Death Valley Days
March 2-4, 2001
Heading to Death Valley 
From beautiful sand dunes to historic mining ghost towns, Death Valley National Park seems like another world. We had visited this area before and decided we needed to bring the motorhome and spend more time exploring. We started at Las Vegas, drove through Palrump, then on to Beatty. Fast becoming a ghost town, Beatty's last big commercial mine closed its gates a little over a year ago. But Beatty still boasts a school and some businesses scattered along its main streets. After making the left turn in "downtown" Beatty, we pulled over to the roadside across from the National Park center. But the 'Gone to Lunch, Be Back Soon' sign was up, so we headed on down the road
We rolled out through the basin, past the famous "bottle house", and headed toward the last rim of mountains before dropping down into valley. This is quite a drop as you descend to sea level and a few feet below that in places. With the weight of our rig and the steep winding road, we eased down slowly, but even so, our brakes heated up.
Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we pulled off into a lot and let the brakepads cool down. We lucked out with the weather this visit; it was unusually cool for this time of year. The best times to visit are the winter months, November through February. Locals told us that the place is almost empty between Thanksgiving and Christmas but it can be cold. 

Death Valley National Park, the largest of those in the 'lower 48 states,' has interesting, varied terrain. The park extends out past the edges of the valley and takes in steep mountains and their spectacular valleys. Then the valley itself has a few oasis areas at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. There's plenty of history that includes mining areas such as silver and lead around the mountain rims, the borax works down near Furnace Creek -- this is where the '20 mule team' originated, and Scotty's Castle. But what we enjoy is the relative emptiness of the park and the wide-open spaces that you can hike and explore.
Stovepipe Wells
A highlight of our previous visit was a hike up Mosaic canyon, which is reached just a few miles from the campground at Stovepipe Wells. This is the only campground inside the park that has full hookups with electricity, water, and sewer connections. Other than that it is pretty drab with fourteen campsites lined up side-by-side on the gravel. But we were fortunate to get a space there and in terms of Death Valley, just having water is a luxury. There are also a few other campgrounds in the park that do not have any hookups. We found the Stovepipe Wells park office open (I guess they keep varied hours here too), and then browsed around the store.
We got an early start the next day and once outside we noticed that our neighbors were wearing their long pants and jackets as opposed to the shorts and short-sleeved shirts we were wearing. But in our hurry to get on our way, we judged that it would warm up quickly. And it did warm up to the seventies later that day. However we planned to spend most of our time up in the mountains and plateaus on the eastern edge of the park. Up several thousand feet in altitude.
Geocaching & 4-Wheeling
We took off back on the road toward Beatty on the lookout for a backroad to the south of the highway. Here we were first going to locate a geocache that we knew had been stashed there about one month ago. After climbing out of the valley and nearing the plateau, we found our exit onto a gravel road. This route was labeled as being only for 4 wheel drive vehicles and we knew from the information posted on the geocaching website, that our goal was about .25 miles off the highway. Hey, even the family car could make it that far. Sure enough the road was in pretty good shape. We used our handheld GPS to determine when we were approaching the cache location, then we parked off road and headed up the wash/ravine. One thing that you learn using a GPS unit is that even though the directional indicator points to a certain point, you may be better off looking at the natural terrain and seeking a 'natural' route rather than plowing on through the 'briar patch." In this case there were no briars, only steep ridges but the best route was up the small, dry canyon bed. This is rocky terrain with scattered bushes and shrubs with a few cacti and other desert plants thrown in. It did not take us very long to locate the cache . . . up on the slope, high-and-dry near a rocky point. We were surprised to find that we were the first visitors, at least we were the first that took time to log into the notebook.
The cache owners recommended continuing on down the road a few miles to visit an old mining town. Since it was early in the day and only three or four miles, we decided to expand our plans to include a visit to Chloride City, a ghost town. We had enjoyed the early morning hike and the view, and as we headed back down the ravine to our vehicle we noticed an out-of-place folded paper laying in the wash. Picking it up, we found that it was a page of notes kept by the cache-site owners that gave the exact position for their 'prize' placement. We took it with us and later mailed it back to them with an explanation of where we found it . . . just where it probably slipped out of someone's pocket.

