Smelling the flowers in Death Valley National Park

Ah, the beauty of fresh flowers!  Yellow, purple, and white buds sprinkle the desert floor with the expansive valley and mountain ranges as their backdrop.

Wait a minute… Are we in Death Valley National Park?  The dryest, lowest, and sometimes warmest spot in the country?  With an average annual rainfall of less than 2 inches and spring and summer highs near 120 degrees, flowers like this are rare.  With 3.1 million acres of valleys and mountains where water pools and never escapes, every drop counts. They got just a little bit more rain this year, and it makes all the difference.  And it won’t last long!  In a few weeks we can wish the “superbloom” farewell.

We hadn’t planned on coming to this park so soon, but the temperatures are rising fast and the superbloom will be gone in a flash!

And – maybe I don’t even have to tell you – Verde Valley was a bust.

It wasn’t all bad, of course.  There were some nice hiking trails on site and Eli loved throwing rocks into the rushing river just 1 mile from out camper.  And we had a great visit from Grandma and Grandpa Patnode, who drove the 30+ hour trip from Wisconsin to get some quality time and some much-needed vitamin D.

That was definitely the highlight of our time in Verde Valley.  We took an open-car train ride through the surrounding canyons, catching glimpses of various rivers, rock formations, sacred landmarks, and even a few eagle nests.  We drove through the quirky and steep mountain town of Jerome, perched precariously on a mountainside that overlooks the valley (and can be seen from the valley as well).  We also took a stroll in downtown Sedona, where crystal shops and massage parlors dominate local business.

We also went to a “Cowboy Show” in Cottonwood, complete with a delicious BBQ buffet, tin cups and plates, oldtime photo opportunities (yes, we had to do it), hayrides, and country singers in perfect 3-part harmony.  Eli fell asleep about half-way through, but he still got to pet the horse at the end!

Eli and I also did a touch of hiking, though not much.  We climbed allong the river at Slide Rock State Park, and mostly stayed close to the camper.  Dave took a trip back to the Midwest for one of his semi-annual LAN parties, so while I had grand ambitions of conquering Sedona, we barely left the campground while he was away.

And this was part of the problem because the campground was a cesspool of negative energy.  Located at the bottom of a smaller valley, energy really didn’t have anywhere to go but all around us.  And the energy was pretty toxic.  Even Dave agreed with me, so coming from Mr. Steady that’s saying something.

We stayed at Thousand Trails Campground, which we now know is a large company with campgrounds all over the U.S.  Anyone can stay there really, but they also offer “memberships” where people pay annual fees and have access to any TT locations in that region for free.  The catch is that you can only stay for 2 weeks and then have to leave for at least a week before returning to that location.

Combine this membership-with-caveats scenario with the fact that they don’t reserve specific sites, and you have quite a dog-eat-dog setup.

Members who want to stay longer-term end up boondocking (setting up the camper without any hookups) at the top of the road outside the park and then returning with the hopes of snagging a good spot under the first-come-first-serve policy.

So every day you can see people driving around the park looking at the open sites, sometimes even sitting and waiting for one person to leave so they can snage that spot before anyone else does.

Not exactly a relaxed system.

So all that, and then the fact that we were younger than almost everyone here by about 40-50 years.  AND a lot of people here stay for the season, have their friends and their routines, and didn’t appear interested in sharing space with a younger couple, let alone a toddler.

We saw a few other kids while we were here, but they never stayed long.

So we ditched TT and made an early destination of Death Valley National Park.  We’re actually staying about 12 miles outside the eastern border of the park in Beatty, Nevada.  So it’s a good 2 hour drive to the west side of the park, and even longer to the southern and northern regions.  It’s a big park!

We’ve been here 3 days and already its been a successful trip!  Sunday we went to Dantes Peak, a mountain-top overlook where you can see much of the park, including the lowest point in the park (and in the country).  Miles of a white patches cover the desert floor below where the minerals trap and pool from evaporated rain waters.  Aside from breathtaking views in every direction, hiking trails run the lengths of the peak and offer challenging, sky-high oppotunities for exercise, photos, and overcoming vertigo.

We then went to Zabriskie Point, a short uphill hike to an overlook of erroded and colorful badlands.  Eli kept wanting to throw rocks over the edge of the cliff.  Gonna have to work on some fear-installation 🙂

We stopped by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to get Eli his much-needed stamp in his National Parks Passport, and grabbed an early dinner at what I assume is the “lowest” restaurant in the country.

Then yesterday Eli and I ventured to Darwin Falls, a remote waterfall on the west side of the park, where water flows year-round.  In what feels like the blink of an eye, we went from being surrounded by dry heat and rocks to a cool, wet, lush creek.

The trek to the falls is an exciting one with a baby on your back.  We crossed the creek many times, often climbing boulders and dodging fallen trees.

And you’d never believe the honeybees!

If I were afraid of bees it might have been a good backdrop for a horror film.  You can hear the hum of the thousands, maybe millions of bees lurking somewhere through the bushes.  I only actually saw a few of them flying around, so I can’t tell you exactly where the hives were, but they were maybe everywhere!

Eli had a ball throwing rocks and sticks into the pool of the waterfall, and he even unintentionally walked into the water to retrieve a stick.  I braved the cold water for a quick dunk.

On our way back we stopped at the Mesquite Dunes, which of all the destinations in Death Valley National Park is probably the one you’ve seen pictured.  The massive dunes seem to suddenly appear in this one area of the park, and where they haven’t been frequented by footsteps you can see the ripples in the sand created by winds.

So if you’ve stuck with me so far, you might be keeping track: flowers, waterfall, sand dunes, dried minerals, eroded badlands…. there’s quite a lot to see here, and the fact that it’s all in one place!….

What else?….

I’m trying to get back on the exercise track, sort of, and so ventured out into the desert behind our camper for a little sunrise yoga.  A perfect 47 degrees and peaceful sunrise made for a relaxing and energizing practice.  I saw some gray goat-like furry thing running in the distance during a downward dog, and then as I was lying down at the end of my practice I was startled by a rustling sound – yikes.  I looked up to see 6 jackrabbits chasing and playing with each other just 20 feet away from me.  I stood up so as to say, “That’s cool, y’all… I can dig it, but just – you know – I’m over here, so like… Please don’t hurt me.”

Eli is much more chatty.  He repeats things we say, and is doing more pointing and labeling.  He has his own language of sorts.  “Locked” is “lah,” “monitor” is “mowihwow,” and “All done” is a remarkably close “Ah done.”

He’s become quite the expert at hiking – that is, when we can get him to follow us at all – with great balance and an ambitious pace.  He can throw pretty much everything with frightening height, force, and distance, which he exercises regularly and indiscriminately.  He’s enjoying the good things more and tolerating the annoying things less, and I think he’s ready to hold his own with his cousins, who he will see in just a few weeks.

Next stop: a quick pass to Vegas where we will store the camper and fly to Chicago for a visit with Grandma and Grandpa Levin, and then a trip up to Minnesota for Easter with the cousins and the celebration of his great-grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary!  Should be a fun – and cold – family-filled, Midwest adventure!

When we return at the end of March we will head to Idyllwild, California, a small mountain town with scenic opportunities and a friend to visit.

 We’ll see what the future brings after that!  As usual, we don’t really have plans, including our flight back to Vegas from Minneapolis.  Hmmmm…. Probably should get on that.

For now, we will just enjoy the flowers.