Hottest, Driest, Lowest
[Lone Pine, CA / Furnace Creek, CA, Mar 29, 2019]
Death valley is one of those parks I’d heard about even as a kid in Bulgaria. The mere mention of its name conjured up images of skeletons and skulls. The weather was incredibly hot much of the year, I’d read as a child, and many a men had paid the highest price for venturing into this place unprepared. Death valley was named when a group of pioneers tried to cross it in 1849. Only one of the men in the group died, but the group barely made it out. As they climbed over the Panamint mountains and left the valley behind them, one of the men turned and said “Good bye, Death Valley!” Its marketing materials sum it up well – hottest, driest, lowest.
I had been wanting to visit Death Valley in Spring, when temps are still mild both during the day and at night, but in past years I had always forgotten to make hotel reservations until it was too late. Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 (yes, larger than even Yellowstone) and for this reason, I wanted to stay inside the park. Finally, last Fall I got my act together and booked three nights at the Furnace Creek Ranch, the more modest of two hotels in the Furnace Creek area in the middle of the park.
Driving directly to Death Valley from Los Angeles would have taken almost 5 hours, but we decided to visit the Alabama Hills on the way.
The Alabama Hills are a formation of rounded rocks and eroded hills set against the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada. They are managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and sit just a mile West of the town of Lone Pine in Inyo County – population 2,000. There is a visitor center on Highway 395 just south of Lone Pine – it’s a good place to stop and grab a detailed map of the hills, or you can download one online.
Beginning in the 1920s, Hollywood filmmakers discovered the natural beauty of this area. Since then, more than 400 movies have been shot here. I only recognized more recent ones such as Django Unchained and Iron Man. There is a movie history museum in Lone Pine for those who’d like to get their dose of movie history.
The Alabama Hills are accessed through a dirt road aptly named Movie Road. As we turned west towards Movie Rd from Lone Pine, we saw the Eastern Sierras and Mount Whitney towering above us and covered with snow. The contrast between the mountains and the eroded rocks of Alabama Hills in the foreground made for a striking view.
First, we passed Nightmare Rock. Nobody is really sure when this rock got painted on, but it’s apparently the work of local artists. I am surprised it’s been left like this since it is against Leave No Trace principles, but it does make for a fun photo.
Movie Road begins just past this rock. About a mile into this road is the parking lot for the Arch Loop Trail.
The most famous of the Alabama Hills arches, the Mobius arch, is on this trail. We completed the short, 0.6 mile loop counter-clockwise, which left the arch for last. On the way, we saw a smaller arch resembling a heart. We also saw a rock formation that looks like a dog. It’s in the 4th photo below.
As we approached Mobius arch, we saw this smaller, much more narrow arch. I couldn’t resist taking photos of it, even though getting the right angle was difficult due to its proximity to the ground.
Mobius arch did not disappoint. It perfectly frames Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous US with an elevation of 14,505 ft (4,421 m).
After this, we headed back south to pick up Highway 136 followed by Highway190, which would take us all the way into Death Valley from the west.
We went through the town of Lone Pine again. It looked like a town frozen in time. The main street was mostly restaurants and hotels – the area is the gateway for all those looking to climb Mt Whitney, and you definitely get that vibe even just driving through.
There was no ranger station as we approached the park boundary, but there was a sign, so we had to stop and take photo.
The drive quickly turned quite scenic as we were making our way down the winding road to Panamint Valley. We stopped at Father Crowley overlook, named after a priest who worked in the area in the 1920s. From there, we got great views of Rainbow Canyon and Ubehebe crater way in the distance. Ubehebe crater was on our list to visit and it was cool to see it from so far away. The elevation here is about 4,200 ft, and it was hard to believe we would be dropping below sea level by time time we reached Furnace Creek.
We finally made it to our hotel, the Ranch at Furnace Creek, right in time for check-in at 4 pm. I am glad there was a line for check-in because that made me look around, and I noticed 2 things. One was this sign, which answered a burning question I had – did the superbloom make it to Death Valley? Our winter this year had been incredibly rainy, which resulted in an incredible wildflower bloom further west. It seems that the rain, however, had not made it this far east – actually, the rainfall here has been below normal this spring.
The other thing we noticed was a poster advertising a night sky program at 8:30 that night, which included telescopes for us to look through as well as a tour of the night sky. That sounded super cool – we had actually been looking forward to the stars in Death Valley as the park is a designated international dark sky park. The designation is assigned by the Dark Sky Association and it means that the land possesses an exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected. The last time we were in a designated night sky area was in Sedona, AZ.
Our room was in one of the buildings in the very back of the village and we had a small balcony overlooking the Panamint mountains to the west. It meant our balcony was in the shade most of the day, which was great since the temperatures were in the 80s during the day.
We had dinner in the steakhouse on the premises. It was located right next to front desk where we checked in. Flags from countries around the world surrounded the building, and I happened to notice a familiar flag on the corner. I am not sure how they picked which flags to display, but I was excited to see Bulgaria’s flag on display!
The steakhouse on two levels. We got a table upstairs on a small balcony overlooking the dining room below. The interior certainly felt like the Wild West.
The night sky program was a short walk from our room. It was hosted by the Las Vegas Astronomical Society. They had set up a handful of telescopes and several cameras as well. One guy took a picture of the Horsehead nebula in the Orion constellation, which was incredible to see. I was very interested in astronomy as a teenager, and at one point I had wanted to become an astronomer, so this was all very exciting for me.
Another guy gave us a tour of the night sky, pointing out constellations with a specialty astronomy laser. Both Big Dippers, Orion, his dog and the rabbit he is hunting, the Pleiades as well as some of the constellations in the zodiac (Taurus, Aires, Gemini, Leo) were very easy to spot. We could see the Milky Way, too. Stargazing in Death Valley made for an awesome end to our first night in the park.