is beguiling. Baker has the world’s biggest thermometer (claim unverified). The thermometer is an over-engineered monstrosity which I found impossible to decode. The second attraction is the Alien Beef Jerky store. This store plays to the stereotypes of the region perfectly, this town being not a million miles away from Area 51. They have enlarged newspapers from the original discovery of the flying saucer supposedly stored at Area 51, an oversized (presumably fake) flying saucer which you can make do something by inserting money, a couple of aliens sitting in a car, and of course Alien Beef Jerky. We had been warned by the receptionist at the motel the previous night that this jerky has a huge markup and that we should not buy it, which we were happy to oblige. Sarah did fall for the freeze-dried ice-cream sandwich, which is presumably linked to the shop because freeze-dried stuff is used in space, although the way this thing crumbled when eaten it would most likely have extremely hazardous effects in zero gravity. Sarah also bought a scorpion lolly. It had a real scorpion inside. The lolly tasted like green apple but according to Sarah the scorpion tasted a bit stale, which is disappointing.

Next day we had breakfast at Deny’s due to limited choice then joined the Las Vegas highway to head away from the city of lights and bypass LA as we made a beeline for San Diego. Once you get used to the mammoth freeways our main point of interest from the trip was the smog. How much of it was a mist is hard to tell, but it was the middle of the day, so that seems unlikely. We could barely see the mountains next to the road. The smog was never as thick as when going past the LA valley but joined us for the whole trip to San Diego.

Full set of Death Valley photos are here

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