Exploring the Southern End of Highway 395 – CA

Although this is my final installment covering our two weeks of outdoor fun along scenic Highway 395, it’s by no means our final visit.  Many beautiful sights remain to be seen, even after our second stay.  As I’ve mentioned before, the area is not only breathtaking but also provides access to several other natural wonders.  One of them is Death Valley National Park, and we decided to take a detour to it, one of our favorite places in the west!

View from CA136 – Owens Lake and the zigzag Horseshoe Meadow Road that we had driven the previous day

Beginning of CA190

Death Valley National Park

You see, Lone Pine advertises itself as the town located within a 1-hour drive of the highest point (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the lower 48 states.  The drive into the valley includes tight switchbacks and steep sections through Panamint Valley at 1,540′, then a 3,500′ climb to the high point at Towne Pass before descending into Death Valley.  Well, Betsy made that climb up and down in 2012 when we were total neophytes, and this time we left her behind and took the car.

Dramatic sweep of the Panamint Range

Rainbow Canyon viewed from Father Crowley Overlook

From Lone Pine we took CA136 to CA190 for a visit to Darwin Falls, a natural wonder we had missed previously.  The waterfall is located on the west side of the park, and far away from other attractions.  It was actually on BLM land until Death Valley expanded in 1994, including the 1.2 million acres of Panamint Valley.  That expansion helped make this the largest U.S. national park outside of Alaska.

We stopped short of going into the heart of the valley since we’d explored it twice before.  This post from 2012 covers our fascinating trip here, and this one describes our Jeep trip to the remarkable moving rocks at Racetrack Playa and other cool places during that adventure.

After about 30 miles on CA190, we turned onto a rough and rocky road for a 2.5-mile drive that felt like an eternity, since we don’t own a Jeep – no comments required from our Jeep-owning friends 😉

Our car looked lonely at the parking lot

It was initially an easy walk in a desert wash that became moderately difficult toward the end, as we crossed several streams and scrambled some rocks:

How hard can this be?

OK, now we get it

I was underwhelmed when I caught a glimpse of the waterfall.  I was expecting a tall and gushing fall as we had seen on recent hikes, but then I realized this spring-fed water source that runs year-round in the middle of the desert is quite extraordinary and is presumably the water source for Panamint Springs Village, as evidenced by a large plastic supply pipe we saw running along the trail.

The 20′ lower Darwin Falls is a rare and beautiful desert waterfall, I got over my disappointment in a flash!

An oasis in the desert

After the hike we drove a few miles to Panamint Springs Village and parked our car at the sand flats on the valley floor, where we viewed the road we had driven Betsy before.  If you plan to visit Death Valley National Park from the west in an RV, be ready for a challenging hour or so:

The long and relentless climb up and over CA190

A wannabe Forest Gump on CA190

The Sierra Crest above Lone Pine had an afternoon glow as we drove back to home base:

And the following day we packed up and moved on.

Goodbye, eastern Sierras!

Trona Pinnacles

Our final stop was a quick left turn and then 12 miles to Desert Empire Fair Campground in Ridgecrest, CA.  The town had been on the news recently due to an earthquake, but we’d come to explore the eerie landscape at one of the most unique and ancient geological features in the California desert.  The pinnacles are recognized as a National Natural Landmark:

From a distance, the long line of sharp points seem quite alien in the otherwise dead and flat dry lake bed

Trona Pinnacles is reached via CA178, a connecting road between US 395 and CA190, and 25 miles east of Ridgecrest.  It’s within 3,800 acres of federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning access is free and primitive camping is allowed.  It’s also surrounded by many square miles of flat, dry mud with stark mountain ranges on either side.  The road leading there is dirt and gravel, and we drove on washboard conditions for about 5 miles – not much fun.

