California Desert Road Trip

In the spring our thoughts inevitably turn to Las Vegas. Not because we like Vegas, particularly, but because Tom’s annual conference visit means an opportunity to take a trip to the South West, and this year was no exception.

Previous trips to this part of the country have seen us skiing in southern Utah, driving around the Four Corners, and visiting the Grand Canyon – all of which I thoroughly recommend – but this was a red letter year in that it allowed me to tick off two major bucket-list items: visiting Death Valley and setting foot in California for the first time.

I’m not entirely sure why I was so keen to visit Death Valley, but ever since I found out that it’s really close to Vegas (at least by American standards) I’ve been desperate to go. This fits nicely with Tom’s national park obsession, and Joshua Tree NP had been mentioned to us several times as a place worth visiting, so we were both very pleased to discover that we could combine them into a single trip.

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March 1st saw us setting out from Vegas to drive south through the Mojave National Preserve en route for Joshua Tree. Driving in this part of the country is such a pleasure, with empty roads, broad skies, and scenic vistas. As is often the case, we were struck by just how much space there is out here – particularly later in the trip, between Joshua Tree and Ridgecrest, there were literally hundreds of miles of more-or-less empty land.

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We arrived at Joshua Tree in the afternoon, with enough time to drive around the northern part of the park and have a short walk around the aptly-named Hidden Valley. I was completely fascinated by the eponymous plants (not actually a tree, but a succulent), and kept stopping the car to take pictures of them. (As you can imagine this went down really well with my travelling companion, but until he learns to drive he doesn’t have much influence over these things!)

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For dinner that night our favourite food-finding app directed us nine miles or so further north, to a pizza place at the corner of a gas station. From the outside this looked like a complete dive, and there was no mention of gluten free options on the menu board, but the guy behind the counter was brilliantly helpful and we were soon tucking into a gigantic portion of wings and some tasty pizzas. (To add an even more bizarre twist to the evening, it turned out that his mother was from Bedford, UK, so we had a nice chat with him while waiting for our food.)

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The next morning was spent driving around the park, looking at trees and cacti, and then taking a hike up a hill to look at an old abandoned gold mine. Lunch was a picnic of leftover pizza (a very useful strategy, we’ve discovered), before hitting the road for the long drive up towards Death Valley. We’d opted to break the journey for the night in Ridgecrest, for no other reason than it was a three hour drive from Joshua Tree and just one from Death Valley, and accommodation was cheaper there.

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Another mildly bizarre dinner ensued at a steak restaurant in the town (to get to which we took a radical departure from our usual habits and called a taxi as I really couldn’t be bothered to drive and it was too long a walk from our hotel), complete with a lurid cocktail and moderate consternation as I ordered a baked sweet potato without the butter and brown sugar topping. Tom had something slathered in BBQ sauce, and probably some mac and cheese on the side.


And then, finally, Death Valley day arrived! Driving out of Ridgecrest early on a Saturday we were more or less the only car on the road, a situation which didn’t change much as we wound our way over rocky hills and across flat and desolate valleys, although an entire town dedicated to a mineral processing plant was an interesting sight along the way. Cresting the top of the mountain above Panamint Springs and looking down into Death Valley wasn’t quite the climactic moment I’d hoped for – it looked pretty much like the valley we’d just left, only bigger.

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We paused at Stovepipe wells – the site of a gas station, general store and our hotel for the night – for a coffee, before driving on into the valley proper. First stop was the visitor centre, for the obligatory introductory film, then it was down into the heart of the valley to walk on the salt flats at Badwater Basin. Probably the most popular site in DV, Badwater is the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level. This sounds pretty impressive, until you read that the Dead Sea is 1,412 feet below sea level, but looking up the neighbouring mountain to see the sign marking sea level high above you is still quite exciting.

We walked out across the salt flats, it seemed like the thing to do, and almost at once felt unbearably hot, blinded by the light, and desperately dehydrated. All of these sensations (apart from perhaps the brightness) were almost entirely psychosomatic – it was a warm afternoon, true, with temperatures probably in the high 70s Fahrenheit, but there was a pleasant breeze blowing and we had plenty of water – a veritable picnic compared with some summer afternoons on the streets of Manhattan. However, with nothing but valley and mountains in all directions and no shade for miles, you expected to stumble across the dessicated remains of travellers who didn’t make it at every turn. (I was extremely disappointed not to see any skeletons, or even so much as a single sun-bleached bone, the whole time we were there.)

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As we walked further away from the carpark the crowds thinned out and the ground beneath our feet became damper, eventually becoming a shallow expanse of water. A few intrepid folks were treating this like a day at the beach and paddling, with their belongings piled up on the shore. I have no idea just how salty the water was, we kept our boots on and trudged back. It is the combination of flat, wide floor and high, fairly vertical mountains which give Death Valley its formidable reputation – hot air is unable to rise far enough to escape, so it just cools a little before dropping back down in a superheating cycle. Night time temperatures in March are still fairly chilly, but apparently in the summer the minimum never drops below the low 90s F. Having been mourning the fact that we were not there at the hottest time of year, Tom quickly revised his opinion and decided that it was perfectly warm enough right then!

The afternoon continued with side trips to the Devil’s golf course, an abandoned borax mine, and a saltwater creek to see a unique species of fish, all involving a short drive along unpaved roads. Part of DV’s wilderness designation apparently means keeping many of the park’s roads unpaved, and I regretted our decision to rent a saloon car rather than a 4×4. Our final stop was a small patch of sand dunes, where, rather to our surprise, visitors were encouraged to wander freely. We joined a number of visitors scrambling up and down the sandy slopes, and headed for the highest point. The early evening was cool, and the sun was setting behind the mountains – it was remarkably peaceful and completely enchanting.

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Having enjoyed the sand for long enough, it was back to Stovepipe wells and dinner at the hotel restaurant (another steak, this time with salad, and I think Tom had something with a monstrous amount of cheese). Our final morning began with a hike up Mosaic Canyon, where the marble rocks have been scoured over the ages by running water into fascinating twists and grooves, and we enjoyed scrambling up some of the narrower sections of the route.

Finally, we made the long drive up to Dante’s viewpoint. I wasn’t completely sure it was worth doing, especially on the final, extremely steep and narrow section of road, but the view from the top absolutely justified it.

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On the approach to Vegas, we toyed with the idea of visiting Red Rock Canyon, and even drove along the approach road, but ultimately decided to carry on past the entrance and go straight into town. However, turning off the main road when we did gave us our top wildlife sighting of the trip – an actual roadrunner, running across the road in front of us. Sadly we didn’t have time to get a photo, so I’ve borrowed this picture from the internet to show you what they look like:

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Back in Vegas, we had enough time before our flight to visit the Mob Museum. This came highly recommended by a friend, and we thought it was excellent. Beginning with the roots of organized crime in America, the museum traces the rise of the mob through prohibition until many key players were brought down by the Kefauver hearings in the 1950s. Vegas was obviously deeply implicated in organized crime, in all sorts of ways (including at least one hit which was ordered in LA so as not to disrupt business in Vegas), and it was fascinating to learn about all this in the building where some of the hearings took place.

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There are far too many photos from our trip over in my Flickr album – if you’d like to see lots of pictures of sand, sky, rocks, cacti and Joshua trees do please take a look (only two pages, so you can scroll through pretty quickly!). I intend to do some more editing of the selection, but given that it’s taken me a month to get around to posting this I wouldn’t hold your breath…

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