Thanksgiving in Death Valley

Published: December 3rd 2007
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First Day: Beginning of unpaved roadFirst Day: Beginning of unpaved roadFirst Day: Beginning of unpaved road

This is the very first part of unpaved road we faced at Lake Isabella

Death Valley (Nov 23rd - Nov 25th 2007)

Thanksgiving, as everybody knows, is a big holiday in the US and every family member gather and celebrates this day with a sort of all-you-can-eat meal. I was (once again) really lucky to be invited by my neighbor Jonathan at his brother's house.

The night has not been very long for me, since I was leaving the very next day for Death Valley with Davide, a good friend that - as everybody knows - is hardly available.
The initial project for this long weekend was to go to San Diego to visit some friends, but it has soon be abandoned because of the absence of the people we wanted to meet over there... but this is a different story.

The choice of the vehicle was pretty obvious: Davide's green-rock-solid Jeep Cherokee 4.0 litre, a car that does not fear anything... or at least that's what we thought before leaving.

Our timetable was very demanding and expected us to leave at 7 in the morning (I don't recall to ever waking up at 7 in the morning in 2007...). For a number of reasons we ended up leaving
First day: beautiful roadFirst day: beautiful roadFirst day: beautiful road

We drove at least 30 miles of this fantastic road which kept changing mile by mile
my apartment in Mountain View at about 8, not bad after all. The real worry was the traffic, but I have to say that the first day the traffic was virtually nought. Our destination: Bakersfield, a big city with no attractions whatsoever (at least not well advertised...).

Our equipment consisted only in a sleeping bag, a few maps, a save-ass GPS and a tour book on the California Desert. The last two items - which dramatically changed the outcome of our vacation - had been provided by Jonathan and I guess he cannot realized how much they did make the difference.

Highway 5 was our best bet to get there as fast as we could and it turned out to be the best choice; from there hwy 178 took us to Lake Isabella, where our offroad adventure begun.

Hwy 178 itself is already a beautiful road; it is pretty winding and small and at that point we didn't know what we were going to face shortly... that really was a highway compared to the desert byways.

As first day our end-target was Ridgecrest, the gateway to Death Valley, the last human settlement that deserves to be

Local people in Ridgecrest told us they shot a lot of movies here
called city before the great California desert.

Well, our idea was to get from Hwy 178 to Hwy 14 thru a little unpaved mountain road that was branching off "Caliente-Bodfish" road in Lake Isabella. The itinerary was in Jonathan's book and it seemed to be perfect for the first day, since we were in Lake Isabella at around 2 pm, not too early, not too late. Finding the road was not easy: we first tried to ask to some locals but they had no idea where it was (this should suggest how popular this road may be...). It is at this point that we had the bright idea of turning on the BMW-GPS we got from Jonathan. And indeed it had everything we needed; locating the road was easy and we got there effortless after buying some sandwitches and water that served as our dinner in one of the most desolate places I've seen in my life.

The road was really rocky and in some places the speed did not exceed 15mph. One thing I told Davide on the way was that we should never end up driving in the darkness, because you never know what you get
Davide and GeorgeDavide and GeorgeDavide and George

George is the only inhabitant of Ballarat
in the desert. This was absolutely not observed the first night...

However, after driving a good 30 miles we got to a paved road which was leading to Hwy 14. The fact is that was not what we wanted: we did want to complete our itinerary and no shortcuts could be tolerated - especially when two stubborns italians decide to do something...

It was dusk when we got at the access of a sandy trail. Perhaps the only reason why we actually took the risk of going there was that the GPS had (incredibly) that quad-like trail in its database (this really surprised me but not Davide, who probably has more faith in tachnology than myself). In order to see where we were in the GPS we had to set a resolution of 120 feet. We started driving and right at the beginning we got lost in this maze of little roads. Even with the GPS it was really easy to make the wrong turn; many times we would see the right way going parallel of ours and we had to make crazy cuts in order to go back on track (in particular I remember a 45-degree downhill

That's George's house/store
right turn...). The outside temperature dropped - as expected - to maybe 40 degrees and the absolute darkness created an unforgettable feeling: were were the only two living creatures in who knows how many miles.

After proceeding at 5 mph (5!!) for a few miles, we got to a really steep downhill that Davide refused to approach; at that point the GPS saved our ass once again since we asked for a detour and the ingenious-piece-of-equipment immediatly spitted an alternate route only 1 mile from where we were. Finding it was a little tough and it was certainly not expected to find a sign saying "Road closed" in front of it. We queried the GSP again, hoping for a better alternative than driving all the way back and we did find it. It was amazing, at one point we could see a lot of light, maybe a city, maybe Ridgecrest.

At least one hour passed before we run into some motor-homes; we realized we got to the end of this maze of tiny roads and all the people staying there overnight were quad or dirt bike riders. We understood that what we had done was not a road
Fantastic CanyonFantastic CanyonFantastic Canyon

This was still the easy part. This canyon is really beautiful, it's totally recommended
meant for cars, but a trail meant for dirt bikes. Davide and I were overly happy when we saw a paved road: Hwy 14.

