Our final morning at Death Valley National Park dawned with the sun pushing away the shadows from this vast place. It was Tuesday morning, February 28, and we’d have to start back to San Diego by noon at the latest. The following afternoon, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
The previous night as we found our campsite, everything was a rich black. In the morning as we looked out of our tents into the sunrise, we found the foothills of the Cottonwood mountains, where our camp was nestled, gloriously lit up. As were the quickly departing clouds. Although other parts of the valley had felt the drop of rain overnight, our tiny corner of it hadn’t.
We made our final breakfast and gabbed away.
Out across Death Valley, northerly winds kicked up great bands of dust.
We broke camp and were on bumping back down Cottonwood Canyon Road toward Stovepipe Wells before 8:30, barely two hours after we’d risen.
The morning light was bold and grand on this side of the Cottonwoods, showing us what we had missed the night before.
Down on the valley floor, we passed a few illegal campers who’d spent the night within the section of the road and valley off-limits to camping.
This epic asshole above not only was camping along a section of the road that he shouldn’t have been, he was also well off the road, violating the Wilderness Act. Dumbshit.
We passed Tucki Mountain with all the magic of Mosaic Canyon hidden in its depths.
Near Stovepipe Wells, we passed a hitchhiker.
We crossed the valley and turned onto North Highway, continuing for fourteen miles to the turnoff for Titus Canyon. Titus Canyon, the longest in the Park, is a Jeep route one way into the valley. From outside the Park in Nevada, it is twenty-four miles by Jeep to the spot where we had parked. While we were in Death Valley, Titus Canyon Road was closed to vehicles due to wet conditions in the upper reaches of the canyon. It was, however, accessible by foot. So the three of us set out into this gash in the Grapevine Mountains.
Titus Canyon doesn’t mess around. Almost immediately we were in the narrows of a deep canyon, tall cliffs on either side.
Although there were two other vehicles in the parking area, we saw no other humans while we were in Titus Canyon.
After about twenty minutes of hiking, we decided to turn around and head back down. It wasn’t that Titus Canyon wasn’t immense and beautiful, but compared to the endless variety of Room Canyon and Mosaic Canyon, we felt we’d seen what it had to offer. Also, we wanted to hit the visitor center and Dante’s View before we said goodbye to Death Valley, and we were running out of hours before we had to depart.
So we turned around and headed back the way we’d come. I’ve no doubt that had the road been open to vehicles, we’d have run it in the Jeep. Someday…
Just before the mouth of the canyon, Andrew made his final off-trail ascent of the trip.
As we emerged into the brilliance of Death Valley, a motorcade was arriving at the parking lot. It was a youth group excursion to hike the canyon. While they emerged from their vehicles with their leaders, we three climbed into the Jeep, grateful to have had the canyon to ourselves for our brief visit.
Down we drove into the palm tree-lined, constructed human oasis of Furnace Creek, long the hub of tourism for Death Valley.
The temperature at the visitor center, sixty-eight degrees, rivaled the high temperature of our entire time in Death Valley National Park.
Andrew and I went in and started checking out the exhibitions.
Sean first went to the restroom and found the plaque honoring Stephen Mather, first National Park Service director. There is a plaque like this in each of the Parks.
We made our purchases and drove over to Death Valley’s post office to send our postcards on their way.
Then we drove out of the valley proper. It was already quarter after eleven, but we had one more thing to do before we left the Park: drive up into the Amargosas and take in Dante’s View.
After heading east on 190, we turned south and drove up into Greenwater Valley, another amazing expanse that would have been a great place to camp for a couple nights. Again, we’d have needed three weeks at least to do everything we wanted to do.
The road turned to the west and wound up to the parking area for Dante’s View, 5,475 feet above sea level or 5,757 feet above Badwater Basin, directly below. Again, the vertical relief in Death Valley National Park is staggering.
From up here, it was obvious how wet Badwater Basin was at the moment. It added an extra layer of texture to the scene.
I wandered over to a slightly lower but more exposed vantage point where I got talking to a fellow from Rhode Island. He remarked how his entire state could fit in the view we had. And he was quite right. Two and a half Rhode Islands could fit within Death Valley proper, which wasn’t even to take into account the entire area of the National Park.
