Death Valley Easter Trip 2013: Eureka Valley


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My preference is to drive to the desert, especially the deep desert, during the day. I like watching the subtle change from green to brown, and red, and yellow; from Civilization to the Great Empty. (About twenty years ago, I dropped Michele off at work and drove all day to Page, Arizona, to meet her flight that night. I had a deep feeling of where I was while Michele, having just got off the plane, wasn’t even sure which way was north.) On this trip, we left Bishop at about 10:00 PM after a late dinner and drove south to Big Pine where we turned east to drive into the White Mountains just as a large moon was rising.

When we entered Eureka Valley,  it was bright enough to get a sense of the vastness of the valley – really a graben – but not bright enough to easily spot the camping spot I had planned on. What we did find worked great and, after a leisurely breakfast we went south about ten miles on the Eureka Dune Road to the Eureka Dunes (duh!).

JR had already been up since before sunrise and had gone for a long walk and his enthusiasm, added to Gina and Courtney’s. I have been going to the desert – mostly Death Valley, but also The Mojave National Preserve, Anzo Borrego State Park, Northwestern Nevada, and assorted other places like the Moroccan Sahara – since the early 70’s when Iver Iverson introduced me to Death Valley and I Had a religious conversion as my very ex-wife so disparagingly put it. Michele and I got married there. But it has been hard to get friends to share my wonder, my fervor.

Over the years, I have tried, dragging people there with promises of subtle wonders. Their reactions have ranged from This is nice, let’s do it again, I’ll call you, don’t call me. to  Ugh? nice, I guess, but windy, to Where are the trees? to Can we go home now? ; but Gina and Courtney were the first people in a long time that caught the excitement that Michele and I share.

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Meanwhile, back in Eureka Valley, the Eureka Dunes are the highest dunes in California – which may be akin to being the longest earthworm or heaviest crow, interesting but not very important – at 680 feet above the dry lakebed they sit in (they look smaller because the surrounding Last Chance Range towers over them).

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We drove to the west side of the dunes, nearest the highest point and furthest from the crowded parking lot – it was packed, there must have been five cars – on the theory that we would climb to the top. I had climbed to the top, once, over twenty years ago where I ran into a guy who climbed to the almost-top with skis. He was going to ski down the steepest part, but it was a failure (for him, fun to watch for us). Everybody packed lots of water – as the temp was climbing – Gina and Michele brought snacks, and we set off across the dry lakebed to the dunes.

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Sand dunes are caused by the wind (in the desert, atleast). The wind scours the desert, picking up sand and dust. On a very windy day, so much is in the air that we can’t see across the valley, but – as the wind bumps up against a mountain and slows down – it looses its carrying capacity, dropping its cargo of sand and dust. Over time – alot of time, one grain of sand at a time – the sand and dust has built a dune 680 feet high and, maybe, a mile long. The shape of the dunes is governed by the shape of the surrounding topography that is slowing down the wind so it has been pretty much the same since the invention of the camera.

Sand Dunes - Death Valley, Ansel AdamsWhen we got into the dunes, we began to see and feel their complexity. In some places, they were hard and in other places almost too soft to get anywhere. Here would be a pattern and over there a smooth wall. On the otherside of a ridge, a valley going all the way down to the lake bed.

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And, as we climbed, the changing view of the Eureka Valley and the Last Chance range open up.

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I stopped climbing first, choosing, after our snack break to sit on a nice warm ridge and take an afternoon nap while everybody else kept at it.

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JR and Michele got the furthest, both of them – as far as I can tell – switching to barefoot sand-walking. At least they were both barefoot when they got back down to my level; JR reporting an equipment malfunction and Michele just seemed to like walking barefoot in warm sand. Then it was time to put the shoes back on, dust the sand from our butts – in my case, atleast – walk back to the cars, drive over the Last Chance Range to Upper Death Valley Wash, and find a place to camp.

Part One: Here

Next: Loosing Control here

Addendum: some additional shots from Michele

Eureka Dunes panorama - copyright Michele Stern 2013
Eureka Dunes panorama – copyright Michele Stern 2013

Steve at Eureka Dunes (by Michele)

That little group of specks on the ridge below is Gina, Cortney, Steve (different one) and Linda.
That little group of specks on the ridge below is Gina, Cortney, Steve (different one) and Linda.


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