Generally we like to settle down for our camping experiences away from the generator crowd, a point I’ve no doubt made previously!
Meaning that if you see a caravan, 5th wheel, small camper van or “A” Class motor home (Winnebago style coach camper) pretty well anywhere in the US, then run the other way as the chances of them not requiring petrol powered electricity to run their coffee maker, microwave and hair dryer is rather slim! There are the exceptions however and they do seem to be growing in number.
So there we are, camped all by our lonesome near the Fish Lake Hot Springs when a cloud of dust appears in the distance – incoming visitors no doubt. Eventually the vehicle stirring up the dust appeared ahead of the dust cloud much like a passenger jet leading a jet stream. I use that analogy because the vehicle approaching wasn’t a lot smaller than a Russian Antonov!
We look at each other and sigh, “well it’s their country and we can’t very well tell them to go away and desist from damaging our calm now can we?”…
Closer now and our upside down smiles slowly recover to reveal a happier expression as we see the whole roof is covered in solar panels!
And so it was that we met Cat Lady Laurie and Yukon Ron and of course their resident cats!
Laurie has been on the road pretty much full time since 2002. She’s a little smarter than your average RV’er and made the move early on to complete self-reliance through solar! Not only that but Laurie completes all the solar and electrical installations herself – right down to converting all her RV light fixtures to low draw LED technology!
Having a look at this installation quickly showed how fastidious she is and makes other off grid power systems I’ve seen look pretty second rate.
Anyway she has a massive solar setup with a battery bank of 960A/H and 1602 watts of solar, that’s 1.6-kilowatts! It allows them complete electrical freedom without requiring hookups or a generator EVER and yes – she can use the microwave!
If you just greyed out and that all sounded like gobbledy gook, I apologise. I just love solar power along with the freedom and peaceful camping experience that it provides. If you’re not overly savvy on solar systems, I’ll put it in simple terms – Laurie’s RV puts out more solar power than an average solar installation on a house!!!
After a soak in nature’s hot tub, we all ended up drinking back in the 5th wheel. As it turns out, Laurie’s partner, Ron, has a gold mining lease in the Yukon where, until recently, he lived full time for the better part of the last 40 years. Hearing about the conditions he’s experienced during that time in the Yukon, I was amazed! Temperatures below minus 40°C in the winter, hearing your breath freeze as you exhale, the northern lights, panning for gold and living off the land. An easy guy to chat with, although it meant that we managed to run down both of our beer supplies rather quickly. Make of that what you will…
Laurie was a wealth of information regarding free camping and she shared a few favourite spots before we departed with tentative plans to catch up with these cool travellers in the weeks ahead.
We made a brief stop in Tonopah and with strong winds whipping the desert sands, we sought (at some length) to find a sheltered camp. However, nothing could stop the overnight temperatures diving below zero for the next few days, once to -8°C! The following days saw the wind abate slightly and we made a side trip to Lunar Crater, an interesting area of ancient volcanic activity.
The Extraterrestrial Hwy came into view as we wandered across Nevada’s desert backcountry and skirted Area 51… this is what the crowd came to see!!! All in good humour of course….
The Little A’le’Inn is a mandatory stop if you’ve ever watched the movie “Paul” and had Jen tasting what may have been the smallest hotdog ever created – luckily she ordered a side of fries! Given the “super size” reputation of serves in the US generally, this came as a bit of a shock! The hotdog was made even harder to spot on the plate given that it wasn’t much larger than the fries themselves… No I’m not kidding!
On to the Black Mail Box, a supposed alien communication point, which sadly has become a rubbish dump for passers by, so often the case when sites are accessible to human degenerates without any real effort required!
It’s not hard to see why Area 51 is geographically located where it is, with large expanses of flat featureless terrain between jagged mountain ranges with only low vegetation and an obviously arid dry climate. It’s a first class area to test out your military aircraft or maybe encounter the odd crash-landed Alien Space Ship.
The whole area is an air force training playground including the real Top Gun training facility so it’s not surprising that you might see and hear a fighter jet or 2!
With eyes wandering skyward now and then to keep an eye on the jet streams, we could easily tell when the air force were out playing as you don’t often see commercial jets making knife edge turns, not to mention that the air force were out playing pretty much all of the time making the task pretty easy.
It had us enjoying our own private air show with sonic boom after sonic boom, dog fighting and low fly-bys!
Arriving at end of the Extraterrestrial Hwy and with the lights of Las Vegas once again easily visible during the hours of darkness we spent a few nights camped at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge!
