– Las Vegas, Nevada to Stovepipe Wells, California –

Well, it’s New Year’s Day. Happy New Year to everyone reading along. I know it probably isn’t what most people would say, but thank goodness we’re leaving Vegas. I’m not going to miss it at all. We still got up at 7am this morning, which is not ideal, but we made up for it.

Finally, Mark, Ripley, and I had time to run, since we didn’t need to be anywhere in a huge hurry. It’s only a couple of hours from Vegas to Death Valley, so driving today wouldn’t take all that long. We went for a run in Sunset Park, which seems to be the crown jewel of the parks system there in Las Vegas. It wasn’t a spectacular landscape by our standards, but the trails were very nice and well-paved. Besides, you can hardly expect a shady, tree-lined path in the desert.

Last stop before Death Valley

When we finished our run, we drove up the road a little ways to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts, where we bought everyone breakfast. Some donuts and some breakfast sandwiches made everything better after our long night. Or, a little better, I guess.

Dad’s been fighting a cold during this trip, and it seems to be a losing battle. He was pretty sick today. With that in mind, we had to visit a Target this morning to buy cold meds and a few other necessities before we disappeared into Death Valley. Dad even managed to drive for the first hour or so before the cold meds overwhelmed him and he had to retire to the back for a nap while Mark took over.

Ash Meadows, with the mountains in the distance

Our first real stop was in Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We don’t visit many wildlife refuges, but this one has a piece that is technically operated by Death Valley National Park. That piece is Devil’s Hole. We, like many others before us, would’ve driven right by this little green dot on the map had I not seen a YouTube video talking about Devil’s Hole a few months ago.

Looking down into Devil’s Hole

More specifically, Devil’s Hole is a geothermic pool with salty water and a temperature around 92 degrees. The hole is basically a cave that descends down into the springs below. The water inside the cave is deep and dark, and the cavern has never been mapped. So what’s so cool about it? The pool reacts to seismic activity. According to Wikipedia Earthquakes as far away as Japan and Indonesia have caused a disturbance in the pool’s surface. The water drains out and then rushes back in or rocks back and forth with seismic activity half a world away. Can you imagine? Why? It isn’t clear. Apparently geologists compare the activity to a small scale tsunami.

Clear blue spring… with pupfish!

The other cool thing about this place is the Devil’s Hole Pupfish. This fish is considered one of the world’s rarest. Only 200 still exist, and they all live at the surface at the little pool at the top of the deep cavern of Devil’s Hole. There are several species of pupfish, but these diverged from their cousins over the 60,000 years that they’ve been isolated at the top of the cavern. The fish are under an inch long, and the males are bright blue. According to signs in the park, they are a living fossil.

The road leading back to the hole was our first experience with gravel roads out here. It was quite rough, and the going was slow. In total we probably drove about 4 miles and 4 miles out, which isn’t too bad. There was a road we were going to take in Death Valley that is 27 miles of rough dirt road, but we decided it would take too much time: 7 hours, we’ve heard.

Kristy pointing at pupfish

Dad was feeling too bad to walk up to the pool, but the rest of us trekked up the hill to take a look. The hole is fenced off, these days. Some time ago, from what I understand, some drunken idiots jumped into the pool and disturbed the critically endangered pupfish, which essentially ruined the fun for everyone else. Now you can only walk out onto a small fenced ledge to look down at the hole, rather than getting close enough to see the little fish. I was pretty disappointed with my view, since they were part of the reason I’d wanted to visit in the first place.

The first look at Death Valley

Luckily, that wasn’t our only stop in Ash Meadows. On an impulse, as we were driving back out of the refuge, we took a little road that led to Point of Rocks. Down a smaller and bumpier side road, we found a little picnic area and a path leading back into the brush.

The boardwalk turned out to lead back to a spring. The signs led us back to a small, blue pool where we got to see some pupfish. They weren’t the endangered Devil’s Hole Pupfish, but they were similar, and neat just the same. These were Ash Meadows Pupfish, which are endangered, but not critically so. The pool they lived in was bathwater warm, as was the spring running under a little bridge nearby. It was quite pleasant, since the day was so cool. I only dipped my hand in, of course, which I’m sure the fish appreciated.

Hills at Twenty Mule Team Canyon

It was past our lunchtime, and the picnic area looked nice, so we unpacked our cooler and food tubs and had a picnic. Mark and I brought sparkling grape juice for New Year’s, but we weren’t in the hotel room at midnight, so we had sparkling juice in little plastic wine cups with our lunch instead. It was fun.

From a higher vantage point at Twenty Mule Team Canyon

We finally crossed into Death Valley later in the afternoon. Our first stop was at the Twenty Mule Team Canyon area, where we scrambled up some rocky hills to take photographs of our first view of Death Valley’s desolate landscape. It’s an impressive sort of place, especially in the winter, when you can actually take the time to enjoy it. It’s not nearly as much fun in the summertime.

Along Artist’s Drive

Once we’d finished taking pictures, we drove on to the visitor center, where we picked up our map and showed our annual pass to pay our entrance fee. Since we knew it was getting late, and we’d heard one of the roads was closing on Monday, we rushed back down the road to take the Artist’s Drive, which is a small one-way road off of the main road leading south out of Death Valley. We will drive out of here that way on Tuesday.

Approaching Artist’s Palette

Artist’s Drive consists of a series of rocky mountains covered in a wildly-varying color scheme from dark red to purple and green. It is amazing to see so much color on the sides of bare mountains. The signs told us that the colors were caused by a variety of different minerals spread through the rock.

It started to get dark in the park around 4pm, which really surprised us. I guess, since Death Valley is the lowest point in North America (below sea level), and it’s surrounded by large mountains, the sun disappears pretty quick around here. By the time we made it to our hotel in Stovepipe Wells, it was after 5pm and mostly dark. We had to drive past the sand dunes across the road from us. It was too dark to see them until morning.

Zoomed in on Artist’s Palette

We unpacked our bags into our hotel, which we are actually keeping for two nights, before walking over to the saloon to oder dinner. Mark and I had veggie burgers, and Mom and Dad had meaty ones. It took over an hour for our dinner to arrive because the kitchen was so slammed on New Year’s Day. We were pretty tired of waiting by the time the food arrived, and we’d seen several other tables simply get up and leave. We just felt badly for our poor waiter, who seemed to be the only waiter on duty.

The road on Artist’s Drive, with the setting sun

The kitchen is shared between the restaurant and the saloon, which are the only two places to eat here at the hotel. There’s nothing else for miles and miles. The only other things here, besides the hotel, are a gas station and a tiny market and gift shop.

I wanted to check out the gift shop, so when we were done at the saloon, we walked across the road to take a look. Mom bought some earrings, and Mark and I eyeballed some T-shirts. I think we might get them tomorrow, if we don’t see anything we like better beforehand. They match. He’s really been on a matching T-shirts kick.

More like Bad Service Saloon

Tomorrow we will spend the whole day in Death Valley, driving around and taking it in. Mark and I are going to take Ripley up the little canyon road next to our hotel, since she’s only allowed to be on the roads in the park, and none of the hiking trails. I think we will all enjoy it.

– Trip Total : 1,696 miles

One thought on “Winter Death Valley Trip: Day Four

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