Death Valley & Joshua Tree National Parks, Dec 7th to 17th

Our time on the Coastal highway was coming to an end as we started to head in land. Our first location was Rivernook Campground, located on the Kern River which flows into Lake Isabella. Nestled on the north side of Kernville which is located in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains on the edge of Sequoia National Forest.

The Sierra Nevada mountains and yes we are going in there!

On the drive there we drove through the Mojave Desert. When we stopped for gas near the Edwards Air Force base we were treated to a small airshow as the Virgin Galactic White Knight II was doing touch and goes. A side note, the next week Virgin Galactic made history when it launched the Virgin Galactic Space Ship II into orbit. Very cool!

The drive into Kernville from the Mojave took us over a curvy, and slow going mountain pass which was stunningly beautiful. We had snow capped mountains once again, as a few days ago the pass was closed due to snow, but today the drive was clear and gorgeous! We also got to see our first view of the succulent plant known as the Joshua Tree.

Our stay in Kernville was two nights so we had one day to go for a hike. Within walking distance from our campground was a nice hike up into the mountains.

Our Backyard!
Our neighbours!

The Power Peak trail was a beautiful 18km walk back into the hills and over the valley. It was a steady climb up over 800 meters with the snow line taking over the trail around the 700 meter mark. With the sun shining and the temperature warm we were in our short sleeves as we made fresh tracks in the snow. We had not seen another soul for a couple hours until we came upon another hiker on our way down.

…below the snow line but hiking up!

It was time to head to Death Valley! We got going early in the morning and drove back out over the pass. Today’s drive took us up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. With their snowy white tops it, it was a gorgeous view which made the drive very enjoyable. When it was time to head further east we could see the peak of Mount Whitney reaching into the sky to 4,421 meters making it the highest point in the lower 48.

…heading from the west towards Death Valley!

The drive into Death Valley National Park was another great scenic drive. With snow covered mountains around us we drove to the edge of the plateau (around 1,500 meters) and then started to go down. We snaked down to the valley floor of Panamint Valley, which has an elevation of just under 500 meters. One more mountain pass took us back up to 1,500 meters before the final decent down to Furnace Creek village in the middle of Death Valley.

Our home for the next 4 very dark and starry nights is almost at the bottom of Death Valley, 60 meters BELOW sea level. With the sun in the blue sky it was time to start exploring the national park. Our first day was spent on our bicycles. About 15 km south of our campground is a loop road known as the Artist’s Loop Drive. This is a stunning 14 km road that weaves itself through small canyons and around the multi coloured rocks. Not only was it visually impressive, it also worked our legs, as the first 5 km rose over 300 meters into the mountain. Definitely one of the top cycles for visual stunning landscapes that we have done!

To finish the day we cycled up to the old Borax plant and did an interpretive walk with one of the Park Rangers. She told us about when and how they found and mined borax in the valley. What is known as the 20 mule train, (2 wagons driven by 2 men, and pulled by 20 mules), took the borax out of the valley to Mojave over 100 miles away.

With another interpretive Ranger talk on our schedule the next morning it was time to explore a little further then our bicycles would take us in the day. So, we hopped on our Harleys and drove down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. The low point of the valley is at 86 meters BELOW sea level, which is just a little over 150 kilometers away from the HIGHEST point in the continental USA, Mount Whitney, SO COOL!! The talk this morning was about how the valley was created due to the shifting of tectonic plates. It is also the driest place in the US, due to being in the rain shadow of the 4 mountain ranges to the west, and because of the extreme heat of being below sea level. Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin, which means that the rain water evaporates or seeps into the ground. No rain was recorded in the years 1929 and 1953, and only 1.6cm of rain fell over a 40 month period from 1931-34!! We also learned that there are seven different ecosystems in the park. After walking around ON the salt flats looking around the valley it was time to look DOWN on the valley.

So, from the valley floor we drove up to one of the high lookout parking lots in the valley. This viewpoint is known as Dante’s View, 1,500m above the basin we were just walking in. It not only gave us a great view of the valley but it also was a lot colder up there, no snow on this mountain peak but the temperature was around 10C!On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at Zabriskie Point, a much warmer look out point over the valley and the Golden Canyon. With the sun setting the rock formations were amazing with the gold, red and beige rocks and caverns making many different and interesting patterns.

can you spot the comet?

After watching the sun set we finished the day off by setting up our telescope at our site and having a small star party. The sky was incredible with the brilliant Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, well almost, the lights of Vegas stopped it from being totally complete, but it was still gorgeous. We had set the telescope up to look at the comet, 46P/Wirtanen that was passing through the constellation of Taurus. We even had about six people stop to peer through the telescope to look at it. The Geminid meteor shower was also happening, so we had a few good meteors streak across the sky.

