The last time I was in Death Valley I had come in the way we were leaving this trip, but that had been a winter visit. Though it was cold and snow rested on the higher elevations, travel was not a problem. This summer trip was not so easy in comparison. I would have thought my previous experiences in Death Valley would have been helpful, but this trip has brought to light 15 years of details lost from memory by the too frequent "Oh yea, I recall that" moments...
While filling up at the station a fellow pulled in across the island from me. He was alone and had been driving the road I intended to take. He was in a dusty Jeep which lent him an aura of familiarity with the area. Being a little nervous about the climb out of the valley to come, I thought I would ask him a few questions about my coming drive. "No problems.", he said.
A few miles after pulling out I noticed that the A/C had shut down. This concerned me as I liked the A/C, but we didn't set off on this trip expecting problem free cruising. We buzzed the windows down amid protests of wind from the children. I was surprisingly comfortable but I wasn't sitting on the sunny side of the car. ;)
Eventually the hill became too much for 3rd gear causing the van to dramatically shift to second; I glanced at the tachometer. This was when I noticed the temperature gauge had begun its move toward the red. If the air hadn't already been off I'd have turned it off at that point. I quickly reconnected the OBDII scanner so as to watch the temperature in detail. We pulled off of the road when it reached 240 degrees. The break lasted 10 or 15 minutes before we could attempt a few more miles. Scratching our way off the gravel and onto the road we gained a couple more miles before having to stop again. We repeated this three more times before cresting the pass at nearly 5000 ft.
Once atop the pass we could see the road we were currently on crossing a second valley ahead then disappearing in the rugged hills beyond. Sigh; another climb out of another valley. I could remember nothing of this on previous visits. I guess the terrain didn't push the capabilities of the vehicles then. Within minutes of cresting the hill the van's temp. was back to normal. I tried the A/C. And it worked! We were back to comfortable cruisn'. Apparently the "problem" was not a problem after all. The computer noticed the high engine temperatures before I did and automatically shut off the A/C . That is the sort of nannyism I like!
On our second climb out of the second valley I allowed the auto A/C shut off to alert me that the engine was warming. I handed the OBDII scanner to Kat so she could watch for 240 degrees. This time we had to stop only twice to let the van cool. Unfortunately the rough nature of the terrain forced us to drive beyond 240 degrees both times as a break down lane was no always immediately available. In the end I was getting accustomed to our limitations, and used the cool down breaks to kick rocks and enjoy what was normally drive-by country. ;)
A short time after putting the second climb behind us we were looking at the Sierra Nevada's. Of course, we didn't know it at the time; they were just stunning mountains. Between us and the the Sierras was a dry lake bed created by Los Angeles' thirst. It was once Owens Lake at around 3500 ft above sea level. On the Map it is now called Owens Lake (Dry). Apparently the area was turned into a 'dust bowl' as the Owens river that fed Owens Lake was diverted to LA. In response the area sued LA and LA was forced to rectify the problem. Even now there is no lake and dust devils still thrive.
We learned this at a visitor's center that serviced Inyo National Forest. California never sent us the packets of travel info we had requested in the months before the trip so the visitor's center was pleasant surprise. In it Kat gathered campground info while I walked with the kids around the displays. Trey took a shine to a relief map that reflected our full day's travels and we were surprised to find we were nearly under Mt. Whitney; the tallest mountain in the lower 48. As we were leaving I noticed that the camper had suffered from its trek trough Death Valley. The heat had caused bubbles to form under a fiberglass joint on the exterior. Sigh.
After a quick and overpriced stop at the grocery store in Lone Pine we began the drive up our final mountain for the day. As usual, we looked for the highest altitude campground we could find. In this case that was Whitney Portal camp ground at around 8000 feet above sea level.The first part of the ascent was easy third gear cruising through some very cool rocks. One of the rocks the children dubbed Monster Rock. Later the real climb began and our van was finally forced into 1st gear; I then locked it in. Although I was no longer worried about over heating - it had cooled to around 60 degrees - I was getting concerned with the fact that we had no more gears to down shift into. We were all in on this climb. No room for U-turns, No backing down, No more gears to down shift into. But, there were excellent views of our path taken across Owens Lake (dry) hours earlier. ;)
We finally pulled into Whitney Portal Campground. It was simply the most gorgeous campground of the trip. It was strewn with white boulders large and small. Campsites were nestled among them and large pines provided shade when the mountains did not. The loop twice crossed, with timber bridges, a large white water stream that sliced through the middle of the campground. It was perfect and it was FULL. This would not be our home for the night. I got no pictures of this campground so all pictures here are borrowed. Thanks go to the owners in the file names of the pics.
While Katrina was talking with the campground host I had to pull forward to let a car behind me pass. I tried, but the van sputtered and misfired. The poor Sienna had almost had enough but seemed to recover.
We left Whitney Portal behind and began the frightening ride back down the mountain. I acted Fonzie cool for Katrina and the children. In reality I was totally spooked. Even with the trannie locked in 1st I had to ride the brakes as pulsing didn't work well. We would gather too much speed when I let off the brakes. Soon the brake pedal began to feel like ice, the rotors likely red with heat and refusing to accept more. We found a rare pull off and basked in the acrid smell of abused brake pads. We repeated this multiple times amid sheer drop offs and hair-pin turns, each time hoping a pull off would appear when needed.
Eventually we pulled into Portagee Joe Campground, a campground we had passed on the way up and made camp as the sun set while the children explored a strangely quick running creek behind the camper. Elise immediately lost one of her flops to the rushing water. What was strange about the creek was that we were on essentially flat ground but the creek was quick deep, narrow and disappeared into a culvert at the far end of the campground. We kept them occupied with dinner and water guns until bedtime.
We had started the day at 8500' in McWilliams campground, dropped to -275' at Badwater, climbed to nearly 5000' as we exited Death Valley only to drop to 1500' in the second valley, and then hit close to 5000 again on the other side. There we drove past Owens Lake at 3500' and climbed to Whitney Portal Campground at 8000' only to backtrack to Portagee Joe Campground at 3750'.
Changes in altitude. Perhaps I should consider building an airplane for my next project. ;0