Trip Report: Death Valley National Park
Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Furnace Creek Campground May 6 – 10, 2017
I’ll start with this: Death Valley is beautiful. It’s like being on another planet with only a handful of people. When we arrived around 1pm on May 6th, which was a Saturday, we were afraid all of the “good” spots would be taken since no reservations are accepted at Furnace Creek Campground this time of year. But there were lots of spots. We drove around the campground three times to decide which we liked best. We settled on #47, which has full hookups and a clear view of the sunrise for $36/night. (By about 5pm, all the sites were taken, so we’d lucked out in our timing.)
After our hot, dry camping stint at Joshua Tree, we really appreciated the ability to take a shower and turn on the air conditioning. Showers felt amazing and air conditioning meant we could try leaving the dogs in the trailer for a longer stint and see how it went. This was great because we all had to stay inside most of the time. It was too windy to put our R-Dome up and I suspect the ground was too hard to peg it in anyway, and the shade was too insufficient to sit outside without a tent. So the kids and I played outside at various times of day, but the dogs spent most of our four-night stint at the park inside the trailer in the cool of the A/C.
The good news is our air conditioning blares like a jet engine. So the first time we left the dogs alone in the trailer for an extended period, we felt confident the A/C would drown out many of the noises that may cause them to bark. When we returned several hours later, we turned into the campground with our windows down, listening for the triple bark of misbehaved dogs wondering why the hell they’re stuck in a trailer in the desert instead of lounging in dog beds in West LA. But all was quiet. We continued listening, ears glued to the dusty air, as we neared our trailer. Still nothing until we actually approached the door, when the familiar cacophony began.
We considered that a success and built off of it for the rest of our time at the park. We went to the laundromat, explored Furnace Creek Resort, drove to the Devil’s Golf Course, walked out onto the Salt Flats at Badwater Basin, explored Artists Drive, walked up to Zabriskie Point, drove to Dante’s View, hiked Ubehebe Crater, toured Borax Works, and hiked Natural Bridge. Wendy also walked 20 Mule Canyon with CeCe and Clark while I drove the 2.7 mile crazy-ass road with the kids and Odie, meeting her at the exit.
The kids got more scuffs on their legs and heard ad nauseum “Stay where I can see you” and “boundaries!” If I were a parrot, my owners would be real happy with my ability to repeat “Emerson, that’s too far, come back. Emerson, too far. EMERSON!” We’re still lugging the Pack and Play around but haven’t used it yet. I’m hoping the kids will catch on to camp etiquette and grasp the concept of playing nearby. We’ll see.
We rolled out of Furnace Creek at 9am this morning with a plan to drive 182 miles to KOA Lake Isabella/Kern River. Since Google Maps said it would take three hours, we figured on five. It took us six and four of them were harrowing.
There have been a lot of firsts so far on this adventure: first dry camp, first time leaving the dogs alone in the trailer, first time with full hookups. But today’s first-times made us both need a drink: first time ascending to 5,000 feet, first time smelling our brakes overheating on a steeply-graded descent, first time trying to execute a three-point turn to rectify a U-turn gone wrong, and first time traversing narrow winding mountain roads devoid of guard rails.
Let’s start with the ascent. We chose to leave Death Valley National Park via 190 West. The sign we passed that said “Turn air conditioning off for next 20 miles” should have been a clue. We did turn it off and ascended almost 5,000 feet in fourth gear, slowly but surely, never overheating but keeping consistent watch on our temperature gauge and taking a break once to prevent overheating.
Next: the descent. “Caution: 15% grade.” Yep. Followed by a 9% grade. For-effin-ever. Everything seemed to be going well. I had read how to safely drive a trailer down steep roads: low gear, apply the brakes when you’re within five miles of your target speed, then let the low gear do the work until it’s time to apply the brakes again. I thought all was going well but left the windows down just in case so we could keep a nostril out for trouble. And eventually we smelled it. “Is that us?” I asked Wendy. “I don’t know,” she answered. I decided to use a turnout just in case and as I came to a stop there, I felt the car and trailer roll a little bit farther after my foot had completely depressed the brake pedal. That scared me and we waited there for 10 minutes—a full 5 minutes after the smell had dissipated. Then we continued in first and second gear and all was well. Take-home lesson? Use more pullouts next time. There are many mountains in our future.
