Denise Goldberg's blog

What's in a name?
Living (for a few days) in Death Valley

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Temptations and dreams

...written on October 8, 2007

My dilemma? I managed to get through a big chunk of 2007 without solidfying any vacation plans. I usually use the cold winter months to dream, and I usually have a plan in place by the spring. Not so the year... I escaped to Zion National Park for three days in April, but a state of confusion reigned about my "later in 2007 travels". It was August before I decided to travel to Maine with my bike and camera, not for a tour, but for a series of day rides. When I was thinking of a tour, two weeks felt like the right amount of time. But one week of day trips on my bike met my Maine needs (for now) - so I still had a week to play with. That meant I wasn't finished with trip planning for this year. And I can't even begin to dream of next year until I figure out one more trip for 2007. Hmm...

First decision. This will be a trip for hiking, and for playing with my camera. It needs to be someplace different, someplace entirely new to me, or someplace that I haven't visited recently. And ideally, transportation should be simple. Flying is OK, but I'd prefer a non-stop flight to wherever I'm heading to wander, and once that big airplane lands, I'd prefer not to spend too many hours in a car rolling down the road to reach my final destination.

OK, time to stare at a map... For this trip I'm limiting myself to North America, and I'm focusing on national parks. I'm going to be heading out in late October, and I'd really like to be someplace that is reasonably warm. My eyes wandered over my map, and headed to the southwest. That doesn't really surprise you, does it?

Once my eyes started wandering over the map, Death Valley jumped out at me. I've been there once before, on a supported bike trip a long, long time ago. How long? Long enough that I can't remember the year. Let's see, I switched to doing self-supported (bike) tours in 1998, and my Death Valley trip was several years before that, so it's easily been over ten years. That's far enough away that my memories are somewhat dim.

But - I remember... I remember the temperature differences. It went from cool overnight to reasonable daytime temperatures, to unbelieveable heat - and that was in March when the temperature is normally (somewhat) reasonable. I remember the beauty. I remember, and yet, I don't. Death Valley jumped off of the map and invited me to visit.

Yes, I'm going to Death Valley, feet clad in hiking shoes, camera laden, looking for beauty.
Death Valley National Park: A Land of Extremes

Hottest, Driest, Lowest: A superlative desert of streaming sand dunes, snow-capped mountains, multicolored rock layers, water-fluted canyons and three million acres of stone wilderness.
(Source: Death Valley National Park web page)
I'll be staying in Furnace Creek, described by the National Park Service as "an oasis in a salt brine desert, a spot of greenery and life on a burning salt pan, and an anomaly in an otherwise extremely harsh environment. Water has always shaped and controlled the life that is here. Water is our life's blood."

And I'll be wandering, exploring in the desert. Soon...

Table of Contents

For now, please use Blogger's list of posts in the sidebar to follow my trip in reverse sequence. I plan to flip this blog on its head so that the posts flow from oldest to newest (like the table of contents in a book), adding a real Table of Contents and a Page by Page sidebar entry, and adding (better) next and previous links at the bottom of each post.

I probably won't be able to make these changes for the next several weeks.

...Denise, January 22, 2009

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Pictures? Yes, of course there are more!

This was a hiking and exploring trip, but it was a photo trip too.

There are pictures included within this journal, but as appears to be normal for me, there are more in my photo galleries. Yes, there is an overlap; there are photos in both places that also exist in the other, but there are also photos that can only be seen in one place.

There are 5 photo galleries within my photo gallery Death Valley National Park - 2007. You can start at this top level, or you can go directly to the individual galleries:
  • A trail, a wash, a slot, anywhere! - this is the largest gallery, containing shots from different places (except those covered in the other four galleries) as I wandered through the park day to day. Captions under the photos indicate where the photo was taken.
  • Sand Dunes on the edges of the day - the first few photos in this gallery were from late afternoon; most were from sunrise. Sand dunes, and patterns written by the wind...
  • Mosaic Canyon - a magic place, carved rock beauty.
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon - a wonderful place to watch the sun paint the badlands.
  • Zabriskie Point - a handful of the photos in this gallery were from my mid-day entrance to the park, but most of the photos are from the sunrise on my last day there. And most of them were taken as I was looking to the west, waiting for the sun to color the rocks.

Curious to see other places that I've wandered over the years? Start at and join my wanderings! If you are curious about any of my photos or my wanderings, you can sign my guestbook here or click the Contact me link on my photo pages.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Death Valley dreams

...I'll be back

I had a wonderful 4 days in the park, and I would have been very happy to stay longer. There are many more places I'd like to see that I didn't get to on this trip, and there are places I'd like to repeat too.

