On the way home from Las Vegas where we spent Thanksgiving with Mom, we took a short and sweet detour to Death Valley National Park. We have visited Death Valley in March and November every year since 2010 and though we actually arrived this year on December 2nd, we find this to be a mighty fine time to visit the hottest place in North America. Arriving for the ridiculous sunset pictured above, little did we know that this resulted from some unusual weather moving through the area. Had we arrived in November as usual, we may have caught the snowstorm that blanketed DV the week before. The staff at Panamint Springs Resort told us they took off for the day to go SLEDDING at Towne Pass on the 190. Talk about climate change! And speaking of climate change, many roads around Panamint Springs were still closed due to damage from storms the summer before. Normally we'd truck in to the Saline Valley during a visit to PSR, but not this time. Instead we planned to explore the roads around a blip on the map known as Darwin, a desert community between the park and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Since we had spent the week in Vegas, we opted not to haul all the car camping gear with us and this guided our decision to rent one of PSR's two tent cabins for our stay. And it worked out just fine.
I never tire of the view at Panamint Springs Resort, and I always enjoy my stay. One lovely amenity that never fails to delight me is the wireless access. You can choose to share that gloriously empty view with as many people as you like in the moment, or keep it all to yourself. Options make life rich. In keeping with technological options, we used our iPad for some evening entertainment as dark comes early to Death Valley in December. In preparation for our trip, I had downloaded the documentary, "Darwin: No Services Ahead" and we had a premiere viewing from the cots in our tent cabin. We were heading out on the Darwin Road next day, to hike the Darwin Falls trail and drive the desert before cruising through town. The community of Darwin consists of 40 or so souls with a median income of $15,000 and one available job - postmaster. There are no services besides the post in Darwin and most people seem to have settled here after leaving behind some trouble in their past. If you are interested in a different type of Americana, give "Darwin" view. These people may not have much, but they certainly have amazing views of the Mojave Desert just outside their door and all the solitude they could possibly desire.
Though we had hiked the Darwin Falls trail before, we hadn't quite made it to the namesake and we were surprised by the plural 'falls' aspect. I knew there was a pretty permanent waterfall in Darwin Canyon - a remarkable attraction by itself in Death Valley - but I had only recently read that there is another permanent fall past the first, and I was gobsmacked to learn it was an 80 foot fall! We started the sunny morning on the trail with silence, wildflowers and the leftover remnants of autumn in the canyon. You follow the trail until you stumble upon Small Darwin Fall, which has created a lovely green grotto in the desert, complete with greenery clinging to the mossy canyon walls. Accessing Big Darwin Fall, however, was not quite as easy. The next part of the 'trail' requires scrambling up and over rocks and ridges of the canyon to the overlook of Big Darwin Fall. Here is where having a rockclimber husband comes in handy. I couldn't have done it without him, or maybe it would have taken me a hell of a lot longer. I wouldn't recommend it to the average hiker, but the view is entirely worth the effort.
Gaping at Big Darwin Fall was just the beginning of the day's adventure, so a hike back to the Landcrusier in the sun and a revitalizing snack was what we needed to keep rolling. So we rolled over the Darwin Road, and since we weren't sure what to expect from the dotted dirt road line on the map, we were again pleasantly surprised by the vista. And the snow. Perhaps I am one of the few humans on earth to have built a snowman in Death Valley? Put that on my gravestone, please.
In a day filled with surprises, goldfish in the desert may certainly top the list. After taking an inadvertent turn on a side road that we believed would eventually dead-end somewhere near the top of Big Darwin Fall, we came across a place on the map designated "China Garden Spring". Yet another permanent water source in this area, the spring housed trees and the foundations of previous dwellings as well as goldfish. Many, many miles in the middle of nowhere, there are goldfish thriving in Death Valley.
Back on track, we began a descent into Darwin proper. Though we saw the various dwellings of Darwin in various stages of habitability, we never saw a single person as we cruised slowly through town. I have no idea if the documentary has increased the percentages of looky-loos, so perhaps they hide inside while the tourists gawk. Or maybe they were inside watching their stories. Anyway, we came, we saw, and then we left.
Did you notice the clouds in those photos? Weather was moving in and the wind was picking up righteously. After applying some Fix-A-Flat to our slowly leaking right front tire (in accordance with our Death Valley Flat Tire Ritual), we hustled back down the hill to Panamint Springs. Back in Panamint Valley, we experienced the distant view of a serious dust storm that hadn't quite reached our location, as the wind had died completely. This provided an opportunity to set out yet again to locate the site of the first launch by the Hansen Space Agency. Outside of the park, of course. Leaving Las Vegas, Ted had made the puzzling request to stop by Hobby Lobby to shop. Just for me, he said, would be the first model rocket endeavor by the Hansens in the wide open expanse of the Mojave Desert. Though the Silver Arrow didn't quite reach the 50 mile limit of earth's atmosphere at the edge of space, two successful launches gave us hope for a space-faring future.
The tent cabin turned out to the best idea when the wind picked up ferociously that evening - as it will in the desert - and we had to right our overturned camp chairs in the morning. On the way out of Death Valley via Olancha, our Fix-A-Flat became permanently flat and Ted changed the tire in the sand on the side of the 190 in the Owens Valley. The view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada was divine. Outside of Ridgecrest we stopped by the Indian Wells Brewing Company tasting room with a Mojave Gold beer break in mind. One last surprise - Indian Wells is now bottling Rocket Fizz soda and creating sodas of their own with the Death Valley label. Crazy flavors like cookie dough, Buffalo wings and bacon make an entertaining display and the nice man handed me a sample right off the bottling line. We brought a six pack home as a Christmas gift for family: candy cane, chocolate, marshmallow, red licorice, peanut butter and jelly, and cinnamon.
Panamint Springs Resort Tent Cabins: Junk in the Trunk!
Indian Wells Brewing Company: Junk in the Trunk!