Author’s Note: This article “California’s Death Valley/Mojave Desert” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
South and east of the Sierra lie vast California deserts, rich with wildflowers such as poppies in the spring. More tenacious plants, such as beavertail cactus, flower even in the heat of summer when the desert presents itself as a shimmering mirage. The Indian word for a part of these deserts, Tomesha, meaning “ground afire”, becomes an accurate description in summer. The high Mojave and low Death Valley Deserts cover a huge acreage and include valuable mineral deposits, such as borax. In these deserts you can find historic ghost towns, towering sand dunes, and dramatic rock formations carved by the incessant erosive power of water and wind.
The biggest surprise for many first-time visitors to the desert, especially in spring after the winter rains, is the subtle beauty and sheer variety of life that thrives in what is usually an arid environment. The spring landscape can be a palette of poppies, coreopsis, or goldfields, with appealing wildflowers stretching like a living carpet from underfoot to the horizon.
When viewing either of these desert areas, but especially Death Valley, the long and dispassionate view of the geologist comes to the fore, speaking with such confidence of sweeping eons that defy the imagination. Death Valley was formed millions of years ago by the folding and faulting pressures of the earth’s crust, uplifting the surrounding mountains and dropping the area between them to far below sea level. Erosive action, especially of water, gradually wore down the mountains and filled the valley, though parts still remain dramatically below sea level. Lakes developed in the basins and periodically froze during ice ages. Layers of sediment and salt provide the clues for geological detectives who reconstruct these scenarios.
GETTING TO THE DEATH VALLEY-MOJAVE DESERTS
From the west you reach Death Valley National Park via Highway 136 from Lone Pine or Highway 178 from the Highway 395 cutoff at Red Mountain. From Las Vegas, Death Valley is north on Highway 95 and then west on 373 to Death Valley Junction. Las Vegas has the closest commercial airport destination to Death Valley, some 120 miles away.
The Mojave Desert is close to Los Angeles, just north of the metropolis, with Lancaster at its center. Drive north from Los Angeles on Interstate 5, then east on Highway 138, or take Highway 14 east to Palmdale and north to Lancaster. All of the Los Angeles basin airports put you within four hours of the Mojave Desert.
DEATH VALLEY-MOJAVE DESERT HISTORY
The Visitor Center at Furnace Creek is the appropriate orientation start for the history and main attractions of Death Valley. Evening programs (760/786-2331) discuss the natural features and human story.
Because the desert environment was so hostile, early California Indians populated the area only in sparse numbers. They clustered near known waterholes or migrated through the area during the rainy winter season, following, in the Mojave, the herds of antelope on which they fed. Some 200 petroglyph sites and scattered artifacts remain in Death Valley, but without imported water survival was difficult. Hardy gatherers and hunters left evidence here that extends back some 9,000 years, but the human residents have always been trespassers in a harsh environment rather than comfortable dwellers in a land of milk and honey, at least within our imaginable climatic time frame.
The exception, if we expand our time frame backwards, is a fascinating site of anthropological interest near Barstow in the Mojave Desert. The site is called the Calico Early Man Archaeological Site (760/252-6000), operated by the late Dr. Louis Leakey and his well-financed foundation since 1963. The site is 15 miles east of Barstow on Highway 15 and Minneola Road. Leakey and his co-workers have unearthed some 12,000 stone tools here that date back about 200,000 years, making this the oldest site for manmade artifacts in the western hemisphere. The presence of tools in this arid area forcefully reminds a traveler of the changing weather patterns that affect plant, animal, and human habitation over long time spans. Tours of the site can be arranged through the Bureau of Land Management office in Barstow.
During the westward expansion period in United States history, Death Valley was the scene of many heroic efforts, such as those of the Manly expedition. In 1849 William Manly was one of the first pioneers to succeed in traversing this unknown wilderness without dying of thirst. Stories of the Jayhawkers Trail from the Great Salt Lake in 1848 and the Darwin French Party Trail in 1860 are absorbing tales of human endurance in the midst of natural adversity. The interpretive center at Death Valley does an excellent job of using voices to re-create the poignant diaries and letters of survivors. Their tintype visages suggest the restrictiveness of life in the elemental conditions of mid-19th century California, when one could not count on finding a fast food emporium around the next bend to assuage hunger or thirst.
