Exploring the Southern End of Highway 395 – CA

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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! Continue reading

A place NOT on everybody’s “Must See” list – Tecopa, CA

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Clay and rock

After days of exploration and fascination at Death Valley National Park its time to say goodbye to one of our favorite places and move along.  We didn’t have a firm destination, but rather a tentative stop in mind before crossing into Nevada.  We took highway 190 E and at the junction turned right onto 127 S, where we traveled through the expanse of the Amargosa Valley.  We initially hesitated to stop at our first tentative destination, for it was in the middle of nowhere and we didn’t know much about it.   But what the heck, lets check out this place called Tecopa Hot Springs.  We saw what looked like a little oasis up on a plateau to the east, so we turned left and followed the sign.  Our GPS directed us to the first RV park, Petersen’s Tecopa Palm RV Park.  At registration we learned we’d be hooking up to natural mineral water, which means it’s not so good for cooking, drinking or using in your coffee.  Also, since we were in the desert there was no cell, internet or tv.  Hmmm, sounds exciting!  So we decided to stay for the night.

Mineral Water Content

Even if Tecopa is off the beaten path, this town seems to be a snow birder’s destination.  As we socialized with folks during the 4pm happy hour we learned that the big attraction here is the natural baths, local hot mineral springs they claim is healing.  There is a public hot springs administered by Inyo County at a cost of $5 per day, where you must shower first then bathe in the nude.  Oh.  Lucky for us, the RV park had their own  private Hot Mineral Baths, natural hot spring water piped into soaking tubs.  The rules are the same, shower first then soak in your  birthday suit.

Hot Tub

The sign says, “Welcome to Paradise”.  Well, maybe if your idea of paradise is scalding hot water!  Too hot for us…

Our planned one-day stay became three days in short order, as the desert landscape and quiteness got to us, plus the natural hot springs.  The mineral water did not bother us much, nor did being off the grid again.  Tecopa is beautiful and has a mix of rolling hills and desert flats.  From our site we enjoyed a 360-degree mountain view, interesting vistas and more.  This place is no Death Valley, yet it has its own character and is worth seeing and enjoying.

View from our Betsy

The view of Tecopa from Betsy

On our second day we hopped in the car and followed the sign pointing to China Ranch, about 7 miles north of Tecopa.  At the end of a twisting road between chalky cliffs cut into desert seemingly barren of plant life, China Ranch came into view.

China Ranch

To China Ranch we go

What the heck is China Ranch? Well, it’s a family-owned small farm in a hidden oasis in the Mojave Desert.  The ranch fills a little valley with groves of stately date palms, stands of cottonwoods and thickets of vegetation, all amid the tranquil sounds of trickling spring water. P1240476

There’s  a bakery with yummy home made bread and cookies made of dates, assorted dates for tasting, a gift shop, landscaping nursery, a one-room museum

and miles of hiking trails.  Mine shafts abound in China Ranch, as the area has a rich history of mining booms and busts.  Lead, Silver, Gypsum and Talc were the primary minerals that were extracted here.

Date Palms

Groves of Date Palms ready for harvest

We were thrilled at  the assortment of hiking trails!  Off we went  without a trail map (the gift shop was not open yet) or drinking water, thinking we’d be back in less than an hour.  In short, we were winging it and feeling adventurous.

Gold Rock

Gold Rock next to Clay hills

Despite the lack of trail markers, this was really a wonderful area to hike and explore.  It is unique, with an assortment of intriguing scenery.  As we were walking along the ancient lakebed sediments, we saw light-colored clay hills mixed in with darker hard “gold rock” mountains.  We also explored a couple of canyons leading between mountain peaks which ended in very high dry waterfalls.  We could just picture the water cascading down those falls and through the canyons we were exploring.

We enjoyed looking at interesting formations and checked out some  veins of gypsum running through the clay hills.  Then we walked down the ridge and flood levee. Rockhounds would love this place with all the colorful rocks strewn in the area.

