Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Death Valley National Park
Trip Date: March 17-20, 2005
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: April 4, 2005

Son of Death Valley! the sequel (Can the sequel be as good as the original? Yes!)

Those who ventured to Death Valley National Park on the weekend of April 18, 19 and 20 were treated to the spectacle of a lifetime. Three club members and three associates enjoyed vistas of the park flowering in unprecedented abundance.

As much as I’d like to take credit for the perfect timing of this trip, I cannot stretch the fabric of logic beyond its limit. The trip was on the club’s Field Trip Schedule since November 2004, long before any of the park staff had any inkling of what this winter’s six inches of rain would bring forth from the rocky soil of the park’s usual desolation. (As of the end of March, Death Valley had received 6.3 inches of rain since July. That was the most ever recorded since the beginning of precipitation records 97 years ago.) Average rainfall for the park is two inches per year, with many seasons getting no measurable rain. The flowering plants just throw their seed during the years with moisture and leave them to lie dormant—sometimes for years—waiting for the right season. With all that moisture, much of which came in August of 2004, the 2005 season couldn’t have been better for the flowering plants!

In addition to the effusion of yellow, lavender, pink, white and purple blossoms on plains and hillsides, the regional and national press also blossomed with accounts of flower fields stretching up to meet the distant hills and peppering the rolling terrain like yellow dust. Although most of what I had read about in the larger organs of the West Coast was verifiable in the field, the results of the widespread publicity created a flood of a different type. Our group, kissed by blind fortune, managed to schedule itself on the best weekend of all; cashing in on a visual harvest from the first series of floods and avoiding the intense confusion and congestion of the ensuing flood of humanity. Our weekend happened to be the last weekend on which you could rent a room without having to call every motel in a 200-mile radius. Even rooms in Las Vegas, a far distant glow on the horizon, were scarce because of the frenzy caused by such widespread publicity. Our ventures into the park were relatively unencumbered by the traffic jams of the following week. We were able to go to the gift shops, visit the attractions and purchase gas without risking a fisticuffs for asserting our rightful places in the long lines. The restaurants and snack bars were all stocked with abundant supplies and the workers were relatively placid and unmolested by the whining, insistent hoard of weekenders from the LA basin. We could still find kybos with rolls of toilet paper and service people with helpful answers.

According to Terry Baldino, Death Valley’s assistant chief of interpretation (quoted in a March 31 article from the Los Angeles Times), normally there would be about 4,000 visitors touring the park this time of year, but on Sunday, March 27 (on the weekend after our venture) there was an estimated 14,000 visitors who came through the doors of the park visitors’ centers—a fraction of the number of visitors actually in the park. At the Furnace Creek Ranch, one of the few places to get a room inside the park, the reservations manager was handling 700 calls a day from people looking for lodging.

The Furnace Creek visitor’s center was packed tight with tourists the last week of March and staff and rangers were at wit’s end trying to deal with the tensions caused by the crowds. One of the rabble was quoted by a ranger as saying, “I’m sick of yellow. Where can I go to see different colors?” Even our group has to field some questions on Saturday. I found myself giving lodging directions to Los Angelinos who drove up for the weekend of the 19th and 20th. By that time it was too late, and no doubt, those folks probably had a long night’s drive back to the smog pit.

The last week in March, the Stovepipe Wells gas station ran out of gas several times and maintenance workers had to be called in to keep the order as cars lined up to buy gas. The demand for the $1 wildflower brochure, sold in all the park’s gift shops, has already depleted a five-year supply of the brochures. In retrospect, I can say that I still have the warm glow from our “Son of Death Valley” sequel trip in my heart. We were very fortunate to have missed the worst of the tourist backlash and seen the best of the early bloom (there are still parts of the park that will bloom throughout April). Our small group hit all the checkpoints very accurately and reaped the benefits of the cooler weather and cloud cover on Saturday.

Thursday we managed to find each other and gathered at the Stagecoach Casino in Beatty, Nevada for dinner. Our first dawn checkpoint (a new addition on this trip) was timed just a shave too close to the cosmic cycle of the solar system—we had to trot for a hundred yards or so at Badwater to get to our tripod-plant site. That morning race, however, kind of set the pleasant frenzied pace for the rest of the day’s shooting. As soon as we recorded the red sunrise on the snowy peaks across the newly filled Badwater bay, we went up to the Devil’s Golf Course and played a round on the satanic short course before heading south for the blooming yellow fields near the Jubilee Pass road. As promised in some news accounts, the most abundant fields of yellow flowers were there. Tourists, however, were thick as weeds and trying to clean out your frame was a serious challenge (which probably became an impossibility the following week). Frank and Avaneendra turned back to the north and novelist Bob and I took the Jubilee Pass road back to Beatty. We had to whip it up a bit on the desolate highway to be able to make it to the 3 p.m. checkpoint at Scotty’s Castle. After a short respite in the pleasant shade at Scotty’s, we took the short drive to Ubehebe Crater. Almost miraculously, all three of our cars converged at the parking lot overlooking the big, volcanic pit in the ground. The surrounding landscape was grey-black with the remnants of the large explosive eruption that gouged out the deep conical depression in the earth. Subsequent erosion has exposed some of the rusty-red rocks in the crater walls, making the bowl a very picturesque subject. Bob and Frank, our two most vigorous trekkers, took the steep trail to the bottom of this former volcano. Up on top, the wind blew fiercely, nearly preventing us from leaving our cameras unattended on the tripods. The wind pretty much put the kibosh on Friday’s busy schedule of touring. I can tell you that the prime rib tasted very good that night at the Stagecoach!

Saturday morning began bitterly early once again—at 3:45 a.m.—with preparation for the dawn checkpoint on the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells. The clouds cooperated with us for a period of ten minutes as the sun rose, before closing in for most of the day. As soon as the red light of dawn has dissipated, the light became diffuse and the sand dunes lost all features, forcing us to interrupt the copulating insects on the creosote bushes with our macro lenses.  Before-breakfast insect love on the dunes for Saturday! The soft light reduced the urgency of our shooters and we rolled back to Beatty to check out of our rooms to make the jump to Lone Pine that evening. On the way to relocate, we stopped for a hike up Mosaic Canyon, which is a very comely subject under the soft, north light of cloud cover. It was a much more comfortable hike than the ninety-plus-degrees-in-the-shade trek we made last year! Group consensus: Beautiful!

Saturday’s afternoon checkpoint was a new addition to last year’s attractions—Darwin Falls on the west side of the park. The falls proved to be a favorite for Frank. The access road, however, was difficult to find and no one in the group wanted to take their personal vehicles up the steep washboard-rutted dirt road. I tossed everything in the box of our rental truck and we jarred and jagged up the approximately two-mile road to the small parking lot. From the parking lot there was a trail that followed a wide canyon up another mile to where the rocks closed in. In a grotto of trees and brush, a very picturesque waterfall cascaded down onto the rocks and into a placid little pool. The last few yards of the hike had me cursing, but once I ducked into the beautiful little grotto I was very glad I made this trek up the canyon.

Near day’s end our little two-car caravan made the final dash for Lone Pine in the fading light. After checking into our comfortable accommodations we met at the Seasons Restaurant for a wonderful, upscale dinner in a very lovely restaurant. Thanks to Henry for an excellent choice! Toasting with brimming glasses of wine, Belgian beer and local micro brew we ended a wonderful excursion on a sweet note. I give you all my thanks for hitting the checkpoints accurately and for your warm and good company. This was indeed another memorable Death Valley weekend.

© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs