Death Valley will kill you, but only if it can find you. You have to keep moving to stay alive.
We’re hitting a groove in 10T-iversary. We can set and break camp in less than 30 minutes. We can prepare nutritious meals from ingredients in 2 coolers and a box on a propane stove with 2 pots, 2 plates, 2 bowls and 2 sporks. We make coffee in a Bodum French Press. We can find an unadvertised $5 shower. That’s only $2.50 a shower if you can remember the gate code from the day prior. We stumble into a 24/7 Denny’s with Wi-Fi inside a Billy Bob Thornton casino. We don’t hit the jackpot unless you count the spicy fries as a win. Fortune smiles on our timing finding a first come first serve campground 5,000 feet above the baking mud of Badwater Basin. Camped on the elevated plateau site only accessible with 4WD low, we binge watch the live streaming episodes of “scramble to find a site before the sun sets” reality show. Mostly we’ve discovered that we know how to scramble when conditions shift.
In Death Valley, the interesting stuff is in the hellaciously hot offshoots around sea level – geodesic salt beds, pastel chalk mountains and birdseye basin overlooks – places where convenient camping is punishing. To beat DV, we devised a mission and retreat plan; see the good stuff before the hottest sun then retreat to the mountains to recover.
There is a solid strip of white at the base of the almost every mountain drive by in the desert. You can see it, but you can’t access it for a close up encounter. At the Badwater Basin trail, we walked a mile over lace patterned salt to see the geodesic patterns formed from an ancient recipe of salt, mud and rain. It was way hot, blow you over windy and we were wearing silly hats, but that’s what you do when you’re curious. Sheri asked how the shapes are created but the educational placards didn’t say, so we debated a few possibilities and landed on UFO’s, but we plan to look that up if we ever have internet service again.
Artist’s Palette is a lovely 5 mile drive through mountains made of all the pastels in a box of crayons. Zabriskie Point is an erosional overlook of Death Valley according to the map, which we bailed on to pursue Wildrose, a campground high in the mountains with 18 miles of curvy ascent around hairpin turns.
At the end of Emigrant Canyon, at an elevation of 4500 ft MSL, the scorching salt flats are a world away. Cut into the canyon walls, Wildrose Camp is respite for those who make the journey. All the camp sites at Wildrose are good, but ours was epic. We called it our 5th floor walk-up, because the 100 feet of deeply rutted and steep dirt and rock was the only way to get there.
We cooked homemade sweet potato chili while the setting sun spit dragon fire across the sky. Putting on a fleece and lighting a fire as the temperatures dropped into the 50’s was sensational. While there are only two dozen marked sites at Wildrose with all occupied by sunset, latecomers were not turned away. More than a dozen tenters, car sleepers, Cruise America RV renters and Power Wagon Overlanders wedged in for the night. We need more Wildrose in our National Parks.
The next morning we returned to Stovepipe Wells for gas and a shower, where the basin was getting even with anyone who dared to go outside their car. Visibility was 1/4 mile in blowing sand. Tourists at the camp store were begging the Ranger, “what are we supposed to do? What is there to see?” Survive and head to the mountains. Most days in Death Valley that is all you can do. We had played with fire and got away with it. Time to take our winnings off the table.
Death Valley and Great Basin NP are not too far apart geographically or spiritually. Both are some seriously inhospitable land that sees little water. We exited Death Valley through Mud Canyon to the north east. Outside of the park entrance, the mining town turned casino haunt of Beatty, NV was our first chance to connect to the internet leaving the park. Scanning for open wifi with our phones, we picked up a signal for Denny’s Guest Wifi buried deep within a casino. It had been a long morning, who couldn’t use an order of Denny’s fries?
Working in a booth sized for fifth graders, we posted blogs, traded stock, sent emails, checked on the weather, read the news and most likely had our online identities stolen by the creepy guy in the booth in the corner. We had enough internet to determine that Great Basin was calling for afternoon snowfall with overnight temperatures in low 20’s. We love Great Basin, but not that much.
Since we don’t travel with reservations, it was easy enough to change up the plan and head south. The Arizona Strip was reporting mild weather if a bit windy; better than snow. 90 Minutes north east of Vegas on I-15 is a BLM campground perched high on the canyon rim above the Virgin River, the same river that flows out of Zion National Park.
A steady breeze above competed with roaring river below for awesome sound effects. Somehow we must have learned something, because the tent went up in 5 minutes in gusty winds on a picture perfect site overlooking the canyon. Maybe the tent was not so bad in the wind all along. Maybe it was us. Maybe we just didn’t know what we were doing. Nah! We are getting a new tent. This one has bent poles.