George’s Birthday Adventure: Death Valley

I know I left you hanging on George’s Birthday Adventure with the story of the E.T. Highway but I promise I’ll keep sprinkling it in here between our other antics. It certainly seems odd to still be chronicling that trip when we’re already two weeks into our next expedition…the 5-week journey that I’ve come to know as Geowoodstock to TBEX.

Anyway, our last adventure certainly didn’t end in Nevada. Which brings us to the next installment of George’s Birthday Adventure.

Mom, can we go to Death Valley?

So having successfully completed our geocaching expedition, Camp Granola exited Alamo, NV to return to (shudder) Vegas. You see, I had the great idea to run the April Fool’s Day 5K there. I thought it would be a fun layover for laundry and replenishing supplies and I also thought the boys would get a kick out of doing their first official race in Vegas.

Get your adrenaline pumping in Death Valley with tent-flattening winds.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. It was a fun race with all sorts of silliness being April Fool’s Day (think wonderfully weird costumes). Unfortunately Fred and George just weren’t feeling all that spunky (car lag maybe?) so they weren’t interested in running their hearts out. Throw in a healthy dose of me clocking myself in the head with the car door less than an hour before the race and you have the beginnings of an advice column on how not to go into a race. Here I sit, two months later and I can still feel the bump on my noggin. Yes folks, I’m all kinds of slick.

With the boys uninspired and my head pounding, running simply wasn’t the best plan. So we mozied through the race with His Beagleness and enjoyed the mountain scenery surrounding Vegas. George’s goal was simply not to be last and Fred’s was to be just ahead of George and me. Aiming high my friends, aiming high! Turns out George would have come away with the trophy for last place had he not set the “not last” goal. Like I said, it was an April Fool’s Day race and the joke was on us!

Anyway, our plans after Vegas were somewhat loose since we didn’t have a campsite reserved in Utah until the following night. So when George chimed in with his desire to swing through Death Valley, we just decided to go for it…we had nowhere else to be really so why not?

The near-death of Agnes…

Obviously it won’t surprise you given the last-minute decision that we weren’t really up on our Death Valley info. This was very seat-of-the-pants so we hadn’t done any research into camping there. When we arrived at Furnace Creek and finally picked a campsite, imagine our dismay at facing our toughest tent pitch…ever!

The scene of the “Pitch of Death” at Furnace Creek Campground

Folks, you know I’ve done this countless times and I’ve got some fairly beefy equipment, but the gusts in Death Valley that day were fierce. Unlike the comedy of the Mojave, with it’s steadier – albeit still considerable – winds, this entry to camp was more than a bit dicey. The gusts went from zero to “Oh shit!” with nerve-wracking suddenness, unpredictability, and – just for our added camping pleasure – changing directions. Throw in the hardest ground I’ve ever encountered for staking and this had disaster written all over it.

We managed to get maybe half of the main stakes in after relentless hammering, weighted the inside down with gear, and took a little breather. Big mistake. Before we set the side guy-lines, a gust came that flattened Agnes (yes, with all the poles in…) as I watched in helpless wide-eyed horror.

After the initial heart-stopping shock, I had to down-shift into zen mommy mode…i.e. what’s done is done, it was time to simply assess damage and make a plan accordingly. The good news…no broken poles, Agnes is still quite functional. The bad news…wow, those are some bent poles! Seems our Agnes will be permanently listing to port…unless I’m ready to bone up for new poles. Needless to say, we promptly set the guy lines and Agnes held true after that.

Stark and stunning….Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin…

With the tent as secure as possible, we hesitantly set out to Badwater Basin. On the one hand, we had only a few hours to get a feel for Death Valley, on the other, we weren’t sure our tent would still be there when we returned to camp. Sitting around camp making sure the tent didn’t fly away certainly didn’t seem like a lot of fun so we took our chances.

A wet beginning to Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin was indeed well worth the risk. It really is an otherworldly scene, the giant salt flat surrounded by mountains. And given my geeky geologic tendencies, of course I was on the ground inspecting the salt grains at only a nose-length. And given my boys’ pre-teen senses of humor, of course they were laying on the ground pretending they were dead in Death Valley.

Not feeling like we’d quite gotten a big enough taste of Death Valley by only visiting Badwater Basin (but still short on time mind you), we took a little ride through Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette. The drive was really quite groovy and I highly recommend it. As a drive it’s remarkably roller-coastery so lots of fun on that front. It’s also a geologic marvel in the variety of formations you roll through on the short loop. Even the non-geologists in the car were Ooo-ing and Aah-ing.

The salt flat at a nose length. Check out those little tendrils! Who knew?

Meanwhile, back at camp…

I’m happy to report Agnes held her own during our absence in spite of the relentless wind. Having finally gotten the side guy-lines set before we left was more than enough to combat the gusts. Of course, the wind meant dinner involved a scramble of vestibule cooking and in-tent dining. Gourmet all the way my friends!

Diminutive Rangers…

So one of the things that many kids do when traveling to National Parks is participate in the Junior Ranger activities. We typically try to do them, although George is generally more motivated than Fred. This time, Fred was on board though. He found Death Valley quite enthralling.

Pre-teen interpretation of Death Valley.

So my sales pitch for the Junior Ranger program is that it’s one of the activities done on kids’ terms. They have an activity book they need to complete and once they do, they collect their Junior Ranger badges. The activities help them gather information on the park by examining the exhibits, going on hikes, or attending ranger talks. Having a purpose in participating engages them in discovering why that particular place has been set aside for preservation.

Death Valley already had their attention just for being cool at first sight. But as they delved more in-depth they had a greater sense of the multitude of reasons for conservation, beyond just the “pretty” factor. And, as a little feather in my roadschooler cap, the Ranger who was working with them was delighted by their knowledge…knowledge she said most adults hadn’t absorbed. So a big “Hurray!” to Fred and George for being great little explorers.

A job well done…

You know I love to give credit where it’s due when I meet someone who is really good at their chosen profession, particularly when it’s also close to my heart in terms of nature. In this case I have to give a huge shout out to Ranger Dianne who was not only friendly and knowledgeable but who also ably handled a large crowd while working with Fred and George. She didn’t short-change them under the pressure of a bus-load of new arrivals. While I obviously appreciate it from a personal standpoint for my own children, it speaks volumes for the National Park Service’s values. At a time when the average age of National Park visitors is on the rise, they recognize the need to engage the next generation and treat them with as much consideration as adult visitors.

Final thoughts…

If you’re planning your own visit to Death Valley, here are a few things to keep in mind before you set out:

Ranger Dianne swearing in Fred and George as Junior Rangers.
  • Remember, this is the middle of nowhere. Any supplies you need will be expensive and for good reason. Either stock up before you go in or get ready to pony up without complaint.
  • Absolutely pick up a map and study it. Do not rely on your GPS. It’s been known to be fatal.
  • Always have a supply of water. Remote doesn’t begin to cover how desolate it can get. Don’t underestimate dehydration. Even if you’re traveling by car, a break down without water is bad news.
  • As I hope I’ve illustrated above, the winds can be insane. Just be aware.
  • Death Valley is enormous…3.4 million acres enormous. You can spend a little time or a lot. Our brief visit has only whetted my appetite for more so don’t be surprised if you feel like you can’t get enough.

Happy trails!

And now for your moment of green…

The colors and textures of the Artist’s Palette are most certainly soul-soothing.