Back to California – Still Kind of Interrupted

Well, weather didn’t work out for us to hike the Narrows, so we pressed on back to California. We spent the night in Pahrump, Nevada. It is one of the closer cities to Death Valley National Park.

We needed to refill our cooler before we hit these next few parks, but that was easier said than done. We went to two different grocery stores and a Dollar General looking for bread. Just one little loaf of bread. At this point in time the coronavirus or COVID-19 as its being referred to now is apparently a bigger deal than we thought, either that, or people have lost their minds. Not sure which at this point of the trip. Friends and family back home are talking about the stores being out of toilet paper, bread, and eggs. What??? We’re not sure what to think about this. But as a family we have learned the new term of “social distancing”. There is also talk of nonessential travel. We aren’t home to stay at home. We are in California and Georgia is home. We’re not sure how long this thing will last. We are not in a high risk category. So we decide to adjust our travel to avoid cities, stay out IN the parks (which is where we were headed anyway), practice social distancing, and good hygiene.

***As a reminder, our blog runs behind real-time for several reasons -1) To actually have something to write about – we have to have the experiences in a state before I can write about it. Usually it’s not too far behind but given the fact we knew we would be slowing down/pausing travel due to the virus, we intentionally really delayed the posting of each Utah and later blog. 2) For our safety – we love you but we don’t want you showing up at our hotel. 🙂 3) For my sanity – I would much rather enjoy the time with my family and just write when I get a chance. You will see how the progression of the virus effects our trip in the posts. For example, we had planned on taking about a month to see California but with the virus we flew through it in a few days. We are my no means complaining as our nation is really struggling dealing with this virus. We are simply expressing how it affects this trip and our emotions. ***

Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska. With over three million acres of designated Wilderness, it’s takes a while to explore. But with majestic sand dunes, twisted slot canyons, rocky peaks, salt flats, and historic sites, it’s worth the seemingly endless drive. It is one of the hottest places in the world, it holds the record for the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded at the surface of the Earth at 134 degrees and the highest ground surface temperature of 201 degrees, with average summer temperatures well over 100 degrees. Hence, us visiting in the winter.

Soooooo, on our way to Death Valley we learn that some of the national parks had closed their visitor centers. At first it was places like the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island, and a few other places where social distancing just wasn’t possible. Well, today Death Valley, along with some other parks had closed their visitor centers. The parks would still be open but no facilities with people. We are driving down a road where we are the only people for miles and, I mean, MILES, so we press on. (The top picture below is heading to Death Valley, the two pictures below it are going from Utah to Nevada). We were so close. We could still go to the park but that meant no Junior Ranger programs. Mason was disappointed. Tuck really didn’t care one way or the other. I saw online I could print out the Junior Ranger books. Then the boys could complete them, mail them in, and get your badges. So I told the boys we would do that. Some programs require certain activities to be completed onsite but Death Valley looked like we could finish it offsite.

When we got to Death Valley, there were VERY FEW people there. The past week the park had only seen about a 1000 visitors a day but once they closed the visitors center, there was hardly anyone. Social distancing was a breeze. We have our America the Beautiful pass so we didn’t have to worry about how to pay the entrance fee. (We found out, there was a kiosk by the bathrooms to pay if you didn’t have a pass, just FYI.)

There was an information station and bathroom not too far into the park. (This is where the kiosk was too). We grabbed a Visitors Guide. The guide was a big help and had a list of top things to see depending on how long you wanted to stay in the park. Perfect! First stop for us was Dante’s View.

It was about 59 degrees when we entered the park. By the time we climbed a few thousand feet or so it was 37 degrees at Dante’s View. Dante’s View sits at 5,476 feet and overlooks the valley. It is named for Dante Alighieri, who wrote the Divine Comedy where he describes, among other things, nine circles of hell. Located in the Black Mountains, it is just a little distance from the Funeral Mountains. Sounds like an inviting place, huh? The white in the pictures is the salt flats down below in the valley.

We head back down (and warm back up to 64 degrees) to Zabriskie Point to view the golden colored badlands.

Then in the middle of this park and out of nowhere are two amazingly beautiful (and very expensive) hotel options. The Oasis at Death Valley is comprised of the Inn and the Ranch. Think resort with valet, spa, and golf; not the run of the mill hotel room or rustic striped down park option. It really looked like an oasis in the desert valley. Instead of paying $300-$600/night we opted for a Best Western at $89 plus taxes and a 1 1/2 hour drive. 🙂 But look how pretty this is.

We stopped at the Ranch to get the boys’ stuff. Mason collects lapel pins and Tuck buys keychains and both collect pressed pennies for souviners. Not sure if I had mentioned that or not in an earlier post. These are the only souvenirs we buy and they are small so we keep them in a bag with their ranger badges.

Then it was off to the salt flats. I’m not exactly sure why I was so excited about this but I was. I was almost giddy thinking about it. At sea level it was about 69 degrees and by the time we hit Badwater Basin at 282 feet BELOW sea level (the lowest point in North America) it was 72 degrees. I can tell you it felt much warmer than that in the car. Mrs. Pierce, the boys’ School Administator, went through Death Valley last summer or the summer before (when temperatures are in the 100s) and she said it felt like the dash was going to melt. I can believe it because it felt hot in the car in the 70s. I bet it was miserable in the 100s.

