Week's Winter's Driving Tour of Panamint Valley, Death Valley, Zion National Park and Nevada
by James K. Sayre
Copyright ©1997, All Rights Reserved
A winter's drive in California may sometimes start in the rain. Fortunately, this trip, which started four days before Christmas last year, end began on the day after a big storm had passed through, so there were only a few residual showers to deal with. Cloud cover does have one big virtue for a driver though: no glaring sunshine to contend with.
The first day's drive south from Foster City to Tahachapi was uneventful. After tiring of being the slowest driver going south on I-5 (at speeds of 55 mph to 65 mph), I exited from I-5 towards Firebaugh and continued down two-lane highways to Fresno. A much more pleasant pace. Even Route 99, which was the first Sacramento Valley superhighway, is marginally less frenetic than I-5. Route 58 east from Bakersfield into the Tahachapi Mountains is always exhilarating, because one is leaving the great California valley (elevation 800 feet above sea level at Bakersfield), with its mild climate, and climb into mountains which have a true four-season climate. The pleasant little town of Tahachapi is in a mountain valley at 3,600 feet above sea level. At this time in December, there was almost no snow in the mountains. However, at night, there was a fierce cold wind blowing through town. Seemed wintry enough for my tender California sensibilities. After a nights stay in a local motel, I continued east on Route 58 to Mojave. One descends gradually from the Tahachapis down to the town of Mojave at 2,700 feet elevation above sea level. This is the beginning of the California Mojave Desert, with its characteristic Joshua Trees evident as one descends into town.
After getting gas, I continued east on Route 58 out of Mojave. I decided to explore some Terra Incognito: north to California City, Randsburg, Johannesburg, Ridgecrest, and Trona and then on into the Panamint Valley. California City is a small, widely-spread out suburban town plunked down in the Mojave Desert. It is probably basically a retirement community. It has a much nicer ambiance than the town of Mojave.
Randsburg and Johannesburg are small, old derelict mining towns named after large South African mining towns. These two California mining towns bear little resemblance to their source-names in South Africa. Ridgecrest is a bright bustling town which serves the China Lake military base. In the winter it has a delightful view of two sets of snow capped mountains; one to the west and a second off to the northeast. Trona is a large functioning mining town that processes the dried up alkali salts from a low desert sump area called the Searles Dry Lake. It even has its own train, the Trona Rail line, in which its mining products are hauled away in.
Going north from Trona, the two-lane blacktop road slowly winds into the Panamint Valley. This valley is a smaller and less spectacular relation to Death Valley, which lies just east of the Panamint Mountain ridge. It is bordered by the Argus Range to the west. Panamint Springs Resort is a delightful small old establishment, which features a small restaurant and cabins sans television. It is a bit of green built in the middle of the creosote-bush scrub desert. It has many plants typical of coastal California plantings including eucalyptus, pepper trees and oleander. These trees and shrubs are all irrigated. The winter climate of Panamint Springs is quite delightful. It rarely dips down the freezing point. However, in the summer, it can get quite warm: up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoon. But, as they say, it's a dry heat. It is located on Route 190 about halfway between Lone Pine and Death Valley and is just to the west of Rout 190's intersection with the road up from Trona.
Early the next morning, after first light, I left Panamint Springs and headed east over the Towne Pass at about 5,000 feet elevation above sea level and raced down into Death Valley National Park.
To the uninitiated, the name alone is enough to discourage interest on the part of many travelers. However, once we have gotten past the distasteful name, we find that Death Valley National Park is an amazing conglomeration of rocks, mountains and geological formations.
However, as is my fashion, having seen this area some years ago, I drove on into Nevada. I headed south towards Las Vegas, and cut through that city and headed northeast on I-15 across the northwestern corner of Arizona. The road then proceeds up the Virgin River gorge to St. George, Utah.
The next morning, Christmas Day, I left St. George and drove into Zion National Park. The entrance to this Park is on level ground and yields no inkling of the geological and natural beauty hidden within the Park's boundaries. After purchasing an annual National Parks Pass for $25 good through December, 1997, I proceeded onward. Note: the admissions fees for many National Parks will be increased this year: any where from doubled to quadrupled in price. Zion is sort of a Technicolor version of Yosemite. Where Yosemite is a shades of gray, black and white, Zion is a colorful combination of yellows, oranges, reds and browns. After driving east through the Park's tunnels and gaining in elevation, I was treated to a snow-covered winter wonderland. It is a cliché, but it is always impressive to experience snow-covered terrain, especially if one had grown up in the East or Midwest, with its four-season climate and have been living in the Mediterranean climate of coastal California.
