Deserts and Death Valley

Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: 36.5604, -117.025

After last night's Californian wine, I was feeling a little delicate this morning and so was glad of a quieter day hikes-wise. Today was the epic part of the road trip, and our trust hire car's job was to get us from Yosemite National Park to Death Valley. National Park, via the Tioga Pass, reputably one of the most spectacular drives in the world.
We bid a find farewell to Curry Villahe (although not such a find farewell to the bear lockers, which became a bit of a hassle in the end!) and headed for one last scenic stop before leaving Yosemite behind. We drove to the trailhead for the Yosemite Falls, one of the most iconic parts of Yosemite. The huge drop of the falls is actually three smaller parts which join to make one gargantuan cascade. The upper falls trail is one of the more demanding in the park, and se we left that one to those with more time to take in the sights. The middle falls can easily be seen from the ground, while the lower falls thunders into the pool at the base, just 0.3 miles away from the car park. This is the trail we took, expecting to hear the deluge of water hammering against the rocks. In early spring, when the falls are at their peak, visitors get the shower of a lifetime as they stand at the bridge adjacent to the lower falls. However, today, we continued to approach, waiting for the unmistakeable sound of fee power of water. Nothing. We looked up to where the falls has carved a slice out if the rock after thousands of years of erosion and the walls were completely dry. However, it was still spectacular viewing to witness the power of water as it has created deep crevices in the rock to map out the journey it takes when the snow in the mountainsides has melted and the falls tumble from the top to the base of the falls.
We got on our way at around 8am, heading out of the park towards the Tioga Pass. This stretch of road climbs slowly from the valley floor, right up to the peaks and then plunges back down again on the other side. En route, it takes in some pectuaculat scenery (we have come to expect nothing less!) including Tenaya Lake - straight out of a postcard and Tuolomne Meadows - an enchanting area of flatlands, covered in bright colours and edged by granite peaks. Along the way there are hundreds of places where we had to pull in sharply, just to admire the stunning landscapes around us. The first of these was Olmsted Point. We literally slammed the brakes on as we saw what lay before us. The viewpoint has spectacular views o Tenaya Canyon with the back of Half Dome looming in the distance. We had now seen Half Dome from every possible angle, from hundreds of vantage points, and still it inspired us to reach for the camera. This viewpoint was stunning, particularly in the early morning sunlight.
After a photography stop, we continued on our way, weaving through more incredible scenery. After around half an hour, the brakes had to be slammed on again as we approached Tenaya Lake. In the morning sun, the blue of the water stretched out in front of us, ringed by mountains on all sides. The sunlight danced on the surface of the water, creating leaps of gold as the water rippled in the breeze. It was the perfect spot for a quick paddle, and although the water was incredibly cold, it as a refreshing way to awaken the senses ready for more spectacular viewpoints as we continued. One brave soul was swimming in the lake, but just the paddling had taken my breath away, so we gave it a miss, preferring to save our outdoor swimming for the canyon lands on our tour later in the week.
The road continued to twist and turn and we eventually arrived at Tuolumne Meadows, another gorgeous view. Here, we were once again alerted to the presence of yet another stunning native animal by the number of cars with door flung open and photographers lining the side of the road. About 3 metres above out heads, perched on a branch, completely unperturbed by the furore it was creating down in the ground, an American Bald Eagle sat surveying the landscape around it. We stood breathlessly watching it for five minutes, before taking out leave and heading further down the road towards the centre of the small settlement round the meadows. Here we managed to find a true roadside restaurant. Food could only be ordered to go and the menu was limited,but what they did, they did extremely well and we topped up our energy levels with a sausage and egg breakfast biscuit. This is kind of like a savoury scone with fluffy scrambled eggs and flat, circular sausage, topped with cheese and sauce. Devilishly sinful but oh so gooooood!
Fuel tanks full (both ours and the car's), we drove on towards the Tioga Pass. This incredible mountain pass snakes along the Sierra Nevada range with plunging drops to one side and sheer cliff faces, of oranges, blacks, greys and every combination and shade in between, on the other. What should have taken around an hour to drive took at least double that as we pulled into precarious lay-bys to grab photos of hone every changing landscape. Each twist and turn in the road brought a new vista, and it was a truly stunning drive. As we reached the end of the pass, we were treated to the sight of Mono Lake stretching out before us, parking blue with the red cliffs on the opposite side reflected in the crystal waters. We drove alongside the lake, again enjoying towering views on the other three sides as the road undulated across the landscape. Eventually we pulled off the main road and headed down to the shore of the lake to get a closer view. However, the road was very bumpy with loose stones all along, so we decided to head back to the safety of the asphalt and continue our journey.
As we were driving, we were struck by the emptiness of the road, both in front and behind. We had assumed that, booking such a well-trodden route in the middle of the summer, we would be surrounded by people at all times, with roads and pathways full to bursting. However, it has simply not been the case at all. We have had long periods of seeing nobody at all, and have managed to find areas of seclusion wherever we have travelled, even on the most popular places in Yosemite. This is tribute to the vast size of this country, which is difficult to comprehend until you begin to drive around it!
After an unnecessary and unremarkable detour to Mammoth Lakes, we continued on our journey. Having Googled the place before leaving the UK, we were looking forward to expansive views of craggy mountains reflected in pure blue waters below. However, we found ourselves driving to the top of the Mammoth Lakes ski resort, where we were greeted by the side of a mountain (which was incomparable to the beautiful ones we had just left behind in Yosemite) and little else, so we turned tail and headed back to try and find the lakes. We found ourselves in the middle of the resort, but sadly found no trace of the promised reflective lakes. As time was pushing on, and we knew we still had five hours of driving through the desert to come we decided to leave the town behind and continue on to Death Valley. Sadly, having found internet connection, it seems that we have missed some stunning scenery, but we have been overwhelmed by what we have already seen and have been so fortunate in the views we have enjoyed so we mustn't grumble!