Our last day in the valley was another motorcycle ride which took us up north to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, an area where the dunes rise up to a height of 30 meters. It is a firmer sand then what we had played on last year at White Sands which made it easier to spend a few hours walking and exploring the dunes.

To finish the day we explored the Golden Canyon and the Gower’s Gultch. This was a nice 8.5 kilometer hike that took us through the golden canyons and back to the Red Cathedral wall before looping around and following the water washes back down into the valley. We had timed it perfectly to walk out along the ridge as the sun set over the western mountains, another spectacular sunset! Tonight’s ride home on the motorbikes was comfortable as we were on the valley floor and the temperature was very moderate

This visit was over, but the lure of this valley will definitely bring us back in the future!

Today we drive east to Joshua Tree National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive. Not as visually stunning as the drive in, but an easier one! With only a few campgrounds within Joshua Tree and none that could accommodate our size, we stayed at Twenty Nine Palms, the town that is located at the east gate of the Park.

The weather was not co-operating on our first day here, so we decided to get on the motorcycles and drive over to the town of Joshua Tree which is also the west gate entrance of the park and head east through the park. We stopped at the Visitor Centre where a volunteer suggested a couple of hikes and ranger talks that we should do. We timed our drive to stop at Cap Rock and take in interpretive talk titled “Talking for the Trees”. This was a very interesting walk and talk where we learned about how the Mormon’s named the tree Joshua Tree because they thought the plant looked like Joshua raising his hands to God.

An interesting thing about the tree is that it is pollinated by one species of a special moth, this moth will pick pollen from one tree and then find a tree that is not pollinated. It will then deposit pollen from the other tree in the flower and lay eggs.

It’s offspring will then hatch and eat a few of the seeds before starting the cycle over again. This region of California is also the only place in the world where the Joshua Tree grows. When the last Ice Age receded, the Giant Land Sloth was the main spreader of the tree’s seeds (from the fruit that it ate from the tree). Due to the sloth becoming extinct, the region of the Joshua Tree has been shrinking ever since.

With the sun (and temperature) dropping behind the western mountain range, the final 40km ride home was very cold. The following morning the clouds were gone and the sun was warming the air, so we hopped on the Harleys and had a beautiful ride into the park. Our first stop today was the Cholla Cacti Garden, which is in the lower portion of the park through the Mojave Desert into the Sonoran Desert. So interesting to see the landscape and vegetation change from Joshua Trees to lots and lots of Cholla cacti. Driving back up to the Mojave Desert, we stopped to do a short hike at Split Rock, a nice easy loop trail that took us through some very cool rock and bolder formations. This spot is a rock climbing mecca so there were lots of climbers on the rocks.

We then had our second Ranger talk with a starting point at one of the more famous rocks in the park. We started the Joshua Tree Rocks Ranger talk at Skull Rock. We then did a nice slow loop trail over the next hour and half where we learned how this landscape came to be. Our Ranger had her Masters in Geology and was nice enough to describe things so we could understand. The boulder formations were formed when magma filled voids in the earth and then cooled down to form the rocks, with the uplifting of the tectonic plate, weather and erosion wearing down the surface to expose the boulders that we see today. Interesting fact about granite is that, all granite is made up of the same minerals, but can look totally different depending on what the percentage of each mineral is. It was a very interesting afternoon.

After dinner we bundled up and headed back into the park to see the night sky and get some more pictures of Comet 46P and the night sky. We had better luck and more fun playing with the camera and practicing some tricks with the flashlight and the Joshua Tree. This was one of the coldest rides home that we have done in a very long time!

Our final day in Joshua Tree, and luckily it was a beautiful warm sunny day, because we had a couple of things left to see! We started off at Baker’s Dam which was a short, nice easy walk through the trees which warmed us up for a real hike on the Lost Horse Mine trail. The trail head was an “interesting” drive down a very sandy dirt road on our motorbikes. It was a nice 10.5 kilometer loop that took us through many different types of cacti and, of course, more Joshua Trees.

The mine itself was anti climatic but the view of the valley and the small herd of Big Horn Sheep made up for it.

On the way home we stopped at Key’s View. It is a gorgeous look out point that is up 1,700 m overlooking the San Andres Fault line, Palm Springs and the Salton Sea where we witnessed another amazing sunset.

It was a great way to finish off our Joshua Tree National Park visit!

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