The entire drive to Las Vegas was rather remote, but it was nothing like the loneliness and isolation felt when driving out of Las Vegas and toward Death Valley. There are sections of this country that are completely unsettled and still have that "wild west" feel to them. We found some of it!
We stopped along the way to explore a ghost town called Rhyolite. In 1904, prospectors made claims in the area, and by 1906 a boomtown grew. Rhyolite is the perfect example of a "boom and bust" town. As taken from the NPS website:
"The town immediately boomed with buildings springing up everywhere. One building was 3 stories tall and cost $90,000 to build. A stock exchange and Board of Trade were formed. The red light district drew women from as far away as San Francisco. There were hotels, stores, a school for 250 children, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries and machine shops and even a miner’s union hospital...
"The town citizens had an active social life including baseball games, dances, basket socials, whist parties, tennis, a symphony, Sunday school picnics, basketball games, Saturday night variety shows at the opera house and pool tournaments. In 1906 Countess Morajeski opened the Alaska Glacier Ice Cream Parlor to the delight of the local citizenry. That same year an enterprising miner, Tom T. Kelly, built a Bottle House out of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles. [Karen's note: We saw the bottle house!] In April 1907 electricity came to Rhyolite...
"The financial panic of 1907 took its toll on Rhyolite and was seen as the beginning of the end for the town. In the next few years mines started closing and banks failed. Newspapers went out of business, and by 1910 the production at the mill had slowed to $246,661 and there were only 611 residents in the town. On March 14, 1911 the directors voted to close down the Montgomery Shoshone mine and mill. In 1916 the light and power were finally turned off in the town."
After we stopped at the ghost town of Rhyolite, we descended into Death Valley - and descend is the perfect word for it! We started at an elevation of more than 3000 feet at a place called Hells Gate, and by the time we quickly descended into the valley, we were at sea level.
The view from Hells Gate was magnificent! From the top of the valley, a cool breeze was blowing, and I was afraid that we wouldn't be warm enough for our day's adventure since we were dressed in only shorts and t-shirts. HA! What a foolish assumption! Within ten minutes, after our descent into the valley, we were sweating! (And just to be funny, we popped in our Bing Crosby Christmas CD into the car radio and listened to Christmas tunes as we descended into Death Valley and got hotter and hotter.... "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!")
Our first stop was the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This is a spot in the valley were the breeze deposits grains of sand that it picks up from elsewhere in the valley. We felt like we were in the Sahara Desert! We didn't climb too far out onto the dunes, just enough to get a good feel for it. I already had enough sand in my socks and didn't want any more!
Next we stopped at the Stovepipe Wells Village to visit the ranger station. After getting all our questions answered and making a plan for the day, we picnicked on the porch of the General Store before heading to our next destination.
A short drive on a primitive road got us to the trailhead for Mosaic Canyon. This hike took us past cliffs of marble and conglomerate stone. At some points the path was narrow and only one person could pass at a time. It was a beautiful canyon, and the pictures couldn't even capture the feel of the place. And it's a good thing that we all carried water bottles with us. What a hot hike it was!
When our hike was over (and we cooled off a bit), we drove to our next stop, which was the Salt Creek. The Salt Creek is world-famous because it is the ONLY place in the world that the Death Valley pupfish exist. This fish is an endangered species. It is a small fish, only about an inch long, but it survives in such an extreme environment. The water of Salt Creek is up to five times more salty than ocean water, and the water temperature of the creek is a balmy 90 degrees. We were fortunate to visit Death Valley in the springtime when water does flow in the creek and the fish are spawning.
After Salt Creek, we made a quick stop at the Harmony Borax Works ruins. Borax mining was a profitable business in Death Valley in the late 1800's and early 1900's. In order to get the product to market, teams of twenty mules were used to transport the borax to the railroad lines. (See where this is going?) Today, borax is still mined in the area, although not in Death Valley. The name brand "20 Mule Team" borax can still be bought in stores today in the laundry aisle.
Our next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Here the younger boys received their Death Valley Junior Ranger badge, we all watched the twenty-minute park film, wandered through the small museum, and cooled off. According to the thermometer in front of the visitor center, it was a mere 96 degrees when we got there. (It rose to 97 degrees before we left the visitor center. Good thing we visited in March and not in July!)
One of the biggest ironies of Death Valley is that despite the blistering temperatures in the valley, snow can be seen on the tops of the mountains that enclose the valley. So while we were sweltering in the heat, we could tip our eyes toward the sky and see the snow-capped mountains looming above us! So very strange! Our senses were confused!
Our next attraction was an auto tour on Artists Drive. This loop road went past the feet of mountains and through canyons so we could marvel at the amazing array of colors in the rocks of the hillsides. Unfortunately, our cameras didn't pick up the magnitude of the colors, but it was a beautiful drive.
As it was getting later in the afternoon and our daylight was burning away, we cut out some of the stops we planned to make and focused only on the more important (to us) stops. Our next stop was a short hike to a natural bridge within a canyon. With the sun setting on the western rim of the valley, the colors of the canyon turned to a darker hue, and we were the only tourists left in the canyon. Such a desolate place to be, but very peaceful!
Our last stop, and probably the most important stop to us, was at Badwater Basin - the lowest point in the United States, and one of the lowest points in the world. At 282 feet below sea level, the basin is a flat deposit of salt along the valley floor. We took a picture of our van parked along the mountainside that encloses Badwater Basin, and on the mountainside is a billboard that says "SEA LEVEL". It's hard to see in the picture, but that's how far below sea level we were. The sun was setting as we wandered out onto the salt flat. A park ranger showed up to give a moonlight walk along the salt flats, but we decided it was time for us to go. We already knew we would be driving home in the dark, but we didn't want to get home too late.
We set for home around 7:00 at night, just as the full moon was cresting over the mountain rim of Death Valley. We had a three-hour drive ahead of us, and our kids were tired, hungry, and stinky from sweating all day long. We took a different route home than the way we had arrived, so we thought we might find a place to buy dinner on our way home, but... well...
Our drive home was just as desolate as our drive to the park. We finally did find a restaurant at a small crossroad, but when we figured out that it was attached to a... well, a brothel!... we decided it probably wasn't the family-friendly dining experience that we hoped it would be! (Nevada is the only state in the union with legalized prostitution, so our minds aren't used to thinking of such things!) We quickly high-tailed it out of there, drove down the street a little way, parked the car, and dug out any and all snack items we could find from the back of the car. "And that, my little dearies, is your dinner tonight!" Nutter butters, Ritz crackers, honey buns, granola bars... much better than dinner at a brothel, especially when you have four teenage boys with you!
So that ended our exciting day at Death Valley. We didn't arrive back home until 10:00 at night. Naturally, the little guys fell asleep in the car on the way home, and the rest of us flopped into bed as soon as we got through the door. A busy, hot, dusty day. But a grand one!