A Three Day Adventure
Las Vegas - Death Valley - And More
Text and photos By Tab Hauser
After a few days in Vegas we were ready for a change, and decided to head out to Death Valley to explore.
We wanted to drive our Jeep Wrangler off the main roads in Death Valley and hit the legal 4 wheel drive trails in the park. Anxious to get an early start, we hopped in our Jeep and headed North on Route 95.
In Beatty we got a map and talked to a park ranger who advised us that some of the 4 WD trails were closed due to the August flood and wet winter. She said that the flowers in the park were a few weeks past peak in the areas we had planned to visit.
With the news of the road closings we had to change plans. Instead of driving on the Titus Canyon Road a (4X4 trail) we headed back up Route 95, which took another 40 minutes, and made a left at Scotty’s Junction, heading West past Scotty’s Castle to see the Race Track (Click to See Map for directions). Along the way we found an interesting display of wildflowers.
Past Ubehebe Crater the pavement ends; you must continue on the unpaved road to the Race Track. The Race Track is a strange place where large rocks seem to wander about - yet no one sees them move. The rocks move at a very slow pace due to wind action and the slow depression of the lake bed surface crushing down, allowing them to move forward. It is said you can see the trails the rocks leave behind as they slide around the dry lake bed. Rocks that fall off the nearby hills and wander about are occasionally stolen by people who believe them to be mystical objects.
We saw rocks ranging in size from ten inches or perhaps a couple of pounds, to rocks a couple feet long weighing over ten pounds. We didn’t see any trails behind them indicating movement. The lake bed was hard and full of cracks. When you pushed your fingers on the corners of the cracks gently it disintegrated into soft sand. I suspected there was just too much moisture recently and that was the possible reason that we did not see any trails indicating the rocks had moved. The top layer of the lake bed was too fragile. The water in the lake bed may also have obscured the tracks. (There had been water in the southern part of the lake I was told.)
On the way back from the Race Track we picked up the pace a bit and were making good time when suddenly I heard the hissing sound of air rushing out of my rear tire. Changing the tire turned out to be an event when we realized we had the tire iron to loosen the lugs and the jack for propping up the Jeep but nothing available to insert in the jack. Fortunately a wonderful group of people in three vehicles came to the rescue with the missing piece needed, as well as lots of helpful ideas.
The last ten miles we slowed down a bit in an effort not to get any more flats. At the end of the trail, where the road is paved, we stopped and took a look at Ubehebe Crater. This pretty place would have made a great hike had it not been so late in the day with 40 m.p.h. winds blowing. We simply took a few pictures with the promise to hike its rim someday.
From Ubehebe we continued South to the two-way section of Titus Canyon Road. From the sign it was a three-mile drive on the gravel road to the entrance of Titus Canyon. At the mouth of the canyon the road was barricaded. Normally you can drive about 25 miles one-way from Beatty through Titus Canyon to this point. After parking the car we walked into the narrow canyon for about a quarter of a mile. It is easy to see why this is one way. The canyon is not really wide enough for two cars. There are also blind spots coming around the turns with no place to pull over. If you take Titus Canyon Road from Beatty when it opens to traffic, remember it is for higher clearance and 4WD vehicles. What we did see of Titus Canyon Road was impressive enough that we want to come back. Perhaps next year.
The last leg of Day 2 was an eerie one. From the top of Titus Canyon Road we were able to see the valley below. In the valley we saw a sandstorm kicking up in the distance as the sun was slowly fading away. Upon seeing the sandstorm, we decided that we should head directly to our cabin in Furnace Creek. We drove for forty minutes directly into a headwind of forty m.p.h. with higher gusts.
The soft top on the Jeep rattled away with the gusts, and the Jeep shimmied now and then. At the same time, we were being blasted with fine sand or dust. As the sun lowered into the mountains behind us we took several blasts of sand that blinded us. As I said earlier, it was eerie. I felt like I was driving in a snowstorm back home. The only difference was the road was not slippery and the temperature was not cold. When we did make it to Furnace Creek, the first thing we did was get some gas because we were pretty low. Stepping out of the Jeep to fill up gave me a face full of wind dust. (Note to self: Bring bandana to protect face next time.)
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
On Day 3 we decided to stick with things to see on Routes 190 and 178. It was a beautiful sunny day, with no wind and blue skies. First we headed 15 minutes north on route 190 to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This stop is an easy stroll if you want to see the rare and endangered pupfish swimming about the streams. The Parks Department has done a nice job laying out a half mile raised plank trail over the land and creek so there is no erosion or damage from walking in the area. It is surrounded by some nice rock formations on either side.
The trail here makes a loop and goes alongside the creek for most of the way. We saw a few schools of about 20 to 40 pupfish swimming in the current. The fish we saw were about two inches long and had stripes on them. Pupfish live in some very warm water (112F max). The water they live in is saltwater two to three times more saline than the ocean. The deserts in this part of the country are their only known habitats. The National Park Service brochure says there are 13 subspecies of these fish and that their routes can be traced to about 15,000 years ago when the inland waters were cut off and started to dry out.
