Where Snow Meets Desert: Lake Tahoe to Death Valley, USA.

Part two of my USA retrospective, find part one here.

After our last photo stop, we took the route 50 perpendicular to the lake that wound through the mountains. The contrast between the thick pine forest, streams and snow of the lake basin with the desert beyond Lake Tahoe’s surrounding peaks was astounding. It somehow felt like we were either returning, or going into outer space. I couldn’t quite work out which.

In Carson City, NV, we took the route 395 headed almost due south. Anticipation and trepidation filled the air gaps in the car between us and our suitcases. As we left the relative comfort of Tahoe, we knew we would head far south, beyond our comfort zone.

The route

Where snow meets desert, Mono County.

 

The road followed California’s backbone, the Sierra Nevada mountains. We watched the landscape slowly change from snow, to the moon-like desert as traversed Mono County. I’d found another brewery for us to stop at for lunch on our journey. We turned off for June Lake, the sleepy little sister to Big Mammoth further south. June Lake Brewing was hidden deep in the little town, seemingly the only place people existed here. We ate Hawaiian Tacos at Ohanas food truck parked in the brewery lot.

June Lake Brewing against a crystal clear sky

 

Messy Hawaiian taco-eating

 

The tacos were messy but delicious, and we enjoyed a small beer in the brewery enjoying the heavy metal echoing throughout the building. We bought a few large bottles of porter, and rejoined route 395 to resume our journey.

”With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert”

The small towns of Mono then Inyo county passed by, empty motels with ‘Vacancy’ signs blowing in the wind. Luck would have us find a Starbucks in Bishop,Ca. The town was otherwise a more local affair. Towns got smaller and smaller the further we drove, and our last tough with civilisation was Lone Pine, CA where we stocked up on gasoline and water.

From Lone Pine, we forked left towards Death Valley National Park. With the burning red-pink of the Sierra sunset now behind us, we were headed into the darkness of the desert.

A glowing Sierra sunset

 

We survived multiple hairpin turns and arrived at Panamint Springs Resort, on the edge of the park – our home for the night. We foolishly had no camping supplies, and the shop had run out of sleeping bags for hire, so we donned our ski gear and sat on the picnic bench outside the tent to have one of our June Lake beers.

 

Home for the night

 

Death Valley National Park is a recognised dark sky area, and I never fully grasped how much I could see without air pollution and high-rise buildings obscuring the view. The milky way looked close enough to touch, every single star glowing as bright as the moon, and shooting stars framed our view. Road-weary, we went to bed and endured the coldest night of our lives.

An unbelievable Panamint sunrise

Before dawn the next morning, feeling fragile and ready to flee our campsite, we waited for the gas station to open for coffee and gas before hastily retreating deeper into the park. The elevation dropped and dropped with every mile driven, giving fantastic views for miles.

Waiting for the only gas station for miles to open

 

Panamint Springs general store

 

The road into the park at dawn

The descent into the heart of Death Valley

Mesquite Dunes

 

Palms outside the Furnace Creek Resort

 

We drove through the park, stopping to add our footprints to the Mesquite Dunes and later the Furnace Creek resort for a slightly bizarre and hasty breakfast. The palms outside the resort signalled that we were getting closer to our final desert destination. Leaving the heart of Death Valley behind, we headed to the deserted south. Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in North America. That was a bucket-list item ticked off.

At Badwater Basin

With the end of the national park, we entered the Mojave desert. Food options were a bit grim roadside in Barstow, CA, so we bought Jerkey and Reese’s cups and pushed through exhaustion for the last of the day-long journey.

Arrival into Palm Springs

 

The tell-tale windfarm heralded our arrival into chic Palm Springs, welcome civilisation after what felt like an eternity in the vast and lonely expanse of the desert. Our hotel, a 60s-themed tiki establishment (definitely what I would consider a niche market!) had a plush king-size bed and on-site restaurant, everything one needed after a frightening frozen desert night the night before.

Death Valley made me feel small, it is so hostile that surviving there for only one day feels like an accomplishment. Watching the snow turn to sand as we covered only inches of the map of California felt like a small rebirth. Seeing the small roadside towns, the forgotten ones like Independence and Baker, CA gave me a glimpse into the victims of the American dream. The orphans left behind their glitzier cousins, where faded pitch and putt greens sat unused, and teenagers’ best prospects may be to depart for somewhere bigger.

This is the real US, no In-n-Out or flat white coffees, no Whole Foods or kale. Just real people, scratching out a living in the middle of nowhere, wathing the odd tourist pass by on the way to somewhere else.

Part 3 | Palm Springs coming soon!