Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel Rewind: Death Valley Days (2008)

Travel Rewind: Death Valley Days (2008): (This month's rewind theme is journeys out west...pictures are on Smugmug) As usual, we start in Vegas. There was a time when I was totally content to hit Vegas and never leave the Strip. You can get away with that for a handful of long weekends; there is that much to discover on the Strip. But in time, the Strip becomes like a second home -- you know what you want to do, you know where you want to do it. It's still a lot of fun, but there is little adventure and nothing all that new to discover.

The good news is that Las Vegas is also the hub for an enormous number of outdoor opportunities. Red Rock Canyon and the Valley of Fire are literally minutes outside town. The paradigmatic side trip is to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon, a couple of hours away. Previously, I have used Vegas as a springboard for a run up into Utah to Zion and Bryce National Parks. This time the target adventure was to be Death Valley. To be precise, three nights in Death Valley bracket on both sides by two nights on the strip.

First up was a couple of nights at the new Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. Thumbs up, generally speaking. Nice rooms. Excellent location. Reasonable prices. But bear in mind, it's a something of a budget choice. The Mandara Spa desperately needs work, and the pool is nothing to write home about (no problem in the winter), and there are no especially great restaurants on the grounds. But there is a shopping mall attached that contains a brand spankin' new Trader Vics, and there is a decent lounge just off the sports book. It's not in the stratosphere, but I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again (in winter). I was there the week after their grand opening and got a mid-week rate below $100/night and a $40 gas credit, which you can get even if you don't have a car (go figure).

Before I get to heart of my trip, the post-Death Valley Vegas days were spent at Wynn, which was beautiful and luxurious as you'd expect, but I'm less enamored of it than before. Partly because the package I purchased included a resort credit, which I asked three times if I could use toward spa services (I needed a massage really bad) and each time was told yes, only to find that when I checked out some else tell me no, it was for food and beverage only. It took me making a minor issue of the mess to get it straightened out. Poor performance by Wynn management on that one. The spa itself is very good, but not as appealing as the one over in Caesar's, where I would have gone if I didn't think I had the credit.

Also, while I know Wynn is expensive as all get out, sometimes they really go over the top. I was sitting at the bar outside the sports book watching the end of the football games and having a bite to eat. I had to finish writing a column that evening so I wanted to get some caffeine before heading up to my room. I asked the bartender for a Diet Coke to go and I got a sixteen ounce plastic cupful for $4.25. I would have taken the fifteen minutes to walk across the street to get one from the mall just on general principle if I knew that was the cost. Good grief. It's one thing to have super-expensive restaurants and services, it's another to ratchet up the price like that on every tiny little thing.

So I am moderately down on Wynn these days. The one I want to check out once the weather gets warm is the new Palazzo, the add-on to the Venetian, but that can wait until summer. One last note: I had an excellent sushi dinner and sake at Japonais in the Mirage, a nicely styled Japanese spot. I may have add that to the restaurants in the know-what-I-want category (along with Olives and Mesa Grill).

On to Death Valley...

While we're on the topic of hotels, the lodging situation in Death Valley bears some description. If you can plan far enough ahead, there is a beautiful resort-style property right inside the park called Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort. If you can get a reservation and can afford it, I can think of no better base of operations for trolling around Death Valley. I stopped in for lunch one day and it was like stepping out of a savage wilderness directly into pristine luxury. If I go back, this is where you will find me.

There is also Stovepipe Wells Village, which I didn't get a chance to explore but looks like another nice spot right in the Park proper. The problem I had was that these were all booked up. The next options are motels in a handful of little towns scattered around the rim of the park. I ended up spending three nights in a Motel 6 in Beatty, NV. Beatty doesn't consist of much more than a hard scrabble crossroad with a couple of gas stations, motels and a diner-level restaurant or two. But it's about as close to the park entrance as you can get (maybe 20 minutes or so).

My first room at the Motel 6 had no heat. They moved me to a smoking room since that was all they had available the first night. They got me sorted out finally for the second and third nights. A Motel 6 is a depressing place. They bring a new meaning to the word budget, no little bottles of shampoo, no HBO or on-demand movies, they don't even have $10 prints of generic landscapes for the walls.

But I can't complain too much about Beatty. The proximity to the park was what I was in need of and the hardscrabble setting was charming in a desert wilderness sort of way. If you are willing to drive a little further each day to get into the park, I would suggest staying in Pahrump; a silly name but a good little suburb about half way between Vegas and Death Valley. Frankly, I think you could do a lot worse than invest in real estate in Pahrump. It is set up to be a prototypical bedroom community for the Vegas middle-class workers -- and we all know how Vegas is booming. [[update - wouldn't that have been a smart investment? - dam]]

Enough peripheral talk. Let's get to the Park itself.

Over the past couple of years I have visited a number of national parks and have come to deeply appreciate the national park system. They are invariably well run and managed as far as I can see. It is an immeasurable benefit to have these places available for exploration and enjoyment. God bless Teddy Roosevelt. Of all the parks I've been to, it's hard for me to imagine a place that could offer more varied geography than Death Valley National Park.

I should probably mention at the outset that the one place I really wanted to visit in Death Valley, I didn't get to. The thing that triggered the idea of a Death Valley visit in my mind was something called The Racetrack. The Racetrack is a place where large stones have slid across a dry lake bed and left a trail in the ground behind them. No one has ever seen one of the stones move and there are varying theories as to what's really going on, but it makes for some delightful pictures. You can read about it or just look at the pretty photos.

As I was casting about for a destination, I serendipitously stumbled across two articles about The Racetrack at almost the same time from very different sources. I decided that it was a must see, so I made a point of renting a good-sized 4x4 SUV in Vegas because all the guides I read said you need a high-clearance vehicle to cover the 20+ miles of poorly maintained dirt road to get there. But, once I got to the park, I talked myself out of it. I'm still not sure if a made a rational decision or if I chickened out.

I stopped at the ranger station in Stovepipe Wells to get the lowdown on things and plan out the two full days I had to explore. I mentioned to the ranger that I wanted to go to The Racetrack and he immediately grimaced.

"What kind of vehicle do you have?"
"A Chevy Trailblazer."
"Does it have off road tires or street radials?"
"Street radials."
"You probably shouldn't do it. The vehicle has enough clearance, but the road there is not standard dirt and gravel, it's covered with sharp volcanic rock. We get blow-outs every day."

Now, I initially assumed that was probably a line they feed everybody to keep the masses of people away. But the more we talked, the more sincere he sounded. Also, before I left, I overheard another person asked the same question of another ranger and he got warned to have a good spare tire and jack available if he was going to attempt it.

I immediately went out to the truck and verified that I had a full spare tire. But the odd thing was, I couldn't locate the jack. I'm sure every Chevy Trailblazer comes with a jack, but I just couldn't locate it. I reached in the glove box for the owner's manual and discovered it was missing. Thanks, Alamo. So I paused for a moment to weigh my next move. I had three points of concern.

1) The Ranger said it was a bad idea. Not really a big concern because, I would be cautious and I suspect there was a tiny bit a discourage-the-wankers policy involved.
2) I wasn't sure I could change a tire. That was a bigger concern. If I did get a blow out, and the jack location didn't present itself, I might find myself trying to flag down some help, or stuck in some other embarrassing position. A larger concern, but still not necessarily a deal killer.
3) I was driving a rental and, in all probability, whatever rental agreement I signed forbade off-roading. If something happened to the truck, Alamo would not be pleased with me and it might end up costing money.

Any individual one of those wouldn't have stopped me, but the combination of the three caused me to back off. As I write this, it is a month later I still have pangs of regret over the decision. I'm just not sure I wasn't being a wuss. In any event, I put it on the save-until-next-time-and-make-sure-you-know-where-the-jack-is list. As it turns out, though, Death Valley has so many great sights that I had a full trip of adventure anyway.

The first brief stop was at Harmony Borax Works, a little ghost town-like spot where borax crystals were processed and shipped off in wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules back in the time of prospecting. For those of you old enough to remember when borax was used as a cleaning agent, there used to be commercials for "20-mule team Borax." Now you know the source.

Further south past Furnace Creek things start to get scenic. The first viewpoint was Zabriskie Point; a very popular spot judging from the crowd. It put me in mind of many of the viewing sites in the Badlands of South Dakota -- a vast rocky canyon surrounded by bizarre multi-colored rock formations.

Further south, and a good climb higher, is Dante's View. I passed a few cyclists trying to make this climb which amounts to probably thirty miles one way from an elevation that is effectively 0 up to almost 5500 feet. They did not look happy. Of course on the way back it they probably didn't have to do much pedaling so maybe it's not that bad.

Dante's View is not the highest peak in the park (that would be Telescope Peak over on the Western side at 11K) but it's broadly considered to have the best view. The outlook is vast. You can see huge swath of the actual valley portion of Death Valley, including Badwater (the famed lowest point), all the way to the mountainous regions of the north. The infinitesimal cars scurrying along the road below give you a good sense of height. The ridge in the area affords a decent little hike and 360 degree views. There is supposedly a 4-mile hike you can do from the outlook to nearby Mt. Perry but according to the park guide I had it was considered a summer hike only. Not only that, it said the length is 4 miles but there is no trail for the last 3.5 miles. So it's really a half mile hike then you just have scramble any way you can over the next 3.5 miles. Um, pass.

One outstanding feature of Dante's Peak is that it is bloody cold. Down on the floor of the valley, temps were approaching 80; up at 5500' I had my winter coat on. I'm guessing it was down into the low 40s. I'll bet Dante's View is popular as a place to escape the triple digit summer heat.

I retraced my path back to the Furnace Creek Resort for lunch, then swung back south again on another road, this one through the valley proper. First stop, the Devil's Golf Course.

No, it's not really a golf course. But it's certainly true that for an avid golfer, eternal damnation would likely take the form of an endless round on this course. It is a vast expanse of hardened salt mounds and spires. Walking is treacherous, and slip could easily result in an ugly laceration on the razor sharp edges. There are probably more painful things than getting a hand or arm sliced open by a salt spike, but I can't think of one at the moment.

Back on the road south again, headed toward Death Valley's flagship site, Badwater -- the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere. Before we get to that, let me just say that there were an enormous number of foreign tourists here. Tour busses full of Asians, for example. At least a third of the Caucasians were non-English speakers, and not all Spanish either; I caught both Italian and French in the mix. I'd have to assume that most of these folks were on side trips from Las Vegas -- they likely rented a car for the day and made the dash over to Death Valley, with just enough time to hit two or three highlights. I find that very cool. Even though you are only a couple of hours outside Vegas, Death Valley and the surrounding area are genuinely "Old West" in feel. It's a great area of the country for visitors to see, especially those from the more urbanized and crowded nations.

Back to Badwater. There is a little platform and introductory placard to read, then there is just a broad open lakebed. I expected there to be some monument or something out in the flat that had been placed at exactly the lowest point, but no. I gather that pretty much the entire basin is on the same depressed plane vis-…-vis sea level: -282ft. A couple of hundred yards out there did appear to be some sort of structure everyone was walking towards, but it was just a pile of rocks some previous visitor had erected. Yet, like lemmings the crowds all made their way towards it, me included, stared at it for a few seconds, said to themselves, "It's just a pile of rocks somebody put here," then turned around and walked back. Alrighty.

It was quite a difference in temperature from up on Dante's View. Here, in late November, it was up around 80. In addition to being the lowest point, it is also the hottest point in the U.S. The average high in July is 115 degrees. The highest temperature every recorded was 134 degrees back in 1913, which is also the second highest temperature ever recorded on planet Earth.

By now the sun was getting low. Actually the sun wasn't getting all that low, but in the canyons and valleys it drops behind the mountains before 4 pm. The place to watch the sunset is a spot called Artist's Palette. It is accessed off a 3 or 4 mile long loop off the main road, so I turned on to it while heading north back to the park entrance. The first spot I came to was a decent looking overlook. The sun was preparing to set behind a ridge to my left which was throwing its shadow on to a cliff side to my right. Lots of folks were hanging around with their cameras, so I waited about ten minutes for the sun to drop behind the ridge. It was a nice view of a great sunset, but there are a million nice views in the park, but I didn't see the colors promised by the Artist's Palette. Hmmm.

