The Cruel and Stunning Death Valley

I’ve crossed the Mojave Desert several times in my life. I used to live in Northern California and either driving along I-15 to Las Vegas or I-40 to Albuquerque or Phoenix, took me through the Mojave at least ten times. I always longed to take the detour to Death Valley. It was just never practical to drive the extra 3-4 hours round trip until August of this year. My boyfriend Roy and I were on a coast-to-coast-to-coast trip visiting National Parks and family when we planned to head back to the East Coast. There it was. Looming in the middle of the map. A gigantic chunk in Eastern California: Death Valley. Sure…it’s August. Yeah…it’s hot. OK…it’s a long drive with very few services. But why not? When was this opportunity going to land in my lap again while I live in North Carolina? Likely never. So, Roy (having already driven some 5,000 miles) was game and off to Death Valley we went.

Roy and I at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Here are some of the highlights:

Shoshone – We set off from my brother and sister-in-law’s home in Palo Alto. As we made plans the day of our travels, I searched for places to stay as we drove down I-5 on our way to Bakersfield. I found a motel that was in the town of Shoshone about 45 minutes from one of the park entrances. Shoshone was just a little dot on the map. By the time we passed through the dilapidated town of Baker, I had no cell coverage. I had no idea if the motel had even 2 stars on their reviews. I was starting to get nervous because, arriving in Shoshone after driving 500 miles into the middle of nowhere, we had no other air-conditioned options. Thankfully the Shoshone Inn was a completely renovated delightful motel. We almost opted to buy a few gallons of gas but at $5.49 per gallon, we figured that a half tank would get us to Las Vegas. If you go to Death Valley, the Shoshone Inn is a must-stay although make sure you go with a full tank of gas.

Sweet little Shoshone Inn outside Death Valley

Jubilee Pass Road

We left for the park from the motel around 6 PM. We had no idea how long it would take to visit the park but we knew we at least wanted to go to Badwater Basin, so we headed out, according to the map, by the most direct route. We had no GPS as we headed on Jubilee Pass Road. It was 115 degrees, a blazing sun, a desolate road, and absolutely no other living things as we drove on a road with no signs except to instruct to stay on the road (no problem there). I was nervous. We had a few bottles of water but you start thinking about “what if’s” as you drive in such inhospitable territory. If we break down, if we get a flat tire, if the engine overheats….you get the picture. This was obviously not the main road in the park, the terrain was other worldly with its orange, yellow and white rock without vegetation or signs of life. I know what you’re thinking…. it’s not call Death Valley for its abundance in flora and fauna but the reality of driving through it is breathtaking. Scary, cruel but breathtaking.

Badwater Basin

From the motel, it took 90 minutes to arrive at Badwater Basin. 90 long, dry, hot minutes to arrive at what is the money-shot of Death Valley. This is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.  When we arrived, it was 120 degrees. It was remarkable how the temperature climbed as we started going below sea level.  We parked and walked out on the salt flats of the evaporated “badwater”. It was oppressively hot and the wind was relentless. Buffeting winds whipped across stark salt flats and the Panamint Mountain range 10 to 11 thousand feet (obscured by smoke) loomed as a silhouette. There were two cars in the parking lot, so it was comforting to know that we were no longer alone in such an inhospitable place. High up on the valley wall was a sign that said “SEA LEVEL” which really makes you grasp how truly isolated we were.

Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley

Zabriskie Point

We decided to go back on a more heavily traveled road and stumbled on Zabriskie Point. By this time there were three cars in the parking lot (a CROWD!). A winding paved path goes up the Zabriskie Point which is named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company (the company used twenty mule teams to transport borax mining operations in Death Valley). This vantage point is stunning. Again, there is no vegetation, or birds, or bugs. Just rock formations some of which look like jello molds or waves of soft ice cream. It felt like I was standing on the precipice of a cataclysmic change that had occurred many thousands of years ago and that I could have traveled by rocket ship to have witnessed it.

We only visited about a quarter of the National Park. I feel like it was just a taste. Perhaps a nibble of the entirety of the park. If you can make the trip, in a sturdy, gas-filled car with plenty of water, I would highly recommend it. I know I will be going back. The best of course is that I remembered as we arrived back at the motel that I wanted to make sure I went outside to look at the stars. Roy and I walked outside and looked up at the milky blanket of stars above. If you go, don’t forget to look up at the stunning beauty above.

2 thoughts on “The Cruel and Stunning Death Valley

  1. I liked your writing of this. Every two years I do the coast to coast to coast thing when I drive out for a reunion in Vegas with my old submarines. I did the Death Valley things you described and I almost want to say the same thing, but I had to go once.
    Did you go to Joshua Tree? So close. I did it on the same Death Valley trip after Vegas. DV was before Vegas. I usually end up on Moab on my excursions and the hikes over that way.
    Thanks for the writing. Bringing back sweet memories.


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