Although I’ve lived in California since 1983 and have been to many, if not most, of its natural attractions, for some reason I had never made it out to Death Valley. I’d passed the signs for it on the 15 and the 395, I think I might have even made it to one of the entrances at one point, but for some reason (perhaps the name?) I never actually set foot in there.
Having gotten a handful of bike/camping adventures under my belt (to Joshua Tree, Palomar Mountain, King’s Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park and Sonoma County), I felt like I was ready for something a little more challenging. I’m not fond of crowds or crowded campsites, and, fortunately, am able to tolerate heat better than most, so I decided to go on the last day of September, before the “season” kicks off in mid October.
I packed up Wednesday night and set out Thursday morning, heading towards Las Vegas. Pulled into Baker, home of the Bun Boy, at about 2ish and hit the Denny’s for a late breakfast and then turned away from civilization, heading down the breathtakingly ominous “gateway” to Death Valley, California Route 127, aka Death Valley Road. The Lost Highway of David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
Speaking of Lost, I hadn’t really studied the map very carefully prior to setting out as there really didn’t seem to be many roads involved. The directions to Death Valley from my house are essentially, “take the 15 to Baker, turn left on 127, take a left at the sign for Furnace Creek.” That’s it.
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Except there’s two lefts. One a little sooner than the correct one. About 30 miles sooner. It’s state route 178 which crosses 127 at Shoshone. And, the way it’s signed, and the way it goes, you can sort of take either one. So it was a little confusing. I actually went about a mile down 178 before I had second thoughts and circled back. I would have still ended up in Furnace Creek, but I would have had to navigate through some pretty gnarly terrain in the dark. As it happens, I came back out that way as part of my travels anyway.
About a half hour later I hit Death Valley Junction and headed into the park. It was dark when I got there, but a little fumbling around and I located a campground with a ATM like reservation system. I think it was eleven bucks out of season for a site. I set up at the first empty spot, ate something and took in the stars. You can see all kinds of stuff in the night sky out there because there is very little civilization and very little light.
The next morning I heard something outside my tent. Looked out directly into the eyes of a coyote. Well, two, wait, three… four… five coyotes. Apparently they DO hunt in packs. The coyote looked back at me, with a sort of, “yeah, that’s right, what are you going to do about it” attitude. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to take a picture!
On the agenda for Thursday was a trip to Scotty’s Castle by way of Beatty, NV on CA 374. On the way out I saw a sign for Rhyolite.
A very interesting place. A mostly abandoned mining town, featuring ruins of a bank, casino, train spur, numerous art installations and… a house made out of bottles. If you are in the area, it’s definitely worth the mile or so detour off the 374.
After wandering around Rhyolite for a bit I headed into Beatty for some breakfast at the Ensenada Grill. The Ensenada has good food, fast service and cheap prices. A trifecta in my book.
After a couple of eggs over easy, toast and coffee, I headed out of town, passing the Beatty Historical museum on the right…
..and about two miles later, Angel’s Ladies Brothel on the left.
Good news, they’re open 24/7 and the parking is free. The “entertainment” runs $150 to $2000, or so I’m told. Hey, it’s completely legal! Google their website – sort of funny and sad at the same time.
From there it was on to Scotty’s Castle. Scotty’s Castle is just one more of the many crazy places with crazy stories that you find out in the desert. Built literally in the middle of nowhere as a retreat for Albert Johnson, a wealthy Chicago business tycoon, it is named for a local con artist, Walter “Scotty” Scott who alternatively scammed and amused the millionaire. Scotty passed himself off as the owner with the tacit approval of Mr. Johnson who preferred his anonymity. The thing is truly a castle – its even got a moat/pool (long since dried up.) Mrs. Johnson died in an auto accident in 1943 when Mr. Johnson took a curve at Towne Pass a little too fast on the way back to LA. After that, Mr. Johnson couldn’t bear the trip out to the place and he died himself about five years later.
