Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Death Valley
Trip Date: April 2-6, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: April 11, 2009

Seven persons in three carpools attended this year's Death Valley field trip, held Thursday, April 2 through Monday, April 6. This year our group concentrated mostly on the southeastern area of the park.

Thursday's events (for two of the carpools) began on the western side of the park in the Panamint Mountain Range at Wildrose campsite, six miles from the charcoal kilns. The camp was 4,100 in elevation, with Telescope Peak towering over it at 11,049 feet. Just 85 miles to the west was Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the 48 contiguous states, rising to 14,505 feet in elevation--reminding us that the Death Valley region is all about extremes.

Speaking of extremes, one of our club members was introducing himself to camping, which proved to be a bit uncomfortable for the "tinhorn" outdoorsman. He got a good taste of the conditions--aptly described in the Death Valley slogan "hottest, driest, lowest." Of course, "coldest and windiest" weren't included in that, but should have been that evening.

The 5,262 square-mile national park was established in 1933 as a federally-protected national monument and was substantially expanded and included in the National Park system in 1994--with 95 percent of its area designated as wilderness. As for the "lowest," Badwater is the lowest point in North America. It is 282 feet below sea level, near the middle of the basin of the former Lake Manly--a body of water that dried up thousands of years ago. There are few remnants of Lake Manly, save for the underlying aquifer, the 40-mile long salt pan and several species of pupfish. (More about them later.)

The wind was whipping up the dust in the Panamint Valley as we arrived at Wildrose. Strong gusts nearly blew the tent away before we had it staked down, but, fortunately, the wind died down allowing us to start a fire and cook dinner. We dined on steaks, roasted peppers, corn and roasted yams. After sunset, we drove up to the charcoal kilns to take night pictures of the ten native-rock structures built in a row. The kilns--25 feet in height and 30 feet in circumference-- were built in 1877 by mining tycoon George Hearst to produce charcoal fuel for smelting silver and gold for his Modock Consolidated Mining Company. (George Hearst amassed the fortune that helped establish his son's newspaper empire and, later, Hearst Castle.) The kilns only operated for about a year before the declining quality of the ores caused the decline of the mines and the closure of the kilns.

Temperatures dipped into the 30s at the kilns, and after several night shots, we were eager to return to camp for a good night's sleep--that is all of us but one. Our new frontiersman had a borrowed jacket and didn't bring his wool socks and his sleeping pad to prevent the sharp gravel under the tent from poking into his back through his "Hello Kitty" light sleeping bag. He was definitely outfitted for a pajama party, but not for an evening of camping in the wild. Loaded heavy with technology, but light on the essentials, his discomfort that night constituted one of the best lesson he'd ever learned about the outdoors. Nature had him on the class roster for more lessons along the way. We felt bad for him that night, but not bad enough to trade him our warm bags-- you only get to trade bags after you begin shivering uncontrollably. The other tent party had to slit the bottom of their tent with a knife and stick their legs out in order to stretch out. Apparently they bought thier tent in the Hello Kitty camping section.

After a hastily-prepared breakfast, we broke camp and headed to the east side of the park to establish our motel room bivouac in Beatty, Nevada. After coming down Wildrose pass, we saw the whole of the main valley cloaked in a cloud of dust kicked up by the heavy winds. Dale and Linda were touring in the choking dust that day and we hoped the skies to the east would be clearer. They were, but the temperature on the Nevada side of the park was in the 20s and 30s, with snow flurries to the northeast-- near our afternoon's destination of course! Dale and Linda toured Scotty's Castle that day and were able to warm up and escape the dust.

We took Highway 95 to the "ghost town" of Goldfield, Nevada and found a very interesting and colorful little community of 300 residents sharing their town with the ghosts of the past. Goldfield rivals Bodie as one of the better ghost towns in the Great Basin region. I suggest that you visit Goldfield someday--preferably on a day without near-freezing temperatures and gale-force winds! In spite of the horrible weather conditions, we walked around the town viewing the century-old buildings and fascinating piles of old junk cluttering every corner of the town. (It's the rusty junk that makes a ghost town a ghost town!) I think Goldfield is much more fascinating than Bodie. You can't get a hot Irish coffee and have a chat with the colorful and boozy locals in Bodie! We wrapped up our Goldfield experience by taking a drive on the dirt roads of the mineral-painted mining district behind it. (For the geologist.) There were so many piles of tailings from the hundreds of mining operations, that it looked like a brightly-colored landscape excavated by colonies of giant ants.

