Death Valley walkabout

Michael Raffety


I’ve alway considered Death Valley one of the most beautiful of California’s deserts. When I lived in San Francisco three of us drove a van down for a several-day tour of it. Then I got a knowledgeable backgrounder on it when the Nevada Tourism Department invited me along on a journalists’ familiarization tour of southwestern Nevada — Hawthorne, Tonopah, Amargossa Valley, Beatty, Rhyolite, Shoshone  and Death Valley.

One Thanksgiving our family spent the holiday at the Amargossa Inn and my son and I watched it snow in Death Valley. That was amazing and unexpected.

My favorite places are the sand dunes, Scotty’s Castle, which includes an oasis pool of blue water surrounded by palm trees, Golden Valley — where part of Star Wars was shot, Bad Water, Zabriskie Point and its view of Manly Beacon — named after the scout who rescued the emigrants who got lost and wound up in Death Valley.

People from Great Britain particularly like coming to Death Valley in the summer when the average temperature is 115 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s something to brag about when they get back home to rainy England.

Speaking of summer treks, last August “extreme endurance athlete Marshall Ulrich and firefighter Dave Heckman finished an unprecedented expedition, going on foot around the perimeter of Death Valley National Park during the hottest part of summer, completely unaided and unassisted. They began on July 22 and concluded 16 days later on Aug. 7.”

Here’s the description emailed to me:

“While others have trekked in this area, no one has attempted to circumnavigate the park, and certainly not during the height of summer when the threat of dehydration and heat stroke are dire. To grasp the gravity of this, consider that on the same day Ulrich and Heckman finished their trek, another accomplished ultrarunner died in Death Valley after just a few hours under the blazing sun.

“To survive the scorching 120°+ temperatures and be self-sufficient even as they moved through remote areas, crossed six mountain ranges with a total of about 40,000 feet of elevation gain, and covered approximately 425 miles, the men had buried water, food, and supplies along their route two months earlier. Nearly all of the 37 caches were intact; in one, the water had leaked out, and a few were invaded by insects, but none of this created a shortage and they had enough water and food to sustain them throughout the journey.”

They covered 20-34 miles a day.

“The Death Valley expedition was professionally filmed, and Ulrich and Heckman also shot 3-D footage. They hope it will be used to create a documentary that highlights the history of the national park and raises important questions about its future.”

“Please visit for a closer look at Ulrich’s adventures.”

Ulrich is somewhere near 60. The firefighter is considerably younger.

The Shoshone Indians, now called Timbisha, would spend winter in Death Valley harvesting mesquite berries along Salt Creek and then migrate up the mountain as the seasons changed, arriving at the top where they harvested pinyon pine nuts.

Death Valley has been home to the Indians, an attraction to various miners, and now ultramarathoners, Englishmen and photographers.

• • •

A 1962 edition of Pacific Road Builder featured the Weber Creek Bridge construction that carried Highway 50 over the little canyon. The six T-shaped pier shafts still hold up Highway 50. The recent construction of additional lanes included lifting 8-foot deep steel girders to add some earthquake dampeners between the existing piers and the girders.

The twin bridges and their welded plate girders are 551 feet long. There were a total of 32 girders welded together to create four for each bridge. They were fabricated in San Jose and shipped to Diamond Springs by railroad.

The tallest of the original piers are 110 feet. That bridge, the fair overcrossing, 2.8 miles of four-lane freeway plus the Hangtown Creek undercrossing were built at a cost of $3.1 million. What a deal.


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