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My "campsite" near Furnace Creek

Wednesday morning I packed up and left Berkeley for Death Valley. I actually had some initial hesitation about this, since the bay was so nice and the drive would eat a lot of time. This is something I had wanted to do since last summer, when I expected to have a nomadic lifestyle for a couple of months between jobs. I decided I probably wouldn’t have another chance to drive there for a while (last time was 2006!) and I should go now.

This was an exciting new look at things since everything was green. Every time I’ve been out I-580 or down I-5, it’s been in August/September when it’s hot and everything is scorched brown.  This time all the rolling hills were flush with green grass. It reminded me a lot of how Wyoming looks along I-80. All of the trees in the tree farms were blooming with white flowers. Also, the last time I was through Bakersfield it was dark and I couldn’t see anything.  This time I got a great view of the massive hills and all the rock outcroppings along Hwy. 58 going to Mojave.

By the time I got to Hwy. 395, it was dark. The Garmin started me off on another road of bones adventure, as it tried to send me down a very unimproved Wildrose road in the middle of the night. I wised up, turned around, and took the sane longer route which turned out to be a very nice road. Some of the turns were creepy, there was no guardrail in many sections, and it was pitch black beyond that.  I knew it had to be a long ways down, but I had no idea until days later.

Hwy. 190 over the mountain into the basin is a deceptively long gradual slope. I managed to overheat my brakes at one point, requiring the need to pull over, park, and let things cool off. I rolled into Furnace Creek around 9 PM. The first thing I noticed was the $5 gasoline:

The two hotels in the area, Furnace Creek Ranch and Furnace Creek Inn were dark and not much going on.  I drove out to the Golden Canyon trailhead and set in to take star pictures and stay overnight.

It was a fantastic night and so absolutely quiet. When I got out of the truck the only thing I could hear was my tinnitus.  No moon, no clouds, sky full of stars, reasonably cool and a light breeze.  I wound up sleeping out in the open on the toolbox of my truck. In the middle of the night I could hear coyotes off in the distance. Unfortunately, none of my star photos were useful. I woke up bright and early at 6 AM to a hiker pulling into the parking lot.

I had read that Furnace Creek Ranch had a little cafe that served breakfast. Much to my surprise, the ranch was much bigger and active than I expected. Not only is there a cafe, but there’s a decently stocked general store ($9 firewood, ice cream, groceries, beer+spirits, tourist items), a bicycle rental/repair shop, saloon, steakhouse, breakfast/lunch buffet, a post office. And wait, there’s more!  224 guest rooms, a 1 megawatt solar installation, golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, horses, and a whole lot of guests from around the world.  It was exactly like somebody took Wall Drug in South Dakota, shrunk it, and put it in Death Valley. There was no problem for non-guests to come by and spend money. If you want the desert experience of Burning Man with the modern conveniences, you want to stay here.

The rest of the day I wandered around Badwater, Devil’s Golf Course, some of the various canyons, and up Dante’s View. I managed to get a mild sunburn, it was awesome. While there was lots to see, by the end of the day it was all looking the same. At night I hung out by the firepits at the Ranch chatting with several random people there, including some off-duty employees and a group of Australians who were touring LA and Vegas via RV. It was a great way to wind down an evening!

Friday morning I started heading back to the bay. In the daylight I got a good look at how far the side drops off the roads through the mountains (sans guard rails). It sort of surprised me how dangerous the turns were and I didn’t know it the other night. Scary.

Next up was Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48. I knew it was somewhere nearby when I saw the Sierras, and after looking at the map I realized it was only 20 miles away in Lone Pine. There’s a fantastic visitor center there, which showcases not only the Sierras, but Yosemite, California’s Aqueduct, the Navy station in China Beach, and keeps Mount Whitney trail reports.

The Sierras are neat because they seemingly rise out of nowhere in the desert.  Brown and tan and bare all around, then over yonder rising out of it all is this snow-capped mountain range.

In the process of going to Whitney Pass, I misplaced my credit card after stopping at McDonald’s. It had slid between my seats without my noticing, causing a scare when I couldn’t find it. I even went back and asked if the drive-thru had kept it.  Eventually I found it hidden in a piece of seat trim!

Whitney Pass road was closed, so I couldn’t get any closer to the mountain. There’s a great view of the entire range from the visitors center.

It was a pleasant drive back to the Bay on Friday night.  The trip up I-5 was nice and fast. I managed to score a uppity suite in Emeryville for cheap thanks to the internet and I fully crashed out for the night.

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