With only a weekend to play with, where could a couple of San Francisco cube-dwellers find an exotic microadventure and be back to work on Monday AM?
Death Valley. The name alone does not sound like an exciting must-see destination. It sounds more like a place to avoid. I once was a believer of that concept until I actually spent a long weekend there. I discovered that Death Valley is a remarkable place with all the attributes a desert should have: undisturbed wilderness, rare wildlife, complex geology, historical interest and spectacular scenery.
It is only a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles and, for me, just a 9-hour drive from San Francisco, making it a good destination for a weekend getaway. This desert is home to the dry powder white Badwater Basin Salt Flats, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere that sits 282 feet below sea level. It is the largest national park outside of Alaska and although I was there in optimal Spring conditions, it boasts Summer temperatures that have reached as high as 134 degrees. It is a place where cacti and succulent plants defy the dryness, extreme heat and soil salinity and grow here anyway. I was lucky to see some of this defiance in action in the way of cacti in full bloom. Besides offering some great terrain for hiking it also has mountain biking, horseback riding, golf and 8 ghost towns. My goal on this trip was hiking, but the biking and ghost towns could easily lure me back for more exploration.
Preparation for a weekend in Death Valley is simple. To start you need to choose the people who you want to share this unique adventure with and set a date. Next you need to make your campsite reservations depending on how many people are in the group. There were only 2 in my party so deciding to set up camp close to the car was easy. Trying to pitch the tent in gale force winds and bending the frame rods, was not. But, in the end it was all part of the adventure.
From here it is just a matter of coordinating with everyone in the group to see who has what type of camping gear, i.e. tents, stoves, sleeping bags, headlamps, etc. My camping gear consisted of two lone items, a therm-a-rest and a daypack, so it was quite fortunate that I went with an experienced camper who had all the necessary gear. Packing for hiking is as easy as throwing the essentials like shorts, t-shirts, sunscreen, socks, hat, Camelback, first aid kit, hiking boots and a toothbrush into a bag. I made a point to restrict myself to one bag plus a daypack for hiking. Traveling light is the beauty of a Microadventure.
With today’s gas prices only going up, carpooling seems the optimal way to cut down on expenses. Find the participant with the biggest vehicle and try to get everyone and the gear in it. Limited groceries may be purchased in the park or outside the park in the communities of Beatty, Nevada and Shoshone, California. A good idea is to stock the cooler with ice and food before entering the park.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities in this desert. Most of the hiking routes are either along rocky ridges, cross-country or up polished marble slot canyons and go through multi-colored badlands, past colorful mosaics of dolomite, and through the salt flats and sand dunes of the open desert. Easy to moderate trails like Gower Gulch Loop, Desolation Canyon and Dante’s Ridge exists to get a feel for the terrain. We started off on Gower Gulch Loop that brought us past the Artist’s Palette, volcanic hills that have been colored by various mineral pigments like iron salts, mica and manganese. More strenuous trail-less hikes like Telescope Peak Trail, Wildrose Peak Trail and Little Bridge Canyon are there to challenge you and let you go off and explore. At some point we found ourselves scrambling on shale for some time until I reached my level of shale scrambling expertise and had to turn back.
Dante’s View atop the Black Mountains should not be missed because of its amazing panoramic view of the Badwater and across the valley to the barely visible Mt. Whitney. But trust me when I say to not underestimate the wind factor up here. There are full force winds to contend with that almost made me have to crawl across the ground for fear of getting blown off the ledge. Not a comfortable feeling, but it was quite exciting as well.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is 1 of 5 dunes in Death Valley, are the most accessible and look like something right out of the Namibia Desert. Walking along the ridge and running down these dunes are worth the half-mile trek in sand. I found it to be the perfect spot to watch the sun setting.
We could not help but come across abandoned, hazardous mines while hiking. They are over 140 years old, dilapidated and have fallen into ruin. There are somewhere between 6,000 to 10,000 mines, almost a 1,000 tunnels and holes scattered about and tracks leading away from the mines that seem to just dead end. Of course curiosity took over and we did go just inside the entrance framed by rickety wood beams and as we stepped into the past we tried to imagine what it must have been like mining here back in the Gold Rush era.
With 9 campground sites there is bound to be a great spot to sit by the campfire, relax in the cool air and enjoy the night sky over Death Valley. A blanket of shimmering lights and a great chance to see several shooting stars in one evening awaits anyone who comes. I am ready to be wrapped in that blanket once more.
So, without having to get on a plane, go on a Microadventure and embrace the rugged beauty that is Death Valley.