Snow was lingering on northerly-shaded sides of the two lane highway in the eastern part of the Park. A few minutes after I passed the eastern boundary of the Park, I spotted an amazing sight: a Bald Eagle in full adult plumage with a white head and white tail feathers. Another cliché, but the Bald Eagle is always an impressive sight. A few minutes later, another ornithological treat: a Golden Eagle sitting on top of a pine tree. I stopped my car, backed up and the Eagle flew away. The Golden Eagle is slightly larger than the Bald Eagle: it is unmistakable in its black and golden plumage. At the tourist shop at Mt. Caramel Junction, the first settlement that was open for business on Christmas Day, I inquired about the presence of Eagles. Yes, there were Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles that wintered in that part of Southwestern Utah. Also, he noted, there were some Condors which had just been released into the wild nearby.
A White Christmas treat in Zion Park with Eagles on the eastern side of the Park. I continued northward on the two lane highway, through snowy terrain. Found a motel that night in a small town of Fillmore in the County of Milliard on I-15. It was quite cold there, with snow on the roads. The town's Christmas lights were quite pretty in the dark. Small towns seem to have the best Christmas lights. The next morning I drove north towards Salt Lake City, cutting off to the west just below Provo. These two lane blacktop roads wind thorough thousands of acres of pasture land, dotted with dairy cows. Eventually, these little roads connected up with Interstate Route Eighty (I-80), and I traveled past the edge of the Great Salt Lake. The Bonneville Salt Flats, where drivers seek land speed records in their jet-on-the-ground vehicles, was the last landmark before entering the Sagebrush State of Nevada.
Being quite tired after another long day's drive, I finally found a nice, cheap motel in the bustling little town of Elko. I tried to do a walkabout, but there was several inches of snow on the sidewalks and the late afternoon rush-hour traffic was vicious. I did not want to get in the was of those tired and cranky drivers. So I returned to my motel room, to a night of home cooking (canned beans, canned corn, cold cola soda, some potato chips, an apple and some of my homemade bread, unfrozen before leaving home). The plastic foam car refrigerator, recycled from its original use as a container for shipping frozen steaks, did quite well to keep the food cool. Ice from the motel's dispenser was usually enough to last till the next stop.
When traveling in the inland Great Basin, the aficionado for good daily newspapers is bound to be greatly disappointed. The first falloff is leaving coastal California: the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury and the Los Angeles Times are large newspapers with many in-depth stories. In the Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, the Sacramento Bee is of similar quality. Crossing the Tehachapi Mountains and proceeding into the drier Basin areas, the quality of the newspapers available drops off precipitously. I guess that the basic rule of thumb is: "the bigger the town, the better the newspaper." Of course, while traveling in the Great Basin outback of Nevada and Utah, motels usually have a good selection of national cable television channels, so one can keep up with current events, if one wishes to do so.
The Interstate I-80 across Nevada is several hundred miles of desert, plains and mountain vistas. In the winter, the landscapes are often dusted with a light touch of snow, which adds to the beauty of the scenery. Serious winter driving conditions exist when crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains north of Lake Tahoe. I left my night's stay in a Reno motel at first light, which in late December was about 7:30 AM. After crossing the border into California, I-80 gained in elevation until there was snow falling in the morning gray light. Finally I came to snow chain control, where for sixty dollars, I purchased a pair of chains for the rented car. The man installed them in about ten minutes and I was on my way. Driving speed limits were set at thirty miles per hour, although there are always those who must go faster than the set speed, whatever it is and no matter how hazardous the driving conditions are.
The drive downhill to the end of snow chain control was quiet, slow and uneventful. The rest of the trip homeward was through the California central valley, with gray skies, but no signs of the snow and rain in the Sierras. It was pleasant to exit off from Highway 99 and travel down two lane country roads. Signs of spring were everywhere. In California, spring starts after the first heavy winter rains, which this year occurred in November.
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Web page last updated on 7 May 2003.