Day 2 (April 8, 2017 – Lone Pine, California): “Resetting Expectations”
It was about 6:25am when we awoke. In looking out the window of our motel room, the weather looked a bit more benign than it did yesterday. It was also quite bright outside though there were still clouds lingering around in the direction of the mountains. So clearly I knew that today wasn’t going to be the day to sneak in an early visit to the Alabama Hills or something like that before heading on over to Death Valley. Instead, after having brekkie and getting our stuff together, we’d be carpooling in Mom’s car and going to Death Valley together as one big happy family!
That said, with all the people needing to get ready, I spent some time taking pictures back towards the Sierras even though there were clouds shrouding the fresh snow on their peaks. As I was exploring the property for a bit, I noticed there was a decent spot to view the skyline from an open field to at least get away from the buildings and somewhat away from the trees lining the 395.
So I took some time to take pictures from this spot while the rest of the family was still doing their errands. I wasn’t too happy about the late start, but I figured that with more people you bring along in a trip, the slower things take. But the flip side was that more people get to share in the experiences in real time instead of stories they can’t relate to. So that’s one of the ultimate catch-22s in life. Isn’t it strange how life seems to work that way?
Anyways, it wouldn’t be until about 8:40am when we would finally take off and head further east towards Death Valley. This involved having quite an adventure setting up the child seats (especially Joshua’s) in the very back of Mom’s car. The way it was set up before, there was no way anyone sitting in the very back could get in except through the trunk (because the child seats prevented the underlying seat from tilting forward).
This also included a fairly lengthy breakfast as well as Julie getting stuff ready (mainly microwaved broths to be put in a thermos) before we could finally head out.
And so we proceeded to head in the southeast direction along the Hwy 136. The winds already seemed pretty strong as we were passing through the eastern side of the Owens Valley. Dad was fretting about the paint on his car getting sandblasted by this bombardment of fine particles being chucked across the road at 30-40mph. Clearly, any hopes of playing in the sand dunes were dashed by this development.
The drive was pretty straight shot for the first half or so of the drive towards Panamint Springs. I was amused at the coincidence that we were taking Mom and Dad’s new car to Death Valley much like Julie and I had borrowed their new car while they were visiting China back in 2006, which was also a trip to Death Valley. Little did they know that we had taken their car back then to the Racetrack Playa, which involved quite an extensive drive on unpaved roads with some pretty sharp rocks. But in this case, I was hoping to get to the Racetrack once again with this new car, and that was on the agenda for today.
Shortly before the 190 Highway entered Death Valley, the GPS wanted me to depart from the highway and take Darwin Road. I wasn’t sure if I had put in the wrong GPS coordinates or something for Darwin Falls, but I knew that the road to get there didn’t involve departing from the highway this far from Panamint Springs. So I ignored the GPS and kept going.
Anyways, I had to get adjusted to my parents car as their annoying automatic bells and whistles meant I always had to re-adjust the mirrors whenever I started the car (it didn’t remember the previous settings) and I didn’t figure out how to use lower gears as there was a “D/S” button where we at least figured out that the “S” put the car in a somewhat lower gear, but we still pretty much had to rely on the brakes when descended towards Panamint Springs as the road started to curve and descend from 4,000ft down to around 1,000ft.
After passing by the pullout for the Father Crowley Viewpoint, we eventually descended down to the so-called Old Toll Road, which was an unpaved road alongside a dry wash. We were following a slower SUV with a Texas license plate so it took quite a bit of time to follow the unpaved road all the way to the Darwin Falls Trailhead. But eventually by 9:45am, we made it to the well-established trailhead where there were still a couple of spots left in the main spaces for parking. Clearly, this was a popular place given all the cars that were already here.
Out at the trailhead, the weather was already a little bit on the warm side, which contrasted mightily to the cold temperatues experienced at Lone Pine. No doubt, this had more to do with the lower elevation. Anyways, we took off our jackets, donned hats as it was quite bright out, and proceeded to follow the left side of the canyon which provided some limited shade against the morning sun.