I only make mention of National Wildlife Refuges as it has come to my attention that wildlife refuges don’t necessarily mean safe haven for animals! Remembering context here, we are in the USA, the land of firearms so yes, you can hunt in these refuges! Whilst there are restrictions, I’m not sure if the meaning of “refuge” has been lost somewhere in the vocabulary over here! Haha
With information from the helpful volunteers at the NWR visitor centre, we decided to wander a track known as the Alamo Road toward Vegas. Although not so far from Vegas, the whole area really has quite a remote feel to it. A couple of days elapsed as we wandered it’s length with only 1 other vehicle encountered, rather more relaxing than the Interstate and certainly rougher and dustier.
The outskirts of Las Vegas was next for a quick restock before we enjoyed a few of the scenic drives to the west.
Heading north-west now toward Death Valley National Park, we found free campsites pretty easy to find, although locating one not already occupied by a local practicing his quick draw routine with his Glock hand gun was a little more tricky! Truly you wander just off the Hwy around this part of the world and you’ll more than likely run into someone practicing his or her rapid-fire technique.
Laurie and Ron, mentioned earlier, had provided us with the location they would probably be at just outside Death Valley for a spell, so in the end we made for their site and found them camped up with another RV that they often travel with containing Jeff and Larry the Lynx Point cat! The drinks came easily and an invite was forwarded our way should we like to celebrate Thanksgiving with these guys!
Lunch was prepared by Laurie for the Thanksgiving celebrations and I can only describe it as bloody lovely! Probably made even more so by the amount of beer that Ron and I consumed as our entrée! It should be noted that Thanksgiving is generally a bigger celebration than Christmas here in the states.
Armed with another list of travel tips such as where to find cheap clothes washing and top up with water in Death Valley NP, we finally departed again! Might not sound like much if you’re at home with your Maytag idling in the background and your water dispenser on your fridge but for us that sort of info has serious value!
$8 was the requested remuneration for a loaf of bread in the town of Furnace Creek within the park – that’s $11 Australian. Unbelievable! Made even ruder by the fact that you’re only an hours drive from the nearest town with supermarkets, so knowing where to stock up can be handy when towns like Furnace Creek attempt to take you for a ride.
Death Valley NP is also a 4×4 friendly park with lots of off road trails as well as allowing wild camping in many places within the reserve. Given the size of the park however, it really makes sense to allow a little more personal freedom as quite a lot of driving is required if you wish to discover much of what’s on offer.
From altitudes of 11,049ft (3367mtrs) at Telescope Peak (Death Valley’s Highest Peak) to the lowest point in North America at -282ft (-86mtrs) at Badwater Basin salt lake, you can encounter everything from snow to swelteringly hot weather within the parks confines, depending on when you choose to visit of course.
Death Valley also holds the record for being the hottest place on Earth with temperatures as high as 134° F (Nearly 57°C!!!)
Titus Canyon was definitely a stand out for us in the park. A 60km one way drive with the first half being rather mundane washboard but followed by a lovely gradual descent thorough an ever-narrowing canyon back to the centre of the park.
Another park highlight is known as the Race Track. A long and very corrugated track leads to a salt lake at altitude, which had for years, been the subject of conjecture amongst geologists and locals alike! Large rocks leave tracks over the surface of the lake, as they wander aimlessly across the dead flat surface of the lake.
The mystery was finally solved with the use of time-lapse photography. Seems that in just the right conditions, those being an almost frozen moist lake surface and a strong wind, the rocks are able to skid along the surface! I’m not surprised there are so many tracks given one of the ingredients for creating them is near freezing conditions as we spent a bloody cold night camped nearby! I love my camper heater very much I have to admit…
We opted to exit the Race Track area, and ultimately the park, via the Lippincott Pass 4×4 Trail. Glad we weren’t in anything larger than our Patrol or we’d be on our lid! A great drive but it certainly did require 4×4! After departing the park we wandered around all over the place seeing what we could see!
Apart from a couple of features, much of the landscape outside Death Valley shares the same odd geological components as the Park itself and gives some insight into just how large this arid sunburnt and often frozen landscape really is.
We continued south and found ourselves camped in an odd landscape known as Trona Pinnacles – a filming location for over thirty film projects a year which are shot amongst these tufa (limestone) pinnacles, including series such as Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Lost in Space, and Planet of the Apes. But the highlight for us was the vivid sunsets and the resident Kit Fox.