A week in Death Valley National Park, page 4

Page 1: Biking to Badwater Basin
Page 2: Furnace Creek and Dante's View
Page 3: Mosaic Canyon and biking to Mesquite Springs
Page 4: Scotty's Castle and Mesquite Sand Dunes

Thursday, March 17

Distance: 23.2 miles
Riding time: 2 hours, 46 minutes
Average speed: 8.3 mph
Maximum speed: 33.0 mph

Breakfast was fun with our campsite friends this morning, and Maggie and Daniel were playing with Owen and Rachel as soon as they climbed out of our tent. It was chilly and windy and Kathy and I hadn't brought enough warm clothing, but Laura and Fletcher lent us fleece shirts for the day.

We rode further into the hills to spend our afternoon at Scotty's Castle, a mansion built in the 1920's by Albert Johnson, the very wealthy president of a Chicago insurance company. It's called "Scotty's Castle" because of Walter Scott, a cowboy scam artist who tricked Johnson into investing in a fictitious gold mine. After Johnson traveled to Death Valley and discovered the truth, he fell in love with the desert and built a mansion there. He befriended Scotty and even let him pretend that the home was his, since that deflected unwanted attention from Johnson and his wife during their visits.

Our kids don't usually behave well during group tours, but we took them on the house tour and they behaved perfectly. They were quiet and interested, and they stayed off the antique furniture. We were impressed.

Breakfast at Mesquite Springs with Rachel, Owen, Fletcher and Laura.

Scotty's Castle. The mansion seems even more extravagant when you consider its remoteness during the 1920's. Visitors drove 10 hours to get here from the nearest railroad station.

The living room and dining room. The dining room was originally the library, but the Johnson's received so many visitors at their vacation home that they needed this large room for dinner guests.

Maggie and Daniel walk the bridge over the unfinished swimming pool. Albert Johnson halted all construction at the mansion after the stock market crashed in 1929. Thousands of tiles for the swimming pool are still stored in the basement.

Another view of Scotty's Castle. Albert Johnson had a degree in mining engineering, so he chose to have all the buildings connected by underground tunnels. That was fun for him to design, and it kept housekeeping staff out of view from guests.

Late in the afternoon we biked another 8 miles to Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater that exploded 2000 years ago. Toward the end of the steep ride I wondered if we were lost since I saw nothing that looked like a volcano, and then we were suddenly at the crater rim. The road had been turning up and around the volcano cone. Daniel has a book about volcanoes at home and was excited that he would see a real one, but he fell asleep right before we arrived. Waking him up would just have made things worse. He and Maggie slept until we got back to camp, and then Daniel asked, "Did we ever get to the volcano?" He was a little sad, but we promised to show him pictures, and he cheered up as soon as he started playing with Owen.

Fletcher lit some firewood tonight, and we roasted marshmallows under a full moon. A kangaroo rat scurried around our campsite most of the evening, which was fun for both kids and adults. We've read about kangaroo rats, but my family had never seen one before. They're elusive because they live in deserts and only come out at night.

Riding up to the Ubehebe Crater.

The 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater. This and several smaller craters right next to it were created by steam explosions when hot magma heated up rock near the surface.

Roasting marshmallows at camp.

A kangaroo rat in our campsite. He ran away when the children chased him to get a better look, but he kept coming back again.

Friday, March 18

Distance: 42.7 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 50 minutes
Average speed: 11.1 mph
Maximum speed: 27.8 mph

We had our last breakfast with our campsite friends, and then we all broke camp while the kids played. Maggie was fascinated with 10-year-old Rachel and followed her wherever she walked, but eventually it was time for our friends to drive back home and for us to ride back to Stovepipe Wells.

Our poor luck had us riding into a stiff headwind for most of the day, and I always hate it when a round-trip journey is into the wind in both directions. The ride was more manageable today than Wednesday because it was largely downhill, but it still took a long time. Late in the afternoon we stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, a big dunefield just 2 miles from Stovepipe Wells. I wanted to hike to the tallest dune, about a mile away and 90 feet tall, but Daniel and Maggie only walked in a couple hundred yards before they plopped down and played like they were in a sandbox. Daniel started building his own "sand dune" which he claimed would soon be the tallest of all.

Eventually I talked them into exploring deeper in the dunefield, but then the kids had to duck and cover from a sudden, five-minute sandstorm. I liked watching the storm because most of the sand blew by within 3 feet of the dune surface, but Maggie thought she was under attack. After the storm I had to hike on my own while the others went back to build Daniel's sand dune near the parking lot.

At the end of the day we could have pitched camp in Stovepipe Wells again, but we chose to pack everything in our car for an all-night drive back to our friends' house in Grand Junction. It made for a long, tiring day, but the kids slept in the car and now they can spend a day playing with friends.

Maggie and Daniel build their own sand dune.

Kathy shields Maggie's face during a sand storm.

A dust devil twists around the dunefield.

Daniel makes a sand angel.


Death Valley was a good place for us to visit in March, when the warm weather and vast open spaces were a welcome diversion from waiting out the winter in our house. We liked hiking in t-shirts and eating dinner outside. We biked 190 miles on good paved roads that were hillier than I expected. My strongest impression was the contrast of having a pleasant vacation in what is obviously a harsh, inhospitable environment for most of the year. Surface water and plant life are scarce here even in the spring, and the heat waves we faced were insignificant compared to those in July, when the average daily high temperature is 115°F. Even the windstorm we rode through was small, if sand dunes throughout the park are a good wind indicator (the Eureka Dunes, near the north end of the park, are almost 700 feet tall.)

What Daniel and Maggie will remember more than anything else is the friends they played with at camp and during our layovers in Grand Junction. That's a good lesson for Kathy and me - social connections are important for them (and us,) even on a wilderness vacation. They liked the canyons and badlands, but nothing compares to time with friends, especially in a unique place like Death Valley.

Playing on our friends' trampoline in Grand Junction.


Page 1: Biking to Badwater Basin
Page 2: Furnace Creek and Dante's View
Page 3: Mosaic Canyon and biking to Mesquite Springs
Page 4: Scotty's Castle and Mesquite Sand Dunes