The east coast junta decided to meet up with the west coast junta for the Good Friday long weekend, and after some storms over email, it was finally decided that we would make it to death valley.
The group: Bikram, Snigdha, Arindam (Adam), Amrita, Vinay and I. The east coast people - Bikram, Snigdha and I - landed at SFO airport around midnight thursday, were picked up by Vinay and taken to the car rental, where we picked up a behemoth of a van - Chevy Astro, all wheel drive, all gas guzzler, no handling or power or anything associated to coolness factor in cars.
After a lip-smacking dinner prepared by Adam and Amrita, we had about 4 hours to sleep, before hitting the road. A quick stop at Casey-de-fruta saw to our caffeine requirements, and we were off. The journey to a destination is always riddled with short stops -checking out reservoirs, stopping for coffee, stopping for gas, so on and so forth.
We entered Trona around 3pm, and stopped for lunch. If you are driving down this way, skip the trouble of checking out the Mexican restaurant with a big sign inviting you to a great lunch - they are closed and boarded up. There is another place a couple of hundred yards down the road, that looks like another building in what seems like a ghost town, but then if you stop by and poke your head outside, they will come out to invite you in. See if the special is still prime rib sandwiches.
After the nice lunch, we hit the road for our final destination - the last 2 hours of driving. We missed a fork in the road and landed up in Desert Rose canyon, a nice detour, amidst surprising weather of sleet and rain! Stove Pipe Wells was the first gas station after the last hour or two of driving, and we loaded up. The next stop, the first significant one in the park, was the Sand Dunes.
The Dunes in death valley are, in my opinion, one of the most interesting places to be in. Sunset is wonderful, sunrise is awesome, feels great to walk barefoot when the weather is pleasant, gives you mies of space to relax and do nothing. Of course, we always feel the need to do something, so we rolled down the dunes instead, like actors and actresses in Hindi movies roll down the grassy slopes of Switzerland. It hurts a little, but feels great.
Sunset was over by the time we left the dunes, so we made our way straight to Beatty, where we had to out up for the night. Exchange Club Motel gave us two neighboring rooms, though the neighborhood was vertical instead of horizontal, and did not help us a bit. There's a restaurant right next to it, the casino and restaurant or something, that serves one of the worst foods I have ever come across. Consider that statement with the fact that we were all very hungry, you'll get an idea of how bad that is. I remember staying at the same place in my trip back in Thanxgiving '00, but I must have forgotten the restaurant food quality entirely, or they have fallen with the stock market.
Next day was an early rise (like every other day in this trip). Wake up around 4am, get dressed and quit the hotel, and make way to Zabriskie point to watch the sunrise. Sunrise itself was not something magnificient - IMHO - but then once the first rays of the sun fell on the eroded badland fans, the place lit up brighter than christmas trees (figuratively speaking).
Next stop was Dante's view, simply because it was down the same road. Unlike Zabriskie point, this was on the top of a mountain, with a very cold wind coming hard and strong. A short hike took us to another viewpoint that goes deeper into the badlands, giving a wider view of the valley floor and the "army of caterpillars", mountain ranges ending into the valley floor.
Next stop - breakfast at Furnace Creek Ranch. We missed 9am by about 5 minutes, so were redirected to the cafe instead of the breakfast buffet. At this point, we got ourselves familiarized to the General Store - where you can get everything from trinklets to color changing T'shirts to citrus energy drinks (180 degree) to firewood to alcohol to pottery to plants. If you are bored of looking at the vast expanse of emptiness outside, walk in. Once you are bored of the commercialization, step out.
After lunch, we checked out the popular places - Devil's golfcourse, badwater, artists' palette, etc. Among these, IMHO, the golf course was the best. This is a huge, barren place with rock-hard salt formations all around. Looks like someone had just tilled the soil. The salt-rocks are hard and prickly, though, so sitting is not a very comfortable option.
Natural bridge is a nice sight - though it would definitely look better earlier or later in the day, and not in the mid-day sun that we faced. The bridge/arch looks better in reality than in the photographs - the pictures look rather flat.
There are some good day hikes in this area, but in this trip none of us were prepared for hikes, and we were pressed for time, so we skipped that. Nothing too fancy in these places - see for yourself. Badwater was really bad - all the water was under the surface, so it did not match up to the expectations of seeing wonderful reflections of the mountains. We did see some crazy mirages, though.
Once the loop was done, we went over to the Furnace Creek campground, and set up our tents. The campgrounds are on a first come first served basis, so you need to hurry. Once the tents were set up, we headed towards the Ubehebe Crater, a 55-mile drive from Furnace Creek. The crater looks awesome, but it's a little difficult to take impressive photographs of it. I remember Kanishka had mentioned going down some crater and finding it difficult to make his way up along the loose gravel walls, so we all avoided the hike to the base.
The Ubehebe crater drive opens up two other possibilities - both of which were lost on us. We tried to make our way to the racetrack first - the Astro was as good as most other vehicles, but then the road was artificially rippled up - like a washboard - and speed was reduced to 5mph or slower. At this rate, the 26 mile drive would have taken all night, so we took the first turnout and made out way back. The next attempt was Scotty's castle - but that closed just as we reached the place, so we turned around and drove down to the camp instead.
Camping in Death Valley is a wonderful experience - it's car camping, so it's very easy, and the place is wonderful. The sky is clear like I have never seen before. A full moon being only a few nights in the past, moonlight was strong, and it was easy to find our way without any additional light. Fires are permitted in the campground, another plus point over many other national parks. We had a nice dinner of Maggi and vegetables over some vodka, red bull, and Baileys on ice.
The next morning, we had to start early for the drive back to SFO airport - so all we did was hit the dunes shortly after sunrise. The dunes are just awesome - I know I am repeating myself, but you won't believe how nice they are in the early light of day.
Once we had seen enough of the dunes, we headed back to the Furnace Creek ranch for a quick breakfast (this time we made it to the buffet), and then drove back to SFO, then flew to the east coast, then made our way to our respective offices, pushing keys and handling paper and looking at deadlines ........
Created on ... April 22, 2003