I got back in my car and headed further north only to discover that I wasn't at Artist's Palette. I'm not sure where I was because, as far as I can tell, the overlook is not on the park maps. I eventually stumbled on to Artist's Palette at the next stop further north. Luckily there was a tiny bit of sunlight left and I did get a good idea why they call it Artist's Palette. All the varied, earthy hues that make up the hills are available in one place -- sea greens and pale yellows and about a hundred different shades of rust reds. Great to see, but it needs to be better identified.

Earlier in the day, when the park ranger sensed my disappointment at his suggestion to not attempt the route to The Racetrack, he offered me an alternative, quasi-off road adventure: Titus Canyon Pass. So the next morning my entrance to the park was over the dirt. Along the main road into the park from Beatty, there is a turn off onto a viciously washboarded dirt road heading northeast. It is a one way route of 20 or so miles, so once you're committed to it, there's no turning back. It is an excellent adventure.

After a while, the flat, dusty washboard starts to wind upwards, along precarious cliffs and switchbacks affording some terrific views and some fun -- if tense -- driving. You probably don't want to do this if you are afraid of heights. Once up into the hills you will eventually come to the ghost town of Leadfield. Not much of a town, just a couple of left over run downs. Apparently at one point it was actually large enough to have a post office. It's one of a handful of convenient stopping points on the Titus Canyon Pass and you'll likely strike up a conversation with the other drivers. Since it's one way with no passing, cars tend to get bunched up together and end up making all the same stops at roughly the same time. I was alternately ahead of and behind a group of twenty-somethings from France who had, somewhat incredibly, decided to try to run this route in a Chrysler PT Cruiser. At every stop one of them got out and looked underneath the car for damage, but for the most part they seemed unconcerned, although I am sure the next people who rent that car may be in for a surprise. Another Chevy Blazer driver and I wondered if they were brave or stupid, finally settling on "just young."

After climbing the twistys, the character of the road changes again and you suddenly find yourself on flat road seemingly carved into an enormous rock canyon; impossibly tall granite walls on either side of your car. It is dark and a bit chilly from the lack of sun and even a bit claustrophobic at times. But as interesting as driving through the narrow slot of between monolithic canyon walls is, more amazing is the extent to which the geography has changed over the course of the morning's journey. Kind of like Death Valley itself, it goes from one extreme to another -- and back again. When you exit the canyon you are back on the standard flat desert plain of the valley. There you can queue up for the one restroom and marvel at the French kids who made it all the way through in their now dirt covered PT Cruiser.

(Aside: I now officially have the notion in my head of a PT Cruiser as a rugged vehicle. Back when I was in Kauai, I took my rented PT Cruiser convertible over a multi-mile stretch of rugged dirt road and sand to get to a secluded beach. Sadly, Chrysler is not making them anymore. I shall mourn their passing.)

From the Titus Canyon exit it's a brief drive up to Scotty's Castle. Like any self-respecting desert, Death Valley has oases. One of them has been turned into Furnace Creek, which I have already spoken of. The other was sequestered back in the 1920s as a good spot for a vacation home by a very wealthy life insurance bigwig named Albert Johnson. Notice it's not called Albert's Castle, or Johnson's Castle. It was actually named after a con man who claimed to live there, not the man who commissioned and owned it.

It's an interesting story. Apparently Walter Scott (Scotty) was a legendary con man who convinced Albert Johnson to invest in a non-existent gold mine. Eventually, when Johnson arrived to discover he had been swindled, instead of being angry, he struck up a sincere friendship with Scotty. In time Johnson came to love the Valley and had the castle built as a vacation home naming it Death Valley Ranch. Scotty took the opportunity to tell everyone that it was his house and probably used it in any number of swindles. Again, instead of being angry, Johnson was merely entertained. Thus it came to be known as Scotty's Castle. Johnson kept up his friendship with Scotty throughout his life, eventually building a smaller place a few miles away for Scotty's personal use. Not exactly the way I would have treated someone who conned me out of many thousands of dollars, but the rich are different.

