Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve
After a sad 6-month dry spell of not having the time to go hiking or camping, we were very much looking forward to our trip to the Mojave Desert. It had been 10 years since our first brief visit to Death Valley National Park. And we decided to return this year because of the reported “super bloom” which took place earlier in the spring. We expected all of the lower elevation flowers to be finished, but had hopes for wildflowers in the mountains. We spent one week traveling and camping throughout the national park, and our hopes were met and exceeded. The wildflowers in the mountains were quite spectacular and the diversity amazing. We could understand why the super bloom is typically highlighted at the lower elevation - the valley floor of Death Valley is not much more than rocks and sand most of the time. So when it becomes carpeted in wildflowers, I imagine it’s quite impressive. However, at higher elevations where there is more diversity in plant life, there are also many bushes that break up the blanket of flowers. One actually has to get out of the car and wander amongst the plants to see and enjoy the wildflowers.
We had a great and exciting time in Death Valley traveling the many far reaches of the park. We missed out on Scotty’s Castle because the same rains that brought the super bloom also washed out the road to the castle. Still we took in a surprising amount of the park - especially given how large it is. We purposely skipped over the more popular attractions around the Badwater area, because that was the area we visited during our first visit.
During our first trip to Death Valley we camped at Thorndike campground, which was the farthest campground on the road alongside the Panamint Range. Snow prevented us from reach the higher campground: Mahogany Flat. This time however, the snowline was higher and we camped the first two nights at Mahogany Flat. The last stretch of road required high clearance, but it was easily reachable in our rental car (which was a Ram 1500 - a truck we purposely rented for its high clearance and 4 wheel drive - something we were thankful for many times over later in the trip).
Below the Charcoal Kilns, down to the Wildrose campground and all the way down the Emigrant canyon, the wildflower bloom was strong. Bouquets of pincushion, phalecia, Prince’s plume, desert paintbrush, hop sage, sun cups, indigo bush, gilia, and desert dandelion covered the ground between the blackbush, sage, mormon tea, and cheesebush. Wildrose Canyon seemed more barren with rock walls, washes, and thickets of blooming creosote bushes. But growing among the dry rocks were the endemic Panamint daisy, prince’s plumes, rock nettle, the diminutive desert trumpet, and a desert five spot.
The better birding in the area was around the Wildrose springs, where there was bird song flowing from the willows and cottonwood even during the heat of the day. The springs were overflowing with water, spilling across the dusty roadway. Lesser Goldfinch and White-crowned Sparrows took advantage of the abundance and bathed in the little puddles. Black-headed Grosbeak, Western Tanager and Hammond’s Flycatchers were also attracted to this desert oasis.
One thing we learned much more about during this visit to Death Valley was its long history of mining and boomtowns. Up near Emigrant Pass, we visited the site of Skidoo - a small (or maybe large for standards back then) boomtown back in the early 1900s. Now there wasn’t much of anything left at the site, except for the roads left carved into the landscape and a few mines and cabins on the way in. But it is interesting to reflect on how greedy/crazy people were back then. Then again maybe that greed and craziness has only changed into different forms nowadays.
A literal oasis in the middle of the desert, Darwin Falls surprised us on this short hike. It starts off in a wash and enters a narrowing rocky canyon where wolf willows, stream orchids, and yellow monkey flower grow thick by small pools and trickling water. A leaky pipe ran along the length of the canyon to supply water for the nearby Panamint Springs. The trail brings us to a large pool of clear water and the 20-foot falls that flows freely down the rocks. It’s an amazing place to behold in such a dry area. During the heat of the day, the only bird we saw in the canyon was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher that chattered endlessly from the willows and brush.
Hunter Mountain & Hidden Valley
Since we were at the south end of the Racetrack (a place that I was interested in seeing), we decided to take the 4WD road up the mountains and down into Hidden Valley where we would join up with the “main” road to the Racetrack. The road was very rock and deeply rutted in some sections. We were thankful multiple times for having our large rental truck to carry us safely over the rocky roads and for getting us out of a deep mud pond (larger than a puddle). Thank goodness for the 4 wheel drive that saved us from that muddy situation. During our travels over the pass, we only saw one other car, which was camping along side the road. There weren’t many camping spots to choose from up in the mountains. On the top near the pass, were the best options, but we decided to continue on down to the valley to get closer to the Racetrack.