It didn't take long to get to Ridgecrest, where we found a cheap "Econo-lodge". The night was spent in a local bar where we found some locals that recommended us to go to "the pinnacles". The main recommendation was actually to go to Mtn Whitney, the tallest in California, but we didn't even consider that. Death Valley was the destination.

We woke up early enough to afford to detour for the Pinnacles and the place was really nice. There was also "the shortest-ever railroad" as they advertised it.

The road was pretty sandy and I'm sure we could get to Death Valley from there, without even getting to the highway anymore. However, after taking a few pictures of the pinnacles and climbing one of them we hit the road again to get to Ballarat, one of the numerous ghosh towns in California and then "Butte Valley", our access to Death Valley.

I had alrady ridden my motorcycle to Ballarat a few years before with Gianni, an over-the-top intrepid rider that accompanied me
Death ValleyDeath ValleyDeath Valley

Here we were already in Death Valley, the view was breathtaking
in the most amazing trips. This place, in particular, is ashonishing. Ballarat counts only 1 inhabitant named George. His relatives were all miners and, after the death of all of them and the dismission of the mines, he still decided not to leave his birth place. There, he hosts a campground and sells cold drinks for which he charges $2. He is almost completely deaf but he speaks clearly; he told us about Ballarat, about what happens in the desert, he told us that some Playboy photographer were there before to take some pictures and he was rewarded with a poster-size picture of one of the models. I had told Davide that speaking to George would be an experience and he assented after witnessing the primitive lifestile of this fella.

After a quick lunch we left for "Butte Valley Road", which inception is in Ballarat.
The "California Deser Byways" gives the following description of this itinerary: "a spectacular valley with free lodging, real 4 wheeling; Charles Manson's hideout". The road was rated "Easy to difficult", difficult being the sections next to the "Goler Canyon".
We soon realized that was not going to be a piece of cake: the "easy"
Difficult roadDifficult roadDifficult road

Just an idea... this was an easy part...
part was already very rocky and pretty intense. George had warned us that a 4-wheeler was the only way to drive there. As always, the GPS reassured us we were in the location where we expected to be and this is a major point.

In 2006 I attemped another 4-wheel adventue to Death Valley with Alessio - the forefather of the former-LSI italian community - but the GPS we employed did not have any of the trails, making it very difficult to stay focus and giving extra-worries we reall didn't need (that was another amazing trip that deserves a long narration).

We reached "Goler Canyon" in about an hour and I have to say I hardly experienced something so beautiful in my life: Butte Valley is not in Death Valley yet and, between it and the national park, there is a mountain range. This trail brought us through a narrow candid-white canyon. While fighting with the vibrations, the rocks and the potholes we admired the vegetation fading away, until nothing green was left. That's when we encountered some dirt bike riders and we sighted the sign "Death Valley national park". We took a picture of it and we
Amost doneAmost doneAmost done

We were nearly in Badwater at this point. The adventure was almost over.
were immediatly ready to continue. We thought the hard part had gone, we thought. We could see some other 4x4 far away moving really slowly and that's when Davide started to fear the tought part was still to come. And he was right indeed. The hard-packed lightly rocky ground became really rough and in some demanding tracts I even had to get off the jeep and signal Davide how to drive through that. Fortunately Davide recollected he had short gears, which really pulled us out of very intense situations.

We got to a point where the trail was going downhill and - supposedly - turned again into an "easy" one. The worst had gone, this time for real. We socialized with some adventurers, one of them riding a Yamaha XT, which was my first big-sized motorcycle.
After a change in the driver seat (Davide was really weary after 7 hours of real adventure) it didn't take long before we got to a paved road, the "Badwater" road.

This time we got to the paved road before sunset and we would be in Furnace Creek at about 7pm.
Lodging in Furnace Creek is very expensive: they demanded 187$, at which Davide said he'd rather sleep in the car and I fully agreed with that. We went to the Death Valley Saloon, had a beer, a hot soup and - incredible - we shot some pool.
Then, as somebody recommended us, we drove to Beatty, Nevada, which was suppsed to provide a cheaper room for the night.
We filled ourself with Red-Bull and Coffee and we hit the road again. Beatty was not far away, maybe 30 miles, and it turned out to be an effective solution, given that we found a decent motel for less that 50 bucks.

We enjojed the night shooting pool at a local saloon in pure far-west style (Nevada is great for that) where we paid the 2 beers $3.75 (really uncommon considering the bay area cost of living).

A long Sunday driving brought us back to Mountain View. Hwy 5 was packed as expected and, exploting once again the GPS in conjuction with decent guessing and a bit of luck, we came out with a beautiful route with no traffic whatsoever. (Hwy 33 + Hwy 198 + Hwy 25). The amount of time it took to drive back through this secondary roads was maybe the same the busy Hwy 5 would have involved, but those little winding road served as cool-down for this great adventure.

Eventually the damage is a couple of hunded bucks and some scratches on the jeep, which I'm sure will remember Davide this magnificent road trip for good.


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