We retreated to the air-conditioned comfort of the RV as we made our way out of East Sierras and into Death Valley. I was well aware that it wasn’t the most appropriate time of year to be visiting ‘the hottest place on Earth’. But, this was the time of year that we were here, and while not technically recommended it also wasn’t technically forbidden, so… we made sure to have plenty of fuel/water, and made our way in.
To be completely honest, it was still quite busy, so it wasn’t like we were doing anything too crazy. Or, at least there was safety in numbers.
Anyway, it wasn’t going to be that much hotter than where we’d just been – and the forecast didn’t look like it was going to be any hotter than some of the places that I’ve visited in Australia (Coober Pedy, in spring no less).
There was a busy lookout before we dropped down into the valley, so, naturally, decided to join the masses and see what’s what. The wide open view, with the road sweeping far off into the distance was beautiful, as were the small canyons all around. But, then we started to hear the roar of fighter jets that were flying down and through the canyon below us. The first time we heard them, we thought it was luck – and then a few minutes later they were doing additional passes. Now we sat in anticipation, eagerly expecting more and more passes. We also realised that it must be a fairly common exercise, as there were shade tents set up on the edge of the canyons, complete with American flags standing proudly at attention in the breeze.
Driving here was deceptive, with extreme visibility, and no real sense of scale. Even what looks like a little dip in the road can actually be several hundred meters of descent, and spread over several kilometres.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Normally I avoid paying to stay in RV parks if I can, but today, I wanted (needed) to have somewhere that could provide power to run the air-conditioning unit all night – plus, there was a pool, which inexplicably closed around sunset.
We rested and relaxed a while, waiting for the sun to get a little lower, and for the temperatures to drop a little – which they barely did, with minimum temperatures overnight still hovering around 30˚c.
Anyway, Mesquite Flat sand dunes were beautiful, and the further you walked from the car park and the road, the bigger and more pristine they became. Once again, it became addictive to walk ‘just one more dune’ in search of an even more intoxicating view. The dunes weren’t the biggest I’d seen (the ones in Gobi Desert in Mongolia were enormous), but the setting with the dark rocky mountains surrounding made for a really striking view.
Sadly the sunset was a bit of a non-event, with a feint ping glow fading in the clouds behind the mountains. The problem with having been so ambitious with how far we walked in search of the perfect dune was how far we had to return back to the car park. The warm winds provided little respite, feeling far more like a hairdryer than a cooling breeze.
The sky was disappointingly cloudy, with very few stars visible in the night sky, putting an end to my dreams of some amazing Milky Way photos here in dunes.
We stuck with the ‘late to bed, early to rise’ behaviour again this morning to catch the sunrise, knowing that we were condensing a lot of travel into a very short amount of time, and I’m very, very glad that we had this discipline. It also helped that the AC in the van wasn’t really all that good, so it was hard to have a decent sleep anyway.
There were still a few people out during sunset last night, but this morning, the car park was empty, and, for a time, we had the dunes to ourselves. Having already had a look once, we knew that we wanted to travel deeper into the dunes, and as far away from the car park as possible. It was a slight race against time, with a rapidly lightening sky, and a sun that had clearly risen, but was hidden behind the mountains that surrounded us, setting the peaks of the opposite mountains aglow.
It was spectacular to watch as the light shifted around us, with the shadows from the contours of the dunes getting sharper and harder as the sun finally made its way over the ranges and hit us with its full force.
The dunes didn’t stretch forever, and eventually we made it to the top of the largest. Now that the temperature was starting to rise, and the overhead light blasting away the shadows, we returned and waited patiently for the pool to open, happy with the show that we’d witnessed this morning.
After a much needed bout of rest and relaxation by the campground’s pool, we reluctantly returned to the heat of the RV and made our way further into Death Valley. It was amazing to think that people used to live out here, long before the advent of air-conditioning. There were a few (now defunct) mines, and I can only imagine the discomfort that came with working in such a place.
As we continued driving, we passed through more modern settlements, complete with green gardens,
The problem with a delayed start to the morning meant that we were now visiting Badwater Basin, the lowest point in USA, as well as the hottest, close to the middle of the day. The heat was oppressive, and each time we stopped to take photos along the way felt like we were being smacked by a gust from a furnace door opening – well, like the way I imagine that feels, because I don’t think I’ve ever actually been near a furnace…
It was just after midday when we pulled up at Badwater Basin, which happened to be about the same time as a couple of tour busses. This made me feel a little better about being irresponsible. The downside of this was wanting to get out past the other tourists, to get a better/unspoilt view of the brutal emptiness – who also wanted to get out further than the other tourists, so it became somewhat of a game of chicken, seeing who would risk collapse and heat stroke to have an emptier photo. Distances were incredibly hard to judge, and what I consider to be the ‘actual’ lakebed, with the brilliant white residue, was far further than it appeared.
I eventually won and made it further out than the rest – though, I’m not entirely sure that I didn’t have some sort of heat stroke – same with my phone, which shutdown due to the heat… Thankfully I was travelling with a doctor who was pouring water on my head (and down my throat). I regret nothing, and it was amazing to stand in what feels like the middle of a mirage, with all the distortion from the superheated air on the surface of the ground.
After a few minutes recuperating in front of the air-conditioning vents inside the RV, and semi-frozen cold packs from the RV’s freezer, we felt ready to continue on with the day.
But, it wasn’t long until we were leaving the comfort of the artificial climate, and venturing back outside – to do yet more hiking. At least hiking up the canyon gave occasional respites from the sun, but due to it being near-enough-to-midday, finding shade was easier said than done. There was also slightly more of a breeze here, and it was also slightly cooler/more refreshing, but it was still far from providing something akin to comfort.
We ambled up for a while, falling into the usual trap of wanting to see what was around the next bend, while also being anxious about getting too far away from the van. I make it sound far more dramatic than it was – I felt a little faint standing up at one point, but otherwise, I was doing just fine – other than being hot and extremely sweaty. We had plenty of water at all times.
We acknowledged that making to the end of the trail was probably not worth the level of effort in these conditions, so returned back to the van to continue driving.
This lookout was up at the top of the canyon that we were just hiking along. Had we continued all the way on our original hike, we’d end up here, too. Driving around felt a little like cheating, but didn’t let that bother me for too long, as the views were phenomenal.
Clearly I wasn’t that close to collapse as I still had plenty of energy left to celebrate the views. Not quite the ‘naked female form’ that had become a running joke after yesterday’s hot tub visit (see the post from East Sierras), but I think I improved the view somewhat?
I was still blown away seeing plants that were able to live in this climate, with this small juniper trees existing where I would assume little else would be able to.
I had really wanted to continue further south to see Mojave Desert, but it was just a little too far, and it was getting a little too late. It was also tempting to make a slight detour to visit Las Vegas, as at one point, we were less than two-hours drive away, and I’ve still not visited.
But, we continued on towards L.A and the Pacific Coast to try and shorten tomorrow’s drive a touch.