Along side the road, the flowers were in impressive force. Hillsides were flooded with prince’s plume, lupine, fiddleneck, and brown-eye primrose. Also impressive were the large fractures in the road caused by water erosion. The large amounts of rain did some damage to the roads making those narrow roads along the mountainside a little more exciting. Thankfully we never encountered anyone traveling in the opposite direction - a situation I really dreaded if it should happen. We reached Hidden Valley a little shaken by the road conditions and a little exhilarated from all the wildflowers.
Down in the valley we traveled the small network of roads looking for a place to camp for the evening. Not really finding an established dispersed camping site, we pulled the truck in the triangle of a T-intersection so we wouldn't block anyone (not that we saw anyone else driving during our time here) and set up our tent among the dense brush. Hidden Valley was much more lush with blackbush, brittlebush, Joshua trees, sage, mormon tea, and desert alyssum. The songs of the Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrows, Morning Doves and Cactus Wren filled the desert air. The evening grew windier and cool. Dark clouds appeared on the horizon, making us unsure of what to expect for the night.
I was a little worried about visiting the playa and the Racetrack. One thing I’ve learned many times over is that there are stupid inconsiderate people everywhere and it only takes one person to make a lasting mark to ruin something for everyone. Playas are easily marred when it gets wet and muddy. A footprint or car track through that wet mud could last a lifetime or more. So I went to the playa with much trepidation. Sure enough at the Grandstand (a group of large rocks in the middle of the playa), we could see evidence of people screwing around - driving their cars on the playa, walking on the wet playa and even someone craving a smiley face in the playa. Even at the Racetrack end of the playa, we could see tracks with no rocks (meaning someone kicked the rock off).
Thankfully away farther away from the parking lot, there were more rocks with their racetracks that were untouched. The theory behind the rocks and their racetracks is the rocks fall from the nearby cliff and during the winter are pushed through the wet slippery mud by the wind. Among the interesting thing about the rocks and the racetracks are that the rocks could be “headed” in totally opposite directions. This probably has something to do with the aerodynamics of the rock - it can be pushed one way, but not the other. Some rocks do look like they are racing each other - sitting right next to each other in separate tracks. Some rocks cross tracks with another and either keep on going or start following the other track. We saw rocks that broke apart (freeze/thaw) during their racing and went in separate directions. Who knew rocks on mud could be fascinating?!
We drove out from the racetrack northward, just as a number of cars were headed to the racetrack - nice to see we managed to avoid the crowds and not get stuck in a long line of vehicles on a bumpy dirt road.
Ubehebe Crater & Mesquite Spring Campground
As we left the racetrack road, we stopped at Ubehebe Crater, a volcano that blew over 1000 years ago (exact time still unknown). The landscape was drastically different. A field of dark pumice rock with few shrubs dotting the terrain. Then of course there was the large hole in the ground.
You could actually hike to the bottom, but that would mean hiking back up loose pumice, which was bad enough when we went look at the little crater up to the right of the parking lot. You could also hike along the ridge of the crater, but again hiking on pumice flat or steep didn’t seem appealing during the heat of the day.
Instead we drove to Mesquite Springs Campground, a somewhat disappointingly small spring and more disappointingly open campground (but what can you expect in a desert valley?). We ate lunch at the campground and I read about all the flat tire problems people have had driving out to the racetrack, making me more thankful we spend the extra money to rent a full size truck...
Eureka Dunes is unique in that it is an isolated ecosystem - separated from all other dunes. The Last Chance Mountains surround the sand island. As such an remote dune, it hosts a number of endemic organisms, including 3 types of plants and 5 beetles (or so I’ve read - getting more information on these beetles is more elusive, while regurgitating the "5 beetles" is easy).
Transmontane sand verbena, globemallow and the endemic Eureka Dunes evening primrose dotted the sandy landscape. We were luck to visit the dunes soon after a wind storm so the dunes look fresh and untouched - all traces of human footprints erased for this brief moment in time. Not all tracks were erased though. Fresh lizard, rabbit, and kangaroo rat prints ran from sagebrush to sagebrush. Tor found a desert horned lizard camouflaged among the sand. He also found a large pumice rock with a worn hole right through the center - a discarded mortar from when the Natives would grind mesquite beans into flour.
The dunes themselves were patterned with small ripples across the sand. Deep pits, peaks and ridges were formed by forces other than just the wind it seem. Perhaps more mysterious than the racetrack, dune formation is something to ponder and just to admire.
