Seattle to Santa Barbara: Part 3 – Death Valley and the American Riviera

February 21-25

It was hot. It was cold. It was windy. It threatened rain. There was sun, there were clouds. Death Valley gave us a little bit of everything on our brief 3 day tour.

We left Morro Bay Campground the morning of Feb 21, picking up some rocket fuel from Top Dog coffee shop. I got a “Bad Dog”: cup of coffee and double shot espresso. They have a “Rabid Dog” as well: 4 shots of espresso dumped into a coffee. Or in other words the Arrhythmia-Maker.

East to Bakersfield, we said “see you soon” to the Pacific. We’d be dropping Charley off at a dog-sitter Jamie found on Rover before heading to Death Valley.

As we stopped for fuel and some drinks, we got a front row seat to police cuffing and arresting some poor soul at the pump. Just toss it in the “strange happenings” bucket with the other events.

4 more hours on the highway got us to Death Valley, some of that time on one of our favorite highways, US-395, running north-south along the eastern escarpment of the Sierras. The last 100 miles took us across Owens Valley and into the National Park from its western mountains. We knew Death Valley was home to the lowest point in the US, Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level. But its mountains really stole the show.

We were brought into a massive and otherworldly landscape via switchback roads that dropped us into seemingly endless valley floors. It felt like a realm parallel to ours, but different and foreign.

The campgrounds in Death Valley are more like gravel lots. In some cases, they actually are just big parking lots. But there was plenty of space to spread out, away from other campers and extra noise, and find peace beneath a sea of stars.

It was calm the next morning- something we then assumed (incorrectly) to be the norm. Basic breakfast at our site then we were off to Golden Canyon and the Badlands to do a popular 7 mile loop hike. There were plenty of folks out on the trails, but with so much space to explore, silence enveloped us for most of the walk.

At times it felt like we could be running a reconnaissance after the apocalypse, searching for humans but not finding any. It was warm, then hot, and quite exposed. But the trails were easy to follow and not too demanding, and we hid along canyon walls when the sun was in full force.

The winds rolled in after our lovely morning hike. Dust storms blew through the valley floor, like nothing we’d seen before. Tumbleweeds spun across the highway as I white-knuckled to keep us between the lines. Getting out of the main chute of the valley floor, we found some relief in the rock outcroppings that climb the gradual slopes on the periphery of the basin.

When the winds had settled a bit, we decided to let Archie have a bit of fun. Unbeknownst to Jamie or myself, Death Valley is renowned for its off-roading opportunities. 4×4 roads meander through all parts of the park, encouraging folks to get out and wander for a bit. We took the ole boy through the Hole in the Wall, a path cutting through a natural gap in an otherwise several-hundred feet high rock ridge.

We awoke the next morning with a few items on the itinerary. Being there for only a few days, we felt it’d be best spent getting the sparknotes tour of the park. We prepped breakfast at sunrise at our campsite in Furnace Creek, and made our way over to Badwater Basin.

The clouds kept an eye on us from the mountaintops, never quite making it to the valley, but always menacing. The poor valley is constantly teased by this cloud-play, and remains ever-thirsty.

As I mentioned, Badwater Basin sits over 280 feet below sea level. This once-seabed dried up when the climate changed, as the evaporation rate exceeded the rate at which the basin filled, leaving behind impressive crystallized salt deposits and uplifted, tortured earth.

We bopped around a bit after that, wanting to get a taste of most of the intro-level items. A natural bridge hike took us through a formation 35 feet off the ground and 35 feet thick.

Dubbed the “Devil’s Golf Course,” we stopped at an expanse of wildly jagged crystalline salt accumulations, sharp enough to send you to the hospital (if one existed anywhere nearby) if you fell. We made sure to step sure-footedly through this so as not to spoil our trip.

Another attempt at off-roading on day 2 resulted in a fail. A bit more challenging of a 4×4 road, Hanupah Canyon was going to get us up the west side of the valley, sneaking into some folds in the wall of mountains. Things felt a bit hairy, as the closer we got to the mountains, the closer we also got to some imposing clouds that looked ready to dump flood-level rains on us. Discretion is the better part of valor, I suppose.

We settled on a hike to Mosaic Canyon instead, licking our wounds among the multicolored marbelized smooth rocks and conglomerate deposits.

If there’s dunes, ya gotta go. So we did, for sunset that evening. Both feeling pretty tired from the long day of driving the valley and short hikes in between, we strolled through the dunes for only a bit before heading to our campsite.

It was cold that night. And windy. We contemplated leaving Death Valley that night, in the dark, and heading to the closest town (nowhere remotely close) to find a room. I remembered the winding road down, steep pitches that had us climbing and dropping from an elevation over a mile high to below sea level. We decided to wait til the morning.

However cold it was that night, probably 35F, it was colder the next morning. We made quick work of the break-down of camp and got out of Dodge quick as we could.

We weren’t on a real time crunch, so I selected a more scenic way back to Bakersfield to pick up Charley. Taking US 395 south, again with the Sierras flanking us, now to the right, we made our way down to CA 178 and hung a right. We stumbled into an incredible drive.

Brushed-green canyons of Sequoia National Forest lined the Kern River Valley as we slowly let the Sierras slip away from us. The route spat us out on the other end right into Bakersfield, dusty, dry, and sunny. We picked up Charley and hosed down Archie, continuing toward the coast. The San Emigdio mountains of the Angeles National Forest stood in our way out of Bakersfield, and we climbed up and over them on I-5, dropping into Santa Clarita Valley. After that, a turn back onto our old friend US 101 took us back to the sea.

We’d be moving into our apartment the following day, so we stalked the finish line from a half hour south, at a campground just north of Ventura and right on the Pacific. I went for a run along the bike path paralleling the ocean, excited to be so close to our new home.

We decided to have a proper dinner that night, and went into Ventura for some Thai at Rice by Mama, before a campfire and gentle waves put us to sleep. Santa Barbara in the morning.

Finally, finally, we’d made it back to the American Riviera.

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