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