Waterfall in the desertFinally, we saw a waterfall in the middle of the desert.  Parts of the various trails run along the grade to the old Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, and we found many of the 100+ year old track ties discarded along the way.  As we kept walking and admiring the view of badlands, colorful rhyolitic volcanic rocks, marshes and salt flats we lost track of time and were feeling a little lost in the wilderness.  The half-hour walk became a three-hour trek, and it was pretty awesome.  After arriving back at the park we availed ourselves of the  mineral bath to ease our aching muscles.  Not for long though, that water was super-hot!

The lack of  quality drinking water in Tecopa, a community  built around natural hot springs, does not deter those who seek a destination off the beaten path. Our spur-of-the-moment decision to stop here illustrated that even though it’s NOT on everyone’s must-see list, that only makes it more  alluring.  It was a stop well worth it!

Here are some interesting things we admired along the way.

 

Backcountry driving in Death Valley

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Several of the areas we had wanted to check out last time we were at Death Valley in December 2011 have a 4-wheel drive vehicle requirement.  Since our time then was limited, we vowed to visit those sites when we went back.  This time we merged those excursions into a one-day trip and rented a Jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek. We think there is no better way to experience the beauty and wildness of Death Valley than driving a Jeep through the backcountry.

Steve all set to go through the canyon.

Death Valley is massive (remember – the largest national park outside of Alaska) with 95% of its area protected in roadless wilderness.  Yet there are ample miles of paved and dirt roads for exploration.  Of the 31 opportunities for backcountry roads we chose two – Titus Canyon and the Racetrack Playa.  We took a fairly typical one-day trip and wanted to share our experience as it might be helpful if you’re interested in going there.

Here we go, lets go !

First off, the Jeep was fairly new and in excellent condition.  The cost amounted to about $300 for the day, which included refilling the 3/4 tank of gas.  Although Farabee’s states there is a 200-mile limit, they are somewhat flexible with that and also allow you to return the Jeep well after their closing time of 5:00pm.  You also receive a GPS tracker in case something happens requiring assistance.

Spotter

Our device to call for help, fortunately, we didn’t need it

Our plan was to visit Beatty, NV, then the ghost town of Ryolite just down the road from there.  Next, we would catch the 26-mile gravel road near Ryolite and drive over the mountains and through Titus Canyon.  At that point, we would exit into the northwest end of the valley and head out the grueling 28-mile road to the Racetrack Playa where the “moving rocks” mysteriously slide across the desert floor.  We had to see that!

Our impressions of the trip:

1)  Beatty – A small town in Nevada on highway 374 near the state border.  We didn’t feel it was worth visiting in a 4-wheel drive rental when we could have done it in our car.  However, their gas prices were a dollar cheaper than in Death Valley 🙂  Too bad we didn’t need gas yet!

Amargosa Valley

Amargosa Valley

Welcome to Nevada sign

Let’s go to Nevada (for a while)

2)  Rhyolite – A beat-up ghost town near Beatty, also not requiring 4-wheel drive access.  However, the beginning of the road to Titus Canyon is near both Beatty and Rhyolite so at least they were not far out of the way (10 miles total).

Glass House at Rhyolite

Glass House in Rhyolite

Rhyolite

What’s left of a bank

3)  Titus Canyon – FANTASTIC!  Although you can hike in a ways from the canyon mouth at the Death Valley west end, you would miss most of the awesome beauty of the colorful rock deposits and backcountry section.  We drove on the one-way road east-to-west over 27 miles of rough, steep, narrow roads with drop-offs.  It took us two hours to navigate, including several stops for photo ops.  The highest point on the road was at Red Pass (5250′ elevation), and the view at the top was breathtaking.  The pictures don’t do justice, you have to be there to really appreciate it.  This excursion by itself is worth renting a vehicle for!

Switchback Road with drop offs

Narrow switchback road with drop-offs

Narrow Canyon

Narrow Canyon

Multicolored rocks

Multi-colored rocks

Red Mountain Pass

View from top looking down

Look, the rocks are ready to fall…

Leadfield Ghost Town

4) Ubehebe Crater – 4-wheel drive not required but this attraction is on the way to Racetrack Playa and we stopped for a quick lunch.  It is a huge crater measuring a half mile wide and 500 feet deep with orange hue fanglomerates.

