Our first stop in Death Valley was a spot called Dante’s View. What makes it such a good starting place is that it overlooks a goodly number of the other attractions in the park. The drive up to Dante’s View is paved and well maintained but has some winding switchbacks near the crest of the mountain ridge and so only vehicles under 25 feet in length are allowed.
At the top a sizable parking lot allows you to get out and look directly down into Death Valley. From here you can clearly see the tiny ribbons of road below, the salt flats, various mountains around the valley, and on rare occasions short lived bodies of water scattered about. On our first visit we spied a small lake on the flats that was gone by the time we returned with our friend Dennis.
You can also do a little hiking along the ridge both north and south to get a more fulsome view of the edges of the valley. We took the southern trail which went along the ridge for perhaps a quarter mile and encountered a photographer using an old time large format landscape camera to capture the stunning vista. It was a great place to preview what is to come and to spy locations that might be interesting to explore once on the Valley floor.
To get to Ubehebe Crater you have to go out to the northern end of the paved roads in the park. You wind up through rolling hills of dark gravel with no sign of the crater until arriving at a parking lot right on the edge where suddenly before you opens this huge hole in the ground. Across from you is a gorgeous cliff of layered browns and oranges dropping straight down into the crater floor some 600 feet below.
Stepping out of the car you quickly become aware of an intense wind blowing out from the crater to the west. The bent shape of a lonely creosote bush testifies these winds are a frequent phenomenon and can gust up to 50mph even when other parts of the valley are relatively calm. Ravens in the park like to hover at the edge of the crater born up by the winds scarcely moving their winds like kites on invisible strings.
The crater was formed when magma created super heated steam beneath the surface of the earth and exploded outward in a violent eruption, violent enough to blast 600 feet of bedrock into the sky up to 15 miles away. This is by far the largest of a number of such craters in the area. From the parking lot you can take trails around the rim, down into the crater, or over a hill to where a smaller crater can be explored.
Adventure called, it said “Hitch, you need to go down in that crater. There is a trail all the way down, its only 600 feet, that’s nothing. It will be awesome!” I decided Adventure was right in this case. The trail looked fairly easy to get down to the bottom. I knew getting up would be a struggle, but the motivation to not die in a desert crater would probably be enough to propel me back up. Trail was also in it to win it so we ventured forth.
Predictably gravity worked in our favor on the way down. The very loose gravel path made each step a couple inches longer as we slid down a bit. Not so much to loose your footing, just enough to kind of glide your way down. Of course this was going to work against us for the return climb, making each step up a case of diminishing returns. It also had the property of getting just a bit steeper with each turn of the path as we went down, kind of upping the ante as we moved forward.
About 3/4 of the way down Trails knees gave her warning that she’d gone far enough. Still, she urged me forward as she found a good slope to sit and rest on. I worked my way down to the bottom where I was rewarded with some spectacular views of the surrounding cliffs and a look at a great white stone formation otherwise hidden from above. It felt great, a small triumph and Adventure called to congratulate me, “Good job sir, now for the hard part.”
Predictably going up hill my 325lb worked against me, as did the loose gravel. This is one of those times you just have to put one foot in front of the other, take it slow, and remind yourself how nice it will be to return to the air conditioned truck. That and the fact you really don’t have a choice. Both Trail and I stopped and rested about every 1/4 of the way. I had a moment of panic after my half way stop when I couldn’t feel my camera in its special belt pouch! The thought of tracking down to the last two rest stops and back was not a heartening one. I bid Trail forward as I backtracked to the half way point. Searching in the gravel pile on which I’d rested yielded no results. Doom was calling, reaching for my pocket to answer… I felt a larger than usual bulge in my pocket, the camera! I let Doom leave a message as I headed back up to the top.
Of course we made it back, plenty tired but no worse for wear and with a feeling of accomplishment. A few more pictures and we were headed home for dinner and a nice rest in the cozy Airstream.