18 Oct 2015

Mojave Desert by adamandheather

3/5

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After the fair, we got to our campground so late that we didn't feel like pitching the tent, so we just cracked the car windows and slept in our seats.

This morning we wake up before dawn and head into the park before the crowds and temperatures crank up. We're the only souls at Keys View, a lookout point in the southern part of the park that towers over the Coachella Valley, with a view stretching from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea.

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Yesterday we heard that there was a big climbing event happening in Joshua Tree this weekend, with pros on hand to guide and teach amateur climbers. This morning we see proof of its popularity: seemingly every rock formation in the park has climbers scaling its flank, and most have triumphant climbers standing on top.

Hidden Valley is well-named, an enclosed circle ringed by rock formations, and legend holds that it was once used to hide stolen cattle. It's clearly popular with climbers, as we pass more groups with helmets, ropes, and harnesses than we do hikers.

After a spin around the valley, we head into town for lunch, and then make our way north to our next park: Death Valley.

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The road north is desolate. There are stretches of up to 50 miles without any signs of civilization aside from the road and long lines of electrical wires. Dark clouds surround us and extend all the way to to the horizon, immersing us in a strange blue-and-brown duotone landscape.

The signs of recent and looming flash flooding are all around: the washouts at the sides of the road are swollen with dark brown water, which crosses the road in narrow, deep, and rapid streams at each dip in the pavement.

The road passes through tens of miles of volcanic craters and ancient lava fields, which comes as a surprise. We didn't know that this area had been the site of so much volcanic activity, and we resolve to come back and explore them someday.

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As we approach Death Valley, the road steadily slopes down. We descend several thousand feet in less than an hour, pressure constantly building up in our ears. The air outside is noticeably warmer, and the vegetation becomes more sparse.

The road slopes even more steeply downward after we enter the park. A packed parking lot to our left captures our attention, and we pull in to check out Zabriskie Point.

A huge variety of desert landscapes are visible from here. Golden hills surround the point, their sides deeply eroded to form sharp fingers of dirt. Cliffs of red sandstone jut skyward from their upper reaches, and sharply-angled formations stand at the lower end of the area. Behind those formations is the miles-wide salt flats of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America and the hottest place on earth. Just beyond, the Panamint Range rises to 11,000 feet.

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5,700 feet above Badwater Basin is Dante's View, a popular overlook on Coffin Peak. The road to the top starts near the basin and is only 13 miles long, and the air pressure change is extreme. Atop the lookout, a cold and steady wind blows from the south. Most of the visitors here are dressed in shorts and t-shirts, and shiver as they run from point to point. Since we originally planned to camp in the high desert of Utah, we're prepared with coats and warm pants.

After wandering the ridge for a while, we settle in the shelter of a rock outcropping to watch the sun set over the valley. In the distant north, a thunderstorm unleashes a steady torrent of lightning bolts. There's probably a lot of flooding going on up there, and we hope that it doesn't keep us from exploring more of the park tomorrow.