Monday, March 17, 2008

Death Valley Days

For my sister's birthday, she was going to participate in a Century. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it is a 100 mile bike ride. They were having this bike ride down in Death Valley, CA. I had never been to Death Valley before and she invited me to go with her and hang out while she was doing this bike thing. (the Century would take all day) We would make a road trip out of it and spend several days in the area with days spent driving down there and back from Sacramento, CA. It sounded like fun. As long as I didn't have to ride 100 miles on a bike too.

So the other day we set off from Sacramento bound for the desert.My sister had rented a huge SUV for the drive. This was so she could take her fancy bicycle down for the Century. She would never mount it on the top or back of the car. It could get damaged. Also this way, she wouldn't be putting miles on her new car. The drive down was really scenic, we took I-395 on the East side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. In the higher elevations, there was a lot of snow. I had wanted to get a bunch of drive-by letterboxes on the way down, but several feet of snow made this pretty difficult. We stopped for a couple of them, but found them so buried, I gave up until we got back down towards sea level again.

My sister's husband splurged and got us a room at the Furnace Creek Ranch right inside the National Park that is Death Valley. After all it was her birthday and the Furnace Creek Ranch was the beginning and end of the 100 mile bike ride, so it would be very convenient to just wake up and roll out of bed to start that grueling ride. The Century is very popular and people come from all over the country and all over the world to participate in it. There was also a DOUBLE Century going on at the same time, 200 miles. These folks are hard core bicyclist. So we were lucky that he made the reservations early. The Ranch was all sold out the weekend we were there and many of the cyclist had to drive in from Independence, CA more than 60 miles away or they had to camp at one of the campgrounds in the park and the campgrounds near Furnace Creek were also sold out.Not to mention that this is also the best time of year to visit Death Valley. In the summer the temperatures can hover in the 110's, so a balmy 80 degrees was to be the high the weekend we were there.

It was dark when we first drove into the park and we couldn't see much, but we could smell the flowers. I had been told that the wildflowers would be in bloom and I had imagined a bunch of cacti with those funky blooms on top of their spines. I was totally surprised to wake up the next morning and see fields of yellow flowers. They were quite beautiful and not at all what I expected in the desert. In fact, we saw very few cactus. Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the United States. A temperature of 134 Degrees was recorded at Badwater in 1913. And in July, the average temperature is 116 degrees! I was happy to be here in the winter.
Our first day there we had to go to the lowest point. It is called Badwater and is 282 feet below sea level. Driving down to Badwater was also the road my sister's bike ride would take, so it was an opportunity for her to check out the route of her 100 mile ride. We stood there and looked up at the cliff behind the parking area. There is a sign way, way up on the side of the cliff that says, "Sea Level". Wow. We also drove out to see The Devil's Golf Course, it is a section of the salt flats where the crystals are all clumped up on the desert floor.It looks like a coral reef run amok. We also stopped at the Golden Canyon for a short hike. It is a lovely slot canyon that winds up at a rock formation called the Red Cathedral. The whole area is a geologist's dream. Another section of the drive to Badwater is called The Artist's Palette. I thought that it might be called that because that is where Artist's go to paint or take pictures. I suppose they do that too, but it is called the Artist's Palette because the hills are dotted with all sorts of different colors from the different rocks and minerals that make up the composition of the area. We came back to Furnace Creek and visited the Borax Mining Museum. It is in the oldest building still standing in Death Valley and has some really great exhibits on the mining that went on in Death Valley over the years. Borax is not as glamorous as gold, but it was probably one of the most profitable items to be mined here in Death Valley. The famous 20 Mule Teams would haul the Borax out of Death Valley to the railroad at Mojave.

The next day was the day of my sister's bike ride. I should mention that they do not call it a bike race. But they do put numbers on them (like marathon runners wear) and they do time them.My sister was number 52, and she came in 85 out of 145 finishers. Somebody has to come in first and somebody has to come in last. So it looks like a race to me. But if you call it that, there will be someone there to correct you! "It's not a race, it's a ride"
I stand corrected. We got up bright and early and I walked out to take photos and see my sister off. I would spend the day visiting a ghost town and other sights and come back to check on her progress after several hours. The folks participating in the 200 mile ride left first. Then it was time for the folks doing the measly little 100 miles to start. They space the riders out to keep things safer on the roads. My sis was in the third wave of Century riders to leave the Furnace Creek Ranch. After she was on her way, I drove out to the town of Rhyolite.

