Hey everyone,

So after our one night layover in Needles, Ca we made the journey into Death Valley National Park. The first line of the park's brochure reads "Great extremes haunt this hottest, driest, lowest national park."  No truer statement could be made because upon first look, what you see is a vast, dry, rugged terrain.  Upon closer inspection, you find the valley is filled with quite the diversity of life. From pupfish in the shallow streams of the salt beds and the coyotes howling at night, to the lush vegetation thriving in the harsh environment, Death Valley is filled with more life than one would think.

Exploring the salt flats

With that said, the park does earn its name. A walk out into the valley itself is somewhat of an experience. There are places where the ground is so hardened and brittle with salt deposits and dried mud that it almost hurts your feet to walk across it. In other areas, where there has been water, you will sink into the ground past your ankles. The sun is relentless, shade is limited pretty much to the area surrounding the Furnace Creek campground (not the one we stayed at), and water becomes your best friend.

Full of hidden sinkholes
Sunrise near Mesquite Dunes

We stayed at the Stovepipe Wells Village campground, which is
basically a huge parking lot. It's located more or less in the center of the park, but that doesn't mean we were immediately close to much. There is over 700 miles of paved and unpaved roads in the park, so driving from one place to another could very well end up in a 2 hour round trip. The major area near us was the Mesquite Dunes which you could see from camp. They were very nice but at the same time pretty tough to get a decent photo of since most of the visitors like to walk to the top of the dunes and tread all over the well formed peaks, which pretty much ruins them. I took a few shots here the first day we arrived, but the dunes saw a lot more foot traffic as the week went on. I decided my sunrises were better spent around the areas surrounding the dunes rather than the dunes themselves.

Mesquite Dunes

Our first day out we checked out the Artist Drive, which is a little scenic loop through some colorful mountains. On the way back out we stopped and I climbed up on top of the hill overlooking the valley.  To my surprise, there was a nice dustnado forming in the valley. We became determined to walk out in the valley and actually try and have one of them pass over us. It seemed like simple enough of a task since they looked to be only a mile out.

Distant Dustnado

Not so distant dustnado

We waited for a day that we had some good wind
and headed off towards a cluster of them straight out from where we parked. The thing about the desert is that just because something looks close, doesn't actually mean it is close. We walked for about 2 miles and our destination never really seemed to get closer. We got within about 1000 feet of one but after it passed us no more formed so we headed back to the car. We were relieved to make it back to our car, even though it felt like 100 degrees inside. If we had to do it again, I wouldn't choose a black car.

Charcoal Kilns

We made a little morning trip to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns which are the best known surviving kilns in the western states. They are about 25 feet high and were completed in 1877. They are shaped like bee hives and are pretty cute. When we walked inside I noticed some light hitting the wall since they had small windows cut into the backside. I ran back and got my gear out of the car and then did what any normal person would do, started taking handfuls of dirt and throwing it into the air like a madman. If there's one thing I love, it's watching a light beam take shape. It's like being able to see something that isn't there. One other unique feature was that when we stood in the very center of the kiln and spoke our voices were amplified to the point where we could feel the reverb in our chests. We laughed as we recited Darth Vader quotes and I said cheesy come-on lines to Melinda.

Light + Dust = Magic

When we finished goofing off and after blowing all the black dirt out of our noses, we set off for the Badwater Basin salt flats. This is the lowest place in the U.S at 282 feet below sea level. I wasn't really sure what kind of condition they flats would be in since they change depending on the rainfall. Well they ended up being in pretty rough shape so my hopes of getting that classic salt flats shot went out the window. It was still pretty neat to see though. It seems to just stretch on forever. It's really brittle and from what I've heard, really uncomfortable to sit and read on....

Lowest point in the United States

Zabriskie Point

We decided to check out Zabriskie Point, which is a really popular overlook and one of the first stops for many people entering the park. It's without a doubt quite beautiful and the surrounding badlands are rich with colors and the mountain range is impressive. I decided that devoting a lot of time to something that had been shot a million times just wasn't worth it and that my sunsets would be better spent on trying to find something a bit different. This was another example of how I feel like you can really immerse yourself in a park's landscape by simply walking in one direction and seeing what you can find. We like the mystery of not knowing what we are going to see and when you find a cool area, it feels unique and new. Our shoes ended up in pretty rough shape, the salty streams and hardened earth did a number on the soles. Also, don't put your hand in the puddles out of curiosity to see how hot the water is because your skin will become so dry it will continue to itch and burn for the next few hours.

Salty Fingers
A river runs through it.....