Next up on our “Time to shit your pants” day: Deciding whether to turn left onto the road I’d outlined in our itinerary (Panamint Valley) or continue straight on 190 so we could visit Father Crowley Vista Point. Still reeling from our overheated brakes, envisioning my entire family tumbling off the side of a mountain because I couldn’t drive properly, I just wanted to do whatever didn’t involve a mountain.
“Which route looks like it doesn’t take us down a mountain?” I asked Wendy.
“I can’t tell,” she answered. “There’s no elevation on this map. Take whichever one you’re most comfortable with.”
So I eyeballed it. I saw mountains ahead and the road on the left seemed to avoid them. “Panamint it is then,” I said as I turned left onto what turned out to be an old bumpy road with a mule crossing sign.
“How long are we supposed to be on this one?” I asked Wendy.
“Umm, 14 miles and then 28 miles,” she answered.
Nope. Now I was worried about our tires. And there was no guarantee this wouldn’t have mountains too. So we decided to do a U-turn. But halfway through it was clear we wouldn’t make it. Jack-knifed and blocking both lanes, Wendy sprung out of the van to remove the sway bar from our hitch. Wanting to act fast but concerned about the fact that the front tires of our van were now in sand, I took a breath and said to myself “You need the trailer to go right, so move your hand to the right.” I put my foot on the gas and immediately the van lunged farther into the sand. Dammit! I was so frazzled I’d forgotten to put it in reverse. So I moved it to reverse, heart pounding from envisioning us stuck in the sand, blocking both lanes of traffic, unable to call for roadside assistance. "You need the trailer to go right, so move your hand to the right,” I repeated. Foot on the gas, gently, and we backed up a bit. Moving the van back into drive, I straightened us out a little, then reversed again, pulled forward again, and voila! We were back in our own lane, pointing the correct way.
And off we went.
Toward the mountains.
The Father Crowley Vista Point route took us back up to 4,000 feet, slow and winding, narrow, and beautiful. We spent the next three hours somewhere between first and fourth gear to avoid overheating and over-braking. And the vista point? Not that great really. But it did give us a chance to feed the kids lunch and give the van a break.
In other “what a day” news, shortly before arriving at the Lake Isabella KOA, we stopped at a Mobil station outside Olancha, CA along “highway” 178, uncertain when we may see gas again. We pulled up behind a red hatchback and realized, after it was too late to easily pick another lane, that the man standing by the gas pump was writing with a black marker on white poster board “Need gas $$, Puppies for sale.”
“He’s selling puppies,” Wendy said horrified. Just then he scooped a tiny pup in his palm and gave it a kiss. We can’t have five dogs in this trailer, I thought to myself. Avoiding eye contact, I started the gas pump and walked into the mini mart for a soda and pork rinds. It was like a scene from The Hills Have Eyes. The entire mini mart was dark—even the refrigerated section. Hard rock music was blaring, and behind the register stood an elderly man in a red and black plaid shirt, hunched over with gray stubble and one hand so afflicted with arthritis that it served only as a pincer.
My affinity for gas station snacks is too strong to be discouraged by such a scene, but I did complete my purchase as quickly as possible, then return to the van to back the trailer out of our spot since the red car was clearly not going anywhere even though the man kept checking to see if the gas he hadn’t paid for may indeed fill his tank, periodically removing and reinserting the nozzle, flustered that nothing had changed.
Wendy and I are now settled in at the KOA with full hookups again and wifi. The kids are sleeping, the radio is playing, we’re a bottle of wine down, and all is right with the world.
Read the next trip report: KOA Lake Isabella/Kern River.