Devil’s Golf Course
From the Salt Creek Trail we made a right turn and headed south to 178, stopping for roadside pictures. Small yellow flowers, each no bigger than a dime, covered the ground from the road to the base of the rocky hills a couple of miles away. We pulled over several times to enjoy the beauty of the valley and to take pictures from different angles.
Our next stop was the Devil’s Golf Course. (No, this is not a real golf course. The real one is in Furnace Creek where you can get your guaranteed “lowest score” ever, because you golf below sea level, on the lowest elevation course in the World.) We traveled south past Furnace Creek passing the Artist’s Drive, one-way loop, known for its beautiful rock formations. When we got to Devil’s Golf Course, we realized there was water in it. The drive down is on a flat, gravel road which takes you right to the salty surface. At the parking area a visitor told us she had been here eight times and this was the first time there had been water there.
With only six or seven inches of water above the mushy salt bottom we took our shoes and socks off and walked in. This is as soothing to the feet as you can get. It is also the same type of salt you get in fancy bottles of beauty lotions and spas. Maureen, one of the friends traveling in our group, rubbed the mushy salt on her arms and legs. It was cheaper than going to a spa for a mud treatment.
Our next stop was the Natural Bridge. This is an uphill hike on a dry wash through a low canyon to a natural bridge. The distance to the rock bridge is less than a half mile. There is an ancient dried up waterfall just a little bit further up the canyon, as well as an area filled with pretty Desert Five Spot wildflowers. From the canyon looking down we were able to see the salty, white top of Badwater, which was our next stop.
Badwater, which is located in Death Valley, is the lowest place in North America. Badwater is minus 282 feet below sea level. There is ample parking and easy access to the white salt floor while fragile areas are sectioned off. There is even a sign on the cliff opposite the parking lot 282 feet up saying “sea level” that puts things in perspective. The effect is great. Here you are: 282 feet below sea level on pure white ground looking across the salt floor to an 11,000 foot snow capped mountain on the other side.
A picture here makes it seem you’re not in 85 degree weather, but 35 degree temperatures due to the white environment. One good piece of advice I can give here is that if you are sensitive to bright light, take your sunglasses. I left mine in the Jeep and regretted it on the walk back to the car. Leaving the Badwater parking lot at 282 feet I turned to Maureen and said to her, “it is all up hill from here.”
Badwater was our last stop in Death Valley. We continued on 178 returning towards Las Vegas. The route took us through Shoshone and we stopped for gas and lunch in Pahrump, Nevada. Pahrump has a beautiful view of snowcapped Mt. Charleston behind it as you drive in.
I highly recommend spending at least two nights in Death Valley simply because of its size and the amount of things there are to do there. If you are a serious hiker and really like these places you can stay for a week. I recommend getting a 4WD vehicle so you can see places like the Race Track, The Dunes and any other place that requires driving off the pavement. I do not recommend driving any road rated “moderate” if you are traveling by yourself and you have never driven off road before. Do make reservations with hotels as soon as you even think you know when you are going. Most reservations can be cancelled by 5PM with no penalty.
Red Rocks Park Bonus :
The following day after coming back from Death Valley we drove 25 minutes to Red Rock Canyon Park. This is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas for the day or even half a day. We paid to get into the park, then stopped at the visitor’s center to talk to the rangers about the type of hike we wished to take.
We decided on a hike called Calico Tanks, a two and a half mile round trip route. It was not very strenuous, but still be sure to bring water and a camera! You hike around and in between rock formations to a pond and ledge at the end that has a view of the entire strip 20 miles away. When you reach the end you will see to the right a long smooth surface that is above the pond. Hike up to this place and look out over the pond. You can clearly make out the Stratosphere to the left and the Luxor with Mandalay Bay to the right. Calico Tanks hike is one of the few hikes with a view towards the strip. Most hikes are deeper in the park. To get to Red Rock Canyon go a few blocks beyond the Stratosphere Tower, the northernmost of all the big casinos, to Charleston Blvd. and head west.
Two resorts provide lodging and other commercial services within the park. Facilities are operated at Stovepipe Wells Village by a concessionaire. TWA Services, Inc., provides gasoline, souvenirs and snack service at Scotty's Castle.
Furnace Creek Ranch 224 rooms near to The Furnace Creek Inn, Hwy 190 in Death Valley National Park.The Ranch provides guests with charming and comfortable accommodations in a family-type setting. Situated around the 18-hole golf course. All rooms non smoking.
Stovepipe Wells Village, in the Heart of Death Valley National Park, is Relaxing and Uncomplicated. All Accommodations Are Moderately Priced. The Village Boasts a Pool, Gift Shop, General Store, Restaurant and more.
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