(The next day we drove 60 miles out to the nearest town - Big Pine. While they didn’t have a service station, they recommended we go to Bishop 15 miles north to find one. Fingers-crossed on a Sunday of all days, we drove to Bishop, where our hopes were falling rapidly. We happened to drive through the backroads industrial area and chanced upon Perez’s Tire Repair. Perhaps our angels were watching over us. The man working there was very helpful in not only patching the tire well, but he also put it back on the truck and check the rest of our tires. For $25, it was a bargain for such piece of mind. The patch held through the rest of the trip and the rental company was none the wiser.)
Furnace Creek campground & area
We stayed at Furnace Creek for a couple of nights mainly because of its convenient proximity to the nearby attractions. The campground was fairly open - with Tamarisk trees offering some privacy between campsites. I guess those non-native trees are good for something. If it weren’t for the trees, the tent campsites would be on an open sand flat. It was either tamarisk/sand camping or setting up between rows and rows of RVs. Thankfully the campground wasn’t very full and we had a decent campsite with a view across the valley, looking up at the Panamints where we camped at the beginning of our trip. We also lucked out in that it was rather cool or cooler than usual during the two nights we stay in the valley. Typically it could be 90-100 during the day and 70-80 at night. But it was pleasantly warm and not too stuff for us. It even rained during the first night there.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the campground isn’t the campground itself, but what is next to the campground - the Furnace Creek resort and golf course. A 18 hole golf course with green - yes, very green - grass, an aberration that’s about as natural as an entire city based on gambling, can be found in the middle of one of the driest places in the US. For that lush green to survive such harsh conditions those sprinklers kick on every morning. Also turning on in the morning in the resort is the loudest pump or generator that can be heard from every spot in the campground. A lovely melody to wake up to. Add to it the lawn mowers to keep that those greens in top condition.
I think as some sort of compensation, the golf course put in an agreement with Audubon International. The water hazard on the golf course doubles as a bird oasis. The golf course or maybe Audubon installed a platform for birders to look out over the pond. Though non-resort people are not allowed on the grounds of the resort, there is a public short path from the outer road to the platform. Admittedly it was a great spot to see birds that you don’t typically associate with Death Valley, including White-faced Ibis, Osprey, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Spotted Sandpipers, and Pied-billed Grebes. You can also admire the palm trees, green grass, and the outdoor coke machine from the platform.
Furnace Creek is a popular place to stay for people wanting to be close to all the attractions in Badwater (the lowest place in the US). We already “did” those attractions during our first visit, instead we focused on areas were had not see yet. We went to the Borax works - where they processed and refined the borax that the Chinese immigrants mined. Keeping on the mining theme, there is also the Borax museum, which housed a small collection of raw materials that were mined in Death Valley (Borax included of course), plus a few other odds and ends from the mining days including the 20-mule team (which if you count the mules in the pictures doesn’t look like 20). Outside the museum was a collection of machinery used for mining, processing materials, and transporting.
We did revisit Salt Creek to see the pupfish, which were very active in the flowing creek. There seemed to be more than I remembered last time. Hopefully their population keeps a steady pulse. These charismatic fish are entertaining to watch.
Titus Canyon and Fall Canyon trail
Titus Canyon, north of Furnace Creek, was still in full bloom when we drove through. The Prince’s Plume, phalecia, Mojave aster, pincushion and woody bottle brushes bloomed along the red canyon walls. The road into the canyon was steep and windy - another reason to be thankful for our big rental truck. We stopped at Leadfield a small boomtown that lasted for 6 months. All that remained were few buildings of metal sheeting and wood framing.
Continuing down the canyon, we drove through the wash. Clumps of blooming rock nettle clung to the crevices in the rock wall. The rock canyon walls grew taller and narrowed. Soon we were driving through a narrow corridor - smooth rock walls towering high above as our truck crunched through the gravel wash. Then we were out of the canyon suddenly. At the end of the canyon, Death Valley lay below us in an open and desolate yawn.
We parked at the Fall Canyon trailhead to hike Titus's adjacent canyon. The trail took us along the canyon wall. Desert 5-spot, Bigelow’s monkeyflower and buckwheat bloomed along the gravel path. We dropped into a large wash and hiked up Fall Canyon - a canyon similar to Titus with tall stratus on either side of the loose rocky wash. Dark clouds blew in overhead and we felt a few raindrops grace this dry place. Two young chuckwallas scrambled up the rocks as we approached. Say’s Phoebes perched low on shrubs and rocks and waited for their next meal to fly past.