We wouldn’t dream of bringing our RV out here as these folks did

From reading the informational displays we learned that these strange shapes were formed underwater 10,000-100,000 years ago deep beneath Searles Lake.  Calcium-rich groundwater and alkaline lake water combined to grow tufa formations that now stand as a group of isolated spires in the middle of a vast dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert.  Over 500 of them are spread over a 14-square-mile area of the Searles Lake basin:

Are we on another planet?

We followed a walking trail around the tufas, which were under 640′ of water hundreds of years ago.  Many of the features ranged in size from small-coral like boulders to several that top out over 140′ tall.  The walking trail was fairly easy, and while examining the other-worldly shapes we let our imaginations wander just for fun:

The queen conversing with a masked man

Looks a bit like Monument Valley?

Monks in silent prayer 🙂

The claim to fame here – other than being a Natural National Landmark – is that the pinnacles have appeared in several movies such as Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes, and as a backdrop for car commercials.  But for us the Alabama Hills are still our favorite rock stars!

After a couple of hours exploring the area we left the bleak landscape, but it’s a desert treasure for sure!

That wraps up our Highway 395 S episodes, and we bid goodbye to California once again!

 



 

16 Comments »

  1. OMG, we did a white knuckle drive from the Bishop area to Death Valley. I was driving at the time, with my honey navigating. That is one of the few times I’ve been furious with him. Ever since, I check the elevations on our RV GPS. I’m not letting him lead me astray again!

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  2. You guys have really done a great job of exploring and sharing the beautiful, interesting places along Hwy 395. That’s a stretch of road that’s among our favorites in our travels, too. And you’ve added some new adventures for us when we make our way back there again! Trona Pinnacles looks intriguing…until you mentioned the five miles of washboard roads. 😦

    You as Forrest Gump, LOL! You look so alone out there!!

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  3. What a great waterfall. We’re headed to Death Valley for a week in February with the Lowrey’s, looking forward to really exploring the area. We’ll have to add the Pinnacles to our plans while in the area. I for sure wouldn’t take the rv 5 miles on a washboard road.

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  4. The fall was underwhelming but the journey had lots of little adventures that made the trip worth it…right! Haha! A different part of Death Valley. We’ve never made it to Trona Pinnacles. Maybe one day!

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  5. That is most definitely “Monument Valley Lite.” Love the other figures you identified as well.

    I also love the visual of you two, totally new to RVing and having no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, white-knuckling the long drive up and over those mountains. It’s amazing what a little experience will do for you, huh?? Speaking of which, I cannot imagine driving an RV all the way out there. It’s just so remote. It’s rattling just to think of driving the car out there, forget the rig. Oh well, people are nuts!!

    Thanks for all the excellent information about 395. It’s high on our list and now we don’t have to plan so much of it. I do love it when you do all the work for me!!

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    • We were greenhorns way back then. Thankfully Betsy survived that climb. A police officer approached and checked on us when we took a break at the top. It was the drive down to Death Valley that made Betsy’s brake lining screamed for pity!
      The things to do along Highway 395 won’t disappoint and I know you will love to dry camp at Alabama Hills.

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  6. There’s something about Death Valley that intrigues me. We visited back in 2012 and I’ve been wanting to go back every since and Pinnacles is also a place I’d like to see. Such fascinating landscapes!

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  7. Thanks for completing our 2021 itinerary! 😀 I was just working on our 395 route and had penciled in the fairgrounds in Ridgecrest. I’ll be eager to see Steve’s review of it. We’re hitting Death Valley in a few months (east side — we’ve learned well from those who’ve gone before us in their RVs!) but with this post, we may add in a west side foray on our way by the following year. We’ll definitely need to see those pinnacles! Did you touch the water at the waterfall?

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  8. Did Steve see the Queen and Masked Man?

    That you’ve been through the area several times but have more to see & do is amazing and speaks to the enormity of it all.

    The waterfall photo is beautiful. We like destination hikes and a desert oasis. Can’t wait.

    BTW, the NPS needs to paint you into all their signs.

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