After our night at the El Rancho motel in Bishop we woke up to a perfect day and set off on the long straight drive through the Owens Valley and through the towns of Big Pine, Independence and Lone Pine, all desert towns sounding like sets for John Wayne movies.
The land was flat and dusty and flanked on either side with rugged mountains with the higher peaks topped with a touch of snow. Whilst visiting the visitor information office in Lone Pine we were shocked at how quiet the area was. It had an eerie silence even though the main highway was only twenty or thirty metres away, HGV lorries and tankers would pass in silence. From here on in we were warned to have a full tank of fuel, I suppose a mobile phone should have been on there to but, oh well.
We were still a hundred miles away from the centre of Death Valley and with all the perfectly straight roads leading into the valley seemingly with no end we really did seem like we were on the road to nowhere. It was classic empty dusty desert American terrain with miles of nothing except knee high desert shrubs and the occasional Joshua Tree. We were kept entertained though by a fighter jet soaring past above the car, the roar bouncing off the mountains and echoing all around. He was showing off a bit we thought as he twisted and turned above us, we were the only car on the road after all.
After passing through the main town of Death Valley; Furnace Creek, we continued on to our motel for the night. We were staying in Beatty, a small town just over the state border in Nevada. It had good access to Death Valley and was cheaper than staying inside the park.
Just before arriving in Beatty though we came across a real life ghost town in the desert; Rhyolite, in 1904 was a thriving gold mine town with a population of 10,000 people but in 1910 the population had dwindled to 675 and by 1916 the electricity was switched off and the town abandoned. Still there today though are remains of the old train station, school, bank and jewellers. Right outside the ghost town was a really cool and wacky and slightly odd and spooky sight, the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Surrounded by nothing but dry desert and mountain landscape were a number of bizarre sculptures that really have to be seen to be believed.
Arriving into Beatty we passed our first trailer park and on into the baby Las Vegas complete with a few casino lights and a wild west feel.
Before we left Beatty the next morning we had to fill the car up for our journey into Death Valley. From Beatty a straight ten mile road cut through the flat desert landscape and led to a steep and winding road over the mountains into Death Valley itself and then on to Furnace Creek, a total distance of about 25 miles. Furnace creek with an elevation of around two hundred feet below sea level holds the record of the highest temperature in the USA and the second highest recorded temperature in the world.
Zabriskie Point looked over the most incredible terrain, known as badlands, of mustard coloured peaks. It was here that U2 shot the cover of their Joshua Tree album. The views were incredible and really felt like we were on another planet.
Dante’s peak was a short drive from Zabriskie Point with the last quarter mile being a steep climb to a view point over the whole of Death Valley and a great view of the massive salt plains. In total silence we sat and looked over the valley and really felt detached from the world, the only company we had was a lone raven.
Our surroundings were totally unreal and the heat was severe, although it was fall we were in Death Valley and the sun was intense and it showed in the heat reflecting off the insanely straight roads. We drove towards Badwater, the lowest point in the USA but before we stopped off at an area known as the Devils Golf Course. The Devils Golf Course is a large area of knee high roughly formed salt crystals that was formed when a lake that used to cover the area evaporated and left behind minerals.
Badwater is 282ft (855 meters) below sea level and is the lowest point in the USA and to make tourist realise what that means a sign was placed high on a cliff saying ‘sea level’. It was here that the heat was the fiercest and took our breath away. Bizarrely at Badwater was a small pool of water. Here we were in one of the driest places on earth staring at a pool of water. We took a walk out on the salt plains before taking a drive through an area known as Artists Drive, a scenic drive with views of colourful mineral deposits in the rock formations.
We drove back to Zabriskie Point at sunset to view the area in a different, softer light before driving back to our motel in Beatty. That night we had burger and fries at the local casino/restaurant and had our first dabble on the slot machine in preparation for our time in Vegas. Along with a few free drinks each from the casino bar we came away a few dollars from the machines, which got us excited about playing with the big boys in Vegas!
With half a tank of fuel down from the previous day refuelling was a must again, luckily is only £1.50 a gallon! With so many weird and wonderful things to see in Death Valley we probably could have stayed another few days but we just had one more day to see the things we didn’t fit in the previous day.
A couple of mile return walk through the Mosaic Canyon in the intense heat made us sweat a fair bit. The walk took us through a narrow canyon with polished marble walls on both sides created by thousands of years of water gushing through the passage. Salt sediments still cling on the walls from the time, many many years ago when a lake covered the area. Now the canyon is used a natural outlet for water that falls in the higher peaks to flow out of. There are so many places in the valley where you find yourself in absolute silence and the Mosaic Canyon was one of them and was the highlight of the second day.
A further 40 miles north was the Ubehebe Crater or Heebeejee Crater as we called it, a massive crater caused thousands of years when a volcano erupted, the resulting crater is half a mile wide and up to 237 meters deep. The crater was really in the middle of a desert wilderness with no-one else around and with the right soundtrack was truly like starring in own road movie. Nearby was Scotties Castle, yep a castle, well kind of. Built by local con man Walter Scott with money conned out of his millionaire friend who thought he was buying a share in a goldmine.
Driving back from Scotties Castle as the sun began to set was spectacular. The moon was rising and the surrounding mountains and scenery turned a soft red. While we were in Death Valley I was constantly thinking of a photo I remembered as a kid and where, now I was here, it would have been taken. I think I knew so we drove back just before the sun completely disappeared to take some sunset photos of a famous perfectly straight Death Valley road. It was hard to be overwhelmed at times driving through the US and at times we would get smacked in the face with the realisation of where we were. Considering the USA was only on the list as a place to go because it was on the way home, we both really fell for the country and only half way through our visit were thoroughly enjoying America.