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California : Death Valley

Polynesians visiting the United States often only have two priorities: shopping in Los Angeles and gaming in Las Vegas! All the same, less than two hundred kilometers away from the “gambling dens” is a place that is well worth the detour: Death Valley, a desert wasteland of impressive landscapes. Let’s go there.

Your humble guide just happens to be the only man to walk across Death Valley in high summer, and to survive … He hiked the 225 kilometers in seven days, with ground temperatures exceeding 80°C, where any other normal human-being would have died in less than 3 hours … Let me reassure you, it is a superb and safe place to visit, if you go there between October and April, provided that you carefully follow the advice given by the park rangers. Death Valley is the largest of America’s National Parks, just ahead of Yellowstone, with a surface area of 13,354km2 (thirteen times the size of Tahiti!). I describe alternative itineraries that allow you to discover the region, one the “classic” tour and the other, a lot more physically demanding. Both provide two days of “exploring”, but if you’re only passing through pick out the sites that are of the most interest to you.

You can then leave Death Valley, either via Badwater on highway 178, and head south on 127 towards Baker with its giant thermometer, and continue on to Los Angeles on boring old Interstate 15, otherwise you can take the road via Stovepipe Wells – the 190 – towards Olancha and then the 395 that heads back down to LAX, a lot more interesting than the I-15, as you drive along the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney, towering 4,400 meters above you. In the small town of Olancha, if you are not in a hurry, stop over at the motel by the side of the road, where you can stay in … an Indian teepee, it makes for a change and is inexpensive. The National Park has several entrances, the easiest when coming from Las Vegas is to exit on highway 160 headed towards Blue Diamond and Pahrump. Don’t forget to fill up on gas, as it is much more expensive inside the valley! Head out of town and turn left on the 190 to Death Valley Junction. The road starts to slope downwards, and you get the impression that the nearby mountains are sinking into this huge fracture in the land’s surface. Of course, the temperature is doing the opposite; if you go there during the summer you are strongly advised not to touch your car’s bodywork!

So, for this first itinerary, you will turn left towards Dante’s View. After some twenty kilometers the asphalt road climbs up to 1,600 meters to a viewpoint over a large area of the valley. Just spectacular! This is the parking lot that I arrived at one evening in October 1965, after climbing part of the Black Mountains and coming up from Bad Water, with a 30 kilo pack on my back, after ten hours of tiring ascent, leaving the snakes peacefully warming themselves in the sun. A few kilometers further on, or further down to be more accurate, you turn left to visit Zabrisky Point, not to be missed, it is without doubt one of the most photographed sites in the park. Many films have been shot here, including one of the Star Wars episodes.

If you’ve got time, backtrack a bit to hike the trail to Twenty Mules Canyon, it’s not very long but is quite original with its hills of mud and alluvium veined with gullies, without so much as a blade of grass growing there. The road continues downwards and you will pass near the impressive Furnace Creek Inn (closed in summer) built in the twenties with old-fashioned charm, and an Olympic size swimming pool, and hefty prices… Then, you arrive at sea-level and the Furnace Creek Ranch, entirely renovated, complete with an 18-hole golf course, open air museum with antique wagons used to transport borax that was extracted from Death Valley (pulled by the famous twenty-mule team), a locomotive ready to take to the tracks and other objects from the gold rush era at the end of the 19th century. The site is surrounded by large palms producing succulent dates that are sold in the nearby store. Just next door you find the quintessential Death Valley Museum with its free shows explaining the history and geology of the region. There is entertainment and a very well stocked library that has my book in both French and English versions: Défi à la Vallée de la Mort or Defying Death Valley. It is here that you also pay the mandatory “fee”, an entry fee of US$30, as for all other American National Parks.

After lunch, if you are still up to it, continue on to Stovepipe Wells with its fine white sand dunes. Go slightly beyond the station and climb to the left as far as Mosaic Canyon. Very quickly you arrive in a tortuous corridor of polished rock, mostly made up of marble that feels amazing to touch, being thirty million years old. The last storm they had there happened back in the 1970s, soon after I had passed through this canyon in the middle of summer in 1966, on my way up to the Skidoo ghost town and gold mine. Turn around and climb back towards Scotty’s Castle (a hotel closed for repairs after flood damage) and more specifically Ubehebe Crater, several million years old. It was created by an explosive reaction between the groundwater and a pocket of magma. You can charge the 180 meters down to the bottom in a few minutes, but climbing back up again will take a bit more effort!

Just nearby, you will find many several small craters that could make you think you’ve arrived on the Moon! You should have just enough time to get back to your hotel room, in Stovepipe Wells or at Furnace Creek Ranch, and relax in the thirty degree spring water. Second day, from Furnace Creek, head south towards Badwater and take West Side Road (trail) for around 10 kilometers, to get to the viewpoint, where you can “admire” the famous Devil’s Golf Course with its salt formations. Then head back along the road and turn onto the one way Artist’s Palette drive. Enjoy the 8 mile long display, Technicolor scenery painted by nature, each shade more outlandish than the last. At the exit, turn left towards Badwater, following a beautiful road that continues to press deeper into this geological fissure, with its highpoint standing 87 meters above sea-level. Look out for the mark on the wall marked “-282 feet below sea-level”. For the record, this is where I turned back towards Dante’s View during my other expedition, when I crossed the salty expanse of the Amargosa River in July 1966, getting to the geographically lowest point, a few kilometers from the spot that receives millions of visitors. I suddenly felt very unwell and dizzy, looking at my kitchen thermometer I saw that it read 198° Fahrenheit, or 87 °C! The rangers had warned me beforehand: “Mister Marquant, if you collapse, we are not going to be able to come in and get you, we haven’t had the same training that you have.” Cool, or rather I should say …Hot! Here, I want to make an aside about the hottest recorded temperatures on Earth. It is written everywhere that on July 10, 1913, the thermometer at the meteorological station in Furnace Creek (at an altitude of around sea-level) read 134° F, somewhere slightly over 57°C under shelter (in the shade) and 1.50m off the ground. When you know that the temperature continues to climb as you go down, you are not mistaken in imagining that it must have been 4 or 5 degrees hotter in Badwater. This beats the highest ever recorded temperature of 58 °C from El Azizia, in Libya!

I’ve mentioned it several times to the park rangers and they all agree with me … The route descends along highway 178 towards Shoshone, the name of the Amerindian tribe that occupied the region over several hundreds of years. Merge right onto the 127 if you don’t want to head back to Las Vegas. A few miles from there stop at Tecopa Hot Springs where you find hot mineral-rich baths. Men and women bathe separately, as swimsuits are left in the changing rooms; a little bit like the Japanese onzen but without the characteristic natural decorations of the latter. You then follow the highway that will take you back to Baker, bringing your visit to this American natural gem to a close.

Source : Reva Tahiti Magazine

Text : Jean-Pierre Marquant

Pictures : Jean-Pierre Marquant, P. Bacchet