The initial intrusion of the white man into the Mojave Desert includes a poignant story about the difficulty of some wildlife when adapting to change. Pronghorn antelope were numerous in the Mojave Desert, as the name Antelope Valley suggests, but the skittish animals were so fearful of railroad tracks laid in 1869 that they starved to death in one year rather than cross the tracks to their seasonal foraging grounds.
The Mojave figures prominently today in our consciousness because space shuttles touch down here at Edwards Air Force Base on the long desert runways, dry lakebeds dependably free of rainstorms. The Mojave Desert, with a focus on the towns of Mojave and Lancaster, is destined to become a high-tech oasis for the 21st century.
DEATH VALLEY-MOJAVE DESERTS’ MAIN ATTRACTIONS
Death Valley’s notable attractions are the stark landscape and the diversity of life forms that thrive here in spite of temperature extremes and the precarious amount of moisture. Always a place of extremes, Death Valley can be beastly hot and severely cold. Though the two spots that are 282-feet below sea level get initial attention, there is also 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, and Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S. (at 14,494 feet) is not far away, in the southern Sierra.
In Death Valley you can take ranger-guided outings to the small springs where a remarkable fish, the pupfish, manages to survive in shallow, warm, and saline water. The isolated flourishing of these fish is a remarkable story of adaptation.
In the northern part of Death Valley visit Scotty’s Castle, the house associated with Death Valley Scotty, a desert character who entertained the Chicago millionaire who bankrolled the property. Walter Scott was the desert character’s real name. His millionaire friend Albert M. Johnson sank some two million uninflated dollars into this 1920s 25-room Spanish-Moorish extravaganza and became part of the local folklore. Nearby, you can gaze into the Ubehebe Crater, where volcanic eruption left a lasting cinder imprint on the desert.
Major sand dunes lie just east of Stovepipe Wells, one of the main lodging and dining sites in Death Valley. (Since lodging and food are so sparse and crucial in this alien environment, all the options are indicated in some detail at the end of this write-up.) The sand dunes are especially lovely as the light changes throughout the day, with the long shadows of early morning and just before sunset as the most glorious times.
All of the canyons and mountains of Death Valley, as the light changes, take on the hues and forms that only a desert kaleidoscope can provide. The light of Death Valley reflects the changing sun pattern, while the light and glory of the Mojave resides more in the landscape itself, as if inherent, especially when the poppies or coreopsis of spring delight the traveler.
Throughout Death Valley the absence of man’s marks on the landscape is a notable part of the traveler’s experience. In few places can one gaze at the horizon and suspect that no man has ever dared to venture into this moonscape. Aside from a few old mines, ghost towns, and charcoal kilns, the human story here is abbreviated. Death Valley can also surprise the visitor. For example, though the area gets only two inches of annual rainfall, the rain can come in summer thunderstorms that send cascades of water hurtling down the canyons, a matter of consequence to campers or hikers not yet initiated to the unforgiving forces of the desert.
South from Furnace Creek are the scenic drives that show you how water and wind have carved away at the colored rock. Zabriske Point overlook is one of the more stunning settings, with weathered rock patterns unfolding before you in a trompe l’oeil effect that makes judging the distance deceptive.
The lowest point in the United States lies south of Furnace Creek. A sign shows clearly when you are 282 feet below sea level. Names here sometimes have a fanciful aura, such as Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, and Artist’s Drive, but they risk trivializing the landscape.
As you explore Death Valley, it is interesting to note that over a thousand species of plants are found here, with some 21 existing nowhere else. Ask a ranger to acquaint you with some plants native only to the area, such as Panamint Daisy, Death Valley sage, and Death Valley sandpaper plant.
Be sure you have plenty of gas, a car in good mechanical condition, a day’s supply of water, and your wits about you as you travel through this region, even in winter. Avoid traveling here in the heat of summer unless you can’t possibly arrange another time for a visit. In 1913 the summer temperature hit a record 134 degrees. The average summer high temperatures in July are around 116 degrees. It is common in summer for the night temperatures to dip only to 100 degrees. Under such circumstances, air-conditioning in a car and lodging passes beyond luxury to become, in fact, a survival necessity.
