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I completed my Death Valley Trip Report and you can find the remaining Part 2 & 3 at this Death Valley Trip Report LinkI hope you have enjoyed this journey, through Death Valley National Park, at this juncture.
You're traveling through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's a signpost up ahead: your next stop: Death Valley National Park!
It was an easy; Yes! when responding to my friends suggestion to return to Death Valley, for another one of our rendezvous. This was mostly due to Death Valley National Park becoming one of my favorite parks, to visit and explore. So be it that it is so very different than the typical National Park with their millions of trees, lakes and bounding wildlife, for Death Valley is dearth of many of these typical National Park amenities. (also, my apologies to Rod Serling)
These feelings are not mine alone, as I often see other reports of Truck Campers visiting Death Valley and the wonderful times they too have enjoyed while visiting briefly, or for many weeks. There was a recent Trip Report, submitted by a TC Forum member; crosscheck, and is one of my favorite detailed reports, too. crosscheck's ~ A visit to the Rinkle Ranch----- TC trip report
One of the nice things about visiting a National Park, is that much of the trip planning is made easier due to the information that is available from many sources such as the Park’s Field Guide;
when visiting most National Park locations, or the National Park Service’s Website.. In Death Valley, there is not the expected Ranger staffed entrance kiosk, but strategically placed stations, along the roads/highways to purchase entrance permits. There are also Visitor Centers located at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, to pick up information, like the Field Guide and to receive the latest information on Weather, road conditions, restrictions and closures.
When visiting a National Park, some of your trip planning is conveniently done. The National Park Service provides information through their web page at; Death Valley National Park.
When my kids were younger and the excitement of learning that we were going on a road trip, to another National Park, we would ratchet up that excitement by including them with the trip planning. One of the ways we would get our kids involved was to have them write to the parks. They would request this information in their childlike handwriting, asking for any information that is available to be mailed to you, prior to your arrival. The packets returned often included current Field Guide, Park Maps, Temperature Variances and flyers of upcoming events and notices. My kids would simply write to the specific National Park and make specific requests of things to do and hiking opportunities. The best part is that the information would come back (very quickly I might add) addressed to them! What kid doesn’t like getting their own mail? For Death Valley National Park information packet requests, have your younger trip planners write to;
Death Valley National Park
P.O. Box 579
Death Valley, CA 92328
(Hint: Double check your children’s letter, to make sure that they included a return address too. ).
Many things are impacting attractions that once were traditional family vacations, such as trips to Disneyland, The Catskills and National Parks. Some of this is the fact that parents are finding more immediate rewards for their kids to enjoy and this is often as not, being in the outdoors. The National Parks is not immune to this continuing decline and a generation of Kids who haven’t had an experience with a National Park. Studies are finding that ages; 16- 24 are the most under-represented visitors to our nation’s parks.
As an example, a study from Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research have found that the out of state visitors to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks median age is, 54, in the calendar year of 2011. In Death Valley National Park, 49% of the spring visitors, of 2010, were 46 to 65 years old.
Overall visits to national parks fell in 2011, for a second year in a row, with 278.9 million visitors, down 1%, from 2010. The studies have shown visitors to the parks continue to decline with each year and many are pointing the finger at adults that are not exposing their children, and or grandchildren, to the joys of the outdoors and with that our nation’s National Parks. We as Truck Camper enthusiasts can certainly be the exception by sharing our love of the outdoors with current and our future generations.
One of the things I use to do, when preparing to visit a National Park was research the Park and surrounding area and then started sharing this with my kids a few weeks and sometimes months ahead of our trip. I tried to find lots of different varieties of interesting things for these trips. In a park like Death Valley there is a wealth of interesting information. “Like what?” One might ask.
So I would begin sharing information such as;
Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states at 3,372,402 acres. Prior to the substantial enlargement of the park in 1994, the park was a National Monument. With this new designation, it replaced Yellowstone National Park as the largest park in the lower 48;
There were 984,775 recreational visits in 2010, a 10% increase over 2009. Annual visitation, which peaked at 1,227,583 in 1999, dropped below one million after 2001, and fell to 704,122 in 2007. Visitation is expected to top one million again in 2011.
The highest point in Death Valley National park is Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet of elevation. When you take in consideration the lowest point of the park, at Badwater Basin, to the top of Telescope Peak, it is more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
Much of America’s early western expansion history was with the 1840’s movement of people in route to the Gold Fields of California. Death Valley saw many of these people stop and begin exploring the area for many of the minerals that were increasingly in demand, during that period of America’s growth. There are 2,000 to 3,000 potentially hazardous mine openings amongst the park’s estimated 6,000 to 10,000 mine features. Death Valley is known to have the most abandoned mines of any national park. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds were recently used to mitigate over 200 of these hazardous openings. Funds were also used to assist in stabilizing the Keane Wonder Mine Tramway. When encountering these mine features, within the park, extreme caution is recommended and visiting with the Rangers, prior to these visits is required, in most circumstances, to learn of the potential dangers and hazards. Features that were previously available might now be closed, due to deteriorating circumstances.
