Death Valley 4×4 Weekend (not!)
Looking to escape the frozen winter of Flagstaff, Arizona at the end of February, Matt and Kristen decided they would take the FJ and head to Death Valley – the hottest place on earth and the driest place in North America. Our goal was to photograph the entire trip on black and white film, to shake things up a bit.
The weekend of the originally-scheduled trip, Death Valley received over an inch of rain; more than half their annual rainfall. Flash flooding, mudslides, and complete chaos are guaranteed during that kind of storm in DV, so we decided to postpone for a week to let things dry out a little. We made a comprehensive plan for our 4-day trip. The idea was to enter the park via Titus Canyon, through Beatty, NV. From there, we would camp at Mesquite Springs for night one, then head up to the Eureka Dunes for night two, then down to the southern end of the park via Steele Pass (serious 4×4) and visit the badlands and the big Mesquite sand dunes, exiting the park through the southern route.
Of course, Titus Canyon was closed due to flooding and debris – so from the very beginning, the plan was shot. Taking (boring) paved roads into the park, we camped at Mesquite Springs – elevation 2,000 feet. Temperature that night got below freezing. Between the cold temps and a troop of poorly-behaved boyscouts, we broke camp early and headed directly south, rather than climbing up to the Eureka dunes at 3,500 feet where it would be even colder.
Our plans for Steele pass were nixed as well; it was reported to be so washed out and treacherous that even the “serious 4×4 people” wouldn’t go near it. With basically the northern half of the park (everything at high elevation) either closed off or too cold to be enjoyable, we headed south to a spot that would be warmer where we could relax for the better part of the day. On the way, we stopped in at the enormous Mesquite Sand Dunes and went for a walk to warm up and get our blood flowing. Even though Kristen isn’t a huge fan of heights, she trekked up the second-tallest dune and ran right down the other side, no problem.
From there, we headed to the first available campground at Stovepipe Wells. It being Saturday morning, we wanted to make sure we could secure a campsite for the day before we went off exploring any more of the park. Sure enough, we found a nice spot on the edge, facing out towards the desert and the airstrip. After securing our spot with camp chairs and miscellaneous supplies, we wandered off to visit Emigrant Canyon, the Harrisburg mine, and Aguereberry Point for the afternoon. The dirt road up to the point was a piece of cake, even prius-friendly, but it was a nice change of pace from the paved roads we’d endured so far.
Camping that night at Stovepipe Wells, even with a great view, was generally miserable. Generators ran in complete disregard to posted generator-hours all around us, most of the evening. There wasn’t too much loud partying, but our experience with people in “developed” campgrounds is generally less about people enjoying the outdoors and mostly about generators and people complaining about their cell signal. Around 2:30am, the campsite next to us was all hustle-and-bustle; the father was having a heart attack. Flashing lights woke us up, but the helicopter landing at the airstrip really got us awake. Luckily, it was less severe than the heart attack he suffered the previous year, in the same campground. His family drove off to the hospital in relatively good spirits, knowing he was going to be OK.
After that experience, we knew we were looking for yet another campsite for night three, our final night in the park for this trip. We enjoyed a leisurely morning and packed up the FJ to head down to the Badlands salt flats. Arriving not long after sunrise, we nearly had the entire place to ourselves. 282 feet below sea level, only a week after severe flooding in the park, is pretty much the only place that water collects. Much to our delight, the salt flats were covered in about three inches of water – enough to provide solid reflection all the way to the distant mountains.
After our salt flat experience, we drove back through meandering, windy roads to Texas Springs campground, right next to Furnace Creek. It is (as far as we could tell) the only campground that does not allow generators that is anywhere near sea level. Our final night in the park was significantly more relaxing, though a fair bit more windy.
We’re headed back to the same general area in a few weeks, this time to visit Yosemite National Park and hopefully for some boondocking on BLM or national forest land.