Faced with such intense heat, life was indeed tough for the 20-mule-team borax wagons that hauled the mineral out of here. Borax found use as a cleansing agent, with the trade name Boraxo becoming a household word. The TV announcer for the 1950s Boraxo-sponsored Death Valley Days found himself propelled on to higher pursuits.
The most popular times to visit Death Valley are winter and spring vacation periods. At these times lodging reservations are an absolute requirement. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Presidential birthdays, and Easter are times of maximum visitor use. Interest in Death Valley has grown steadily since 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt declared the area a National Monument.
When in the Mojave Desert, be sure to stop by the interpretive center at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Natural Reserve, a park located west of Lancaster near Fairmont. The park honors the California state flower, the poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which appears here in profusions that stun the imagination. The drive from Fairmont to Lancaster takes you through the great flower area.
In the Mojave, make Lancaster your headquarters. The Chamber of Commerce number listed at the end of this write-up can inform you of the best flowering dates for a given year. Dates vary between March and May, depending on seasonal rain patterns and the coolness or warmth of the winter. Mid-April is usually the peak time.
The second major flowering area is east of Lancaster, near Saddleback Butte State Park, a good place to camp in the desert. The park also has an interpretive center with photographic records of the area’s flowers and reptiles, including many snakes and lizards. Ranger-led walks interpret the life-cycle of the numerous Joshua trees here.
The great naturalist, John Muir, often said that he could walk for a hundred miles through California in the spring and crush a cluster of wildflowers with each step. Today the Mojave Desert around Lancaster is one of the few remaining places where this sentiment accurately reflects reality.
Also within the Mojave, you can tour the Tropico Gold Mine and Mill, which includes a museum to gold mining and a 900-foot shaft. You can descend the shaft. The mine is northeast of Lancaster. Another area attraction is the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, which explains the history of California and Southwest Indians.
NEARBY TRIPS FROM THE DEATH VALLEY-MOJAVE DESERTS
These deserts are in themselves sufficiently vast regions to explore, but there are also intriguing side trips from each area.
North from Death Valley along Highway 395 and east from Bishop are special trees that lend credence to the notion that California is a land of superlatives. Some California superlatives reflect an undue inflation of vocabulary, but other notions about the Golden State are irrevocably and immutably founded on fact, and this is one. The trees in question are the bristlecone pines, high in the White Mountains, at elevations of 13,000 feet, making them accessible only in summer. These trees are the oldest living things on the earth. They have been core-dated at almost 5,000 years old. To sit meditatively in front of a bristlecone pine and contemplate that it was young when Socrates was old is a moving experience. Trees are indeed one of California’s claims to superlatives. The most massive living thing on the earth is the California inland redwood tree, with the largest example (General Sherman Tree) located in Sequoia National Park, also in the southern Sierras not far from Death Valley or the Mojave Deserts. The coastal species of redwood is the tallest living thing on the earth, with the champion specimen located at Redwood National Park in northwest California along the coast.
When in the Mojave Desert between the Lancaster wildflower area and Death Valley, take an interesting side trip to Barstow, where you can see one of the first ambitious solar electrical installation in the U.S. The unit was called Solar One and is 10-1/2 miles east via Interstate 40. Huge mirrors, all computer controlled, flash the sunlight at a tower of water, causing the water to boil, creating steam that runs a turbine and provides electricity. Other types of electrical generation, from nuclear to coal, all have the same simple purpose: heating water to form steam that will turn a turbine and create electricity. The dependable sun of the desert makes solar electricity a viable option here. Exhibits and a film at the site explain the nuances of energy production. Solar electrical output began here in April 1982.
Near Barstow you can also visit a noted silver-mining ghost town named Calico after the colored hills that surrounded the mine. Calico, 11 miles northeast of Barstow on Interstate 15, boomed as a silver town 1881-1896, when the Maggie Mine produced $13 million in silver. The mine became unprofitable after that as the price of silver dropped. Today you can take a mine tour, peruse the museum, watch a performance at the Playhouse Museum, and board the refurbished Calico-Odessa train for a short ride. Now operated by San Bernardino County as Calico County Park (760/254-2122), the mining town celebrates with a Ghost Town festival in May and Calico Days in October.