At the dry falls we turn around. It is possible to scale the canyon wall to continue past the vertical smooth wall, but we decide that the 2 mile hike up the dry wash is scenery enough for us. We hiked back out of the canyon to find that Death Valley is shrouded in a low cloud. We can’t image the full extend of the system that rolled over Southern California, over the Sierra Nevada, and over the Panamints to result in the driest valley being covered in a low rolling mist. The weather certainly had been strange this desert trip.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
The next morning we pack up and leave Furnace Creek and Death Valley behind. We go to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge just across the border in Nevada. It had been 10 years since we last visited and much had been improved. A new visitor center was opened less than 2 years ago. It was closed when we arrived, so we walked the adjacent boardwalk to Crystal Springs - much of which had also been redone. Much of the boardwalk was a new addition - taking us above the alkaline soil, yet close to see into the crystal clear waters of the springs. We are happy to see the Ash Meadows pupfish in the waters, not having been outcompeted by the mosquito fish, which it looks like they’ve taken to try to eradicate.
We visited King’s Pool and Longstreet Springs, both hosting pupfish. Longstreet Springs was an impressive pool of clear alkaline waters with an upwelling in the center. The spring was reminiscent of the hot springs in Yellowstone. The reservoir looks like the beaches of Mexico or some tropical paradise. The color of the water a bright aqua-blue. Western Grebes, Cinnamon Teal floated on the waters while Least Sandpipers and Black-necked Stilts poked along the white shores. Pupfish were still found in the shallows of the marshes. They are seemingly resilient for a fish that requires a specialized habitat.
While at Ash Meadows, we also stopped by the Devil’s Hole pupfish. This controversial little population of fish has caused much uproar among the developers, ranchers, farmers, and environmentalists. So much so that they’ve beefed up security since we last visited. A larger area is now encompassed with barbed wire fencing. The walkway to see the pupfish is now completely enclosed in fencing. And many security cameras point out toward the fence line. Yet still this isn’t enough to deter malicious people, idiots and drunkards alike - as not just two days after our visit this happened: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/14/us/skinny-dip-kills-rarest-fish/. Going back to my early comments about how it just takes one idiot to ruin things… Unfortunately this world seems to breeding more and more idiots.
Mojave National Preserve
We capped off all our travels through Death Valley and Ash Meadows with several days in the Mojave Nation Preserve at our base camp near the Granite Mountains. It was a somewhat relaxing stay - meandering through the desert to the springs, watching birds, and finding any reptiles we should chance upon. We had the obligatory windstorm during our stay.
A new occurrence this trip happened the first night we slept in the bed of the truck. It was a very alarming loud scraping sound coming from underneath the truck. We couldn’t see what was going on under the truck, but had seen pack rats earlier in the night. We guessed that the rats climbed up under the car and were chewing on things and could only hope they didn’t chew on anything vital to the car’s operations. On the second night, when we slept in the tent, I peered out when I heard the loud scraping sound and saw a jackrabbit sitting under the car. Most likely the rabbits were getting their salt from nibbling it off the car’s undercarriage. Still it was a disturbing and worrisome sound to hear in the middle of the night.
Despite the somewhat cooler weather we had in the preserve, we still saw a few reptiles - including a long-nosed snake, a georgeous kingsnake, and a desert horned lizard. It seemed to be a banner year for the jackrabbits and cottontails - as they were all over the camping area. Perhaps it was the young of the year that were hanging around hoping to pick up a few dropped crumbs (and to feast upon the car salt).
The last time we camped in the preserve it snowed the last day we were there. Not to be outdone for this trip. There was an impressive rainstorm that lucky didn’t hit our camp, but did keep things interesting on the way out of the preserve. Thankfully it still wasn’t enough to flood the roads so we were able to make it out just fine. Ironically we left Vegas in the cool lower 60s and rain to arrive back in Seattle with sunshine and in the 80s!
Still despite the cooler than expected temperatures of our desert trip, we had a good time. Saw a lot of interesting things in Death Valley, Ash Meadows and Mojave. It makes us thankful to know there are these great place to return to and to know that there are a lot of other places out there to visit as well.