Friday, March 8, 2013

Las Vegas and Death Valley: The Trip Home

Today we head for home, we hate to leave, but all good things must come to an end.  The high winds of yesterday evening had abated so we had breakfast out on the dining room terrace and enjoyed the beautiful weather.  After breakfast, it was back to the room to finish packing, checkout and hit the road.  As we were loading the car we were surprised to see Michael and Mikie getting ready to leave.  They are earlier risers than we are and we expected them to be long gone.  We said our goodbyes again and we all hit the road. The trip home was an easy drive with very little traffic.  We left about 9:30 and were home a little before 4:00.

This turned out to be a great trip (as usual).  We had fun in Las Vegas and an even better time with Michael and Mikie in Death Valley.  The contrast between the crowds, noise, excitement and non-stop activity of Las Vegas, and the laid back atmosphere and the desolate, stark, but beautiful landscape of Death Valley was striking.  There is a place for both and we enjoy each one for different reasons.

My only regret of the trip was we didn't have more time in Death Valley, there are so many places to explore, we could have easily spent a week there.  Staying at the Furnace Creek Inn was wonderful, it is an expensive place to stay, but I have to say, it was worth it and we would stay there again.  The weather during our stay could not have been better, the days were warm and comfortable and the evenings were balmy and clear, perfect for sitting out on the deck or terrace and enjoying the company of good friends.  Michael and Mikie were once again great traveling companions.  They just go with the flow, stay flexible and are so easy to get along with which is really important if you are traveling in a group.  So all in all a great trip, maybe this should be an annual event.

Our next trip will be our 30-day Hawaii / French Polynesia cruise starting near the beginning of April, so until then, that's it for now.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Las Vegas and Death Valley: Death Valley Day 3

We were up early again (at least early for us), it was our last day in Death Valley and we had a lot planned.  After a quick breakfast in the dining room, we headed east towards the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada that is just outside the Death Valley National Park boundary.  Rhyolite begin in 1905 when prospectors moved into the area after the discovery of gold in the nearby Bullfrog Hills.  The population peaked at around 3500 to 4000 from 1907 to 1908, but began to decline as the nearby mines were played out and closed.  By 1911 the population had dropped to less than a thousand and by 1920 it was practically nothing.  The town was mostly dismantled for salvage and some of the buildings were moved to nearby towns, but what was left became a tourist attraction and still is today.  Here are some pictures of Rhyolite.  You may notice that the buildings are mostly constructed of rock and stone since there was no source of wood in the area.

After visiting Rhyolite, we made a quick run into nearby Beatty, Nevada to top of our gas tanks, Death Valley is no place to be low on gas.

Next we drove back through Rhyolite to pick up the road to Titus Canyon.  Titus Canyon is the most popular, and interesting back country roads in Death Valley and is mostly suitable for any high clearance vehicle.  You don't need 4-wheel drive unless the road has been damaged.  The road is also one-way from east to west as it is quite narrow in places particularly at the end.  This makes it an easy, but enjoyable drive, particularly though the last section called "the narrows" where the canyon walls tower almost straight up from the narrow road.

Near the start of our journey, we are headed up and over the mountains ahead.
You can see the switchback we'll be taking once we descend into the canyon.

Here is another video I shot with my GoPro of the middle part of the drive through the mountains.  (Once again, excuse the poor video, I have to down grade the quality to get the file size small enough.)

About halfway through our trip we reached another abandoned mining town called Leadfield and decided to stop for lunch.  Today we opted to buy box lunches from the Inn and they were a big improvement over what we bought at the store yesterday.

Michael and Mikie hiking out to the mine (upper left).

 From Leadfield it was on to "the narrows", the last section of Titus Canyon.

The drive through the narrows is quite spectacular and as we drove on, the canyon kept getting more and more narrow, but then suddenly the canyon ended and we were looking out at Death Valley.  Here is some video of the last section of the canyon.

After finishing Titus Canyon and getting back to the main highway, we turned north towards our last destination of the day, Scotty's Castle.  One of the many unusual characters that seem to fill the history of Death Valley was Death Valley Scotty.  He was more con man and entertainer than anything else, but a very colorful character.  Scotty's Castle was actually built by Albert Mussey Johnson as a vacation home for he and his wife Bessie.  The fact that Scotty told everyone that it was his house built with the proceed from a (non existent) gold mine under the house, didn't seem to bother Albert Johnson. He considered the friendship and entertainment he derived from Scotty as payment enough for Scotty's exaggerations.  Mikie had purchased tickets for the tour for all of us (thank you Mikie and Michael) so soon after we arrived we were touring the house.  It was an interesting tour, the inside of the house was both elegant and rustic in a western style.  It's a very odd sight in such a desolate landscape.

Scotty's Castle

After our tour it was time to head back to Furnace Creek and dinner.  The weather had been near perfect during our stay in Death Valley, but on our way back the wind really started to blow, there would be no dinner on the terrace tonight.  After getting back to the Inn, we cleaned up and met Michael and Mikie for dinner in the dining room.  This was our last night so we lingered a bit over dinner and then decided to walk down to pool.  Normally they have fires burning in two fireplaces around the pool, but it was just too windy so after a short stay we said good night and headed back to our room.  Tomorrow we head for home.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Las Vegas and Death Valley: Death Valley Day 2

We met Michael and Mikie in the dining room around 8:00 for breakfast and then got on the road for today's activities.  Our first stop was the Furnace Creek Ranch store where we picked up ice, sandwiches and supplies for the day.  Then it was off for a drive through Echo Canyon, actually we would only do part of Echo Canyon as the last section is very difficult and according to the rangers, you need a winch to get through.  The first part of Echo Canyon is pretty easy and could be driven by any high clearance vehicle although there were a couple spots of gravel where it felt good to have 4-wheel drive, but nothing too bad.