My biggest regret? I didn't get to meet a Kangaroo Rat in the sand dunes. They look so cute! But I did see a coyote on my last morning in the park. He even consented to pose for a photo.

I know that I should be used to these feelings by now. If I find a place to explore that appeals to me, it seems normal not to be ready to head home, not to be happy with a single visit. I suppose this is a good problem to have!
And now it's time to dream of my next trip, to a destination that for now is a mystery. And it's time to dream of returning to Death Valley too.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Common sense & warnings!

Death Valley covers a lot of ground. It is the largest park in the US National Park system from terms of area, with a lot of miles of roads - both paved, and (more) unpaved. It is a desert that deserves a lot of respect.

Carry more water than you think you'll need, more food too. Just in case... While I normally wear a Camelbak on my back, that just wasn't going to work for this trip. Why? Because I was carrying a daypack for my camera gear, and two packs wasn't going to work. I thought about slipping a bladder into my daypack, but somehow the thought of a potential leak onto my camera (electronics) didn't sound like a risk I was willing to take. Instead I picked up a CamelBak FlashFlo, a waist pack that holds a 45 oz. (1.3 L) bladder. I also carried water bottles in the side pockets of my day pack, and I left an extra stash of water in my car. I was only doing short hikes; for longer distances I will need to figure out a way to carry more water.
I have to admit that I was shocked to see other people heading out on foot with only a camera in their hands, no water. That's really not smart...
Recognize that if you run into a problem, or have an accident, that you're going to need to wait for someone to find you, to realize that you need help. And that cell phone you're carrying that usually is reliable - well, there's no cell phone access here.

Plan ahead - or not! Be careful, and above all, enjoy your Death Valley adventure!

Timing, food, fuel, and...

Timing is everything...

Do you want to try to catch the spring wildflowers? The rangers suggest calling the park in a February timeframe and they may be able to give you an indication of whether and when they expect a spring bloom. For example, a wet winter in 2005 produced an amazing wildflower bloom in the spring that lasted for weeks. Apparently there wasn't a room to be had in the valley, and people were staying 100 miles away and driving in and out each day in order to enjoy the flowers.

I just went wandering on the park's web site, and I found a page in the news section that contains wildflower updates. If I were hoping for flowers I'd probably still call the rangers for a projection, but it's probably also worth checking the Wildflower Updates page.

Camping or not, you may want to bring some food and drink with you - at least snack food, bottled water, and drinks like Gatorade if you use them. I brought energy bars and peanuts from home, and I stocked up on bottled water and Gatorade in Las Vegas.

There are General Stores at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. They do stock some food, but they are quite expensive. For example, energy bars that I pay $1 for at home (at Whole Foods, which has great prices on these bars) were twice that price in the General Store. Interestingly enough, packs of peanuts were the same price they are outside of the park, probably because the "2 for $1" price is printed on the package as opposed to being a stick-on price tag. The stores had a minimal selection of fruit (bananas, Delicious apples, and Granny Smith apples) and some veggies too. I would have liked to have brought some fruit in with me, but given that it would be sitting in a car for the better part of a day before I could check in to my room I thought better of it. That problem could be easily overcome by bringing a cooler with you, or picking up a cheap (essentially) throwaway cooler. I didn't think of that in time...

The hotel at Furnace Creek has small refrigerators in the room. The same may be true of the lodging at Stovepipe Wells, but you'll need to check.

Gas is very expensive in the park, and you will need to buy it. It's not smart to travel in the desert without a fully fueled vehicle. How expensive? The gas at home is in the $2.80 range. It was slightly higher in Las Vegas, but in the park? I paid $3.99 for regular at the Furnace Creek station. The gas at Stovepipe Wells was slightly cheaper.

There is no cell phone access. None!

Before I left home I picked up a phone card so I could make phone calls from my room without paying a crazy hotel phone rate.

I did talk to folks who had access after they climbed one of the high trails leading up the mountains on either side of the valley. Funny thing, while I was waiting for the sun to rise over Zabriskie Point someone wondered if there was cell phone access up there. Everyone quickly turned their phones on to check, and everyone's phone said "no service".

Are you dreaming of Death Valley?

Travel hints

Is Death Valley on your list of places you need to visit? What are your dreams?

It's always good to look for information on the National Park Service web site. Click to access the home page for Death Valley National Park.

When you arrive in the park, take the time to stop in the visitor's center and talk to the rangers. They have all sorts of hike descriptions, from a sheet titled Day Hikes to others that are detailed descriptions of longer explorations. (I hesitate to call them trails, since many are marked as No trail.)