Designed as a Spanish style estate, with the requisite gardens, pools and stables, Scotty's Castle seems to have been erected in the middle of nowhere, which in fact it was back then. It is the sort of home that folks build when they have a ton of disposable income and are looking to create an iconic base of some sort. John Ringling did this in Sarasota. If you have ever seen the movie Giant with James Dean and Rock Hudson, you'll recall the image of the beautiful mansion built in the middle of a barren prairie. That's what Scotty's Castle brings to mind. There seems to be a desire by these people to make one final statement of who they are what their place is in the world. As if to say, "This is it. This is has been what it's about all along. I'm finished now. I'll just stay here and try to be happy." I'm sure we all have that desire at some point, but it's the rich who can follow through.

These days there is a guest center where you can snag ready-made sandwiches or other basic convenience store food for lunch, and a gift shop. It's the closest thing to a tourist site in the park. You don't get inside the main house other than through a tour, which runs every hour. There are also tours of the underground tunnels where you can see the mechanical ingenuity behind keeping the house functioning; no small task considering it is in the middle of one of the most unforgiving and inhospitable climates in the world. A short trail uphill takes to a high point where Albert Johnson is buried, and where you can get a good feel for the surrounding area.

One last thing about this area: it is the only place I saw anything resembling mammalian wildlife in the park. As I drove up, there was a coyote just standing impassively in the middle of the road. Cars were going by, slowing down for a look and he was just standing there as they passed. I expect he had been fed from cars previously (bad tourists!) and was probably looking for a snack. I pulled off into the parking lot, grabbed my camera to see if I could get some shots, and as soon as I got within thirty yards he was off. I should have remembered from my visit to the Black Hills that park wildlife generally has no fear of cars, but will head for cover if you try to approach them on foot.

On to my final stop, Ubehebe Crater. About three millennia ago a volcano erupted here, leaving a 600 foot deep crater. One side is covered with deep black volcanic sand that you can sink into over your ankles. There is a path around the circumference and a couple that lead down into the center of the crater. The trip down is a piece of cake; the only effort required is to resist gravity from pulling you into a full sprint. The center is a flat, hardened surface and standing in the middle is like being on stage in a gigantic natural theatre-of-the-round. You glance up at the rim and that's when it first occurs to you that you will pay for that nice easy trip down.

So you wander briefly in the center of a volcano. The side opposite the ash path down is craggy rock with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. I slipped under a little overhang and realized that, if I was prepared -- meaning if I had worn the right clothes and not been trailing my Nikon DSLR along for the ride -- I could probably have scrambled at least half way up the crater without too much trouble. I'd be willing to bet that a moderately skilled rock climber could take it from there all the way to the top.

So. Wander around a little more. Isn't that an interesting rock formation? There's some scrubby plant life over there. La-de-dah. Oh and look, sunset comes early inside a crater. Alas, can't put it off any longer, I guess...

There are two paths back up to the rim and it's hard to tell which is steeper from the bottom. I just headed back up the one I came down, since it would leave me closer to my car and I figured they were probably about the same. I figured wrong.

Every step I took up amounted to only a few inches of progress as a yard-long stride ended with a two foot slide back into soft volcanic ash followed by a struggle to extricate my sunken foot. It was brutal. Very similar to a former trek I took through Sleeping Bear Dunes in Northern Michigan except that while this was only a single ascent, it was steeper and higher than any individual sand dune. About halfway up I stopped and turned back to see people easily walking up the other pathway. I exchanged looks with the guy in front of me and both of us said, "wrong path," in unison. It wasn't just the steepness, it was the effort required to make any forward progress in the ash. I contemplated turning back and restarting up the proper path but I am not one to give up easily on a fitness challenge. I slugged it out to the top, my torso heaving desperately to fill my lungs. If you ever find yourself in the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, take the path on your right on the way out. Trust me on that.

And that was about it. It was time for me to leave Death Valley and make my way beck to Vegas and, subsequently, home. For the moment though, I sat on the hood of my car overlooking the ash field surrounding the crater and re-hydrating. The sun was setting and it was getting nice and cool. The moon was rising to create a final photo op. The valley floor extended southwest further than my laser corrected vision could see, bordered by mountains on either side. Over my right shoulder was a sign marking the way to The Racetrack. I still regretted not getting there, but something tells me I'll be back. Next time for sure.