One of the things of great interest to me is the smaller features of the park, the plants and fauna found in this extreme environment. There have been over 1,000 species of plants identified within the park. This includes many that are exclusive and unique to Death Valley. Also found in the park are 440 species of animals, within the park. These include 51 species that are native to the park. There can be found, 36 species of reptiles, 307 bird species. What can be often surprising to visitors in such a dry and unforgiving environment, 5 species of fish, along with 3 amphibian species. With all of these plants and animals is the host of insects that also inhabit the park. Due to the parks temperature variances, the animal species are nocturnal and live in habitats that are remote, so much so that most visitors to Death Valley do not have the opportunity to witness the few mammals and or reptiles that call Death Valley their home.
Earlier inhabitants of the park were often at odds with the 600 plus springs and ponds, found naturally within the boundaries of the park. There are many things, in this park, that seem; against the pale in that there are some significant waterfalls. These include Darwin Falls that is known to cascade more than 100 feet to a very deep plunge pool. Within the oasis that is created by this water course and localized humid environment is a host of plants and wildlife that congregate within the cottonwoods and willows found within. Water is an important ingredient to the survival of the park, whether it is the grand landscape or the fish and animals. This resource is a product of precipitation, within the higher elevations of the park and how it soaks into the strata to be redistributed throughout the park, emerging in the most unusual locations.
Located within the park are over 600 miles of maintained roads. Of this, there are more than 300 miles of which are paved and approximately 300 miles of improved dirt roads. To the small, but growing, segment of park visitors that visit the backcountry 4X4 roads, there can be found hundreds of miles of these unmaintained surfaces too. These roads are legendary in their level of upkeep and with the decreasing budge allotted to the National Parks, of which Death Valley is no exception, many of these roads might be found to deteriorating at even a faster rate, than ever before. Being stranded, is a distinct possibility and in recent years there have been numerous deaths attributed to these locations and possible bad decisions made by people exploring these areas. One of these was a death by exposure in 2009. Also, a bit of infamy can be found within the park, in the Charlie Manson Hideout at Barker Ranch, GPS 35.859602°N 117.088545°W This is where Charlie Manson was captured, literally under the bathroom sink, in October of 1969. Again, it is important to repeat, always check with the Rangers on changing conditions, within the park. Also, leave with someone your trip plans and also an approximate estimation of your return, carry plenty of water and be prepared for any possible emergency situations.
There are nine campgrounds within the park, the largest being the Sunset Campground located in the Furnace Creek area, numbering 270 designated sites. Be aware, the campsite here is 200 feet below sea level. If you are looking for cooler camps, and limited number of sites and access at, Wildrose at 4,100 ft elevation, Thorndike at 7,400 ft elevation and Mahogany Flat at 8,200 ft elevation.
Death Valley National Park’s reputation of being the hottest and driest, of the National Parks is well deserved. A temperature of 134°F was recorded on July 10th, 1913, being the highest temperature ever recorded under standard conditions on the North American continent. Now remember, surface temperatures can reach as high as 201°F, where humidity is literally non-existent.
One of the things about Death Valley, that caught me by surprise, was the amount of area, within the park, designated as a Federal Wilderness, 95%.
The road traversed to reach the Ractrack Playa is designated as a primitive road, by the National Park Service. This road is maintained twice a year, and is 27 miles in length. The National Park Service recommends visitors traveling to this area to be experienced four wheel drivers with sturdy and high clearance vehicles. It has been my experience that the road there and back, is purposely populated with sharp and aggressive rocks, just waiting for those that creep to close to the edge of the road. Travel at your own risk.
Scotty’s Castle can be toured by signing onto a tour. The maximum allowable visitors, is 19. I asked the Ranger; “Why 19?” The response I received was; “With the Ranger, giving the tour, it would be 20 and that is the maximum we find is comfortable in many of the places visited within the tour.” Well, I guess 19 is a good round number on very popular 50 minute tour of the main house. These tours are on an hourly schedule between November and mid April. All tours are guided.
An 18 hole golf course is located within Death Valley National Park, which is always something I find a incongruous, within a National Park, let alone one that is 95% designated Wilderness. A number of my friends have played this course and have given it a good report. You can find this golf course at Furnace Creek; maybe you might have it on your “Bucket List.”
Artist’s Drive is a paved 9 mile long, scenic loop drive found about ten miles south of Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The curving one way road is accessed from Badwater Road and travels through the colorful rock formations for which its name originated. One of the best vantage points, along this loop, is Artist’s Palette. This route is also very popular with Cyclists as is many of the roads, within the park.
Average annual precipitation on the valley floor, which is rendered arid by a location that is inland, downwind from high mountains, and dominated by subsiding air from a subtropical high pressure cell is only 1.9 inches a year. Heavy downpours that occasionally occur can cause hazardous flash floods and sometimes even create a huge shallow lake on the valley floor.(Manly Lake) Winter and spring rains can yield spectacular wildflower blooms and people arrive every year to be there when they bloom.
