Our trip to Death Valley National Park in 2012 was designed to be much different from our visit a decade earlier. On that previous visit, my buddy J. and I took in all of the requisite tourist sites — including Badwater Basin, Titus Canyon, Dante’s View and Furnace Creek — before donning backpacks for an overnight climb to the summit of Telescope Peak. Most of those sites were indescribably beautiful, but a bit too touristy for our tastes.
The 2012 trip, on the other hand, was going to be conducted almost exclusively on the park’s extensive network of primitive dirt and gravel roads, away from people, away from civilization, and away from the security of everyday life.
It took no more than 10 seconds on Death Valley’s treacherous West Side Road for us to start questioning the ability of our four-wheel-drive Suzuki, which we had rented at the Las Vegas airport. It started with large rocks and deep ruts. Then it alternated between rumbling washboard, loose gravel, holes and ravines, sandy washes and patches of powdery dust that swirled into huge, thick, brown clouds in our wake. Yet, we persevered.
After a few miles of that, we turned onto the Warm Spring Canyon Road, which had similar conditions but cranked up a notch or two. That took us into the foothills of the Panamint Mountains, where we got great views of the valley below. Park rules allow for camping anywhere within the national park boundaries as long as the campsite is at east 2 miles from a paved road. We found a great place in a dry wash among the rocks and sparse desert shrubs, and it didn’t take long for us to get settled in with our lawn chairs and some vodka-lemonade cocktails in the 90-degree heat.
Suddenly I heard J. shout, “What the [heck]!”
“What’s wrong, J.?” I asked.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, scanning the sky.
“Look. Right over there.” He pointed at a tiny wisp of a cloud in an otherwise clear, wide-open sky.
“That is totally unacceptable,” I agreed in mock outrage. “Let’s pack up and get out of here.”
Well, if we had actually gotten out of there, we would have missed one of the most brilliant displays of stars either of us had ever seen — and we’d seen some mighty good ones in our travels.
It poured like crazy
The next day we explored the remote Echo Canyon Road and camped deep within the canyon that gives the road its name. Again, the location was glorious, with expansive views to distant mountains.
Things changed, however, on the third day. We drove the Hole-in-the-Wall Road, a very rough and difficult-to-follow track, into another scenic canyon. We set up our tents on a sandy ledge just a few feet above where we parked the poor abused Suzuki.
Our main focus all afternoon and evening was on the sky — and this time it wasn’t because of the stars. We saw big, white, fluffy clouds at first, then swirling gray clouds, wall clouds, fast-moving scuds, then thunderheads. Sometimes they were all in the vast sky at the same time. We could see falling rain in the distance.
Later, we saw flashes of lightning every couple of seconds in the northwest sky and, before long, the flashes evolved into bolts. There was nonstop thunder, the temperature dropped, and when a strong wind kicked up, J. and I took shelter in our tents.
The rain started around midnight, and it poured like crazy for over an hour. When the torrential rain subsided to a moderately heavy rainfall, I heard something seriously disturbing. I wanted to believe it was just wind, but I knew it was more likely to be what it sounded like — a flash flood.
J. heard it, too, and when we emerged from our tents to check it out, we saw a river running just below our campsite. The water was halfway up the Suzuki’s wheels and still rising. I don’t mind saying that I was extremely worried. Here we were in one of the driest places in North America, standing next to a river that hadn’t existed an hour earlier.
I don’t know how much rain fell, perhaps only an inch or two, but consider this: Every drop of rain that landed on every dry mountainside, ridge, incline and boulder, for maybe 40 miles up-canyon, was draining downward, amassing and gaining volume as it advanced, and was now running past our campsite in the form of a steady-flowing river.
We managed to move the Suzuki to higher ground. There was nothing else we could do until morning, so we spent a sleepless night hoping the rain would stop and worrying about our camping gear and the car.
I never felt like our lives were in danger. I knew we could run to higher ground if necessary and we would be able to walk the 4 miles back to civilization if we had to, but what then? Could we get the rental vehicle towed out of here before our flight out of Las Vegas in two days? How much would it cost? How would we explain this to the rental agency? What would my insurance company say?
A lucky escape
At the first sign of daylight, we surveyed the situation. There were some positives: It had stopped raining; the river was no longer flowing; and most important, the canyon was mostly gravelly rock instead of mud.
The negative factor was that the road we had driven in on was washed away — completely obliterated — it just wasn’t there anymore. The flood had created new ravines, rearranged rocks and boulders, and presented us with an entirely different landscape. We were faced with bushwhacking our way out of there. So we got right to it.
J. did the driving and he performed admirably. At times the going was surprisingly easy. Other times, we had to maneuver around boulders, bushes and deep holes. Sometimes we just plowed through deep ravines with all the power our little Suzuki could muster. We bottomed out a few times and frequently stopped to get out of the car to search out the best route.
It was a harrowing 4-mile, 90-minute drive, but thankfully we made it out. We high-fived and shouted in celebration. Then we saw that the flood had washed what was formerly the Hole-in-the-Wall Road — now tons of dirt and rock — onto the paved Hwy. 190, blocking automobile traffic from exiting the park to the east. We felt sorry for the line of cars behind that barrier as we drove away. Four hours later we were comfortably camped on the shores of Lake Mead, 200 miles away, the flood but a memory that will be with us forever.
Gregory S. Garceau lives in Hastings.