Death Valley – Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek Campground

We were pleased to wake up to minimal wind in the morning. Our route out of the Las Vegas valley took us up Highway 95 through lonely, sandy countryside, dotted with Mesquite shrubs and billboards suggesting we were near Area 51 (we weren’t). We cut south across highway 373 to Death Valley Junction and then made the descent into the valley on Highway 190. This route is a very calm and beautiful way to enter the park, with stunning views and no terrifying drop-offs (like the western section of 190 between “Father Crowley Overlook” and Panamint Springs).

Highway 190 coming from the East is a nice way to go.

Before we got set up in our site, we saw signs saying the campground dump was closed. There is another one, used for the Sunset and Texas Springs campgrounds, but the line was long and the rinse water ran slow. We were there for a while before coming back to unhitch. The Furnace Creek campground has nice amenities and even some sites with hookups. Ours did not, but we were fine. The first item on the list of things to scope out was whether there was still wifi at the Visitor Center. That is a nope. And though both our phones showed 4 bars of 3g, it barely counted. Nothing internetty would load, and though you could text, it took 8-10 minutes to send. So it was going to be another 3 days with little to no service. Oh well, that’s camping for you.

Trick shot with Dory/Not Dory

Right as we entered the campground, I spotted the unmistakable shape of an R-series Alto. Of course, we had to go say hello and make sure we knew the owners. In fact, it was a couple we’d camped with at another Altogather, and know well from the Altoistes group. They were going to be heading over to Valley of Fire next and were aware that overnight temperatures would get below freezing. We traded thoughts on pipes and temperature thresholds and generally agreed that Altos can take a lot. They had an impressive antenna set up for ham radio signal. Richard and I actually both have ham radio licenses, but we haven’t used our radios in years. I started to wonder if that might be a great solution for communication in these no service situations. I wonder where those radios might be….

Gorgeous 20 Mule Team Road

Having a couple hours of daylight left, and knowing that rain was coming, we decided to hit the 20 Mule Team Road. That is another E ticket ride and I can’t decide whether I prefer that one or the Artist’s Drive. Both take you through some of the most colorful canyons in the park, through twisty turny paths that make you feel like you are on a Disneyland ride. All that is missing is the music and animatronic singing animals. 20 Mule Team Road is unpaved, but the conditions are good enough for pretty much any car to manage. Maybe not a Ferrari. Don’t take your Ferrari. It is not a washboard, jiggle your teeth experience, like some of the other trailhead roads. There are tight corners and it’s not like I would recommend bringing a trailer along, but as long as there has not been recent rain, it’s a very easy and fun road to drive. We had a few minutes of sun, which we watched disappear behind clouds at Zabriskie Point. Then it was back to Dory for dinner and a movie.

Natural Bridge (with Richard for scale)

For our first full day in the park, we headed south, toward Badwater Basin. Richard rode all the way from the campground around Artist’s Drive, and I caught up with him at the end, after he’d gotten about an hour head start. I’ve done this drive a couple of times, and it never gets old. The colors of the rocks look very different, depending on the light, so it’s worth repeating. From there, we drove on a couple miles until we saw the dirt road leading to the Natural Bridge trail. This road was super bumpy. But the trail was nice, and only about a third of a mile to see the huge rock bridge. Then we continued down to the lowest point in the park. At 282 feet below sea level, the Badwater salt flats attract lots of visitors. The parking lot was overflowing, and I was curious about Badwater Road continuing south, so we just drove on down the road for a while.

Dramatic desert skies

Eventually we came to the turnoff to get to Sidewinder Canyon Trail. This is a slot canyon we’d heard about, but knew very little of in terms of how difficult a hike it would be. Richard talked to a couple of hikers and read the informational kiosk, and I tapped out. It sounded like a lot of scrambling and a big, technical hike to see the impressive bits. Also, the rains were ever threatening, and a slot canyon is not where you want to be during rains in the desert. Richard passed too, and instead we drove back on up. Maybe some day we’ll think about it again, but I’d need a lot more information.

Mosaic Canyon polished rocks

For our last day, we went the other direction, up to Stovepipe Wells. There we got much cheaper gas than was available in Furnace Creek (over $6/gal). Richard was really excited about that. We also hit the Mosaic Canyon Trail. This is also a slot canyon, but with a far more accessible trail. It is a steady and fairly steep walk up, but those are my kinds of trails, because I’m always fairly certain I’ll be able to get back down. We call them “reverse Grand Canyon” trails. The unique feature of this canyon is how there are millions of water polished rocks embedded into the walls. It looks like some kind of high end, decorative concrete. Then right next to that, there are multicolored rock walls that sort of resemble finely layered pastry. The striations run in large bands, with finer micro layers within each. After you’ve walked about a mile and half up, you come to the “boulder fall,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It is passable by “adventurous hikers” and continues just a little bit before becoming even more tricky. Richard climbed over the first hurdle to check it out, and called it a day when he saw the second. Then we turned around and had an easy walk back to the car. We walked out a bit on the sandy Mesquite Dunes and called it a day.

Mesquite Dunes under heavy clouds

During our stay, we could see thick cloud cover on the surrounding mountains, but we didn’t really get much rain on the valley floor. We heard it on Dory’s roof the first night, but it was never a deluge. What glimpses we could get of the mountains through the clouds, suggested there was a lot of new snow up there. That is all good news for California. Winter in the desert is a lot more fun than the hundred degree heat we experienced in early spring. When we come back to visit, it’s a pretty good bet it will be in December. Death Valley is a huge park and it would take a long time to see it all. So far, we’re enjoying our little dips.

Total miles: 145.8 from Red Rock, 17.4 mpg, 3 hours 27 min. Site 57, no hookups. Dump closed. “3g” but it didn’t do much unless it was after 9pm or before 7am when not many people were trying to use it. Water spigots. Dump at Sunset campground was not so great, but usable. Potable water, but it runs slow.

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