Saturday, August 13, 2016

Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks

[Kyle]From Arizona we decided to take a road trip back to California, and following our goal of seeing as much of America’s highlights, we took a rather convoluted route via both Joshua Tree and Death Valley National parks.

We set off ridiculously early, so as to be at Joshua Tree National Park just after daybreak, arriving before the visitor center was open. We had the place to ourselves until arriving at Arch Rock, which is also a small campsite. Some of those campers were starting to stir as we parked. Giant wind-eroded rocks and scenic trees were everywhere, and many of the campers had each found their own 30-foot rock to sit atop of while drinking their morning coffee and pondering the scenery and the meaning of life. This left the trail to Arch Rock to ourselves, and we took our time, with each twist and turn around another rock bring a new ‘Wow!’ to the conversation.

Views from Joshua Tree National Park

We left in the car via a different gate – giving us chance to see most of the park highlights and finally appreciate why it was worth getting up so early.

Death Valley was several hundred miles to the North of Joshua Tree NP and required that we traverse huge areas of empty and undeveloped California (with yet more Joshua trees). We drove long stretches on shimmering two lane blacktop with only the occasional power line to hinder the view. It was easy to imagine how little has changed in this part of the country, and we regularly considered the Native Americans along with cowboys, explorers and wagon-trains attempting to cross the land (it is obviously so much easier in a car with AC!).

We descended into the National Park at the peak of mid-day heat. Like everyone else, we headed for the lowest and hottest place in North America – Badwater Basin. We kept thinking on the drive in about how dangerous it would be if the car overheated or broke down in any way. There was no phone signal, and no obvious way to contact help (aside from the chance of flagging down a passing car). The small rental car performed well though, and with the AC on full we pulled into the crowded parking lot with an outside air temperature of 54c 129F; Badwater Basin lived up to its name. We gathered our essentials and braced ourselves before shutting off the car and going into the heat. While it did feel like standing in the draft of a newly opened oven door, it was windy and I was surprised that it did not feel as uncomfortable as I’d expected. The hot wind and low humidity kept us dry and as we walked the ¼ mile or so to the low point of the basin it occurred to me that it was not nearly as uncomfortable as a humid, muggy summer day in Houston. {Maryanne: ???? WHAT ??? it was crazy!!!}. Rationally, I knew the hot dry air was far more deadly; removing fluid from us at a dangerous rate, and that the clock was ticking on ‘safe’ time out of the car – Even with our bottle of water, we had little time to linger before returning to the safety of the car.

Death Valley - lowest, hottest point in the USA

Following our brief stop, during which there was no airflow over the car radiator, we started the drive to climb out of the basin and onto other park views. The poor heat soaked car had a lot harder time with the conditions and the AC kept tripping off on each steep section of uphill (luckily it always returned).

We ascended through the heat, until we finally found an area cool enough to hike to this beautiful pool

While I had previously thought of Death Valley as ‘a hot place in California’, the (rather) obvious fact in hindsight is that it is in a Valley – we needed to climb to a 5000’ pass to exit. Towards the top of the pass, where the temperature was a mere 46c/113F, we took a side road and left the car for a two mile hike to Darwin Falls (where the trail is mostly in a shaded canyon). This is the only year-round water source in the park. The hike started hot and dry, and we were both genuinely surprised when it became damp and filled with vegetation, and at the beauty of the small waterfall and pool at the end of the trail. We didn’t meet anyone else on the trail, and eventually returned to the car for the journey home. A few more passes on a winding mountain road eventually deposited us into California’s central valley. After the distractions of our many stops, we found it much later that we’d planned, and we faced a long drive to our motel near Yosemite.

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