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Road Trip to Death Valley

The Salt Flats at Death Valley
The Salt Flats at Death Valley

The Salt Flats at Death Valley are 282 feet below sea level.

I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea to cap off a terrible week with a road trip to Death Valley National Park. My 11-year-old had been sick with a high fever, recovered from that and then had 4 teeth pulled. My 13-year-old fainted late one evening, which turned out to be nothing, but it took a couple of scary days of calls and visits to the doctor to figure out what had happened. Even though I was already stressed out and tired from no sleep, two Saturdays ago we got up at 5 AM, dropped our dog off with the in-laws and drove to Death Valley, one of the most extreme places on earth.

Death Valley Sand Dunes

The Death Valley Sand Dunes

We were lucky enough to get a GMC Acadia from GMC for review to make the drive. I had asked for it because the check engine light in my car went on right before our trip (Looking back, maybe this was a sign not to go). The Acadia has 4-wheel drive, looks tough and was brand new, which is what I wanted – a reliable car that would be comfortable for the long drive.

GMC Acadia was a nice, reliable car to take to Death Valley ca

I had pitched a story to GMC about going there to see the Wildflowers because there had been an epic super bloom at Death Valley last year. How were the wildflowers this year? It looked like this.

Death Valley - no super bloom this year

No super bloom this year. In fact, when we arrived on Saturday, we heard a ranger tell a group of people she had not seen ONE wildflower so far this year. Not one. There weren’t any wildflowers, but there will still a lot to see. Our first stop was at Stovepipe Wells.

Stove Pipe Wells in Death Valley National Park

Warning in Stove Pipe Wells

Unfortunately, it was already after 10 AM and we had things to see. It was only about 85 degrees when we read this sign so we loaded up on cold drinks at the adorable market in Stove Pipe Wells and, after a brief stop at the Sand Dunes, went on our first hike at the Ubehebe Crater.

Ubehebe crater in Death Valley

The volcanic crater is 600 feet deep and a half-mile wide. It was formed, according to NPS.gov, as recently as 300 years ago after a heat and gas explosion. The area around the crater was extremely windy. So windy that I was concerned that one of my boys would be blown into the crater if the wind changed direction. There were signs all around it to stay away from the edge.

My crew at the Ubehebe crater

The heat was starting to get to me at that point. I could not drink enough water. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Salt Creek, which I was amazed to see had water running through it. The creek was filled with crazy-resilient pup fish that were being carried back by the current to where the creek started (pictured below) and trying to swim upstream for a chance to mate.

Did you know there are fish in Death Valley? At Salt Creek, pup fish swim upstream for their lives.

Salt Creek is home to the pup fish

After that, we’d had it. We stopped at the store at the Furnace Creek Resort for more cold water and soda and headed to our hotel, which was literally in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it was just over the border in Nevada. We had talked about camping, but we were too unsure of what the conditions would be like when we got there. I’m so happy we didn’t camp. It was very hot and windy and all of us desperately needed a shower. And a hot tub! The week before our trip to Death Valley we booked the last room anywhere near Death Valley at the Longstreet Hotel & Casino.

Longstreet Inn & Casino

The online reviews of Longstreet were mixed, but it was great for us – not fancy, but comfortable. The hot tub was perfect and clean and the sunset over the duck pond was beautiful. We had a reasonably priced steak dinner and went to bed at 8 PM, which could have been the best part of our very long day. We needed it for what was to come on Sunday.

We had talked to the park ranger about what to do for the day and settled on a hike that seemed like it would be an adventure, but it was bust. After a hot walk we turned around and drove to Golden Canyon, one of the most popular spots in Death Valley.

Golden Canyon in Death Valley

We saw quite a few hikers and even a family with a baby just beyond the trailhead to get to Red Cathedral when we noticed a slot in the canyon. It looked like would be a fun hike off the beaten path.

A slot off of Golden Canyon Trail

It wasn’t easy climbing up through the narrow slot and as we got higher and higher we could feel the rocks start to give way under our feet. When it was getting too hard to get up, we called it and headed back. I led the way and my 11-year-old son was behind me. My 13-year-old was behind him and my husband at the very back. All of the sudden I heard my husband shouting, “Rock coming down! Get out of the way. Get up higher.” I looked up and could see several sizable rocks bouncing down the narrow path. There was no way I could get to my son to help him. I watched as he moved to the side, climbed up and grabbed on the rock face and held on as the rocks bounced past him. I got out of the way at the last second.

It was terrifying. The rock was big enough to have broken our legs or, if it had knocked my son down, it could have killed him. He was too far away from me to get to him and there was nothing I could do to stop the rocks coming down. That realization has put me in a funk for the last couple of weeks. Thank god he’s a quick thinker and did what he was told. We are putting a hold on any crazy adventures for a while.

The rock that almost killed us in Death Valley.

Once we got out of the slot and recovered, we walked a little bit to try to get to Red Cathedral, but it was too hot and I was too freaked out.

Red Cathedral in Death Valley

Our last stop before we got the hell out of there was at the Salt Flats in Badwater Basin. The Salt Flats are 200 square miles of protected area 282 feet below sea level. Water that drains down from distant peaks comes to rest in the flats, evaporates in the desert sun leaving nothing but salt. It’s very delicate and strange to walk on.

Salt Flats in Death ValleyIt was strange and it was brutal. I was born and raised in the desert and I can’t remember ever being that hot.

We were happy to be in our air conditioned car on the way home. The Acadia drove beautifully on the windy roads around the park. It was very comfortable and plenty of room for all of our gear, food and water. Our only complaint is that it didn’t get great gas mileage. We were getting about 23 miles per gallon on the highway. It was a nice car and great for a road trip like this one.

Finally, on our way out of the park after a mentally and physically draining adventure, we saw this:

Small Patch of Death Valley Wildflowers

It was a nice way to end our strange journey. Our Death Valley road trip was one we’ll never forget and one we won’t be repeating anytime soon (or ever). If you go, be prepared for extreme weather, drink plenty of water and wear sunscreen. Don’t do anything crazy and don’t go off the beaten path. Death Valley has its ominous name for a reason.

Disclosure: I was loaned a car to drive for the weekend for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

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Yvonne Condes (724 Posts)

Yvonne Condes is the Editor and Co-Founder of MomsLA.com. She is a Los Angeles Mom of 2, former newspaper reporter, and occasional marathoner. Also find her at her personal Latina blog YvonneInLA.com and @YvonneInLA and MomsLA.


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