Friday, April 18, 2014

ROADTRIP: New life in Death Valley

While the name conjures the idea of a place where nothing could possibly live, when you take a close look, you can easily see the tracks of snakes, lizards and birds in the sand of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. A natural spring feeds the beautiful gardens and swimming pool of The Inn at Furnace Creek. Sand Creek is home to a pup fish that lives nowhere else – an Ice Age leftover that adapted as the area turned from lake to desert, as well as a lot of lizards like the blue-spotted fellow below. Most everyone is blend-in brown.

Birds play in the wind around Ubehebe Crater, created when a volcano blew hundreds of years ago. And humans flock to Scotty’s Castle, not so much a castle as a millionaire’s vacation home built in the 1920s.

Getting There
Death Valley National Park is well marked from both Nevada and California, and spring is the best time to go, but watch for closed roads even as late as April. If you have, or can rent, an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle, these will be your best bet because you won’t have to mess with tire chains, but if you are traveling any of these roads from October-April you might want to have some in the car just in case. Once you get out of the major cities, you’ll pay through the nose for a set.

CA-190 runs (sort of) through the middle of the park, and you can get to the west side from Reno, Sacramento or Los Angeles, and to the east side from Las Vegas.

From Reno, US-395 heads south, crosses into California, runs down the east side of Yosemite National Park, and then down the west side of Death Valley National Park, which sits along the Nevada border. From US-395, CA-190 or CA-136 head into the park.

From Sacramento, US-50 will connect with US-395 south toward the park and most of the On The Way destinations. This section of US-50, one of the most beautiful (and also called the loneliest for its stretch east of Reno) highways in the country, also goes through  Eldorado National Forest and just south of South Lake Tahoe.

From LA, US-395 heads north. From Vegas, US-95 or NV-160 will take you to Death Valley in about the same amount of time.

In the Park
There is a per-vehicle or per-person fee to enter the park, and kiosks are conveniently located. There are two hotels (ranging from pricey to holy crap) and camping in the park; check website to find information and pricing.

Leashed pets are allowed on established roadways and in parking areas only, and are not encouraged because of the extreme temperatures. The usual rules apply: Leave no trace and take only pictures. No off-roading is allowed, don’t shoot your guns and build your fires only in established pits. In other words, don’t be a jerk.

Pay careful attention to gas while driving in the park. There is a (expensive!) gas station, but it’s easy to run out while you’re seeing the sites. If you’re renting a car, take a look at the spare, jack, etc. You likely won’t have cell service in the park, and depending on the time of year, who knows when the next car will be along?

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