Storm in Death Valley

Storm approaching Death Valley 2-2016 smaller

I based my trip to Death Valley National Park last month at Emigrant Campground, a remote location at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It features 10 tent sites, no electricity, water and a bathroom across the road, and expansive views. Unstaffed and first-come first-serve far from the developed areas of the park, the campground attracts people like me who seek quiet and solitude. My neighbors and I respected each other’s silence and didn’t speak to one another.

An unseasonably hot day in the 90s rolled in so I left my base camp and drove up the Emigrant Canyon Road to high elevation for the day where it would be cooler. The term “wide open spaces” came to mind with views all the way to the Sierra Nevada 75 miles away. I stopped often just to take it all in.

Wide open spaces looking down Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The view from about 5,000 feet looking down toward the distant Sierra Nevada range

Wide open spaces looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
This is the view looking up to the snow-covered Panamint Mountains within the park. An old dirt road below shows the massive scale of the place.

The pavement ended and the bumpy dirt road began. It was closed at 6,800 feet due to snow beyond that point. When it’s open, the road ends at a higher campground. Further up is a hiking trail to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The road closure was at the Wildrose charcoal kilns, masonry structures built in the 1870s that created smelter fuel for lead and silver mines. I was impressed that the kilns are in such good shape. The black stains on the inside walls are still visible.

Charcoal kilns Death Valley 2-2016 smallerWildrose charcoal kilns

With a comparable forecast the following day, I drove up the same road to leave the heat in the valley behind. This time I left my car in one of the few turnouts along the road and hiked at Pinon Mesa on an old rocky mining route toward a canyon that sounded interesting. The weather forecast turned out to be incorrect. With the wind picking up, the sky darkening, and the temperature dropping, I changed my plans and turned around.

I took shelter for lunch in my trusty Subaru that’s well-suited for the rough dirt roads. Hearing a loud pop outside the car, I looked up to see that the sound was the wind ripping a leafless bush from the ground. It was now a tumbleweed rolling away. The car was shaking.

Rainstorms in this topography often don’t make it all the way down to the valley itself, but the water they drop does. I didn’t want to get cut off by a flash flood along my route downhill, so I headed back to check on my campsite a few thousand feet below.

View of storm arriving Death Valley 2-2016 smallerFollowing the weather down the mountain—unlike the day before, the Sierra Nevada was invisible

Storm view descending Emigrant Canyon Road Death Valley 2-1016 smaller
Back on pavement, descending on the Emigrant Canyon Road

When I got back to Emigrant Campground, the storm created an instant community among a group of us who had not previously spoken. Two other solo hikers returned from their wanderings around the same time, all of us recognizing that we had needed to skedaddle back. While we were gone, our tents collapsed and pieces of them were blowing across the desert. Joanna from Nevada, who had been camping in her van and hadn’t left the campground, explained that the force of the wind had knocked her down and she scraped her hand. Nevertheless, she had grabbed our scattering gear. She piled rocks on the wreckage to hold it all in place until we returned.

Ron from Utah and John hustled over to my campsite to help wrestle with my stuff as the sand and rain pelted us. We stuffed the tent, sleeping bag and air mattress willy-nilly in the back of my car. John told us his own tent was shredded but he had his truck to sleep in. Ron declined my and John’s help with his damaged tent. He calmly shrugged and said his brand new tent was a lost cause, and he was just going to wait out the storm and sleep in his van. Not having a roomy vehicle myself, I needed to find a place indoors to spend the night. I turned the car toward the road and stopped when Joanna flagged me down. She handed me the tent’s groundcloth that she’d grabbed before it blew too far away.

En route to the lodge in Stovepipe Wells nine miles away, I could see that rain wasn’t falling in the valley below sea level ahead. Instead, there was a massive dust storm enveloping the landscape and blocking the view of the mountains I’d seen clearly just hours earlier.

Emigrant Campground view Death Valley 2-1016 smallerThe view from Emigrant Campground in the morning before the storm

Sandstorm view from near Emigrant Campground Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLater that day looking in the same direction at the miles-wide sandstorm below sea level

Sandstorm in valley dose-up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerA closer look at the sandstorm

Exiting my car, I stopped before I entered the lodge and savored the sweet scent of the air, countless creosote bushes damp from the rain. I booked the last available room and set up the tent inside to survey the damage. The poles hadn’t snapped and the body was intact. The rainfly had multiple holes so it would be useless for a future rainy trip. With the storm inevitably passing quickly, the tent was in good enough shape for the rest of this trip.

The wind continued blasting throughout the night. Much of the next day, I was blowing dust out of my nose. Some of the sand particles still hung in the air, gradually settling under clearing skies.

View across valley after storm Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe view across the valley floor the morning after the storm as the clouds were clearing

The raindrops that had fallen at the campground the night before hadn’t reached the ground below sea level. Instead, the rain from the mountains moved through the valley in flash floods. By the next day they had already disappeared, leaving behind damp surfaces and sediment in the washes and across the road below sea level—rare water in the desert that extended the life of the equally rare bloom this season, the best since 2005. (You can see Death Valley wildflower photos in a previous post.)

Desert gold flower in muddy wash Death Valley 2-2016 smaller Desert gold blooming in a muddy wash

After exploring during the day, I got back to Emigrant Campground at nightfall. I was surprised by how much I hoped to see the others because I was concerned about how they had fared. I was pleased that none of us let the weather chase us away, and over the next few days we continued our parallel outdoor adventures. The storm had broken our silence and we swapped contact info. I brought cookies from Stovepipe Wells to thank Joanna, passed along some food I wasn’t going to use to John, and got the link to Ron’s website for his landscape photography.

As desert storms do, this one blasted through in a hurry. The friendships it created continued.

View across Devils Cornfield Death Valley 2-2016 smaller             View across Devils Cornfield

Two additional posts about Death valley feature photos of wildflowers and landscapes.

11 thoughts on “Storm in Death Valley

  1. This essay is quite a contrast to the earlier lovely flower-filled blog and brings us an understanding of the variety of weather and experiences one can have in the Death Valley Park. Most of us think about Death Valley as hot, dry, and “endless”. You have captured the impact of unusual amounts of water on and into the earth – creating a valley of flowers; and the impact of the combination of wind and water to create challenging storms affecting the land itself and any people there. This storm created a frightening situation and scary time where the community of campers were willing and able to help each other avoid the worst (driving down a road with a flash flood across it) and enjoy the best (safely ensconced in vans or hotels and then the clarity of the sky afterwards). Thank you for sharing the story and the images. Harriet

  2. What a wonderful adventure, and yes, such different looks to the terrain from one hour to the next. So happy you are creating your adventures as usual! Wish I were there for a hike with you at Point Reyes again.

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