Along the way, we saw some impressive blooms of wildflowers, which further added color to the scene. We also noticed water pipes running along the opposite side of the canyon, which made me wonder if the nearby Panamint Springs Resort was tapping off the water to supply its operations. I thought it was strange to see this inside a national park, but then again, I had bet that it was grandfathered in as Death Valley National Park was a relatively new establishment in the mid-1990s.
The pipes would pretty much flank the “trail” as the walk along the canyon walls then into the wash, and eventually alongside and into the creek itself became increasingly trickier and more difficult the further along the hike we went. In fact, the start of the hike was quite dry, but when the canyon walls closed in, that was when we saw Darwin Creek making its appearance. And it was the water that made the footing a little slippery against some of the rocky terrain. There were also puddles, creek crossings, and muddy spots that we tried to avoid since Joshua’s shoes weren’t equipped for hiking (they were high top basketball shoes).
In one instance, Dad slipped on one particular slippery-when-wet rocky surface and took a spill and fell on his bum and back, but since he was wearing a backpack, that was what took the brunt of his fall.
Throughout the hike, I was hoping to see frogs in the creek, but there was none to be found this time around. Mom said she saw one, but nobody else saw any of them. I guess this hike had gotten so popular as opposed to 2006 when Julie and I first did this hike, that the frogs were harder to spot.
We’d eventually arrive at the Darwin Falls at 10:50am. Almost immediately, Joshua and Tahia got into chucking rocks into the plunge pool. Meanwhile, the adults were marveling at how a waterfall like this could exist in such a dry place.
As we were documenting our experiences with photographs and videos, there were a handful of people who made a steep climb up the left side of the canyon walls and proceeded to scramble even further past this waterfall. I had heard that there were more waterfalls up there, but we were content to just enjoy this spot before it was time to head out in time for an early lunch.
Eventually by 11:20am, we had our fill of Darwin Falls just as more people were showing up. Funny how on the way back out, the hiking was more straightforward than it was on the way in when we took nearly an hour just to get to the falls. I guess there’s something to be said about knowing where you’re going that somehow speeds up the pace.
Indeed, as we were making our way downhill out of the narrow canyon and then along the wash as Darwin Creek disappeared into the sand, we were back at the car park at about 35 minutes after we had made our way out. There were definitely more cars parked here as we noticed there were quite a few cars parked along the 4wd road near the sign saying as such.
As we were loading up the car, I was looking at the Death Valley map at the trailhead and noticed that there was a shortcut to get to the Racetrack, which I was hoping to see on a day like today. But I wasn’t sure if that shortcut road was drivable despite us driving in an all-wheel drive high clearance vehicle. Since I knew Julie wanted to have a lunch and the Panamint Springs Resort was nearby, I figured that perhaps I could ask someone there that’s more in the know about the local conditions.
By about 12:15pm, we arrived at the Panamint Springs Resort. There weren’t that many people parked here, which made us believe that we indeed were about to have an early lunch. That said, it was quite windy here and we were eating outside. Even though there was a boarded up window wall placed in the direction of the wind, there was still quite a bit of sand caked on the chairs and tables.
We had to get a bigger table since there were six of us. And as we were looking over the menu, it was clear that we were going to be eating burgers, pizza, and perhaps some greens. I was thinking about Julie and her restricted diet, but it seemed like she was going to test her boundaries by having raw vegetables combined with digestive enzymes supplements.
While all that was going on, I was talking with the friendly proprietor who was discouraging me from doing the Racetrack as it was about a 4.5-hour drive in each direction from this place. He didn’t even entertain going the Saline Valley Road towards the shortcut to the Racetrack, and he pretty much pointed me to the route that Julie and I did 11 years ago when we camped somewhere near Ubehebe Crater and did the Racetrack first thing in the morning from there.
So that kind of reset my expectations of trying to fit that in on this day. He also said that Titus Canyon was “scary” but nice, when I brought that up. He seemed to suggest that I check out Wildrose or the Charcoal Kilns as they might be better activities for the kids. He also suggested Darwin Falls though we had already done that this morning. The Mesquite Sand Dunes was also a logical choice, but with the winds blowing hard on this day, it wouldn’t be a good place to go as we’d get sandblasted. Then again, he did say Mosaic Canyon was also another option.