Ranger programs, valuable, fascinating

I found the ranger programs in the park well worth attending.

It's funny, the last time I attempted to go on a guided hike in a National Park was when I was in Glacier on my first self-supported bike trip. I didn't stay with the group very long then, but on this trip I did.

I went on two guided walks, and attended 3 evening programs. The evening programs are all at the visitor center which is within walking distance of both the motel and the campgrounds at Furnace Creek. If you choose to stay at Stovepipe Wells, you are 20+ miles away from the visitor center.

I've included descriptions of the walks and evening programs that I attended. In both cases, the descriptions were borrowed from the Ranger Programs handout. Click to view the current week's Ranger Programs.

I was extremely lucky in my timing. These programs are not run in the hot weather of summer and early fall (at least the walks aren't, the visitor center evening programs may be); the week that I was in the park was the week the programs resumed.

Two guided walks in one day - I think that's a record for me! Both were excellent:
  • Natural Bridge Geology - "Discover the geologic wonders of the Black Mountains. The hike passes under the bridge and ends at a major fault that is part of the Death Valley story." This walk was led by a geologist who was clearly excited about Death Valley. He spends the summer months working in Yellowstone, and the rest of the year in Death Valley, and this week marked his return to the desert.
  • Desert Photography - "Join a nature photographer for tips and techniques to improve your photography with all cameras. Meet at the Sand Dunes." And what luck! There were only two of us who elected to go on the photography hike on Tuesday. We talked about camera settings, but even more we talked about composition. We walked a bit, but most of our time was spent standing, talking, and looking through a camera on a tripod as Bob used examples to show techniques for improving the composition of shots. Fabulous!
The evening programs I soaked in were:
  • The Storms of 2004 - "Did you ever wake up and find that everything had changed? See the effects and aftermath of Death Valley's great storms of 2004."
  • Salt, Sand and Summits - "The varied ecosystems of Death Valley are so unusual and captivating, you may never want to leave."
  • Rare as Rain - "Sunshine and blue skies in the desert can get a little tedious after a while, but a Death Valley rainstorm is always a special treat! Discover the miracle of a desert cloudburst."

Roads & maps... getting to hiking points

Will you be happy sticking to the paved roads and the "normal car-approved" good condition dirt roads? Or do you want to explore the path less traveled?

Death Valley has over 1000 miles of roads. I'm told that 300 miles of those roads are paved, and there are some dirt roads that are fairly well kept and that can be driven with an everyday vehicle. For the four days I spent there I was quite happy with where I could wander, but when I return I may consider renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle.

If you're a map freak - as I am - you may want a topo map of the park. I picked up a copy of the Trails Illustrated map of Death Valley National Park. This covers the entire park; if you are planning to do some long distance trekking, more detailed topo maps are also available.

There is a new map produced by the park service (well actually, it says "Presented by Jeep" on the bottom of the page, but still...). This map shows all roads, paved and not paved, along with classifications by type of vehicle. Even though it's a brand new document - maybe because it is new - it needs to be (and is scheduled to be) reprinted since the printer laid the roads over the wrong section of the relief. So the map as it exists makes it look like there are roads down the spine of the mountains. Nope! It's still worth requesting a copy.

The roads on this map, titled Death Valley Backcountry Roads, are shown as
  • paved
  • unpaved (but OK for normal vehicles)
  • high clearance, 4-wheel-drive
  • rough 4-wheel-drive
The roads are all numbered, and the back of the map contains a description of each road along with a note as to the type of vehicle needed.

Even with all of the information on the maps, be sure to check in with the rangers if you're planning to drive one of the rougher roads. One example is Racetrack Valley Road. It's a place that is very tempting, but I knew that I couldn't go there in my rental car. Sam was going to attempt it in his truck, but the rangers strongly recommended that he not go there.
Vehicle needed? High-clearance due to loose gravel, washboard, and rocks. Flat tires are common on this road so be sure your full-sized spare is inflated, all parts of your jack are on hand, and tire tread is good. May require 4WD due to changing road conditions and irregular maintenance, so check postings.
It's 28 miles along this road before you reach the start of the Racetrack.

Why would I love to go there? The description of the area is fascinating:
The Racetrack is a dry lakebed famous for its mysterious moving rocks.
Oh, and the rangers told Sam that if he broke down or got stuck on the way to The Racetrack and he needed a tow from there, the current fee for a tow is $2000. And no, that's not a typo - it does say two thousand dollars!

Maps, maps, maps... you might want to visit the Maps page of the Death Valley National Park web site.