Directly across from us, snow-covered Telescope Peak, shone 11,049 feet in the air.
Almost straight down, we could see people moving along the boardwalk and path out over the mud flat and salt flat of Badwater Basin.
In the distance, to the west beyond the Panamints, we could see the snow-covered ramparts of the Sierra Nevada. Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet and the highest point in the Lower Forty-Eight, was out there somewhere.
Immediately to the north of Dante’s View was the colorful Artists Drive portion of the Amargosas.
Out to the north, the valley just kept going and going past the Grapevines and the Last Chance Range, out to Ubehebe Crater and beyond.
Across the valley, the Panamints were just spellbinding.
We knew our time was rapidly drawing short, but it was hard to tear ourselves away from this final vista of our trip.
It felt special that we had saved Dante’s Peak for the very bitter end because it allowed us to finally see the landscape we’d been exploring from above and to bid each special place farewell.
The last thing we did was take a selfie to text to my Mother since it was her birthday.
Then we turned, walked back to the Jeep, climbed in, and began the long drive back to San Diego.
Goodbye, Death Valley National Park.
We left via the east entrance and descended into the Amargosa Valley. We passed through Death Valley Junction and saw the late Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House, which had almost lured me to Death Valley thirteen years earlier.
For a while, after we crossed and recrossed the Amargosa River, the highway followed the eastern border of the Park allowing for a few final shots of a significantly greener section of the landscape. There would not be a superbloom in 2017, but we got a taste of what would happen in the rest of the Park in the coming weeks as February turned to March turned to April.
And then it was gone.
On the way back, we listened to Hamilton, which Andrew had not yet heard and which Sean and I had seen in Chicago just a couple weeks earlier.
Because we were leaving a National Park in California, we had to stop at an In-N-Out for lunch, which we did in Barstow.
We left the Mojave Desert and descended into coastal southern California. We got back to San Diego a lot later than we’d been hoping since we hit rush hour traffic.
Before heading to Andrew’s condo, we stopped at the naval station to use the car wash. Back at the condo we dropped our gear and showered before heading out for sushi. Andrew called the free golf-cart Uber-like service for downtown San Diego. There were a lot of people out, and we realized that it was Mardi Gras.
At dinner, we talked about the trip.
Andrew remarked, “I don’t think I’d have done anything we did differently.” And Sean declared the trip “delightful!”
Andrew’s favorite part was Room Canyon and the other canyoneering, while Sean’s was the immense solitude.
After dinner, Andrew spilled the beans that Yesi was on her way down from Los Angeles. With that news, Sean decided that we should get some dessert, so we headed over to Extraordinary Desserts, where he selected an array of delicious pies and pastries.
On the walk back to Andrew’s, he pointed out the restored art deco Covenant Hotel, which was now a homeless shelter. Very cool.
Yesi as already there when we got back, and the three of us barraged her with stories and photos from the trip, as well as tasty desserts. It was delightful to finally get to meet her!
Next morning, Sean and I slowly repacked our gear for airplane travel. Then the three of us headed out for brunch in The Mission.
After brunch, Andrew gave us a tour of Naval Station San Diego, which was really something. Some of the vessels looked like spaceships.
Then we visited the new San Diego Central Library, which was designed by local architect Rob Quigley and opened in 2013. In addition to being an interesting building, its terrace offered a view of San Diego’s harbor and Mexico in the distance.
Standing and gazing out, it felt like a bookend for Sean and me matched by our moment standing with Patrick and gazing out at the view of Los Angeles from the terrace of the Getty some eight months earlier. In between our adventures in California had taken us to Disneyland, Yosemite, Channel Islands, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Muir Woods and Muir Beach, Point Reyes, and Death Valley.
There was even a volume of Mapplethorpe photography on display at the library, which also echoed our moments at the Getty.
Then all too soon Yesi and Andrew had to drive us to the airport, and we hugged our goodbyes and promises to visit soon.
In the terminal, we passed a cool poster design exhibition of fantastical space-tourism posters. It felt fitting having just encountered one of Earth’s most special places.
Soon we were in the air circling out over the Pacific before turning northeast toward home.
The sunset was brilliant over North America that night.
And when we reached Chicago and home, Elsa was, as usual, very pleased to see us.