Into the furnace

Deserted in Death Valley

We started our descent from the Sierra Nevada mountains in desperate need of fuel. A combination of our Mustang’s thirsty engine and the constant hilly terrain meant we were achieving truly horrendous fuel economy. We’d almost run the tank dry but luckily found a fuel station just in time.

Reaching Death Valley involved a long ‘U’ route around the Sierra Nevada mountains, as the Tioga mountain pass that shortcuts East from Yosemite is snowed under until late Spring.

The initial descent was easier said than done. Random road closures on our way down meant we doubled back on ourselves frequently. Initially we weren’t too concerned as it provided an opportunity to admire the mountainous views, but we grew increasingly concerned at our slow progress as we were scheduled to run out of daylight by the time we reached Death Valley.

Finally, our pace picked up as we joined Highway 99 at Merced. The highway drive was dull and I was quite happy to be in the passenger seat. The passing views were of vineyards, and almond and olive plantations. We pulled off the highway briefly in the hope that we could help ourselves to California’s finest almonds, but sadly the fruits weren’t anywhere near ripe (that didn’t stop me from storing some in the glovebox in the hope that they would magically ripen up, but in reality, they just went mushy and smelly).

They’re almonds..apparently

We stopped for lunch at a raw vegan cafe in Fresno that we spotted via Happy Cow. This proved to be a mistake – the bitter health juices and cauliflower tacos (you read that right) were a bit too much for us! We satisfied our stomachs a bit further down the highway at a Taco bell, with some nachos and industrialised guacamole (it really tasted tragic).

The look on Nishay’s face says it all

The landscape became increasingly warm and arid as we approached the Mojave Desert. With one last stop for fuel and a fond farewell to urbanisation and mobile phone signal, we headed north on highway 395 towards Death Valley.

Sunlight was rapidly fading as we drove along the endlessly straight highway into the middle of nowhere. Just after dusk we began the utterly incredible descent into Panamint valley. It felt as though I was flying an aircraft, such was the steepness of the decent and the vast vista of the valley below. I couldn’t fully appreciate the view as I was tackling the windy roads with rigour – we had become increasingly alarmed at the total lack of light and human civilisation around us.

After traversing the eastern wall of Panamint Valley, we finally arrived at Stovepipe Wells, one of the only hotels in Death Valley. The temperature gauge rose 12 degrees as we descended and it hit 33 degrees Celsius as we stepped out of the car.

If only the car could drive itself..

We were truly exhausted after a 10-hour, 400-mile journey, and couldn’t think of anything other than devouring a hearty meal before calling it a night early. Unfortunately, that hearty meal was nowhere to be found.

After a queue in the only on-site restaurant mulling over a depressingly meaty menu, we politely asked the waiter if the chef would consider making something special for us. To my astonishment, the waiter flatly refused and said ‘we’re not that kind of restaurant’ and ‘there is no chef’. Err..a restaurant without a chef? I didn’t press the point but suspect they’re giving their microwave quite a workout.

We eventually munched on a couple of sides before calling it a night. We quickly addressed Nishay’s complaint about a long-antenna insect in his bed, and I was quick to remind him that I’d happily take one of those over any of the resident rattlesnakes!

Furnace Creek

Death Valley sits inside a basin below sea level and surrounded by mountains. There’s an almost complete lack of vegetation and subsequently the heat is incredibly intense. In fact, the valley frequently records the hottest temperature on Earth at a barmy 56 degrees Celsius. Although it wasn’t anywhere near this hot as we stepped outside the following morning, it’s the absence of any wind that makes the temperature so unbearable. With the car’s roof down our skin was literally burning before our eyes.

The main sights in Death Valley are all located in a cluster and thankfully the driving required is minimal.

Our first stop was at the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Walking up and around the dunes was sweaty work so we didn’t venture too far, and I gave up on trying to photograph a dune without footprints.

The Mesquite sand dunes

We continued onwards to Furnace Creek, a tiny village with a few amenities for tourists. For about half an hour we mulled around a nice little visitor’s centre with an explanation of the geographical, geological and cultural background of Death Valley. There’s a short film in the auditorium along similar lines, including interviews with some of the aborigines who still inhabit the valley.

Furnace Creek visitor centre

To escape the mid-day sun, we stopped early for lunch at the only café around which unfortunately was a disaster. Our culinary experience in the region was already pretty dire to say the least, but even then, I didn’t expect to find pieces of plastic film inside my stale burrito. We were refunded our money and munched only on bananas, energy bars and crisps for the rest of the day.

Devil’s golf course

Our next stop was Badwater basin, which is officially the lowest point in North America at minus 86 metres below sea level. We walked half a mile into the salt flats with nothing but a sea of white hexagonal saucers around us, amidst the searing heat haze. It was only a short walk but we toiled and sweated profusely. Away from the car it was truly eye-opening how vulnerable we were when exposed to the elements: a day or two stuck here can easily be fatal.

Badwater basin

A view over the salt flats

Just up the road we reached Devil’s Golf Course, a vast field of rocky salt minerals. The terrain is rough so the area isn’t walkable without a guaranteed broken ankle. Also, it definitely wouldn’t make an ideal golf course for you or me, but full credit to whoever named these places (there’s even a ‘Hell’s Gate’!). Any lost passer-by might double-take at the names on some of the road signs, but to the local’s they just know them all to be synonyms of ‘bloody hot’!

Devil’s Golf Course

Nishay wasn’t best pleased when I directed him towards our next destination. The gravel road towards our next short hike was so rough and rocky that I was sure a puncture was inevitable. Luckily, I was wrong and we eventually arrived at the Natural Bridge trail that took us through a rocky canyon to…well, a natural bridge formation. There’s not too much else to see here but it was quite funny to watch an elderly American couple stare completely transfixed at the bridge for 20 minutes. There’s also a lovely view towards the valley from here.

The Natural Bridge

A spectacular view of the valley before beginning our bumpy descent

Another bumpy ride and we arrived at Artiste’s Pallete, an intriguing colourful collection of rocks formed by oxidation and chemical weathering. More fun though was the drive down Artist’s drive – a one-way, newly resurfaced undulating track through the desert which we felt just had to be taken at rollercoaster speed in our Mustang.

Artist’s Drive

Just before sunset we reached our final stop at Zabriskie Point. We hoped to get a panoramic view of the valley from the observation point but the sunlight neutralised the view somewhat. It was still enjoyable to sit on a ledge here and appreciate all of the natural formations that surrounded us.

Zabriskie Point

After a long and exhausting day, we headed back to Stovepipe Wells for the evening.

Deserted but not defeated 

Our experience in Death Valley proved to be the most challenging chapter in our trip. For over two days we were completely cut-off from the outside world without mobile phone signal or Wi-Fi. We weren’t able to do our regular online research, so instead relied on the cheery advice from the locals and our own hopeless navigation skills. Of course, in the intense heat and with constantly grumbling stomachs, our frustration often got the better of us. But exploring one of the most hostile environments on Earth was bound to be a challenge and in that respect our experience was definitely authentic! After all, there’s no adventure without a challenge.

We weren’t always this smiley!

Amidst the occasional flaring of tempers, our time in Death Valley was an incredible experience. The feeling of complete desolation with no one around for dozens of miles gave us quite an adrenaline rush. I’ve been fortunate to visit many spectacular natural sights around our planet, but Death Valley offered an entirely new dimension of barren beauty that I had never encountered before, with striking scenery that I’ll remember forever.


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