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A description of a trip to Death Valley with REI Adventures on March 10-15, 2007.
Day 1: March 10
Our group, 9 participants and 2 guides, met at a hotel in Las Vegas in the morning. We hauled our carefully packed gear up to the roof rack of the big green van we were going to ride in and arranged ourselves inside. Conversation was sparse but Jody, our head guide, livened things up with some information about the trip and a joke or two. After a quick stop for lunch and to stock up at the grocery store (for Fat Tire Amber Ale and sunscreen), we headed out of town, across the desolate terrain surrounding Las Vegas, and towards Death Valley. Arriving later in the afternoon at our backcountry camp site at Hole In The Wall, we set up our tents, got situated, and looked forward to our first night in the desert. The meal was delicious, pork and caramel apple pie, and the entertainment, the stars, was second to none!
Day 2: March 11
Dawn came early and the peaceful valley we were camped in was quiet and cool. After breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage, we headed out for our first glimpse of Death Valley. Stopping briefly at Zabriskie Point for a water refill, we chuckled at the unfortunate travelers who would only experience the Valley from the overlooks. We cruised down to a trailhead for Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch where we hiked in the sun through caked sand and mud ravines to a red "cathedral" of stone where we took a break. Winding up a ridgeline we found ourselves directly below the Manly Beacon, a huge outcropping of rock that is a highlight of the Zabriskie Point overlook. Dropping elevation, we wound our way through the mini canyons stopping for lunch in the shade of the rock bordering an old flash flood wash. After a snooze in the ever lengthening shadows cast by the heat baked rock, we completed the loop by walking out of Gower Gulch and back to the trailhead. That night we were treated to another delicious meal, chicken fajitas, and the richest chocolate cake you could imagine. Oh, did I mention the margaritas! Talk about roughing it. After our first day in the sun, sleep was easy to come by.
Day 3: March 12
After an early rise, breakfast (pancakes and sausage), and a thorough packing up of camp, we headed off for our second day of hiking. We passed by the visitor center (our shopping would have to wait) on the way to Mosaic Canyon so named for the different conglomerations of rock that could be found along its walls. This hike was harder, mostly uphill, and in the heat of the midday sun. Despite these trials, we were amazed by the narrow slot canyons, smoothed Dolomite marble that cooled the shadows, and a rather large dry waterfall just a stones throw from our lunch spot. Our reward for our hard work was a dip in the pools, showers, and snacks at Stovepipe Wells, a small hotel and camping facility within the park. Our second guide, Craig, went ahead to the evening's campsite, presumably to keep anyone else for joining us at our secluded location. After everyone rinsed the dust of the desert off themselves, we headed up to our higher campground at about 3600 feet. Arriving there, we found a wonderful shaded canyon full of vegetation, lizards, and ancient rock. Just down canyon from our campsite was a band of rock that was 1.6 billion years old. Amazing! Pasta was on the menu for the evening and no one could pass up the strawberry shortcake offered for dessert. We also enjoyed a visit by a small pocket mouse who snatched crumbs that had fallen on the ground.
Day 4: March 13
We awoke invigorated by the cool morning breeze winding up the canyon. We didn't have to travel for todays hike up Monarch Canyon where we were camped. We caught a glimpse of our first terrestrial creatures, sneaking up on a fattened lizard basking in the sun and a "snake" tucked into a rock crevice. Well, it was really a rubber snake placed there by our guide as a rather amusing joke....to most of us at least. Peregrine falcons circled and called overhead for much of our trip and we even caught a horned lizard on the way up to our lunch and vantage point. Passing abandoned mine shafts and equipment, we crested a hill and the great expanse of Death Valley opened before us. From this spot, we could see Badwater, the lowest point in the US at -282 ft. below sea level, and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 at 14,491 ft.. Talk about a view! Even the golden eagles glided lazily on thermals below us. The hike ended with a scamper down a crumbly rock wash before we reached our campsite, tired but enthused about our marinated flank steak and garlic mashed potatoes dinner. The cool air of the higher elevations refreshed us as we nodded off to sleep in our sleeping bags.
Day 5: March 14
Our last full day in Death Valley saw us packed back into our trusty van on the way up a mountainside road to Titus Canyon. But before we drove down through this natural wonder, we hiked straight up a hillside at Red Pass to a perch where we gawked at the views in between bites of our sandwiches. A hardy few of our group sought to challenge themselves further by speed hiking/rock scrambling up Thimble Peak which stood over 6000 ft. above the valley floor. A careful retreat back to our vehicle and we were off to the canyon, but not before we passed through Leadfield, an abandoned mining town that made us wonder at the gullibility of those early get-rich-quick miners and settlers. At the mouth of Titus Canyon we exited the vehicle and took a leisurely walk through geologic time. Meeting up with the van and our guides at the trailhead we headed back to Stovepipe Wells for another swim, shower, and to stock up on beer for our dinner out on the Sand Dunes. We trudged through the silky sand to our dinner spot and then scattered to find a suitable vantage point for taking photos of the incredibly vibrant sunset. We dined on pesto chicken pasta and scarfed down cookies before we took some time to reflect on the trip that we had taken. Playing with a lighted frisbee in the dark until it was time to leave, we were light-hearted and amazed by all the incredible images and experiences we had had.
Day 6: March 15
Just when we thought it was over....we were surprised that after we had packed up camp, we hiked down Monarch Canyon. We passed an old mine that had some immense timbers and metalworks still in usable condition. It is amazing to think about the hardship those early settlers and miners must have gone through as they tried to eek out a living in one of the most desolate places in the US, if not the world. Hiking through a reed forest, we followed a gurgling spring, yes, a spring, to an overlook and at least a 50 foot waterfall stained green by algae seeking moisture in the harsh climate. It was a real surprise and served to prove Jody's insistence that there was always something new to discover in Death Valley. A lunch of the most delicious chicken salad I have ever had preceded our trip out of the canyon and back down to the valley where we had a chance to pick up souvenirs at the visitor center at Furnace Creek. Our drive back to Las Vegas took us south through the rest of the park, past Badwater (no, we didn't stop), and out of Death Valley National Park. Of course, this wasn't before we had a chance to see the most elusive of the park's fauna, the desert bighorn sheep, resting on a rock slope next to the road. It truly was a fitting end to our time in the park. But our trip wasn't over....a stop on the way back yielded a glimpse of a bobcat walking along the shaded side of the road. Finally we reached Las Vegas where we unloaded the van, exchanged information, and promised to stay in touch.
In all, my trip to Death Valley with REI Adventures surpassed any expectations that I could have had. The guides were professional and our group overall was light and fun. Jody and Craig did a great job catering to the needs of all the participants and the meals were probably better than I would have even had at home. Of course, there is something about hiking and camping that makes things taste just a little more rich. I was lucky to have a chance to visit Death Valley with an experienced guide but now that I have I hope to go back and explore more of the park on my own. Thanks for reading and I hope this inspires you to get outdoors and explore!