Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Death Valley Backroads, Day 1: Getting There

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.

It's a challenging trip. The flight is short (about two hours), but involves crossing the Sierra Nevada which, without a long detour, means 13000 foot peaks and not much lower between them. In a single-engine plane, you always have to think about where you're going to go if the engine stops - on this route, there are few good answers. And when you get closer, Death Valley itself and much of the surrounding area is covered with military airspace (MOAs), likely to be populated by low-altitude jets at Mach 2.

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.

We landed at Furnace Creek (L06) around 5.30. Our timing was perfect, by the time the shuttle picked us up and we checked in, we were just in time to watch a spectacular sunset from the lawn outside our room. Then a swim in the huge naturally heated pool, and a good, if expensive, steak dinner in the best of the Ranch's restaurants. I'd hoped to have dinner one night at the Inn, which is much fancier, but we were there a week before it opened.

And then to bed.

Day 2 is here, and Day 3 is here.

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