“Welcome to Death Valley Days. The driver is either missing or he’s dead.” Ronald Reagan
Carol writes: Fellow baby boomers will no doubt fondly remember “Death Valley Days,” one of our childhood’s longest running TV westerns with stories and legends set in and around Death Valley. Ronald Regan was one of the show’s more notable hosts back in the mid-1960s in the days before he entered politics. For the past several months, we had eagerly been looking forward to nine days in December when we would camp in the park and experience our own “Death Valley Days.”
Death Valley National Park is truly a land of extremes and holds the record for:
- the world’s hottest air temperature at 134 degrees Fahrenheit
- the lowest average rainfall in the U.S. at less than 2 inches per year
- the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin
Despite its gloomy name, however, Death Valley is also a land of unique natural variety, extraordinary geologic beauty, and iconic western history.
The last time Al and I were in Death Valley was on our family travel adventure in 1989. Back in November 1989… merely by chance… we arrived in Death Valley at the start of the annual Forty-Niners Encampment with hundreds of campers in the dirt fields of Stovepipe Wells.
It was like a modern-day version of a wagon train, and I remember this experience so vividly as a fun-filled time of camaraderie with a heavy dose of mountain music, cowboy poetry, square dancing, etc. A sample from our journal from 26 years ago reads as follows:
“…The musicians we heard last night moved their trailers closer to us and we could enjoy their music from our trailer. The kids took lawn chairs over to their encampment and listened to the music until quitting time…”
Ah, the memories!
Fast-forward 26 years… From our base camp in Furnace Creek, we planned to explore the intriguing sights of Death Valley and savor the history, this time at a much slower pace.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is an immense expanse of nearly pure white table salt up to 5 feet thick. A stroll out onto the salt expanse was surreal.
Around 2000 years ago, a steam-explosion created Ubehebe Crater, a 500-foot deep crater with a diameter of ½ mile.
Despite the chilly temperature, it was a picture-perfect day, so we bundled up and headed out for a hike around the rim.
It must have been “Crater Sirens” that lured Al to hike 500 feet down to the bottom of the crater.
Nature’s rock bridges always make me wonder how this ever occurred naturally.
DEVIL’S GOLF COURSE
Rock salt that has been eroded by wind and rain created a “golf course” that was so sharp and jagged that only the devil could play here.
Some of the neatest hikes in Death Valley are into its stunning water-carved canyons, and Mosaic Canyon is a popular choice.
MESQUITE SAND DUNES
Poor photography is impossible on the sand dunes.
On our first night in Death Valley, we took in a ranger-led star party out on these dunes after dark. As luck would have it, the Earth was approaching the Geminids, one of the best meteor shows of the year. This kind of celestial event is especially dramatic in places with exceptional dark skies, like those found in Death Valley. For the next two nights we oohed and aahed at the awesome Geminids meteor shower.
This 26-mile drive on a dirt road starts in the mining ghost town of Rhyolite and meanders through Titus Canyon to Death Valley. Rhyolite was neater than we had remembered from our visit in 1989, or maybe it was just that we had more time to linger over photos…like the old Union Pacific railroad depot,
the skeletal remains of the town bank,
and the old schoolhouse with its graffiti-carved walls.
The open end of Titus Canyon was spectacular in its deserted remoteness.
As the canyon narrowed during the last few miles,
Our hike in Golden Canyon turned out to be our most memorable day. It was another heavenly day with azure blue skies above canyon grandeur.
The gold-colored canyon walls yielded to the awesome umber walls of the “Red Cathedral.”
We opted to go all the way to the high point of the trail,
where we experienced the grandest view of Death Valley that we had ever seen.
Couldn’t have picked a more perfect lunch spot…
What made the experience even more memorable was a neat conversation at the top (and during the hike back down) with another hiker, a travel-loving guy named Jerry from New Jersey.
This scenic drive is best appreciated in late afternoon light when the low angle of the sun is especially stunning against the minerals of the multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills.
HARMONY BORAX WORKS
The Harmony Borax mining company was famous for its 20-mule teams that transported refined borax from the harvesting site on the Death Valley floor to rail lines 165 miles away. If memory serves me, Boraxo was a sponsor of the TV program “Death Valley Days.”
FURNACE CREEK GOLF COURSE
Yes, Death Valley National Park has a golf course! Al couldn’t resist playing 18 holes on the shortest day of the year in the world’s lowest golf course.
He has no explanation for how he managed to lose a ball in water at Death Valley...
FINAL THOUGHTS: I was touched by the memory of the first white men who entered Death Valley by wagon train in 1849, searching for a shorter route to the California gold fields. Under dreadful conditions, these lost and desperate pioneers entered Death Valley on Christmas Eve. For us, it would be Christmas Eve in just a few short days, so maybe that is why their sad story hit a nerve with me.
Our 9-day experience in Death Valley was all that we had hoped for—so many new memories… and fond remembrances of another time. The natural features of the park were more spectacular than we had remembered when our family stumbled upon the 40th Forty-Niner Encampment in 1989. In present-day Death Valley National Park, the Forty-Niner Encampment for 2015 had just concluded a month ago, but I swear in the quiet of a late afternoon sunset, if I closed my eyes, I could still hear their faint banjo music…and even imagined I saw an original 49er along the boardwalk at Salt Creek.