Finally, he mentioned that we could drive all the way out to Badwater then make our way back along the Artist Drive, and that would put us back in Lone Pine in the dark. All of his suggestions kind of made me realize what vast distances we were dealing with. And since we were staying all the way in Lone Pine as opposed to within the Death Valley area itself like Julie and I did back in 2006, we really had to limit our options.
Anyways, as we were killing the large pizza (everyone but Julie had at least a slice), the angus burger (Dad and I split that one), and the salads, I decided that perhaps we should go check out Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View. I knew that Dante’s View was the top rated Trip Advisor activity in Death Valley so I had to see what the hype was all about.
By about 1:35pm, we were finally back in the car. The lunch was filling, but it was also expensive as I had spent over $100 for this meal to feed the six of us. I guess when you’re the only show in town, the supply and demand makes for expensive supplies.
And so we continued driving east as we drove across the sandblasting terrain of Panamint Valley before having to climb up and over the Towne Pass in the Telescope Range before finally sinking back down into Death Valley. There were lots of cars in front of us, which kept the pace somewhat sluggish. We’d pass by the general store and saloon at the Stovepipe Wells Village before stopping by to pick up a placard to put in and display my National Parks Pass (I guess Death Valley was all pay and display).
We then drove past the Mesquite Sand Dunes which were definitely busy but there was also sand being blown all over the place. We’d continue driving past the junction with the road going north but it wasn’t lost upon me that Scotty’s Castle was closed. I had read back at the Panamint Springs Resort that there was flood damage in 2015 and apparently it was closed for the foreseeable future.
We then continued driving south past the village at Furnace Creek. As we were passing through, we saw an attractive accommodation further up along the valley wall fronted by palm trees. It gave the place that appearance that it was an oasis. And indeed, this must have been the place that Julie saw online that wanted at least $300 per night or so (one of the main reasons why we opted to just stay in Lone Pine instead).
So the drive continued on along the Hwy 190 towards the Badwater Junction, and then we continued going straight past the Furnace Creek Inn. Mom said something to the effect that she might have visited this place in the past, and she kept referring to this place that had a creek go through the resort or something. So that kind of piqued my interest about coming to this place after visiting Dante’s Peak.
At about 2:45pm, we stopped by the popular Zabriskie Point. It had a huge parking lot but it also had quite a lot of cars and people walking on a paved path towards a lookout further up ahead. Once we parked the car, we had to be careful when opening the door as the winds were quite strong.
We all eagerly made our walk up the paved walkway as we were surrounded by golden badlands to our left as well as wrinkly orangish cliffs and peaks to our right. Once we made it to the overlook, we got our shots, but we didn’t stay for long because the winds were a bit too strong for us to have that family shot. We also noticed that there were some people that made it all the way down to the dry creek below, but that was something we weren’t going to do as we still wanted to get all the way to Dante’s View.
So the grandparents and kids went back to the car while Julie and I took our time heading back. We managed to sneak in a couple of people shots before we rejoined the rest of the family back at the car at 3:10pm. I was definitely glad that we made this spontaneous and unexpected stop as we could see why Zabriskie Point was so popular.
And so we continued driving further to the east before heading south along the Dante’s View Road. The road was not too bad in terms of climbing until we got to the very end where the road was too narrow and twisty for cars pulling trailers to make it up.
We’d eventually get to the parking lot at Dante’s View at 3:35pm, where the winds were once again quite strong. It was also quite a bit chillier up here than it was down within Death Valley down below.
The views were quite nice though the skies were a bit on the hazy side thanks to the sand storm throwing up fine sand everywhere down below. Also, having looking somewhat against the late afternoon sun, it also kind of muted the colors of the valley floor as well as the Telescope Ranges, where Telescope Peak was still hanging onto its snow.
Julie, Dad, and the kids didn’t stay away from the car for long given the winds and the wind chill. Meanwhile, I walked along the path following a series of ridges and peaks that I presumed was the Dante’s View itself (though I wasn’t sure which of the peaks there was THE view).
As I went further along the path, I found that Mom didn’t follow me so I was pretty much on my own along with a few other people braving the strong winds and dropoffs. The views from these peaks were somewhat similar to the views at the parking lot, but the salt flats below were in a different position against the backdrop of mountains and sky.
I wound up making it all the way to the point where the trail appeared to keep going but it was only descending from the last peak on out. So that was my turnaround point, which was probably at least a 1/4-mile from the parking lot. The winds were definitely strong out there as it was pretty exposed there.
Eventually at 4pm, I made it back to the car where the rest of the family was waiting for me. Definitely, we weren’t going to make it to Badwater today, but maybe tomorrow, we might be down there checking out that place time permitting.
And so we drove back down the way we came until we finally parked the car at the Furnace Creek Inn. It was Julie’s and my first time there so we were curious to see what Mom was talking about regarding a creek passing through the property or something like that. Anyways, we would pass through a tunnel leading to an elevator. Once we got out of the elevator, we found ourselves in a brightly lit lobby with views looking out towards the salt flats in the direction of Furnace Creek.
We were disappointed that the dinner tonight was fully booked out as it didn’t start until 5:30pm. But they did say that we could squat and stake claims at bar tables where the full dinner menu was also available. And so by 5pm, that was pretty much what we did – we took over three of the small two-seater tables as we knew it wouldn’t be until much later that we’d return to Lone Pine where there was no guarantee that we’d even have a dinner over there as it would be way too late (it was still about 2 hours drive to get back there).
As we were squatting on the three bar tables, I took some time to explore the property for a bit as I gladly took photos of the front of the property, then checking out the Marquez Garden and Pool. Upon asking the staff whether there was a spot where a creek went through the property, they said it didn’t exist, but there was a manmade creek feeding the palm trees and flowers at the garden.
So I guess Mom must have recollected wrong or about some other place. But it definitely wasn’t Death Valley, apparently. Anyways, when I came back from my little exploration of the Furnace Creek Inn, I learned from Julie that the staff was willing to seat us at one of the tables inside as they’d squeeze us in considering that we were a family. We must’ve scored big time because there were other families that were being turned away.
Julie and I were subtly theorizing why they would squeeze us in before the next reservations would arrive. And I concluded that we must’ve occupied too many of the bar tables where more adult customers would be more likely to buy drinks (at a profit). So by having us squat in those seats, it didn’t make economic sense for the Furnace Creek Inn, so it made more sense for them to accommodate us in the main room of the restaurant and free up those bar tables. Either way, it worked out for us.
The dinner was expensive, but we were definitely living it up since it was either this stuff or pizza, nachos, and burgers down below at the Furnace Creek Village. We had ourselves citrus duck, salmon, aged ribeye steak, rabbit empanada, and scallops. The bread was also pretty good baguette-textured sourdough, and we also indulged in some dessert where I got triple-layered chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream that they didn’t charge me for. The kids also each got two scoops of ice cream and they only charged us for one order of two scoops.
So all around, the $220 dinner was a bit painful to the wallet, but the family thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was a good call on Julie’s part to eat here, and now that we were done with dinner at 7:05pm and left 15 minutes later, it was now time to make the long drive back to Lone Pine. The skies were now in twilight so the visibility was fine as we made it back towards Stovepipe Wells. But then darkness took over and the near full moon’s light helped to illuminate the night sky further when the sunlight was all gone.
On the return drive, we could see sand blowing across the headlights when we passed through Stovepipe Wells as well as Panamint Valley. We also went past more sandstorms in the dark when we got closer to Lone Pine. I was a little nervous about wildlife darting out in front of the road during this time, but none came out.
As we got closer to Lone Pine, we could see hints of whites across the mountaintops that I wasn’t sure if they were clouds or not. But when we got close enough to realize that they were snow, that made me really look forward to seeing the Sierras first thing tomorrow morning as the clouds were now pretty much gone.
By about 9:10pm, we finally made it back to the Best Western Plus in Lone Pine. We dropped off Julie and Tahia while also unloaded Mom’s car with our stuff and put them either in our room or back into our car. We also re-installed Tahia’s child seat in our car.
After we both filled up gas at the cheaper 76 gas station in Lone Pine (the Chevron at the beginning of town was like 30 cents per gallon more!), we were all finally back in our rooms at 9:35pm. After having had such a long day, we had no trouble sleeping this night.