Death Valley, California

Sunday, May 20, 2018

For a family that doesn’t particularly like hot weather, we find it odd that Death Valley is one of our favorite places to visit.  In fact, we love it so much that we talked my dad into adding a day to our coast to coast road trip so that we could take him there.  This marks our third visit!

Ridgecrest is a good place to stay the night before going to Death Valley (at least coming from the west; coming from the east, Las Vegas is a good option). There’s not exactly much to do in Ridgecrest, but it has decent hotel options, it is only an hour away from the park entrance, and if you get the hotel breakfast right when it opens, you can get to Death Valley while it is still reasonably cool, leave as soon as the temperatures reach their peak, and still have plenty of time to see the highlights.

We stopped at the first ranger station and picked up John’s free 4th Grade Park Pass, which is a great thing to know about if you have a 4th grader in the family.  We also could have used my dad’s pass, but John was excited about getting his own card.

About 20 minutes later we arrived at everyone’s favorite stop, the sand dunes.  A few minutes after entering, a couple that looked like they were about ready to die told us that the distances were deceiving, that they ran out of water, and that they didn’t have any more in their car.  While at home, the boys had made fun of me when I loaded our 6 gallons of water (hopefully to use with our refillable water bottles, and not the radiator), plus a case of 35 water bottles into our car, but they suddenly saw the value of it when I walked the couple back to our car and gave away one of our gallons of water.

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We then continued back out into the dunes.  The boys love racing up and down the sandy hills.  The first time we came to Death Valley, they were doing summersaults down the hills, but when we arrived in Las Vegas, John had some painful marking on his leg that could have been a cactus scratch, a snake bite, a spider bite, a scorpion sting, or some other unpleasant malady.  Since then, skin contact with the sand is strongly discouraged.

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Some of the hills were quite steep, and the heat was starting to come in, so by the time we made it back to the car, everyone was happy to refill their water and sit in the air conditioned car.

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We continued on to Furnace Springs, which is a nice oasis in the middle of the desert.  The visitor center has a small, but nice museum that gives a bit of information about the history and wildlife of the area.  There is also a thermometer outside the center.  It only read 96 degrees, which was nice since it has been up to 112 when we have visited in the past.  The all time high in Death Valley was 134 degrees!  We were very appreciative of the gas station next door to the visitor center, and topped off the tank “just in case.”

The main disappointment was that the (small but interesting) Borax Museum was under renovation.  When we had been there in the past, I found the geology information to be quite interesting.  Even though the main museum was closed, we could still see the mining equipment in the back yard, but it was much too hot for the kids to take much interest.

We stopped for a picnic, opting to eat in the air conditioned car, then continued to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America and another favorite with the kids.

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They love walking on the paths of salt.  Going out a few yards from the main path, they try to find some nice, pristine salt, and take a taste.  Once they break it apart a little, it looks like table salt, it tastes like table salt, so our theory is that table salt really needs minimal processing before it ends up at your table.  All you need to do is scrape away the outer crust, crush it up a bit, and you are left with a wonderful seasoning.

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By this point, we were probably approaching the hottest part of the day, around 101 degrees, which is really quite cool for Death Valley, but was still unpleasant to be out for longer than about 10 minutes.  We decided to make a quick stop at the Devil’s Golf Course, which has some really interesting salt sculptures that the kids love climbing on.

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On the way back, we always take the 5 mile detour for Artist’s Drive, which is a wonderful glimpse of how beautiful the variety of minerals can make the mountains.  If you were able to see the inside of the Borax museum, it is also a reinforcing highlight for why people mined this area for so long, despite the horrible heat.

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We continued on to one of John’s and my favorites, Zabriskie Point.  You will be well rewarded if you take the short hike up to the top of the viewpoint.  It is also a trail head for a hike that we have never done, but one which I would be highly interested in doing someday.

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At this point, we considered driving up to Dante’s View, a beautiful lookout 5,000 feet over Death Valley, up a windy road.

Dante’s View is particularly memorable to us, since it was the site where we had near disaster a few years ago.  That time, we ate a picnic in the cooler air at the top of Dante’s View, then as we were getting back in the car we noticed a greenish fluid dripping from our car.  A leaky radiator in the middle of Death Valley!  We drove (mostly downhill) back to the gas station, hoping a mechanic would be there.  They told us that since it was a holiday weekend, the mechanic was off and “may be back in a day or two, but it could be longer.”  We made sure we had plenty of water to fill up the radiator if it overheated, turned the AC off, and decided to try to make it to Pahrump, which would have been a much more pleasant place to deal with a busted car.  Everything worked out okay, but it always reminds us not to take Death Valley lightly.  Jeremy also felt vindicated that time in packing 10 gallons of water in the trunk.

But this time, everyone was tired, and a bit affected by the heat, so we decided to continue on to our next destination.

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