We returned triumphantly to Beatty where we savored a dinner of hot prime rib at the restaurant in the Stagecoach Casino. The extreme cold made that dinner seem like the best we've ever eaten. In lieu of a night photo shoot we decided to go to Zabriskie Point at dawn for a photo shoot. Good choice. The warm light of the rising sun gave us nearly an hour of "fireworks" for our lenses. After the show, we breakfasted at the Furnace Creek Inn in the park--the most luxurious hotel in the area (room rates begin at about $300 a night and go up from there). The breakfast wasn't as breathtaking as the room prices! After that we drove to see the spectacular view of the valley from Dante's View.

From there we went to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge , outside the park boundaries on the Nevada side. We were on a mission to see as many species of pupfish as possible. The pupfish are a carryover species from the former lake Manly. They migrated into the area during the Ice Age. Separate species of the guppy-like fish can be found at Devil's Hole, Crystal Spring in Ash Meadows, Salt Creek near Furnace Creek, Saratoga Spring to the south and possibly a couple other locations. The pupfish were a constant source of jokes because a previous trip participant referred to them as "mud pups," and thought they might be a "missing link" species, emerging from the desert marsh mud into a harsh new environment using their lobe-fin limbs and highly adapted swim bladders serving as lungs.

Ash Meadows surrounds a small federally-protected part of Death Valley National Park at Devil's Hole. Devil's Hole is nothing more than a slot in the side of a small mountain, which opens onto a deep grotto of underground water--a sinkhole of sorts. (It is estimated to be more than 500 feet in depth.) It's the water left over from the ancient lake that dried up about 10,000 years ago. The lukewarm water is laden with minerals and the fish live on a small shelf near the mouth of the fissure. (Devil's Hole was a former party spot for the locals, who littered it with their beer cans, wine bottles and other trash until a few years ago when it was incorporated into Death Valley National Park and fenced off.) Now only park officials and scientists are allowed inside the fence. All we could do was look down into the slot and watch the scientists and rangers perform their research duties through the fence. There were several divers down in the sinkhole the day we stopped by.

After departing Devil's Hole a bit crestfallen by the official rejection, we went to the Ash Meadows visitors' center and talked to Ranger Jane about the wildlife. She suggested we hike out about a quarter mile on the wooden boardwalk to see Crystal Spring, home of a specific species of pupfish. We took her up on her suggestion and found an interesting little marsh, former home to the Anasazi, Paiute and Shoshone tribes. The natives subsisted on the mesquite, the wildlife and the arsenic-tainted water of this natural spring. (Perhaps arsenic poisoning is less of a problem when your lifespan is already short, as in the case of the local Indians.) I would like to say that seeing the pupfish, the mosquito-eating fish, the crayfish and the lizards was exciting, but I can't stretch it quite that far. The most amazing sight here at the spring was the beautiful electric-blue of the water that bubbled up out of a rock fissure under the main pool. I've never seen water take on quite that shade of blue. After our pupfish-spotting experience we drove back to Beatty for a well-deserved afternoon nap and dinner.

During dinner, the group agreed upon a dawn photo shoot on the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells. And the next day, a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call got us motivated and on the road before twilight broke. At the dunes, we were able to put almost a mile of sand behind us before the horizon glowed red with the anticipation of the sunrise. All the previous days' winds wiped most of the footprints off the dunes, resharpened the tops of the dunes; and the airborne dust provided some nice warm filtration for the early light. As the sweet sunlight played over the dunes, we voraciously snapped our pictures trying to capture a thousand miracles of dancing light and shadow happening all around us.

At breakfast, after the dunes shoot, our well-wired greenhorn received another lesson from the textbook of hard knocks--his cell phone turned up missing, and he soon realized it was likely lost at the dunes. (Lesson number two: Don't bring your tech gadgets to the dunes!) Later, we formed a search party and fanned out on the dunes to see if we could find a needle in a haystack. We were fools! Looking for a small object on the dunes is virtually impossible and very uncomfortable when the temperature rises into the 80s. Soon the heat drove us off the sand and we continued our tour schedule before heading to the extreme southeastern corner of the park. In addition to being very upset about his phone, our technologically well-endowed greenhorn had quite a headache. (Possibly an early symptom of heat exhaustion--it was good we got off the dunes when we did.)

Our last Death Valley destination was Saratoga Spring out on the back roads--yes, the dreaded backroads! Once again we tempted fate, but fared much better than two previous experiences with unpaved roads. Saratoga, at the extreme southern end of the park, was beautiful and interesting and provided a spectacular end for a wonderful trip. I was determined not to get us stranded out on the washboard because I badly wanted to break my two-year streak of wilderness-road disasters. We took eight miles of moderately harsh washboard road (nothing compared to the Racetrack Playa road!) and arrived at a beautiful little marsh at the base of some large, dark rock formations. Brian, our portable geologist, told us how they were formed and what kind of rocks littered the trail.

Approaching the marsh, I saw the water ripple as quick moving little critters flitted about under the surface. Thar be them Mudpups! The pupfish here were very spooky and would not tolerate our presence for very long before darting into the safety of the deeper water of the pool. After a short and beautiful hike along the pools, we returned to the vehicles and drove back out of the backcountry. Brian and I had our eyes on a new set of remote dunes near the Saratoga road. The road sign warned: Deep Sand mile--it looked like another invitation to me!

After a pleasant and well-deserved dinner in Shoshone, the last night's repose was to be spent at the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House . The hotel is an oddity housed in a former mining headquarters building. The opera house was established by Marta Becket, an eccentric performer, artist and entrepreneur. She rented and fixed up the former Corkhill Hall theater, and began giving dance and theatrical performances for tourists and the locals. Death Valley Junction is nothing more than a bend in the road where a handful of buildings and tumble weeks have accumulated. There are all of three residents in town--Marta, the hotel manager and the town "manager" (a city council without the city!) The hotel is adored by foreign tourists wishing to obtain a genuine "Western" experience. They should have camped with us at Wildrose if they wanted that genuine flavor of the West!

Hadn't the Amargosa Hotel been in the location it was, I would have been tempted to rant and froth at the mouth about some of the "sacrifices" we had to make to stay there--specifically no television, lack of hot water in some of the showers and a damn ghost that gave some of us a few chills. (Actually, I went out looking for the spirit that was advertised on the website the night of our stay. My description of my subsequent encounter gave my bunkmate enough of a fright that we had to sleep with the lights on.) My ghost-busting expedition caused some raised hairs on the back of my neck and gave me quite a chill while snooping around at the far end of the building. Refuted to hang out in motel room #23, the spirit apparently met me out on the porch under the long colonnade. (I think I scared him when I made him pose for a few pictures before I let him go back to his haunting.) As for room 23, we found no such quarters the next day. Apparently the owners were using this poor hapless spirit to promote this isolated motel. Now admittedly, the ghost "haunting" may have been a figment of my often wild imagination, but our night-shooting party was definitely haunted by the motel manager who gave us quite a lengthy lecture on trespassing. I chose to allow this "desert wind" to pass in one ear and out the other. I only take my guidance from Commandment Number One in the Night-Shooters' Bible, which reads: "It is far better to apologize than ask for permission." (Unless, of course, the land owner has a loaded shotgun, in which case, one should refer to the Second Commandment: "Run like Hell, fleeing in a zig-zag pattern.")

This Death Valley trip was one of the top three! (Apologies to our "tinhorn" for letting us have a little fun at your expense. Your sense of humor saved you! And a good samaritan found your phone on the side of the road at the sand dunes. We're happy everything turned out well.)

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs