Death Valley NYE Excursion
“I’m going to Death Valley National Park for New Years, “ I said to my lunch mates in the faculty lounge. “Death Valley?” they replied. “Yeah, Death Valley, you know, out in California.” I said. “Won’t it be cold?” a teacher commented. I could see where this was going, so I told them all I would bring in a magazine and show them some pictures. The magazine I brought in was Overland Journal, the first edition. Opinions changed.
I was given a copy of the first issue of Overland Journal in November while I was in Moab. I read that issue cover to cover, and I subscribed shortly thereafter. Perhaps one of the best articles I had read in quite some time was the article on Death Valley. I had read about a few people spending New Years in DV, and thought it might be something different than the normal Moab trip we tend to do.
We looked around at some possible campsites and came back the next day to book online, only to find most of the Furnace Creek Campground booked. Seems Death Valley is a hot place to spend NYE. We quickly booked our piece of the valley, and a day later, the entire campground was full.
We decided since I had the entire week between Christmas and New Years off we would go and visit my grandmother in Cedar City for a day before making the trip to California. We finally made it to the entrance of the park on Sunday the 30th. It was early still, and the shadows cast some unique forms across the floor of the desert. The initial stopping point was Zabriskie Point. It is a nice overlook into the valley, and gives a virgin Death Valley traveler their initial taste of the scale of this park. It is huge.
I grabbed an ice-cold Diet Coke w/Lime from the fridge (yea Engel), and jumped back into the 80, ready to see more, but also itching to get out and ‘be’ in the park. We found the campground entrance shack vacant, so we found our site, and set up camp. Interestingly enough, there was a built 80 parked 3 or 4 cars away. These are walk-in camp spots, so as I was toting Action Packers back and forth to the tent, I got a friendly “Nice Truck” from the other 80 owner. Turns out he was a member of Mud, as well as the Expedition Portal, and had come up with a few other Cruiser owners.
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing the touristy stuff, such as seeing the visitor center and just enjoying being out of the car. It was also imperative that three and a half year olds get time off for good car behavior (Portable DVD players are fantastic) so allowing little Alexander to get out and run around and climb on rocks was in order. I even caught a few people taking pictures of the wreath and rubber chicken strapped to the front of my truck. Thanks to Paul May for the great white elephant gift.
Hilary was busy with Olivia and so I was able to walk away and out off the road to sit in the dirt. I like to plant it in the dirt wherever I go, so I can get a feel for the land. I like to pick up the rocks, and inspect them closely, smell the air, run my hands through the dirt, and really experience an area close up. I like to think I am getting connected to the land, and not just seeing it from the drivers seat.
Back in camp, as soon as the sun went down, the nice 60+ degree weather turned cold. We attempted to buy wood from the market there, but similarly cold overnight temps cleaned them out the night before. I decided to burn part of the bag of charcoal I had brought for the dutch oven. It is amazing how a little heat from a fire can really make or break a cold night. I set the Engel thermometer on top of my truck before turning in for the night. It has a setting that displays maximum and minimum temperatures, so I reset the unit to observe the nighttime temps. When I awoke the next morning, the display read 25.5 as an overnight low. It certainly was much colder than the 36 weather.com had forecasted.
We knew of a few Cruiser and ExPo folks in the campground who were staying in the RV/trailer section as they were pulling Adventure Trailers, Teardrops, and Kamparoos. We made up our camp to be away for the day, and met up with the group. I was able to inspect an Adventure Trailer and a Kamparoo side by side. We will most likely be purchasing one of the Kamparoo Trailers next summer. The group decided to head for warmer climates in AZ, so Hilary and the kids loaded up and went on our way to the see where rocks move across the desert floor all by themselves-The Racetrack.
I was told by the more experienced DV travelers to air down my tires, and “drive fast.” After about 3 minutes on the road to the Racetrack, which just so happens to be the worst washboard I have ever been on, I stopped to air down. Once I was done fiddling with the tires, we went on our way, through Joshua Tree forests, washes, and eventually we made it to Teakettle Junction, which was more than just a sign for us. We had been beaten up on that road, and we knew we had to make it back out the same way. The junction indicated to us that we were very close. I believe the entire road is 29 miles, one-way.
We finally made it, right when the sun was on the Western horizon, threatening once again to take our nice warm temps away. The Racetrack is an awkward place. All at once an eerie silence tugs at you to leave, yet some sort of omnipotent power gives you an overwhelming sense of peace. I immediately started walking. I walked out to the middle of the ‘playa’ and sat down, once again to ‘be’ there. Off in the distance, I saw a car, “a Subaru?” I thought. I snapped a few pictures of the floor, and heard “Daaaaaddy!” from just out of earshot. I turned to see a fantastic sight out in front of me. It was Alexander, bungee cord in hand, telling me he wanted to go climb “those rocks.”
The look on his face is one that is forever etched into my mind. The young look of eagerness, passion, and of discovery was all over his face. I almost cried. I loved seeing him out there, ready and carefree. I was so proud that he was my son, and the sense of adventure he has developed in such a short time from his first camping trip when he was three months old.
We rounded up the bungee cords, and after a quick nursing of our little six-month-old Olivia, we were on our way back down the truly beaten path. We arrived back at the Ubehebe Crater as the sun was setting. We were getting some strange looks as I unloaded the roof rack (which had rattled loose) of gas cans, water cans, and such to fix the rack and gas up. I broke out the new air compressor, and set the pressures back up as I tightened up the rack again. The extra ten gallons we brought proved to be just right, and we were able to avoid buying the $4.12 gas in the valley.
That night, we were invited to a potluck with some fellow adventurers, but we were quite tired, and didn’t see anyone at the group site when we drove by. Once back in camp, I fired up some charcoal and put together perhaps one of the best dutch oven peach cobblers I have made to date. After about an hour of cook time, and Alexander getting his fill of Transformers in the tent, we enjoyed a little New Years celebration of our own. I had expected to hear a little bit of the New Year festivities, but it was surprisingly quiet. We decided to call it a night after sitting out quietly and watching satellites slip across the sky, (and after I fell asleep laying on the bench).
We broke camp early anticipating the long drive back to Salt Lake. We made a pit stop in Vegas, and then again in Cedar City to have dinner with Grandma. Finally, we made it back. I commented to Hilary, “Maybe we should do that again next year?” She smiled and rolled her eyes all at once saying, “Oh yeah Rog, how about Hawaii?”
Overall, Death Valley is a ‘must see’ destination. I don’t think I realized the scale of the park, and I really didn’t budget enough time. There is easily a solid month of exploring out there. Go prepared, all of the basics, and then add a few more. You are far from any major cities. I highly recommend the Racetrack, and sitting down for a few minutes out there. All by yourself, of course.