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Camping in Death Valley

photo credit: Bob Mortenson

Descending 9000 feet of mountain into the deepest point in North America at 300 feet below sea level, my family of five entered Death Valley National Park. Pulling a 1600 lb. Jayco pop-up camper with our silver Pontiac Montana, we must have looked as clueless as we actually were. For several years my family of five vacationed with our trailer to many great destinations, almost always getting into some kind of trouble. Now that we were in Death Valley, it was only a question of how much.

Getting down into the valley out of Yosemite out of Highway 395 we turned onto Highway 190 and never looked back. Apprehension began to set in when all of us noticed we were completely alone on the road. No cell phone but lots of potato chips and soda. Reading the signs that reminded drivers to leave their air conditioning off or risk over heating the car’s engine was good but not soothing advice.

On the way to our campsite at Furnace Creek, we stopped at Zabriske Point because it was made famous by the 1960s movie of the same name. A very short walk uphill from the parking lot located just off the main highway is more than worth it. The amazing panorama of erosion hills leading off into the distance was breathtaking; strangely you can’t see it from the road so you have to stop and get out of the car.

After several hours along the flat-bottomed sea of a former age we arrived hot and dry at Furnace Creek, the campground inside Death Valley. Across the road is the Furnace Creek Resort which offers a spa, swimming pools, golf, and luxury rooms in two hotel properties. Looks are truly deceiving because the exterior is pretty desolate looking, but inside the resort it’s lush and green. If you are spending some time in Death Valley and you have an off road vehicle, there are many attractions off of Highway 190. 5.5 miles east of Furnace Creek is the rugged road to ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ and the Red Amphitheater (no camping for the first two miles). History buffs will not want to miss Scotty’s Castle, a hacienda type house built by the infamous Wild West huckster Walter Scott 53 miles north west of Furnace Creek. For the adventurous, a visit to the Barker Ranch made famous as the hideout of Charles Manson after he and his ‘Family’ murdered the actress Sharon Tate and others. You’d need an off road vehicle and take the road south of Highway 190 after Panamint Springs but get directions first because it is hard to find. A 2009 fire burned most of the structures but there is still plenty to see of the site since most of it was built of stone and it now belongs to the National Park Service.

Back at the safety of our campsite at Furnace Creek, cactus surrounded us everywhere. Our three children were curious about the Mojave Desert and we took a hike after Dad cranked up the Jayco, which slept five of us comfortably in nearly 28 feet of interior space. On the hike we marveled at the variety of cactus and plant life. My then four-year old son, and youngest but most adventurous, had a losing encounter with a cactus plant. After a half hour of picking needles out of his little palm we resumed our hike. There are 51 native species of mammals and 36 species of reptiles in that desert. We were fortunate to see a lizard that my kids went ga-ga over.

Tired and hungry we returned to camp. Since we are ‘glampers’ at heart we thought of trying out the restaurant at Furnace Creek (there’s only one) but the steep price of a steak there sent us right back to our campsite for hotdogs, salad, and canned ravioli. The 110 degree heat began cooling off towards dusk at about time same time my 9 year old daughter’s wheezing stopped for the day (she had been doing it since the morning in reaction to the heat). The wind picked up and that was when this quiet campground began to come alive for me. I sat outside in the welcome breeze for an hour just marveling at the desert, the colors, the darkening sky, and the distant mountains. Then the wind really whipped up and I retreated inside the camper, slipped under a blanket and listened to the wind batter the Jayco’s canvas walls. I’ve always been a romantic storm chaser and it was fascinating to be safe inside the camper while the wind bustled outside.

photo credit: Bob Mortenson

I woke in the morning while everyone slept, went outside and beheld three fighter jets dive out of the sky and rocket along the flat Mojave Desert at Mock speed. It was loud, intense, and sudden. Still my family slept on. Later, after breakfast we noticed that our empty campground had new tenants. Two middle-aged men on bicycles had moved in next door while we slept and were just breaking down their small tents. How they got into Death Valley on bicycle and how they planned to get out again we never found out. If they were a mirage we did not stick around to find out since we still had 22 miles of steep uphill grade to climb in order to escape Death Valley.

Author bio: Bob Mortensen loves traveling the country in his RV and enjoying all of the great outdoors this country has to offer. When he is not traveling, he blogs about his adventures and living the RV life for the online and Nevada RV dealer rvzen.com.

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