Back in the car we head on down the road. As Annette reexamined our travel guides and maps, she quickly saw that we could follow this new route, catch a left fork, and loop back to the highway without backtracking. Great idea . . . we like adventuring off on the backroads and this way we will see more of the country. In less than a mile, it becomes evident though that it is a good thing that we were in a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. Our Ford Explorer 'Toad' twisted and turned as we threaded our way along the mining road. Sometimes we straddled loose boulders, headed down steep inclines, or climbed up hillsides that approaching 15 or 20 degrees. To put that in perspective, most highways seldom exceed ten degrees of steepness, even in the mountains. This was a jarring but fun-filled ride as each bend brought a new, rugged view from our pathway. And that four-mile drive took us more than an hour to complete. We did reach Chloride City and tramped around the ruins of a few buildings, looked into several mine openings, and drove up to the mountain rim for spectacular views of Death Valley, several thousand feet below. But by this time, we were wishing that we had brought along a jacket or hooded sweatshirt because it was windy and cold. Back to the car and a few miles past Chloride City, the road improved and we sped up to a blazing 15 to 20 miles an hour, caught our left fork and headed across the tablelands to the highway.

Titus Canyon  
The highway takes us a few miles until we locate the one-way loop road for Titus Canyon, named for a lost miner who wandered off this direction and was never found. That his last name was Titus was prophetic . . . rhymes with tite-us! The gravel road looks like a four lane after what we just came through, but after several miles we reached first the pass down into White Canyon and then the road winds and climbs out to Red Canyon and on to another ghost town area, Leadfield. The road is steep and crooked and although recommended for four-wheel drive, with careful driving, we believe most cars could make it through. We stopped at Leadfield for our late lunch and then hiked around the ruins. Here one of the mineshafts was open and the beams looked sturdy and sound. So we ventured inside a few feet to get a closeup look as what life underground was like. The mining here lasted a few years with a lot of time first being spent trying to locate a good vein, then running out of money and having a engine breakdown after finally locating good ore. After our lunch break and explorations around Leadfield, we travel on down the canyon where we viewed a few petroglyphs. After the spring, the road narrows as the canyon walls begin to squeezed together. There is a few turns where the road is really tight . . . get it, Titus. As the road emerges from the canyon, it is opened to two way traffic.
The Dunes
Our last adventure was the sand dunes. Having seen the dunes at a distance the last trip, we wanted to hike them this time. We parked on the side of the road and headed into the dunes. Walking on sand is a slow, but interesting experience. Each dune brought a new view including interesting areas of rock and trees. We even found a hardy sand beetle we called a "dune bug-gie." There are plants and animals that are unique to the national park. It's exciting to see something that can be found nowhere else in the world. 
When we did a search for dune beetles on the web, we found that researchers are studying the sand dune-obligate beetle to determine the impact of outside variables such as off-road vehicles on the flora and fauna of sand dunes... very cool research! Read the article Affected Environments to learn more about environmental concerns at Death Valley.
The weather was perfect on the dunes. The sand was warm, but not hot and a cool breeze kept us comfortable. Once when the wind came up, Larry lost his hat. Annette was eager to play in the sand and retrieved his hat. Unfortunately it was easier to slide down the dune than climb back up against the wind. She also discovered that making sand angels was more fun and much warmer than making snow angels.
Our quest led us farther than most other hikers as we headed to the highest dune. As we reached the last dune before the high point, the wind began to blow harder and we decided not to try the climb to the top. We'll save that for another time.

Death Valley to Reno
As our adventure came to a close we headed out of Death Valley on a twisty, steep road. Our brakes were making us nervous, but we were made it without a problem. We headed to Lone Pine. Although not totally empty, we decided to stop at the first diesel station we found. We pulled in and noticed a large turn-around area, unfortunately a truck was sticking out making the turn-around tight. We fueled up and with inches to spare got back on the road north on Highway 395 to Reno.
Highway 395 is a beautiful highway running from southern California to Canada. We'd planned on stopping half way to Reno, but we were enjoying the drive so much we made it all the way to Reno.  
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Created by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson, 7/01.
Updated 5/02.
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