Backroad to Death Valley

Our road trip to Death Valley was a slightly scary one. Think: middle of a desert, baking heat, no phone signal, and off-road tracks through a mountain range. We also had no idea where we were, or how long the road in front of us stretched for. And we had to reach Las Vegas in Nevada by night.

We had our route mapped out when we left Morongo Valley, CA that morning. It was to follow the main roads to Badwater Basin in Death Valley, then onto Las Vegas where we had booked accommodation for our last night in the US – a trip that was around 370 miles. However after we set off, we soon hit our first problem. The main road to take us to Badwater was closed. A quick search on Google Maps showed us another route through a mountain range that wouldn’t take too much longer, so we changed plans, and took the exit for this road. This appeared to be our only other option, as any other route would have added hours to our journey, and there had been a weather warning put out for storms arriving that evening.

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The last tarmac road we saw

Soon after taking this exit however, we realised the road wasn’t quite a road. It became narrow and the tarmac disappeared. We also realised it had been a long time since we last saw another passing vehicle. Both our phone signals started to become unreliable. At this point I was feeling a little bit anxious, so I fired a message to my sister back in Scotland while we stopped at the side of the road to consider our predicament. It read something along the lines of: “We’re somewhere between X and Y, losing signal, if you don’t hear from me by 6pm tonight, something has happened, and you’ll need to get in touch with emergency services here.”

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Panorama of the place we stopped after entering the gravel trail

And with that, in true Riley and Megan style, we decided to go for it, and continue on this gravel track, hoping we didn’t pick up another puncture. We had to replace the tyre once already on this trip, and neither of us fancied dealing with another flat in the middle of nowhere.

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The track went on as far as the eye could see. After losing signal completely, we had no way of checking whether we were still on the right road or how long we had left to go. We passed a few splits in the trail (incredibly managing to always pick the right one), passed a disused quarry, and hit a road block as we came over the peak of a hill in the form of some cattle.

This was where the track got unbearably worse due to a landslide. Riley did his best manoeuvring our – quite low – hire car over some extreme potholes and rivets in the gravel. I’m very surprised we didn’t lose the exhaust or anything else hanging off the bottom. Poor Riley had to deal with the pressure of saving the car from the worst damage, and my panicking as I hung out the window and tried to direct him.

After we cleared the rubble and began our descent, we battered on along the trail towards Badwater Basin, and the aptly named Furnace Creek. It was in this area that the highest air temperature ever on the surface of the Earth was recorded, at a whopping 56.7 °C and the highest surface temperature ever recorded at 93.9 °C. Not the sort of place you want to be stuck!

They call it Death Valley for a reason. It’s one of the hottest places on Earth, alongside deserts in the Middle East. The valley got its name from prospectors in 1849, during the California Gold Rush, after 13 pioneers died from an early expedition across the area. Amazingly, the area has been home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans for the past millennium despite its harsh conditions, and some families still reside in Furnace Creek today.

After another hour or so grinding along the track, we eventually saw our first glimpse of civilisation again. I have never in my life been more glad to see a tarmac road.

We eventually recovered phone signal again and were able to recheck our route. We’d somehow made it to the end of the path we took without losing our way. With a sense of triumph, we drove the rest of the way to Badwater Basin, where a thunderstorm brewed in the distance. We followed a motorcyclist down into Death Valley, and incredibly, the sky opened and it felt like Death Valley’s annual precipitation of 60 mm fell in that one moment when we were driving through it. What were the chances?

After making it to Badwater (you can read about this place here!) we spent a bit of time there before continuing our journey to Vegas.

As night fell, we hit our final two problems of the day: low fuel, and some wild lightning storms. Luckily we hit an open fuel stop in Pahrump, and managed to negotiate some awful flash flooding that was making the roads increasingly dangerous. The lightning that illuminated our way was the most violent and captivating I’d ever seen in my life.

After probably one of the most stressful days of my life, we made it to Las Vegas, celebrated with dinner at Taco Bell, and hit the strip for one last night before returning home to Scotland. I don’t know where either of us found the energy, but we made the absolute most of our last day in the States.

 

 

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