When I was younger, my family used to go camping. Some of it I remember: bison licking the windows of our car in Yellowstone, for example, or playing in the creeks and rivers with my brother, Alex inevitably falling in. ;) I remember eating cookies at Glacier Point in Yosemite; I remember Dad warning us that though it felt easy hiking down into the Grand Canyon, we’d have to save enough energy to get back up.
A lot of it I don’t remember, or remember only vaguely. I remember going to Death Valley during Thanksgiving break and taking evening walks from our campground to the “store” — who knows where — to buy Eskimo Pie ice cream bars (do those even exist anymore?). I have strong memories of the ice cream, but when one of my friends posted some pictures of Death Valley a few months ago, I realized that Eskimo Pies were all I remembered. I had no idea what Death Valley was actually like.
That’s when I started scheming about getting down there sometime — preferably, so that the temperatures on the valley floor were bearable, during winter. And when my mom let me know that some old friends from France, people I hadn’t seen since I was about 13, were coming to Sacramento for Christmas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity: spend some time on my bike in Death Valley, then go back to Sacramento for Christmas with family and friends.
Because we have some pretty awesome psychic sibling magic, my adventure coincided with my brother coming back to Sac and having some free time as well. We decided to carpool down to Death Valley, have some joint adventure, then split up so I could bike and he could climb. So no, this was not an entirely car-free endeavor since we drove between Sac and Death Valley and back, but at least it was a carpool, a beautiful drive, and about 7 solid hours each way to hang out with my favorite brother.
Our joint venture was a trailless run+stroll across the desert to Panamint Dunes on the western edge of the park, not super far from where we’d camped the night before. Admittedly, there were moments when we wondered why we were just running across the desert toward some distant sand dunes, but it was totally worth it when we got there:
Then we split up — Alex to climb, of course, and me to bike and camp for 6 more glorious days.
I went to some pretty low places:
And some pretty old spaces:
(a relic from back in the day when they mined borax in the valley, then had to carry it all out by mule over the mountains)
And saw all sorts of other awesomeness too:
I saw lots of unlikely water…
And managed to give my itty-bitty life a little dose of perspective, too
I know I’m a biased source, but I really do think that biking through Death Valley is the way to see it. The crazy vast expanse of flat surrounded by the crazy tall extravagance of mountains is really better taken in slowly, thoughtfully, fully, by human power, to let the scale sink in. Plus, on a bike you notice the plants, the animals, the surprising amount of life that despite the hardship still thrives in the desert.
There are plenty of campgrounds, almost all of which have potable water, so finding enough water wasn’t a problem (there’s a handy chart of which campgrounds have which amenities here). And for those of us who don’t like staying in established campgrounds, backcountry camping is legal in much of the park. In fact, once you get at least a mile off most of the paved roads, you can basically pull over and camp anywhere. There are more guidelines here, plus this awesome map that shows where you can and can’t backcountry camp (the parts shaded in yellow are camp-only-in-designated-area zones; everything else is fair game).
It’s true that camping so close to winter solstice meant that there was a lot of darkness to contend with — by 4:30, the sun was already down; by 5, it was dark. But in Death Valley, that meant the dawn of a whole other stretch of awesomeness: stargazing. Death Valley is designated an “International Dark Sky Park,” which means it’s a “location of exceptional nighttime beauty.” Seriously. I don’t have any pictures of the night sky since I’m not that cool of a photographer, but the first night I was in Death Valley was the peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower, and holy shit. I’m not sure I will ever see so many shooting stars in one night again.
So that was a fun upside to the looooong stretches of darkness. It also meant that I got up every day way before sunrise (heck, by 5am I’d often already been in bed for 8 or 9 hours!) — and one morning I was rewarded for my earliness with a visit by a desert kit fox, the first fox I’ve ever seen in the wild. That was on top of the other daily incentive of seeing the world turn pink and gold and glowy as the sun came out.
As always, I could go on and on and on, but instead, I will simply say that if you’re interested in hearing more, check out the rest of my Death Valley pictures, complete with cheesy captions. Then take your own adventure, and tell me about it:)