It is the biggest ghost town around. It once had more than 10,000 inhabitants during its hey day. There were 2 churches, 50 saloons, a stock exchange and an opera! Many ruins remain today. There is also a very interesting sculpture garden there. Well worth a visit. I also took the opportunity to buy gasoline. Since Rhyolite was over the border in Nevada, the gas was cheaper than it was in California. It was also more than a dollar cheaper than the gas in the National Park. So I filled up the tank! I drove back to Furnace Creek and waited for my sister to come in from her ride. Unfortunately, there were strong headwinds that slowed all the cyclist down. She finished in nine and a half hours. Not nearly her best time. (and they usually don't even count you as finishing, if you don't make it in 10 hours) We had a celebratory dinner at the fancy restaurant at the Ranch and went to bed early.

The following day, we had the whole day to sightsee in the park. One of the things that we wanted to see is called The Racetrack. It is an area of the desert where rocks move by themselves. It is a mystery. No one sees them move, but you can see their tracks. Scientists have many theories about how and why the rocks move, but no one is really sure. It is a very remote area of the park and required several miles of off road driving, so we were glad we had the huge SUV with the high clearance and 4 wheel drive. On the way to The Racetrack, we stopped first at Scotty's Castle. This is a mansion that was built by a Chicago Millionaire, Albert Johnson. But it took it's name from "Death Valley Scotty," a local eccentric who was a friend of Albert Johnson.

After touring the grounds of Scotty's Castle we started down the gravel roads towards the Racetrack. Our first stop was Teakettle Junction. This is a little crossroads in the middle of nowhere and folks have brought tea kettles to hang on the signpost. It is very cute and a definite photo opportunity. From Tea Kettle Junction we still had about 10 miles to go to get to Racetrack. It was slow going because the roads are in pretty rough shape. We got down to Racetrack and took a bunch of pictures. There is a huge rock formation that is in the center of this flat dry lake bed. It looks out of place rising up out of the flat earth around it. It is called The Grandstand. Lots of rocks are sprinkled around, but we didn't see any that moved. We did see their tracks and it is easy to imagine that they could slip around on this lake bed when it is wet, just like how your water glass will slide around on a slick tabletop when there is condensation on it.

We had a long slow drive back to Furnace Creek Ranch. Luckily the SUV had Satellite Radio and we had been enjoying music and comedy channels out here in the middle of nowhere. We hit a particularly sharp rock and then I heard this whistling noise. Hmmm what could that be? My sister was driving, and I asked her, do you hear a high pitched whistling? Could we have messed up a tire hitting that rock? Could we be getting a flat? The high-tech SUV had all the fancy onboard computer stuff and I dialed up our tire pressure. Opps, sure enough, the right front tire was at 38, 37, far can we go on it we wondered! 35, 34, and falling. It hit 25 and then started flashing. I guess we should stop the car now. We were still 20-30 miles away from the nearest paved road. But there had been a lot of traffic on this gravel road, so we were sure that help would arrive. We had left several cars back at the Racetrack parking area and they had to come out sometime. A car coming in towards the Racetrack stopped to see if we needed help. Yes, this rental car did not have an owners manual and we had no idea where the jack was located. We knew where the spare tire was and luckily it was a full size spare. Also, we were not sure where to place the jack even if we found it. There did not seem to be any indication on the underbelly of the SUV in the vicinity of the flat tire.
The car stopped to help us. It contained UFO watchers! I had read that some folks think the Racetrack is a landing strip for UFO's. The UFO folks were having a sort of gathering here in Death Valley this weekend and soon another car stopped to help as well. As they were helping, we noticed that the tire on one of their cars was also looking a little low...they had a flat tire as well! How eerie!

The next morning, we left Death Valley and started the drive back to Sacramento. Our first stop was the Manzanar Internment Camp Monument.

I had been fascinated with the Japanese Internment camps ever since I read a book about some Seattle families that had been sent to the internment camps. There was a wonderful museum and information center at the site it is well worth a stop if you are in the area. We also stopped at the Film museum at Lone Pine, CA. It appears that a ton of movies were filmed in this area and they have a terrific museum at Lone Pine again, well worth a stop!

All in all, we had a terrific trip and we got back to Sacramento with no other incidents.



Anonymous said...

If that was the "Yosemite" letterbox then I think you were on the wrong side of the boulder.


Kerstin said...

Amanda-sounds like a wonderful trip! Used to live in CA so I did recognize some of what you mentioned. You sound like us-jam pack as much in to as few days as you can! LOL

Anonymous said...

In my day, we had to dig through snowdrifts to find out drivebyes and you were lucky you didn't get frostbite.

But we were glad!


Vicki said...

Bwtween you and Ryan, I am vacationing vicariously through you! Thanks for your colorful and wonderful pictures and descriptions of your adventures!

Crazyolis (from upstate NY)

Amanda from Seattle said...

Yeah, it's kind of difficult when you cannot see the green bush beside the boulder :-)