As a major highway junction in the desert, Barstow supports a Barstow Way Station Visitor Center (831 Barstow Road), which includes exhibits of the desert environment and information on recreational possibilities. If you are traveling through at a time of summer storms, be sure to stop here for information on flash floods that sometimes wash out the roads.
CALIFORNIA DESERTS: IF YOU GO
For further information on Death Valley, write the Superintendent, Death Valley National Park, P.O. Box 579, Death Valley, CA 92328; 760/786-2331.
Any season but summer is a good time to visit Death Valley. In summer the area may be the hottest place in North America. The record temperature here is 134 degrees in the shade.
Las Vegas is the nearest major airport city. At Las Vegas or Palm Springs you could rent a car and drive to Death Valley. Most visitors drive their own cars or RVs to Death Valley.
For lodging, there are three options.
Stove Pipe Wells Village motel, with its restaurant, pool, and general store, is open October 1-May 15. Contact them at Stove Pipe Wells Village, Death Valley, CA 92328; 760/786-2387.
The Furnace Creek Inn, a resort with pool and restaurant, is open all but the summer months. Furnace Creek Ranch, with its pool, restaurant, and general store is open all year. Contact them both at Furnace Creek, P.O. Box 1, Death Valley, CA 92328; 760/786-2345.
RVs AND CAMPERS
For RVs, there are electrical hookups at Stove Pipe Wells and sometimes at Furnace Creek. Both sites have swimming pools open for RVers. The Furnace Creek Campground is the RV site with the most pleasing physical setting close-in. Sunset RV camp at Furnace Creek consists of a large parking lot. Tank dumping is possible at Stove Pipe Wells and at Furnace Creek. Outlying campgrounds are shared by RVers and tent campers.
Tent campers favor the Furnace Creek Camp, with its amenities such as trees, picnic tables, and one section segregated from RVs (with their generators). Tent camping on the hard desert floor is also possible at Stove Pipe Wells.
A total of seven campgrounds in Death Valley are available to RVs and campers with ordinary vehicles. Two more camps are open to 4-wheel drive vehicles. Outlying camps, such as at Mesquite Springs, appeal to travelers in search of desert solitude.
If the weather turns hot, swimming pools at Stove Pipe Wells and at Furnace Creek can cool down the traveler. The Stove Pipe Wells pool closes in summer.
RESTAURANTS AND FOOD
Restaurant food service is offered at Stove Pipe Wells and at Furnace Creek. The Stove Pipe Wells restaurant closes for the summer. Both sites have year-round General Stores selling food and drink.
Gasoline is available at Stove Pipe Wells, Furnace Creek, and Scotty’s Castle. Keep your tank well filled because driving distances in the desert can be deceptive and supplies aren’t always assured.
See that your vehicle is in good condition for a desert crossing. Carry a gallon of water per person extra in case of a breakdown. Plan out your lodging and food arrangements before going. Plan your trip for the cooler seasons rather than for summer.
Scotty’s Castle Tours are sometimes quite full. Plan to take a tour early in the day, allowing you to catch the next tour if your tour is sold out.
Stay on the main roads unless you have the vehicle for smaller roads. Note that the final quarter mile up Dante’s View is a 14 percent grade. Walk up if this grade strains your vehicle.
The Visitor Center at Furnace Creek carries ample nature literature about Death Valley to meditate over.
The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce is the best information source for the Mojave Desert. They are at 554 W. Lancaster Blvd., Lancaster, CA 93534-2534; 805/948-4518.
A Lancaster Wildflower Center at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds (155 East Avenue I) opens late March to mid May and provides information on wildflower viewing sites.
The California Poppy Preserve facility comes alive briefly during the flowering period with a phone at 805/724-1180.
A good lodging option in Lancaster: Best Western Antelope Valley Inn, 44055 North Sierra Highway, Lancaster, CA 93534; 805/948-4651.