More pictures here.
Ever since I learned that Farabee Jeep Rental opened a branch in Death Valley, I've wanted to go there for a weekend and explore some of the back country trails. The park is huge and only has two high-quality roads, one north-south and one east-west. There are whole valleys and mountain ranges that you can't even see from these roads. On an earlier visit I bought the book "Death Valley SUV Trails", a real inspiration and the source of many daydreams.
Furnace Creek has an airport and the obvious way to get there is to fly. We did this once about ten years ago, but until car rental was available you were stuck. If you wanted wheels you had to fly to Vegas then do the 2-3 hour drive in each direction. The Jeep rental solves two problems: wheels at Death Valley, and wheels that can go anywhere. Finally I found a good weekend for the trip and booked everything for October 5-7th 2012.
For the outward journey I planned a route which does have "outs" if anything goes wrong. They're not great - first the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which in addition to being cold and wet would probably lead to endless environmental complications if you really did ditch into it. When that's no longer reachable, Tuolomne Meadows at the top end of the Tioga Pass route would probably be survivable. Past that, you can make it down into the 6000 foot Owens Valley. Past the Sierra Nevada is just desert, with the added convenience of long, straight blacktop roads.
By flying all the way to the Coaldale (OAL) VOR, it's possible to sneak down along the eastern edge of the military airspace then descend along the road to Scotty's Castle and enter the valley itself under it. This adds 5-10 minutes to the flight, but is worth it for the peace of mind.
This route requires perfect weather - no cloud below around 18000 feet, and mild winds across the ridge. Otherwise, the much longer route via Tehachapi is called for. Depending on how brave you are with the MOAs, this can add another hour to the flight. So I was anxiously checking the weather forecasts all week, but in the end conditions were really perfect, just a very high overcast and no winds.
Day 2 is here, and Day 3 is here.