UbeHebe Crater

UbeHebe Crater

4)  Racetrack Playa – Factor in almost 2 hours of driving down a brutal gravel road, then 2 hours back, not to mention tons of dust!   Probably worth it to go “once in a lifetime”.  I wish those rocks would slide a little closer to civilization!  So you wonder why is this place called Racetrack Playa and how could rocks move by themselves?

Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa

Theories abound, so we had to investigate for ourselves.  What we saw when we arrived is a very large, very dry lakebed with a beige-colored floor.  There are rocks of various shapes and sizes strewn all over the place.  Indeed, as we walked around we noted tracks of these moving rocks along the lakebed.  They have moved across the almost perfectly level surface leaving trails as records of their movements.  A lot of theories have been suggested to explain the mystery of these movements, one of which is that a rare combination of rain and wind conditions enable the rocks to move – some as far as 1,500 ft.

Moving Rock

This rock has moved about 50ft!

Nobody has ever seen the rocks moved.  How cool is that?   The name “Racetrack”  is due to the moving rocks perhaps competing to go somewhere.

Racing Rocks

Racing Rocks

This was a very full day of driving and exploring.  We picked up the Jeep right at 8:00am when they opened and didn’t get our tired bodies back there until 7:00pm.  Definitely a fun experience, though!

Fascinating Death Valley – you gotta go here!

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The sand storm, the wind  and a little shower the previous night did not dampen our spirits, for we woke up to a beautiful sunny cloudless day at Stovepipe Wells.  However, due to an event – “The 63rd Annual Death Valley ’49ers Encampment” – the 12 full hook-up sites were booked for the rest of the week.  So, we moved  across the street and dry camped at the Stovepipe Wells NPS Campground.  For $12 you get a parking spot, no hookups.  No problem, let’s save some $$$!

Death Valley….what a foreboding name.  Why is the name so bleak ?  A group of Euro-Americans became stuck in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California.  They gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there.  Despite its name this place is anything but deathly.  Its geologic history has created a diverse and extreme landscape that is quite amazing to behold.

In less than a year we are back at Death Valley National Park as we promised ourselves, and we continue to be fascinated by this unique place.   Though we’ve been to Wrangell-St Elias National Park (the largest National Park in America), the size of Death Valley (the largest National Park outside of Alaska) is still formidable at 5,300 square miles.  It is vast with its own assortment of  uniqueness and desert beauty.

Dantes Peak

Dante’s Peak at 5,500′ with a view of the 110 mile long Death Valley.  That big white area in the middle is salt, not water.

Death Valley is known for its triple superlatives: hottest, driest and lowest.  Officially the hottest place on earth holding the record at 134 F (57 C), the driest for it receives less than 2 inches of rainfall or none at all and the lowest dry point in North America at Badwater Basin – 282′ below sea level.  This is an unforgiving, inhospitable place but it is remarkably beautiful in its own way.  Winter months are really the time to come here, even the park rangers advise against doing so in the summer.

The park has a long list of attractions, and because there is little vegetation the full display of rocks, cliffs, badlands, peaks, sand dunes, salt flats and more are in your face.  Going from one place of interest to another left us enthralled and awed as none of them are the same and each has its own unique character.  While marveling at all these sights we also got some good exercise, as most stops require a fair amount of hiking.

StoveWells Pipe

Holding on to the Stovepipe that marked the waterhole.

But first, where did the name Stovepipe Wells originate?  There was only one known water source on the cross-valley road.  Because sand often obscured the waterhole spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker – hence its unique name.

Lets explore, shall we ?

Just beyond Stovepipe Wells Campground is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  We were told that sunrise at the Sand Dunes is one of the best times to catch that golden glow from the sun.  And true enough, I managed to catch that moment when the sun rays hit the dunes. These 150 foot high dunes are surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the primary source of sand being the Cottonwood Mountains to the north and northwest.

Mesquite Sand Dunes Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Also close to Stovepipe Wells is the Mosaic Canyon, where we walked through a narrow canyon with smooth, polished marble walls that enclose the trail as it follows the canyon’s sinuous curves.  We observed “Mosaics” of rock fragments naturally cemented together along the trail.  We missed this one on our first trip but checked it out this time.  Fantastic – a must see!