Recently I purchased a GoPro camera for use on our upcoming South Pacific cruise.  The GoPro is a small, rugged camera often used in in outdoor activities to capture the action.  It comes with a waterproof housing and many mounting options.  It shoots full 1080P HD and has a very wide angle lens which allows a very wide angle of view.  One of our guides had one on our Grand Canyon rafting trip and was very impressed with how well it worked so I decided I needed one to use underwater when we are snorkeling in the South Pacific.  I decided to try it out on our off-road excursions in Death Valley by mounting it to the hood of the car with a suction cup mount and see what happened.

My GoPro camera mounted to the hood of the 4-Runner.
Here is some video I shot on our drive through Echo Canyon.  It's not terribly interesting, but it gives you an idea of how the camera works (I had to reduce the quality to get a small enough file to load here).

Rather than describe our drive, here are some pictures we took along the way.

The "Eye of the Needle".
There were very few wildflowers in Death Valley, but we did find a few.
After stopping to look at the "Eye of the Needle" we drove up the canyon a couple of miles further and stopped to look for the old mining camp of Schwab.  After a 3/4 mile hike we found Schwab, but all that was left were a lot of old cans, all the buildings and foundations were long gone and buried.

Michael and Mikie on the trail to Schwab.

Just a few cans were all the was left on the old mining camp.
Further on down the road we came to the abandoned Inyo Mine site.  Some of the mill and outbuildings were still standing and you could hike up into the hills and see some of the old mines.  We didn't do that, but we talked to someone who did and they said you could actually walk back into them quite a ways.  I don't know whether I would be brave enough for that.

We ate lunch at the Inyo Mine site and decided we had gone far enough up the canyon for the day and headed back.  After getting back to the main highway, we headed for Badwater, the lowest spot in the US and one of the lowest spots in the world.  Badwater is 282 feet below sea level and it's interesting to note that it is only 85 miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.  It's an eerie feeling to look up and see the sea level marker on the hillside knowing that you would be almost 300 feet underwater if you were in the ocean.  Below is a picture showing the Sea Level marker, it was a little hard to see so I added a white line to the photo showing sea level.

Val and Mikie 282 feet below sea level.
The salt flats at Badwater.
Val and Mikie.
From Badwater we headed back to Furnace Creek, but did take a side trip up though Artist Drive.  You drive up through the hills where the pastel colors of the rock formations look like an artists pallette.

Val, Mikie and Michael on the trail to one of the scenic viewpoints.
Looking at the hills colored by different mineral deposits.

After Artist Drive we returned to the Furnace Creek Inn to clean up and get ready for the evening.  We again met on the upper deck and since it was such a beautiful evening, we decided to forgo dinner in the dining room and just have   hors d'oeuvres for dinner.  Thanks to Mikie supplying most of the food, we really had an enjoyable evening sitting out in the balmy evening talking and enjoying the amazing display of stars above.  We called it a night early as we had a lot to do the next day and would have to get an early start.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Las Vegas and Death Valley: Death Valley Day 1

Today was getaway day so we were up and on the road to Death Valley by 10:00.  We had a pleasant surprise when we checked out this morning, all of our food was comped as well as our room so our trip didn't cost us anything ... unless of course you want to include the money we lost gambling.  ;-) 

Our plan was to head north out of Las Vegas on highway 160 towards Pahrump, and take the Old Spanish Trail Highway to Death Valley which looked like an interesting way to go.  Unfortunately we missed the turn-off and rather than go back we decided to go on to Pahrump and have lunch and then take a different route.  After an unexciting lunch at Denny's, we took Nevada Highway 372 (which turns into California 178) west towards the town of Shoshone and on into Death Valley National Park on Badwater Road.  It was an interesting drive, but if you've ever been to Death Valley you know it's a stark barren landscape which is part of the allure of the area.

We decided to splurge and stay at the Furnace Creek Inn this trip, and we would be meeting our friends Michael and Mikie who were coming in from Atascadero.  We reached the Inn around three and were soon in our room awaiting the arrival of Michael and Mikie.  

The main entrance to the inn.

The Furnace Creek area is an oasis in the middle of this barren land.  The Furnace Creek Inn is considered one of the great lodges of the national park system and you can see why.  It is a historic building, built in 1927, and is very elegant inside.  The grounds of the Inn are beautiful with waterfalls, ponds and palm trees all accessible by wandering paths and stairs.

The pool is fed by a spring which keeps the water a constant 85 degrees year-round.  There are no chemicals used in the pool as the water is constantly being replaced by the fresh spring waster.  There are two fireplaces at the pool and at night you can sit by the fireplaces when you're not in the water.

Just outside of our room, a doorway leads to a spacious deck overlooking the grounds and Death Valley beyond.  We would be spending a lot of time here during our stay.

Our room is circled in red, you can see the deck to the left.
It was a beautiful, balmy late afternoon so we decided to wait out on the deck for Michael and Mikie.
The deck outside our room.
The view of the grounds and Death Valley from the deck.
Val relaxing.
Michael and Mikie soon arrived and we all gathered to catch up and make plans for tomorrow.
Val, Michael and Mikie enjoying the beautiful evening.
We had dinner reservations for 7:00 and since the weather was so nice we decided to eat outside on the dining room patio.  I wouldn't call the dinner great, but it was very good and the service was excellent.  After lingering over dessert, Michael and Mikie decided to check out the pool and Val and I headed up to our room.  Tomorrow we are planning an off-road drive up into Echo Canyon and then show Michael and Mikie some of the sights of Death Valley as they have never been here before.