Scotty's Castle

We visited a few other areas, one of which was Scotty's Castle which sets in a lush oasis of palm trees and streams. The history is pretty crazy and it's worth looking up and reading if you're at all interested. It was just really odd to roll up to this huge castle in the middle of the desert.

When the time came to leave it was pretty tough, despite being really hot and dry. The park has a certain charm about it and I feel like it's a place you could explore for years and not see everything so I don't think it's the last time we'll be seeing it.

Liar Liar head on FIRE

After our dustnado hunt

Dante's View overlook
This is kind of a normal occurrence at National Parks

 We set off for Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, about an hour outside of Vegas. We got really lucky with camping, as the campgrounds were just about full. I think we grabbed one of the last 3 spots and then within an hour the rest were taken.

The park is probably one of the prettiest we've been to. Another bonus was that unlike Death Valley, you could drive every road in the park in about 30 minutes. After we got setup, we headed off to see the Hoover Dam. Visiting here is kind of hectic. There are a ton a people, maybe like 10 tons of people, it's hectic. Worth seeing but really crowded. If you decide to enter the visitor center make sure you aren't carrying any weapons like I was because you have to go through a metal detector and I forgot I had my knife on me. The guard handed me the little bucket to put all of our stuff in and I pull out a 6 inch knife. Needless to say we were turned away but it did get us out of paying the 8 dollar per person fee to go in there visitor center which just seemed a little obscene anyways.

After we ate the overpriced food at the cafe we headed back to camp. The drive to and from was great. It goes through the Lake Mead area and it's one beautiful drive. After we made it back to camp we were pretty tired so we drove scenic loop around the campground at sunset and checked out a little arch. We decided to visit it again the next morning to catch some nice back lighting from the sun.

I'm going to go a bit out of order for a minute and cover our venture into Vegas the following night. We aren't city people at all. We hate crowds, don't drink, and have a fear of anyplace that looks like a tic tac toe board on our GPS but we figured Vegas was a place you had to see. We headed out around 6:30 so we could drive in a see everything lit up. After finding some parking, we headed out and started walking up the main strip. We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, a pyramid, a roller coaster inside a building, and two versions of the guy from the Hangover movie carrying the baby on his chest both with and without pants on. We also saw some girls dressed as Playboy Bunnies that were almost too drunk to stand up. With the amount of foot traffic there I really wouldn't want my bare ass touching the ground, but I guess that's a risk they were willing to take ; )

We decided we'd go and gamble and strike it rich so we could stay on the road pretty much forever, so we went to the Planet Hollywood Casino. We lost 50 bucks. After walking around for a bit more we stopped at Fat Burger and grabbed some food and then headed back out of the city. It's a crazy place for sure and we're glad we took the time to visit. The lights and sounds are just overwhelming and I don't expect to ever see another city quite like it.

Losing big

So the next few days in the park were pretty relaxed. We hiked the White Domes trail which is about 1.5 miles and has you scrambling down some rocks, passing a movie set from "The Professionals", walking through a small slot canyon, and finally walking among some really beautifully colored rock formations. We woke up early one morning and went exploring the Jumble of Rocks area near our campground. It's filled with small caves, tiny arches, and even tinier rock windows. The caves were really fun to explore. It was like being on a treasure hunt since every one of them is different and unique. The early morning sun provided the necessary reflected light to illuminate the little caves. Some of them weren't more than a few feet high and required a bit of squeezing to get inside.

Another unique formation was Elephant Arch. Sometimes the names for some of the rock formations are a bit of a stretch but we both agreed this one was well earned. It really did look like a huge elephant. Our last night there we parked at one of the 3 lots along Rainbow Vista Drive since you can only park in designated sites. They are trying to re-vegetate the area so parking on the shoulders is not permitted. Of course it didn't stop people from doing it and usually around every blind turn you were greeted with somebody's bumper sticking out into the road. We walked a little ways down from the lot and up some rock faces and then back down some steep drops followed by climbing back up again. After some searching we found a really cool area where the rock colors where swirls of orange, red, and black. Delicate fins lined the rocks, which unfortunately had some damage probably due to some careless foot traffic, but overall they were still in pretty good shape. We explored the area for a bit and enjoyed the array of colors on the surrounding mountains as the sun was going down.

Elephant Arch
Exploring the White Domes trail
I found Superman

We made a little change of plans and decided to cancel our Yosemite reservation for next week and headed back to the Utah area for a little while. Some of the places we want to see are still closed due to snow so we are going to kill a bit more time before heading over to the coast. We will be staying near Zion National Park for about a week and then probably doing some hopping around to other close areas before heading back west. We aren't too excited about the shuttle system at Zion, as it makes day trips tough not being able to have our car immediately available but we should be able to make do. Expect a new blog pretty soon.

Death Valley ghost town


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