The place fell into disrepair after the Gospel Foundation, to whom Mr. Johnson left the castle and the remainder of his fortune, could no longer afford to keep it up. In 1970 it was purchased by the National Park Service and they conduct tours there year round. Scotty died in 1954 and is buried high on a hill behind the property… next to his dog. I swear I’m not making any of this up. I walked a mile up a dirt road to see his grave. He and the dog both have pretty impressive grave stones.
I didn’t hang around for the tour, ate some of my camp foodstuffs out on the park-like front lawn and then headed back down CA 267, returning to the Furnace Creek Campsite. The Furnace Creek Inn, a short one mile walk east, offers a shower pass for $5 that also gives you access to the pool. (Took advantage of that every afternoon.) After a nice shower and a dip in the pool, I headed up 190 a bit to the turnoff where they have the ruins of one the original Borax processing plants. There’s not a lot left of it, but you can get the basic gist if you read the plaques and look at the pictures. What they do have is a pretty well preserved specimen of the original Borax wagons and water tanks that were pulled by the Twenty Mule Team down to Barstow.
Friday morning I headed out early down Badwater Road to Badwater Basin. This is the remainder of what was once a giant lake that filled most of the Valley. All that’s left is a half acre of brackish water filled with very strange creatures and geologic structures. They don’t want you to go in the water, but you can walk out onto the dried lake bed. I got there relatively early in the morning and had the place to myself.
From there, I continued down to the end of Badwater Road and headed east on Jubilee Pass Rd, also known as CA 178. This was the road I almost entered the park from two days earlier. I followed it out of the park in the opposite direction and had breakfast at the “Famous” Crowbar Cafe. There’s a makeshift dinosaur museum next door, but the dinosaur could have been a steer for all I know. The cafe is nice and it had a piano which I played for a bit before I headed back up to Death Valley Junction.
Near Death Valley junction is the Amargosa Opera House. Did I mention there is a lot of crazy shit out in the desert? Marta Becket, an actress (born in 1924) put together a one woman show and was on her way to a performance thereof in 1967 when she got a flat at Death Valley Junction. She happened to breakdown next to an abandoned theater that was part of a mothballed company town. She liked it, rented it and has been performing her show there ever since. She painted murals on the walls to be her audience (cause, I guess, sometimes they are her only audience?) and she briefly stopped performing in ’09, but last I heard she’s still at it. She’s got to be 87 or so. Don’t believe it? You can look it up. It’s real. Really nuts.
I was retracing my path a little from my trip out the first night, but I took a 12 mile detour from the park entrance road to ride up the twisty roller coaster-like access road to Dante’s View. I suppose this is an allusion to The Inferno, and from Dante’s View you can see damn near all of Death Valley. It’s a particularly spectacular vista. When I got up there I struck up a conversation with a couple of old guys. One was on a big ass Yamaha (like me) and the other had a Goldwing the size of a mini-van. The Honda was pulling a trailer. They were touring camping, same as me. One guy was 72, the other had just turned 74. Told me they were gonna keep coming out there every year until their “wives wouldn’t let ‘em.”
From Dante’s I headed back down into the valley, had a bite to eat and then headed back down Badwater road to take in the Artists Drive and Palette. This is a narrow, one-way loop carved along the mountain range and snakes its way up and down, in and out of the foothills. Good riding, good views, great road.
Saturday I broke camp, packed up my stuff and headed off for Stovepipe Wells. I thought there was going to be a nice restaurant or something there, but it’s basically one building and a gas station. Both were closed when I happened by.
I climbed back aboard and headed off to the west to Panamint Springs. Never saw much of anything in the way of food. Or gas, or provisions for that matter. Ended up dining at a Shell Station in Panamint Springs.
From there, it was a relatively straight shot back down through the Western part of Death Valley on Panamint Valley Road to Trona Road, past Trona (more weirdness. A whole entire weird town. So weird I was too freaked out to stop to take a picture. Google it. It’s weird. Don’t move there.) I took a shortcut over the hills to Red Mountain and from there connected to US 395, one of the main north/south state arteries.