The lowest point in North America is naturally in Death Valley National Park, at Badwater Basin. For me, I find this an amazing fact, 282 feet below sea level. But Badwater Basin is not the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Ref-National Park Service's National Parks Index 2009-2011 (aka the "red book"). That distinction goes to Argentina's San Julian's Great Depression (344 feet below sea level).
One of the areas that has always intrigued me, in Death Valley, is the area known as the; "Racetrack Playa." (a playa is a dry lake bed). What goes on, on this dry lake bed is a continuing mystery to so many parties, in addition to myself. These rocks can be found on the surface, of the Playa, and long trails play out behind them, in deep and shallow furrows.
The question becomes, what, whom or how...
It should be noted that Death Valley National Park is a VERY large park and planning any trip within and outside of the park, should take in this fact in your planning. Traveling from the Furnace Creek area, the Racetrack Playa takes approximately 1½ to 2 hours of travel time, depending on weather and road conditions. Always Plan accordingly and the subject that the sun sets at differently here, due to ridge lines and the seasons and being out in the dark, in the desert, can be very disorienting.
Getting to the Racetrack, can often be a challenge, all unto itself. During different times of the year, the road returns to its normal condition, rock strewn, and washboard to the n’th degree. We were lucky, as this was the time of year that the Park Service performs one of its 2 maintenance grading of the road out to the Racetrack. Even with this recent grading, the road is something to be considered, before venturing down its 27 miles of unpaved road. Of course, some visiting the area could really care less and their only interest is to go along, as was the case with my buddy, Keiss. He enjoyed curling up on one of my favorite pullovers.
Sometimes things can't get any better than hanging out with two great friends, (L to R), Curt, Ellis & myself, (Keiss, my dog is at the bottom of the picture too), for a few weeks and then throw in one of the most amazing places on earth. I am a lucky guy, many times over.
Teakettle Junction has become a bit of destination, all on its own and many make the trip, just to photograph the eclectic array of Tea Kettles hanging from this important signpost. The cacophony of sound, on a windy day is an Aria' of its own. Each of the Kettles is of a different shape and color, there is no two alike and across the faces of many of them, are messages left by their originators. It is an interesting place to stop and spend a few minutes reading the quotes.
It would seem most people have been in a position of needing to take a picture of the group you are traveling with and no one is around to hold and snap the shutter, of your camera. Even I find myself in this position. I feel like I have a sense of knowledge in the workings of a camera and maybe getting lucky in capturing a pretty good one, once in a while. Sometimes, my talent runs out and I inadvertently end up with one like this;
The road is 27 miles of washboard, ruts, rocks, dust and an occasional tortoise, so any way to get there is an adventure in itself. For me, this day was not any different as I went out there on my motorcycle, one of three trips to the site, during my five week visit to Death Valley National Park.
I will always be partial to motorcycles and Death Valley two numerous motorized vehicles, by my observations, were Jeeps and motorcycles. So, when I arrived in the southern parking area of the large Playa
A short hike from the parking area brings out onto the Racetrack Playa. This Playa is shockingly hard and gritty. It is Playa on the Southside. Here, you will find the majority of the multiple, or “twin” rocks. It is obviously the birthing area of these rocks tracking across the Playa surface. As you hike to the North and East, you will find how these rocks separate and begin their unique solo journeys across the Playa. One of the fascinating things that I found was that many of the farthest rocks (to the north and far east side of the Playa) were easily over a few hundred pounds and maybe heavier. Even that did not seem to deter these rocks from their work, of moving, ever so slowly and deliberately, across the Playa.
During my three trips to the Racetrack Playa I worked on different tactics of photographing these interesting subjects. They were obviously not saying too much, so I didn’t have any of the issues I often am beset with subjects.
There are differing opinions in how to photograph these fast moving subjects and I offer to you that there is really no specific rules, except one that I use with most of my subjects, whether it is people, flowers or vehicles, move. Don’t take the pictures “head on,” take them from an angle. (Hint; Very helpful when taking photographs of flowers). I will leave it up to you, which of the viewpoints appeals to the individual viewer.
During my multiple trips to the Racetrack Playa I met a number of very interesting people. One of these trips was to catch the late afternoon shadows, before the sun set. Remember, the sun goes down about an hour earlier, due to the nearby West Ridge, so plan accordingly. Plus, it gets really dark out there, without a moon and I was soon to find that my headlight broke on the ride in. Another story all in itself, as my return trip to Furnace Creek became.
Earlier I mentioned a Duct Tape covered Multi-Sport Motorcycle. Obviously, the bike came in with a rider and the story of the rider was just as multilayered as the motorcycle. He became aware to me, by the name of Tristan. His story unfolds ahead;
I heard the distinct French accent from the person, over my shoulder, standing behind me. I was at this moment, prone across the Playa of the famous Death Valley National Park Racetrack. I was working hard at focusing my camera view point onto a rock. Yep, just a rock.
“Would you mind, giving me a push, on my motorcycle, before you leave?” The French accented man continued.