Our next stop was Bishop, a small former mining town, lying in the Bishops Valley, on the eastern side of Yosemite. We had originally planned to overnight here, before discovering a ranch in Death Valley so were interested to see what the town had to offer. The streets of this, the largest town in Inyo county, were once again traditional and all-American, with saloons, coffee houses and a variety of specialist stores. Not a chain store in sight, all of the shops seemed to be locally owned and run and not a single empty, boarded up shop was visible. I think perhaps the UK has a lot to learn from the USA about keeping small-town high streets alive and well. It was eye pending to see the display in the window of the sports store stating, "guns, ammo, shoes and gear," but hey, this is gun toting country! It was like stepping into a modernised Wild West frontier town, which still retained some of the charm of its origins, but had been updated sometime around 1950 and then, having found perfection, never altered again.
We stopped off for a coffee, receiving impeccable service once again and then it was full steam ahead towards our ultimate destination, Death Valley. We passed through some similar small towns to Bishop, including the charming Lone Pine, and then entered what can only be described as the most unique scenery I have ever encountered. I had been prepared for a vast, flat expanse of rock and sand. How wrong I was. Death Valley is indeed and expanse of rock and sand, but flat it most certainly isn't! Huge rust-coloured mountains rise in either side of the road, which rises and falls across the landscape, snaking and twisting in every direction like a giant black snake across the barren land. Every 5 minutes was another heart-stopping wow moment, and we had to pull the car over time and time again to grab shots of the very changing landscape. Lunar in its appearance, it really does feel like you have driven into another world, particularly when coming from the lush foothills of Yosemite. What struck us most of all though was the extreme heat.
Now, I like heat. I like the sun. I would go so far as to say that I love being hot and feeling the sun beating down on my skin. However, this was unbearable heat. We reached the valley at around 3.30pm and knew we had at leaf a two hour drive into the middle before we reached the ranch. As we descended further and further into the base of the valley, we watched the temperature gauge in the car steadily rise from a mild 97 degrees (36 degrees Celsius), to 116 degrees which is 46 Celsius. By this point, the time was 5pm and the heat of the day was apparently over. However, as we checked the road signs, we saw the elevation above se level had rapidly decreased in line with the temperature rise, and we were now at sea level, in the middle of the desert. Death Valley is rumoured to be the hottest, driest, lowest lace on earth and it certainly lived up to its reputation. What really made the difference was the wind rushing through the valley.
When you are faced with extreme heat, usually any form of breeze, or gust of wind is a welcome respite from the sweltering temperatures. However, here in Death Valley, the wind has travelled over vast areas of sun-drenched rocks, picking up the heat as is moves. By the time it reaches you, the wind is hotter than the air temperature. It is like being in an oven and having a hair dryer pointed directly at you on full heat. I have never experienced such a dry, all consuming heat before in my life and we have made plans to leave early tomorrow to escape the midday heat. Signs warned us to turn off our air conditioning in the car so as to not overheat the engine. If nothing else, your fear of breaking down in this arid, barren land makes you obey every command given. We sweltered and sweated, in our little metal and glass box, along the road, passing towering sand dunes creating by the howling wind. Twisters of sand were whipped up into the air in the distance and the landscape began to become misty and cloudy as we neared our destination.
Finally, after a most uncomfortable but uniquely mesmerising journey, we arrived at an oasis of calm - the Furnace Creek Ranch. Living up to its name, we stepped out of the car into the furnace of dry heat, taking us by surprise every time we set foot into the wind! The ranch is actually more of a holiday-style village with chalets, larger rooms with balconies, a village store, laundrette, 3 restaurants and a pool. It was! however! a comfortable bed and a room with air conditioning! which to us was a palatial and luxurious stopover, which we couldn't have desired more if it had been Buckingham Palace sitting at the end of the driveway. The rooms were lovely, cool and had a fridge and a cold shower. What more could we have wished for?
We decided that this would be the best place to do our laundry, and having sweated our way to the laundrette, to the general store for detergent, back to the room to collect the washing and then back to the laundrette, we were ready for a cold shower. We took our washing out, hung it on the balcony and headed our for dinner. At this point, the sun had set across the mountains which provide a stunning backdrop to the hotel. The fiery reds were illuminated along the tops of the ridge, while an oasis of green trees brushed the bases of the hills. It was frankly stunning to look at.
Dinner was served at the corkscrew saloon, a real American bar, reminiscent of the one Kris Marshall finds himself at in Love Actually. Bar tenders in checked shirts and jeans, all American music on the jukebox and a hearty burger based menu added to the first impressions given by the neon entrance sign and the Americano memorabilia on the walls. Baseball was playing in the big screens and it really did (once again) feel like stepping into a film-set cliche of American life. However, all of the places we have visited have made us feel like this, so perhaps it was New York that was the oddity in the country, perhaps life in the smaller towns and cities really is like you see it in the movies!
We sat at the bar, after the waitress asked Stacey for ID (which thrilled my 39 year old wife no end!) and ordered burgers, fries and Budweiser. Yep, we love a stereotypical meal! The heat and exertion of driving through the difficult landscape earlier began to take its toll, and we headed back to the room for a real bed and air conditioning! On returning to the room, we checked the washing. After being out in the balcony at 8 o clock at night for an hour, it was bone dry. We were absolutely amazed! That is how hot and dry it is here! After all of the fun and excitement of the day, it was all we could do to crawl into bed, and sleep, ready for the next incredible destination, Las Vegas!
Only one state added today - Connecticut!


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