Here it is – Badwater Basin. Once you cross over the wooden bridge area, you’re out on the flats.

It was wide open space and the boys took off running. The further out you go, the flatter and whiter it gets. I would definitely recommend walking out if you’re able. It is really surreal. You can hear the salt crunch under you’re feet and it goes on forever it feels like.

As you can see, there was very few people around and we all easily kept our distance. For those of you with a weak stomach or are germaphobes, you might want to skip the next sentence. The boys had to taste the salt to see if it was salty. I was grossed out by this and warning them of the tiny insects, prickle weed, and larva that could be lurking in the salt, I then see Trevor tasting it too….AAAHHH! Gross! Not only disgusting, but we later found out that it is illegal to take or consume a part of any National Park. Actually, we knew from forty-plus ranger programs that you can’t take from a park but we didn’t really think about “consuming” and taking being the same. But they are. Just for clarification, they did not take any salt with them. They just stuck their tongue to a clump of the salt. But they were still consuming. And just like that, at 10 and 8, my children are hardened criminals. Time for a PSA – seriously for a second, it’s the same thing I tell them when they want to take rocks, etc, from the parks, if everyone did it then there wouldn’t be any parks left to enjoy. If it’s in the park, leave it in the park. Now you know and won’t make the same mistake we did. Maybe in exchange for that service announcement, the National Park Service won’t press charges. Besides, the boys said it just tasted super salty. Not worth a fine. Moving right long…

The flats are just hard packed salt, kind of like hard mud except salt.

How cool is this? We went from over 5,400 feet elevation to -282 feet elevation and an almost 40 degree change in temperature.

If you look really close, REALLY close, there’s a sign up on the mountain that shows where sea level is. It’s that white rectangle between their sweet heads in the background.

On our way back to the main road we took the 9-mile one way scenic Artist Drive to see these multi-hued hills, one aptly named Artist Palette. The colors are caused by oxidation of the the different metals. Iron can produce red, yellow, and pink. Mica can produce green and manganese can produce purple. Even the color of the sky is effected by the environment. There is science dealing with the wavelengths of the sunlight which are scattered at different rates by molecules in the atmosphere and the low humidity of the dessert, that is above my understanding. ( has an article about Artist Palette on it’s website if you’re into the science behind it). All that to say, it produces a darker blue sky. It really is amazing.

Further into the park, we finally made it to the visitor center. Look at those sad, sad faces that can’t get their ranger books but at this point in time bathrooms were open and we had us a wonderful picnic. (They would, days later, close the bathrooms and campgrounds due to COVID-19).

We decided to skip the Keane Wonder Mine due to road conditions and instead visited Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The boys had a blast playing in the sand. And, yes, that is Mason in the background crawling up the sand dune, photobombing Dad’s shot. Tuck was too. He just ended up being hidden behind Trev’s head. Trevor was fascinated with the little dust devils, spinning around across valley.

For any Star Wars fans out there, several sites were used for filming the original Star Wars movies, A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Due to changes in wilderness polices, they wouldn’t be able to film in the park now like back in the 70’s. Want to visit Tatooine? Just head over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; no spaceship required. Desolations Canyon will give you some views of Tatoonie. At Dante’s View, you may recognize the view looking down on Mos Easley. The drive out Twenty Mule Team Canyon, is the landscape around Jabba the Hutt’s palace. You might find a Jawa if you hike Golden Canyon. Some scenes were filmed out Artists Drive too. I kind of feel like a tour guide. Tips are appreciated. HAHA!

You can easily drive straight through Death Valley from east to west out Hwy 190 but I wouldn’t do that without hitting some of these side roads. These stops make the difference between just driving through the desert and actually visiting the park.

It was basically just us and some tractor trailers out on the roads. You can’t get much more socially distanced than that.

We spent the night in Bakersfield so we would be close to Sequoia National Park before going to Yosemite. But here’s the thing, we are back in California way sooner than we had expected due to our southern Utah/northern Arizona stops being closed. Pair that with a winter storm dumping inches of snow in those parks a couple days leading up to our arrival, it meant closed park roads and/or snow chains (which we don’t have) were required. The weather forecasts showed more snow this week and frigid temperatures. I’m talking 9 degrees kind of cold. We were slowly realizing that we would have to skip these parks. The parks are open but with the visitor centers being closed, we couldn’t get advice from the rangers on what to do, and that also meant no snowshoe rentals for hikes. Missing Yosemite is killing me. It was one of the main parks we wanted to visit in California. I guess that means it’s just a destination for a future trip.

We talked to the boys about being salt and light and about making lemonade out of lemons, so we did just that. We figured a drive would keep us distanced and yet still get to see some more of California. If you’re going to drive anywhere in California, people say there’s one road you must take and it’s one of the prettiest in the US. So out to the coast we headed. On our way west, we drove through some more oil operations. Roads were way better out here. No windshield chips this time. Yay!

It was not a BIG SURrprise that the ONE route we took turned out pretty cool.

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