“Of course I would be happy to help you out;” remembering the unique motorcycle; I had parked mine next to at the trailhead to the Playa. What made this unique was the amount of Duct Tape, everywhere on the motorcycle. This extended to the rear view mirrors, tail light assembly and the entire black vinyl seat that was now transformed to be entirely Duct Tape Silver. I had focused on the different seals, on the bike, as oil seemed to be leaking from every joint and orifice of the bike’s engine. If the Duct Tape was being functional, the many stickers irreverently everywhere about the bike, seemed to be working in concert in holding things together. Yes, I had noticed the bike when I arrived. So much so, I had paused to take a picture of it.
“Yes, my starter does not work and I can only start it by bump starting it.”
Again with that thick accident, as I continued to work on my photography in the quickly diminishing light. Not that I was ignoring him, but the sun was going down and I was hoping to get some distinct shadows from this time of day. He continued to keep me company, talking to me about how he had left his other friends, as they rode their own bikes a different direction. One should know, this location we were both found ourselves at, is considered one of the most remote locations in the park. It is not the easiest of places to get to, as a 27 mile rock and wash board road must be traversed to get here. Yes, my mind was questioning why this person would have risked taking a suspect motorcycle, to such a remote location and at a questionable time of day. With the late hour, it could be a risk for a safe return, across even unfamiliar roads. So I agreed to give him a jump start, when I got back to the trailhead. But I did share that I was going to continue to work on my photography, until after sunset.
I wandered away, in search of the perfect rock to photograph. Yes, my life if very full and rewarding. I am just boring as I find a fascination of rocks. I met another group of photographers, with a large 8X10 Plate Glass Ebony Camera and hung with them until long after the sun had set. Wandering back to the trailhead, I found the Frenchman’s motorcycle gone and a note placed on my own motorcycle, explaining his ability to depart, with the help of another group that had come by. He wrote, thanking me and for the first time, I learned his name; Tristan.
Like many of my adventures, the stories are what make my travels quite exceptional. With that the story of Tristan, is only beginning.
While dressing into my riding gear, as the temperatures were now hovering just above freezing, (The air temperature is indicated on the dash of my Motorcycle) and I suited up. In the peripheral of my vision, I saw a dark shadow, move from my left, about 20 feet from me. I don’t like using flashlights, as they impact my night vision and I am comfortable with being in the dark, even as it was now with no moon. Recognizing that this shape indicated something moving and alive, I reached in my bag and grabbed my Olympus point n’ shoot camera, quickly and silently as could possibly be to capture the quiet interloper, as he came from the deep shadows to investigate me. (I will post this picture within the Death Valley Album at a later time. So it will be there that you will discover who, or what this was, that padded in so silently.)
I started up the motorcycle, for the long ride out on a high clearance and sometimes 4wheel drive road. I was taken aback by the starting of the BMW. The motor took, but there was not headlight, complete darkness, save for the tail light. Walking around to the front, tapping on the lens, I found that I was now over 90 minutes from my campsite and the temperatures were continuing to drop. Turning the auxiliary lights on, they worked. Turning the high beam light on, it worked, so there was not too much concern, for getting out, that night. There was no one back at camp, to miss me that night, save my Scotty Dog, so I worked my way, carefully and slowly, down the road. The entire time, I never passed another vehicle, well until I made it out to the main road.
On the main road, I came to the Junction to Stove Pipe Wells, to the West, or Furnace Creek (to the Southeast). I watched as a National Park marked vehicle turning in front of me, who then stopped right next to me.
“Hey, are you ok?” The ranger asked me, without exiting his Dodge Police pick-up truck.
“Sure, I am heading back to Furnace Creek.” I happily shared with the ranger.
“Oh, Ok. I thought you were another motorcyclist that we are looking for. His friends have reported him overdue and we have been looking for him.”
Just that moment, his radio chirped, momentarily distracting the young ranger and then got back to me; “Oh, they just located him, he is back at his campsite, with his friends. I had not really thought it was you, as his bike was reported to be pretty beat up with lots of Duct Tape on it.”
“Yes, I know who you were looking for, as I saw him a couple hours ago, at the Racetrack.”
Chuckling to myself and thinking; Tristan does get around. With that the Ranger bid me goodbye and encouraged me to be careful, as I did to him too. He never mentioned my lack of a headlight.
I arrived back at camp, almost 2 hours after leaving the Racetrack, tired and happy that I had secured some photos that I had wanted to get. Keiss was happy to see me too.
My friend Ellis had left earlier in the week to drive up to Yosemite National Park, to see an old friend and was scheduled to be back by the weekend.
Two days after my eventful day at the racetrack, Ellis returned to our campsite and we were soon sharing with each other, our adventures while the two of us were spending the week apart.
My ears perked a bit as Ellis shared he had decided to take an additional day, on the road back and stayed a night at a campground near Darwin Falls, at Panamint Springs. As I listened to him tell me about his evening and drinking beer with some of the people he me there, he shared that there was this Frenchman, on a motorcycle that was camping next to him. I pulled my iPhone out and showed him a picture on it. Ellis exclaimed; “Yes, that is the motorcyclist that I was talking about.”
“I thought so and his name was Tristan.” I shared
Ellis queried; “How did you know that and where did you take that picture?”
Yes, my adventures are really in a world that is truly a small world.
It is not that unusual for me to meet others, photographing subjects that I am interested in too. The Racetrack Playa, was certainly a place where many were taking pictures, but those that were really working on them, were the exception. I had purposely made the journey here, a 90 minute ride on my motorcycle, from camp to get here in time for the sunset. This would put me riding back in the dark, through a rough backcountry road of 27 miles, before hitting the paved park roads. This evening I met Jim Becia, with his amazing large format camera, an Ebony Camera (Link) 8X10. Jim's work can be found on his website; Spirit Light Photography.
Prior to leaving the Racetrack, I had returned to the parking area, about an hour after sunset and it was dark there. I typically refrain from using flashlights and headlamps, so as not to diminish my night vision and tonight turned into a good reason why I don’t. The temperature had dropped considerably, elevation approximately 4,000 ft, with the sun setting (@1723, February 11th, 2012) and my thermometer showed that it was 39°. I was returning on my motorcycle, so I suited up with the winter riding gear I had brought with me. That is when I saw something moving beside me, in the dark. Just at the edge of my peripheral vision. I grabbed my camera and quickly and snapped a picture of nocturnal visitor, reporting for work. He was no doubt there to check out what many of the visitors had carelessly/accidentally had left behind, during their brief visit to the racetrack. When I arrived back at the campsite, in Furnace Creek, (@2105) it was 62° at -282 ft elevation (I am a bit puzzled how something below sea level could be written as elevation). A testament in how temperatures can vary, greatly, within the park.
Each time I snapped a picture (with flash), of the Desert Kit Fox (Vulpes velox), it would disappear into the darkness of the nearby sage. I patiently waited, in the enveloping darkness, for the Fox to return and he did, two more times.
A Desert Kit Fox is very different than the type of Fox that is seen in many parts of America and now increasingly so, as the Fox is adapting very easily into an urban environment. I am not sure how many have really watched a Fox, up close, but the thing that has struck me, is how small they really are. Take away their busy tail, and they are really small. A Desert Kit Fox is a smaller subspecies of the commonly found, Gray and Red Fox. A Desert Kit Fox is not much bigger than a well grown house cat, about 20 to 30 inches long (including the 10-12 inch tail. As you can see in the picture, they have very large ears and a thick sandy-yellow fur. With a color like this it is easy to see how easily they blend into their environment, Death Valley.
Desert Foxes feed on Kangaroo Rats, lizards, mice and large insects. It is easy to see how they supplement their thirst for moisture. They hunt by digging out rodents from their underground burrows. They are really great at stalking these smaller mammals too, just like a cat. They also will consume sweet, fleshy fruits and or berries.
Young Desert Kit Foxes are called kittens and when they are born, they typically are in a litter of four to five in early spring, remaining with the adult pair, their parents, until April or May. Like typical mammals, they are generally solitary, living and hunting alone. It is hard to say what might have prompted the Desert Kit Fox to be as brazen as this one. Possibly the availability of food, within this parking area had removed its fear and thusly a good reason not to purposely, or accidentally, feed wildlife.
Pictured here is my ever patient and loyal Scottish Terrier, Keiss, who turned 11 this last March. Dogs are prohibited in National Parks, except where designated, such as campgrounds, paved paths and sidewalks as well as parking areas. None the less pets have lots of opportunities to join you on your adventures and mine often was along for the ride and the winter season is perfect for pets to join you, visiting Death Valley National Park, with the cooler day time temperatures. It is hard to believe, but the ground in this picture is actually the surface of the desert. While it looks very much like concrete, but in reality it is just sandy soil.
One of the things that I enjoy, while visiting National Parks, is the diversity in the things to do and see. Hiking is one of my priorities and in the case of the name, Ubehebe, you hit a triple’, a hike to a mountain peak, a historical mine site and a volcanic crater.
To get there, it is a 45 mile drive, NW from Furnace Creek, off of Scotty’s Castle Road, then turn onto Ubehebe Road, traveling the final 5.7 miles to the parking area.
I will start with the Ubehebe Crater, as it is on the road back from a trip to the Racetrack Playa. This site is easily driven right by it, in the drive back to Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek, but I would suggest a stop and maybe a hike. The overlook, provides an excellent view of the Ubehebe Crater which is almost a ½ mile rim to rim and the hike to the bottom, 1.3 miles is easy to moderate, in difficulty. I must say that this crater is dramatic, in that the rim of the crater is well defined and the Alluvial fans of debris are evidently tearing down the crater’s edges. The depth of the crater is over 500 feet and there is a trail that takes you around the crater, 1½ mile in length, as it will take you near additional craters, as well. Worth noting, is the fun it is to listen to others as they try to pronounce the word; Ubehebe.
Way back in the mid 70s, I was visiting a friend and there on his kitchen table, was a small pamphlet on a place called; Scotty's Castle. Even way back then, it made an impression on me, so much so that I wanted to visit it, thirty-five years ago, as much as I like visiting it to this day. Each time I visit Death Valley, it is one of the “must do” events I plan on scheduling. There are many things to do, while visiting the area, such as hiking the various trails and sites, the multiple tours that are available through the Park Service Interpretive program as well as visiting the small visitor Center, located on the grounds.
The Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center is open to the public Daily, (Winter 8:30 am - 5:30 pm/Summer 8:45 – 4:30 pm). It is approximately 55 miles north of Furnace Creek, in the northeast portion of Death Valley National Park. The highlight to many of the visitors to Scotty’s Castle is the many tours that are available. They have walk up reservations, on these tours that run, “on the hour.” You can also make advance reservations for these tours, 24 hours in advance, but going to the internet site; Recreation.Gov for reservations at Scotty's Castle or by calling 1-800-444-6777. Tickets, for the tours, are on a first come first serve basis, the day of the tour.
You are immediately aware you are entering an estate of importance or of personal importance. Entering the property now is from the service side of the estate, as the main entrance is closed and found a short distance to the West, via an Entrance Arch. Immediately to your right, are the Visitor center and a small snack area, which is very convenient as there are no services within this region, for the public.
For me, the highlight of Scotty’s Castle was actually getting the chance to go inside, the self proclaimed Castle. After visiting San Simeon’s Hearst Castle or Biltmore Estate, this residence is actually modest. But what makes this site exceptional, is the location and the history of it being built in Death Valley National Park.
Having a tour guide, is one of the great things that is available in really immersing yourself into the history and culture of what created this location. What really makes it work, the tour guides dress in the period clothes and conduct themselves as if they were and in the period they are representing. But, don’t think that they are not there to protect the exhibit from those that are not aware or, sadly, don’t care.
As you drive into the entry driveway, you are met by the vertical positioning all around you. In front of you and behind you are large arches, to announce your entrance and to serve as walkways, for upper levels to the smaller residences to the north building.
Behind the West arch, is the self sustaining Powerhouse building, with its towering functioning Clock Tower.
Even though the main house did not take the form of an ideal castle, the power house, and adjacent clock tower, does.
Detail is something that I enjoy discovering and spending more time investigating it, as in this tile sundial. It is located in the large entry drive, on the shaded side of the Castle. This shaded area affords an opportunity for arriving and departing guests, and their vehicles, to come to rest in the cooler portion of the Castle.
After entering the Castle, you are immediately in the Main Room. It is evident, from the dark shading that you are in an environment that is overly sunny. To combat the heat of the summer sun, the Castle has been constructed with thick Adobe walls and smaller windows with heavy coverings. I was struck how spacious an area it was, but small in area with a two story ceiling.
The details to bring the aura of a possibility that the spirit of Scotty walking through one of the many heavy wooden side doors, is often overwhelming for the guests to the castle. Even though the Castle was not his actual place of residence, his presence and influence was often evident throughout.
This Copper Bas Relief is a great example of one of the important mining minerals found and mined within the Death Valley Area. Throughout the Castle grounds, the early mining history was held in high regard.
With the new digital cameras, a new world of opportunity taking pictures is now available. With just the change of camera settings, i.e.; White Balance, Shutter Aperture and Shutter Speed, interior photography can be accomplished with a decision of whether to use or not use, their flash. Some things will be in better focus by not utilizing a flash, as that pulls the shutter speed into a different setting. The result is it does not freeze moving subjects and the result is an unplanned blurring. What is now an increasing annoyance is when others around you are using their flashes, when you don’t and their camera flash just overexposes your photos with strange and sometimes amazing results.
Throughout the estate, you are quickly aware in how important water is and was. The estate was originally chosen to occupy this site, due to its close proximity to a natural spring. Within the main house are a number of modern, for the time, water features. One of these features is a fountain in a second story courtyard, near the north residences of the main house. Decorative as it was, with its colorful colors and detail, it always served a purpose of elevating the humidity of the nearby rooms.
When the estates actual location began to be called into question, due to a dispute of an earlier survey, a number of long term projects were stalled and eventually abandoned. The incomplete cement pond is often debated as to whether there were really plans of it being completed. Whatever the actual plan, the reality is that it was never completed and continues to remain uncompleted.
During the heady times of the 20s, the upper crusts were very wealthy, like William Randolph Hearst, Waite Phillips, William Allen White and Albert Johnson. They often entertained Hollywood celebrities, at their ranches. These celebrities would often be ferried by the newer airplanes of those days, to these remote locations. They would arrive and live the simple life for days and sometimes weeks. To ferry these guests and friends, some of the newest automobiles were gathered to further the reputation of that era of opulence. Some of the vehicles, of that time, have remained and are on display at the two car garages.
Immediately behind Scotty’s Castle, is a small hill with a Cross atop it. There is a short trail that begins on the north side of the Power House Castle and circles the hill, to the top of the hill. It is an easy hike and the higher vantage point is well worth the effort to hike to the top of the hill.
The significance of the hill behind Scotty’s Castle is the final burial place for the irascible Walter Scott. When Scotty died on January 5th, 1954 and was subsequently buried atop the hill, where he could continue to oversee a home he thoroughly enjoyed but always preferred a more simple life. A marker was placed at his burial location, commemorating his efforts and work in Death Valley and what eventually became known as; “Scotty’s Castle.”
From atop, the hill where the final resting place of Walter E. Scott lies, is a good vantage point of what has become known as; Tie Canyon. It can be seen to the West of Scotty’s Castle, hidden behind a ridge. When the railroad line, that originated from Scotty’s Junction and traveled west along the grade to a terminus just east of Scotty’s Castle, was abandoned, many of the remaining railroad ties were salvaged and taken down to this side canyon to be stored. These many decades later, the large mounds of railroad ties remain, as well as many of the trappings of life and their resulting debris in the form of rusted out trucks, cars, washing machines, benches and many other indescribable and discernable items. These discards were actually a result of what one once did, throw out the old, into a desolate location or excavated deposit. It was just accepted then, where no one would be just astonished someone would even think this was acceptable. How things change.
Each time I visit, my mind will wander to a time and era that the inhabitants of this estate were living within. In my own mind, I could imagine Scotty, stooped shouldered, hat askew and leading his favorite mule down the trail towards his own residence down at the Lower Vine House. To only begin another day of meeting and storytelling, with the arriving tourists.
Looking skyward, Scotty still seems to be not that far away, maybe not in a physical form, but in a spirit.
I must confess, my friend’s wife was a Guide for Scotty’s Castle, for many years and one of the tours that I had been alerted to take, was the Lower Vine Ranch Tour. Many visitors, to Scotty’s Castle, were initially left with the impression that Scotty actually lived at the castle. Actually, he lived in a cabin that was at a distant location, Lower Vine Ranch, and Scotty commuted everyday to the Castle, initially by hiking up the canyon with his mule and then later, by automobile. Mr. Johnson wanted Scotty to live better and originally commissioned his architect to design and build modern conveniences into the ranch center, to match the Castle. Scotty was not at all for this and eventually there was a compromise, between the two of them and a cabin and a number of out building were built. Mr. Johnson won out on the small details of the finish carpentry work and this is still visible today. Of course Scotty was not for anything special and when he found that the workers were installing a bathroom, with tub, he promptly dragged it outside and used it there, prompting Mrs. Johnson (Bessie) to always announce her approach, with a few blasts of her car horn, as she drove up the lane. The fact was, you might find Scotty in any phase, or lack thereof, while he was at the Lower Vine Ranch.
The Lower Vine Ranch Tours do not run every day, so it is important to verify with the schedule, to make a reservation. Those going on the tour, meet at Visitor Center in Scotty’s Castle and then caravan down to the area, where parking is along the road. From there, the two attending interpretive Rangers lead you up to the ranch. The trip is approximately 2½ miles, not strenuous, but you should plan for a hike in the desert and it is a mildly up hill, one way. The Rangers work very hard to be informative and interested in your questions, so be prepared to take advantage of this fact.
As mentioned before, Scotty shunned modern conveniences and preferred the simpler things, from an earlier age he had lived. He kept his “refrigerated items, in this feature, covered with the tarp, from the sun’s rays.
The one amenity that Scotty did accept was one of the modern porcelain stoves of the era. The stove is one of the few items that remain.
Of note, when the Park Service purchased the former Johnson properties (a.k.a. Scotty’s Castle and acreage) from the Gospel Foundation, in 1970, the Lower Vine Ranch sat vacant for many years, with occasional use for NPS Staff housing. It was not that many years ago that the Park Service’s Regional Offices identified the ranch as a missed opportunity to renovate and improve for housing. Thus, removing the opportunity for historical preservation. Well, that didn’t sit well with the people of the area and supporters of Scotty’s Castle and an organized effort was started for lobbying the Park Service to stop this directional turn for the Lower Vine Ranch. Before calmer heads prevailed, many of the upgrades had been started or completed, only to be removed and the Ranch brought back to the condition it is today.
When the weather cooperated, Scotty would sleep on this bed (frame), in the very simple bedroom. His way of taking care of the domestic duties of the Ranch, was to hang his clothes, hats, requisite red ties, on nails he would pound into the surrounding walls. What might seem cluttered to others was functional for Scotty.
If you look closely you can see the red tiled floor, which in reality is stamped concrete. The detail of the outside of the cabin was brought indoors in the same detail of herringbone redwood shake style wall coverings.
A Millipede; an Arthropod is an interesting insect to watch and scare your sisters and teacher with. They are harmless and can be identified with the simple fact, that they have two legs per body segment. Their defensive posture is to curl up in a coil. Many of us have played with; “Rolly Polly’s,” or a “Pill Bug.” Yes, Rolly Polly’s’ are millipedes, just a smaller version.
Of course, why would anybody be interested in an ugly bug? Right? Well, me I guess. When I see bugs like this, it alerts me that there is something decaying and loose soil and that is what made me stop and watch it, which immediately got the attention of the Ranger, assigned to us (sort of like the “keepers” that are assigned to people while visiting countries, like North Korea ). I assured her that I was not doing anything untoward, as I squatted with my camera in front of my face, pointed at some unseen object, the ranger’s admission. This supports my frequent statement that the desert is not as some believe, a wasteland, but an interesting environment to be enjoyed and investigated.
A visit to Death Valley National Park, would not be complete unless I was able to witness the beginning of the spring wildflower blooms. Even though I was there for the month of February, there were a few blooming and others showing signs of the spring change.
Wild Heliotrope ~ Phacelia bombycina ~ This delicate, purplish lavender flowered plant, exists in the desert of the southwest. I found this flowering wildflower, while hiking across the great expanse of alluvial fans of debris from a side canyon, northeast of Badwater, in Death Valley National Park. I have come to understand that this small wildflower is actually very common and easily found in the spring. It flourishes in the rock slopes of these side canyons, rocky slopes and roadsides. The latter is probably not a place it is seen often, as it is a very small plant and the blooms, even smaller, in that they are not much bigger than a dime. The lavender, to purple flowers grows in very tight clusters. For this reason, they are more difficult to photograph as in that they are closely bunched together, with buds ramped up to further bloom, in subsequent days. This bunching does not allow the photographer to adjust the composition, so he/she is left to fracture the formation, to create a more eclectic composition.
Of interest, many desert flowers and shrubs possess medicinal powers for the earlier settlers and inhabitants, of the area. When the flower is crushed, it has an unpleasant odor, much like a skunk odor. Some people will develop a skin allergy, when exposed to the plant, much like a poison-ivy reaction/allergy.
A closer view of the Wild Heliotrope, reveals the debris (aerosols) that becomes airborne with the seemingly constant winds of the desert, stick to these tiny “hairs” along the stems, buds and flowers. Amazingly, the small little “pebbles” are actually sand particles and pollen, lots of pollen. The only thing I can think about is how difficult this has to be to negotiate as a tiny insect.
Desert Mallow ~ Sphaeralcea ambigua ~ This is a shrub that I found growing in a draw, of a washed area in the Dunes area of Mesquite Flats, Death Valley National Park, California. This shrub is a perennial and becomes really showy in the spring. The thing I noticed most about this shrub, that grows 20 to 40 inches in height, was how dull the color of the leaves was, on this shrub. They really...
Wildflower identification is subjective. By that I imply, is it really necessary to assign a name to something as beautiful as a flower? Not really. But to appreciate a subject, knowing more about it often enhances that appreciation and that is what I go with. I just want to know and learn more about things. Of course, the old fall back, in my College Botany class, was; “Pretty Little Flower,” or the PLF factor. I have read that term in this forum too and would just interject that this classification is used at a higher level of discussion. Nothing helps better, than a good Flower Identification book, with pictures!
100 Desert Wildflowers ~ West........ by; Janice Emily Bowers & Abby Mogollon
I often scan over any park bookstore or displays for books on history, geology, hiking, wildflowers and animals. This book is a good one in that it provides some well composed pictures of wildflowers. Within the text are excellent descriptions, names, characteristics and ranges where they might be found. Even though there are only 100 wildflowers listed, they are ones that is a good representation of what someone would find in the desert of the Southwest, plus you can purchase it for less than 10 bucks.
Mojave Desert Wildflowers, by; Jon Mark Stewart.
This is a book that I have used for a long time and I like it in that there are large varieties of wildflowers within, but the best part, they are listed by color. A true botanist will arrange a plant by it structural makeup, i.e., petal type, number, leaf arrangement and the like. For quick and accurate identification, I like to see color, range found and pictures. This book fits my needs and more.
Ok, for those purists, amongst us, this book does not have the pretty little pictures, but it does have excellent pen and ink drawings. For classifications of Trees and Shrubs, which the former is a rare occurrence, or at least of considerable height, this book will help you. The arrangement in this book is by color and species. For the cost, it is a great book to help identify shrubs and trees, for less than 4 bucks.
Yes, I am just starting and am getting part II ready to post here. I hope you have enjoyed this journey, through Death Valley National Park at this juncture.
I wondered what happened to you after you left here. Now I know. You are busy writing again. Nifty stuff, Bryan. Hurry up with part 2!
2011 Palomino Maverick 1000SLLB on a 2004 Dodge Quadcab CTD Ram3500 SRW long bed equipped with Timbren springs, Stable Load bump stops, Rickson 19.5" wheels/"G" range tires and a Helwig "Big Wig" rear anti sway bar.
Great Trip Report and Photos, Thanks for sharing. I love Death Valley, I remember hiking down to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater and back up and seeing a much younger couple not wanting to do so, I told them, if a old fat guy like me can do you, so can you. They then started down, I didn't wait to see if they did the entire hike. I need to go back and visit.
Ok now, here's what I'd like Bryan...an autographed version when this goes in to print. I'm hoping that's not too much to ask. What a professionally done brochure/trip report with pictures and commentary. The farthest I've been into Death Valley was Dumont Dunes where we ran our sand rails on 500 foot high dunes. I know it only took you a few short minutes to do this one, push the post button I mean, yet 5 weeks in the making. I've been humbled in the trip report section before, and yet again in spades. Well done Sir, my hats off to you!