My blog posts are now up to March 12th (day 5 of our journey), and the day begins with a 1 hour drive SE from Mammoth Lakes, California to Big Pine – all on US-395S. Our ultimate destination on this day is Las Vegas, some 298 miles away by the straightest route, but we rarely if ever travel in a straight line……
As we leave Mammoth Lakes it is -2 Celsius and we are 7500 feet above sea level. We are afforded some stunning views of Mammoth Mountain as we head south toward Bishop (43 miles away), and Big Pine (another 15 miles south), and we are accompanied by more spectacular mountain views along the way, even though the road we’re on is as flat as the TransCanada Highway between Winnipeg and Regina.
Mary is driving (she did about 80% of the driving from Vancouver to Phoenix and I’m blessed by the fact that she is not only a great driver, she also loves to drive, leaving me to navigate, take pictures, make notes, and look around) and I’m looking at the map for routes through Death Valley to Beatty Nevada, and south from there into Vegas.
I noticed a well-marked road on the map, US-136/US-190 that runs east from US-395 just south of Lone Pine. It takes one in a relatively straight line across a narrow stretch of Death Valley National Park and out the other side to the ghost town of Rhyolite, 6 miles west of Beatty, at the junction of US-95 – a straight shot to Vegas from there.
But, we’re interested in more than a glimpse of Death Valley and I notice in small italics Death Valley Road. I look it up online, and it is a 72 mile stretch of road that is not regularly maintained and at the 5 mile mark, it turns into a rough, paved road. I’m also told that the 72 mile drive takes upwards of 3 hours and that it will take us through the Saline Valley, Eureka Valley and ultimately Death Valley itself – all part of Death Valley National Park. This sounds “cool” to us and we decide we’re up for the challenge. Besides, what are Jeeps for?
The website warns us to gas up, check our tires, take plenty of water, and be aware that there won’t be any service amenities for the next 100 miles. So, we fill the Grand Cherokee’s 24.6 U.S. gallon tank (I had to figure this out in order to know how much gas to pre-pay for at U.S. gas stations) in Big Pine, go back to the north end of town (which takes about 45 seconds) and head east on Highway 168 toward the junction of Death Valley Rd.
As we make our way across this short stretch of highway we see a plaque on the left that marks the site of Zurich, a long ago abandoned railroad station on what was once the Carson and Colorado line. Traces of buildings can still be seen. Shortly beyond that we spot a yellow sign that says we have reached the beginning of our Death Valley Adventure. A few yards further and there is another sign telling us that this infrequently travelled and rough road we’re about to take is in fact open, as are a number of 4-wheel drive offshoot roads that branch off into other parts of the Valley.
Even though Death Valley is below sea level (at it’s lowest point it is 282 feet below sea level, the second lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere after Laguna del Carbon, Argentina which is 340 ft below sea level), Death Valley Rd. greets us with a climb up through the Inyo/White Mountains to over 7,000 feet. My online travel guide tells me that we are surrounded by basalt cinder cones, ancient lake-beds, and fossil-rich layers of limestone and dolomite.
At one point we passed through the narrowest of canyons where the layers of rock have been wildly contorted by earthquake faults. At about the 16 mile mark of Death Valley Rd, we topped the crest of the Inyo/White range and we noticed a distinct change from the sagebrush-dominated landscape to one of rangy creosote bushes, and bizarrely-shaped Joshua trees.
Finally, at around the 30 mile mark of our 72 mile adventure, we began to descend into the north end of Eureka Valley, which is home to the highest sand dunes in California – the Eureka Dunes.
Just at the end of this part of the road, there is a turnoff to the dunes. A sign describes it as 10 miles of rough, bumpy dirt road.
We take pictures of the dunes in the distance, and decide to move on.
The road climbs again as we leave the Eureka Valley and we drive up through Hanging Rock Canyon and into the Last Chance Range. More twisting dirt roads, and a landscape that is now becoming very familiar to us.
Finally, we come to a small rise in the road, and then below us is Death Valley. Wow!
We descend down a very rough rocky road to the base of the mountain where a sign tells us that we are at Crankshaft Junction, marked by what else, a bunch of rusted old crankshafts.
The road now turns due south and with temperatures climbing up to 26 Celsius we kick up an endless tail of dust as we traverse a bone-dry dirt road riddled with pot holes, dried out stream beds (from flash flooding), and the occasional tumbleweed that blows across our path. It is one long straight stretch of road (roughly 20 miles), and we can just see the heat rising off the ground, and it is only March!
The predominant colours of the Valley are browns, and greens, but every so often, we’d be surprised to see a cactus in bloom, wearing a subtle shade of red.
We didn’t encounter any rattlesnakes or coyotes, nor did we find any old animal skulls lying along the side of the road. What we did see was a whole lot of parched and cracked earth, and on three separate occasions and off to the side, we spotted “dust devils” (also known as dust whirls). They are basically mini-tornados or whirlwinds that in our case didn’t amount to much and probably weren’t more than a few metres wide. They apparently form as a swirling updraft under sunny conditions during fair weather – exactly we had on this day.
During our entire time in Death Valley, we only encountered one other car. We were awestruck at the vastness of it – untouched, uninhabited, and in an eerie kind of way, quite beautiful.
We finally reached the end of our 3 hour trip at a junction with a paved road (yay!) that directed us to head 3 miles west to Ubehebe Crater.