Grand Vistas and Birthed from Fire

The third stage of our journey across Southern California started at 5 am. In order to drive from Furnace Creek, CA to Sequoia National Park you must traverse a rather deviating course that heads south towards Bakersfield–opposite the direction you eventually need to drive. The long ramp out of Death Valley is actually quite incredible. You gain hundreds of feet of elevation as you ascend into Pinto Peak’s foothills. Watching the moon set and the sun rise while driving past desert tundra evokes a curious sense of longing to stay in one of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth.

The six and a half hour drive from Furnace Creek to Azalea Campground is a long haul, but the sights to be seen are spectacular. Barren desert, rolling green hills, smokey forests, and central valley orchards ring the foothills of the Sequoia National Forest. I highly recommend the Azalea Campground because it rests 6,000 feet deep inside the forest. The campgrounds to the south, though easier to get to, tend to get crowded and are in the lower elevation which lends itself to insect infestations and hotter, less pleasant climate.


Azalea is a beautiful campground with mountainous terrain and a dense redwood canopy which blocks out the sun, dissuading scruffy foliage from overtaking the campground. The American Redwood is a unique instance of specialized adaptation. The oily red bark of its namesake is flame retardant, serving to stave off the common forest fires of this region and the blistering winter’s cold. Redwoods survive by outlasting other species of plants. While wildfires rampage through the hills, the redwood’s protective bark resists the heat while competing foliage is destroyed.

Due to the danger of local black bears, and the occasional grizzly, bear boxes are found at each camp site. Leaving food in your car is highly discouraged as bears have been known to tear through the thin aluminum body.

At night, especially early March, the temperatures can drop to below freezing. In our particular campsite, the pitch of the hill created a wind tunnel that effectively blew cold air up the mountain towards our tents. To remedy this, we lined a few trees with cordage and strung our tarps up in order to form a wall. These walls managed to provide some relief to the cold, they also helped contain the warmth from our fire. Nonetheless, the cold is very real. The best way to avoid freezing to death was to drape a tarp over our tents and sleep under layers of blankets. Fortunately, the brisk mornings yielded to relatively warm afternoons.

I highly recommend you bring firewood with you, as the park service frowns upon scavenging from the campgrounds. Also, be sure to have dry kindling. We found it very difficult to get a fire started until we dried out enough kindling. Always think ahead and be sure to keep drying wood while you have a fire going.

The sites

On our drive out of the mountains, we stopped to tour the most notable attractions.

Azalea is home to many fantastic views of sprawling mountain and dense redwood forests. The hiking is challenging, yet can be achievable even by novice trekkers. Popular destinations like General Sherman and General Grant are not that far away, offering you a great exploratory look into the history of the mighty redwood.

A must see location is Moro Rock, a grand vista overlooking the San Joaquin Valley and the Great Western Divide. Perched 6,725 feet above sea level, the narrow trail to the overlook is actually rather dangerous, especially during tourist seasons, mostly because nervous mobs of tourists do not make great tour guides.

After a long trip through desert, valleys, and forests, the main takeaway is that our natural resources are comparable to none. I could not help but feel like these places were not real, considering how unusual they were compared to the suburban/urban life I am used to. The isolating enormity that comprises our National Park system is something every person should partake in and endlessly protect and preserve. If you haven’t taken the plunge into an American parkland, what’s stopping you? Get out there!

Death Valley

‘Goodbye, Death Valley.’

Getting There/Campgrounds

Pahrump, NV may be your last chance at civilization, so stock up on supplies. The journey into this 160-mile gash of barren salt flats may be an insurmountable challenge for some, but the trek is worth the effort. Death Valley is considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and for good reason. This sunken crag is ringed by mountains and cliff sides ranging in the thousands of feet of elevation. Home to sidewinders, rattlers, coyotes and roadrunners, the specialized nature of this formidable tundra is both fascinating and awe-inspiring.

Death Valley runs from the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the northwest to the Amargosa River in the southeast. To trek across the middle of the valley may leave you stranded in one of the driest environments in the northern hemisphere if proper planning is not done beforehand. The National Park system has threaded highways throughout the valley’s most desirable trekking locations and has an approachable camping network designed to be family friendly. The main site can be found at Furnace Creek which comes complete with a small general store, resort and showers. Alongside Furnace Creek are a couple of campsites built to “rough it”—to a degree. For instance, the Texas Spring campsite has flushable toilets and running water.

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Note: Furnace Creek requires reservations. As in all National Parks campers must stick to the campgrounds; off-site camping and driving is forbidden without proper permits.


Further north is Stovepipe Wells, the second major camp zone. Located across the road from the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, this campground is more unforgiving and brings the dry heat of the desert with it. Regardless, all of the campgrounds have spectacular views and wonderful hiking just minutes off the park arterial road.


Desert camping can be unforgiving so plan your trip ahead of time. The heat can be cruel and overbearing especially during the day. At times you may find yourself hiding under the slightest shade just to stay reasonably cool. As with all National Park campgrounds, be sure to arrive prior to eleven a.m as these grounds sell out quickly. When you reach your campground your first task is to build some sort of shade retreat. This can be either a large tent or a tarp secured from your car to a nearby overhang. Shade is essential as the midday sun can dehydrate you in just a few hours. As they say—if you are thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Once your water source is secure and a campground is set up then you can begin planning your trek across the local trails.

What’s interesting about a dry heat is that given the time of year an 80 degree day can be very pleasant in the shade. With very little moisture in the air the heat cannot permeate much further than where it directly contacts a surface. In a humid environment the heat can transfer through the air more easily due to convection forces. An 80 degree day in Georgia can cause more suffering than the same temperature in place called Death Valley. Strange.

But then again the real threat isn’t so much the heat but the arid terrain. The lack of water is stifling. Your lips, eyes, and all moistened skin will begin to dry out, crack, and crust over. Very little is required to becoming dehydrated as moisture is continuously wicking away from your skin. This dry climate is rather comfortable otherwise. The lack of moisture means less uncomfortable sweating, and the dirt of Death Valley is relatively gentle and fine leaving your skin smooth and dry. Go figure the hills are actually ripe with talc, the primary ingredient in talcum powder.

In the end, be sure to avoid Death Valley in the summer when temperatures can easily reach the high 120s fahrenheit.  Provided that you brought at least a gallon of water per day, per person, you should find your stay at the lowest point on Earth unforgettable.

Sights to See

A highly anticipated touring area is the Badwater Basin sitting 282 feet below sea level just 20 miles south of Furnace Creek. The basin’s dry salt flat is both impressive and menacing. If you have never seen a mirage before then do not be surprised as you drive along Badwater Road and the salt lake out your passenger window transforms into an empty basin of crystallized salt. Along this route is Arch Rock and the Artist’s Drive. Both showcase the auburn, mineral laced foothills and wonderment surrounding the valley.

Death Valley is perhaps one of the most inspiring and breathtaking locations in the United States. This extremely desiccate stretch of land is both heaven and hell on earth for those who enjoy one of nature’s most unique and spectacular journeys. But to the pioneers who first traveled this forsaken land, all they could bare to say as they fled this treacherous stretch of rock was “Goodbye, Death Valley.”