Trip Report: Death Valley In Winter

A Great General Aviation Destination! By David Osborn

I have taken two trips to Death Valley National Park (http://www.nps.gov/deva) in the winter, a time when temperatures in the park are pleasant, the wildflowers (121123) may suddenly be blooming after a winter storm, and the most direct driving route from the Bay Area is closed under many feet of snow. Contemplating an 8-hour drive from Livermore to reach the park will convince you the 2 – 2½ hour flight is a great alternative.

Death Valley contains the hottest and lowest location in the United States, yet in winter you’ll find snow on 11,049 foot Telescope Peak (s_stich_pan_1.jpg).   At 3,367,628 acres, it is the largest national park in the contiguous US and the 3rdlargest even including Alaska.  There are two airports within the park:  the Furnace Creek airport (L06)(193) with a 3065’ x 75’ runway (at –210’ MSL), and the Stovepipe Wells airport (L09)(225) with a 3260’ x 65’ runway at +25 MSL.  Both runways are asphalt.

The Furnace Creek Inn (http://www.furnacecreekresort.com/) (201) is the best place to eat in the valley:a fine dining restaurant with a panoramic view of the valley.The Sunday brunch is a great experience, with a vast array of gastronomic creations.It is an easy trip to make in one day in our airplanes, and the environment contrasts so greatly with the Bay Area it’s hard to believe you’re really there. If you are staying overnight, the Inn is also the best lodging in the valley, but Furnace Creek Ranch has less expensive accommodations. My recommendation is to stay at the Ranch and spend the money you save on meals at the Inn. To really go on the cheap, there is a campground within walking distance of the airport that is hardly ever full.

Death Valley is so large that a general aviation airplane is a great way to tour the park, which contains vast roadless areas. Some of my favorite sights to see from the air are the Ubehebe crater (160), Scotty’s Castle, and the Racetrack (172).The Racetrack is not what you think.It’s a dry lake bed with a twist: in the winter, given the right conditions of rain and wind, large rocks slide around the lake bed leaving tracks (178)—a truly bizarre sight.

The strangeness doesn’t end there, with the Devil’s Golfcourse providing some pretty inhospitable terrain in which to loose a ball, and the remarkable green, red, and purple colors marking the rock formations (183).  The sweeping sand dunes (207,220) near Stovepipe Wells airport are well worth the walk, and it’s pretty easy to hitch a ride too.  Photography at sunrise and sunset is not to be missed. 

Of course you can also relax among the palm trees and flowers in the Oasis (129) of the Furnace Creek Inn, or play a round of golf in the surprisingly green golf course at Furnace Creek, set among huge date palms.  There are no rental cars available in the valley itself (for a lot of money, Enterprise will drive one in for you from Pahrump, NV), but Xanterra resorts, the concessionaire at the park, will shuttle you around the Furnace Creek area for free.  Their service has always been prompt and friendly.  There is a lot of hiking nearby Furnace Creek too, including Breakfast Canyon, (115110) and I’ve only scratched the surface with this list of activities and sites.

The flight to the park has many great sightseeing opportunities.  I enjoy flying over Yosemite National Park (247250251) over Tioga Pass (9,943’), past Mono Lake, and down the highway 395 corridor, which takes about 2½ hours.  Bishop airport has a nice restaurant on the field, Sierra Wings, serving a very respectable cheeseburger.  You can cross slightly lower terrain by following the 024 Radial from the Friant VOR to Mammoth Pass (9,400’), getting a close view of the Minarets on your left.  A more direct route is possible over Kearsarge Pass (11,823’) that cuts flying time to about 2 hours in our 182.  Needless to say, a mountain-flying checkout with an instructor is a good idea before attempting any of these trips. 

Be sure to bring ropes to tie down the airplane, as the airports have cables on the ground but no chains.  Bringing our oxygen cylinder in the airplane is a wise choice.  If you are staying for a few days, plan to fill up your tanks in Bishop or Lone Pine, as 100LL is very expensive and somewhat inconvenient to obtain at Furnace Creek Airport.  And don’t forget to set your altimeter to –210 feet (206) at Furnace Creek Airport. 

(Captions for other photographs)

119– Borax is common in Death Valley rocks.

143– Sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells.

183– Erosion near iron oxide deposits.

230– Saltpan near Badwater, the lowest point in the USA.

245– Eroding cliffs

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