Mosaic Canyon Mosaic Canyon

Further north we followed the boardwalk along Salt Creek Trail.  It is a saltwater stream which is the only home to a rare pupfish which can survive in the salt encrusted water.  A salt-resistant pickle weed also thrives here.

Pickle Weed Salty Creek

If you have only a short time to visit the park, be aware that many impressive sights are toward the south end of the valley near Furnace Creek – about 40 miles from our base camp at Stovepipe Wells.  The key here is to start early to get a good flavor of what the valley has to offer and to give yourself time to drive between all of the points of interest.  To enjoy its assortment of uniqueness is to take time and explore.  We would estimate that 3 full days should be allocated to explore, 4 would be even better.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Here you will see landscape of vast salt flats. Walking on the salt flats you can hear the crunch of the salt….

282 feet below sea level Salt Flats

Next stop was the Natural Bridge, a medium-sized limestone rock formation that has been hollowed at its base to form a span across two rocks.  Getting to it is a half mile walk and at the end of the trail is a dry waterfall.

Natural Bridge Dry Waterfall

The Devil’s Golf Course is an immense area of rocky salt eroded by wind and rain.  It is called as such because it is incredibly serrated so that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”  At first you would think it is a coral reef, but taking a closer look reveals gnarled crystalline salt spires.  We tromped through this strange and rugged terrain to get a closer look at the salt formations and found several holes in the surface with perfectly clear water shining underneath.

Devils Golf Course Devil's Gold Hole

We took the scenic nine mile drive to the Artist’s Palette, where we saw striking arrays of colors in the hills caused by the many different minerals in the earth there.  Note the sea green, lemon yellow, periwinkle blue, salmon pink and purple colors that are splashed across the barren background.  Exquisite and simply amazing!

Artist Pallete

The Golden Canyon Trail was another worthwhile hike that winds through a canyon of colorful rock walls.  At the end of the trail is beautiful Red Cathedral, formed by extremely steep cliffs.  It is composed of red colored oxidized rock.

Red Cathedral Colorful canyon walls at Golden Canyon

Along with its stunning natural splendor, Death Valley also has colorful human tales.  There were several mining ventures that boomed and busted in the 1800’s.  One of them was the Harmony Borax Works, where a 20-mule team hauled borax 165 miles from the desert floor to the railroad town of Mojave.  It only operated for 5 years.

Another story tells of a colorful character named Walter Scott, an ex-cowboy and prospector.  A beautiful mansion toward the north end of the valley called Scotty’s Castle is named after him – even though it was actually built and owned by his friend, millionaire Albert Johnson.  As the story goes, Scotty (a con artist) claimed that he financed the building himself from his secret gold mine, when in reality it was the Johnson’s vacation home.  Scotty’s Castle is currently owned by the Park Service and has 2 very good tours that can be taken there.  They also have several shaded tables which are perfect for enjoying a picnic lunch between tours.

The Timbisha Shoshone American Indian tribe lives and thrives in the heart of the valley by Furnace Creek.

Scotty's Castle Organ Room, Scottys Castle
Harmony Borax Refinery 20 Mule Team

The Furnace Creek Visitor center has recently been renovated and updated.  We encouraged you to stop by and check out their modern and interactive displays.

Next up, 4-wheeling in a Jeep around Death Valley.  How cool is that?

And here’s just a few of the many  striking desert scenery and colorful canyons as seen from your car window.

Devils Corn Stack

Devil’s Corn Stack

Custard Canyon

Custard Canyon

Red Canyon

Red Canyon

Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon

Traveling highest to lowest in one day!

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Manzanar National Historic Site

Manzanar historic marker

One of the things we did while at Lone Pine was visit the 814- acre Manzanar National Historic Site.  This was one of the 10 camps where over 100,000 Japanese Americans were relocated during World War II without due process of law.  The historic site preserves the many stories of the people who were relocated there in 1942 and enclosed by barbed wire fences.  There is a self-guided driving tour (free) and a pretty good museum – worth a stop if you’re in the area. Continue reading