Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California


Sundown over the Panamint Range from Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

You Won't Need a Furnace at Furnace Creek in Death Valley


In November 2016, on my first trip to Death Valley National Park, I started with a sundown visit to Zabriskie Point. As darkness gathered on the floor of Death Valley, I located my campsite at the Furnace Creek Campground. The temperature felt warm, but after sunset, it no longer felt amazingly hot. With the doors and windows open on my coach, I was able to move indoors as the evening progressed.
 
Near Furnace Creek Campground, Death Valley National Park, a rare rain shower falls on the Amargosa Range - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The campground itself will look familiar to anyone who has camped in a National Park. You will recognize the layout as a series of loop-roads. Each loop has fifteen or twenty campsites. At Furnace Creek Campground, a recent change in management resulted in the repaving of all its roads and refurbishment of water and restroom facilities. The setting is ancient, yet the campground feels new again. Unobstructed views of both the Amargosa Range and the Panamint Range add drama to the scene.
 
Since the few full-hookup RV-sites were long since reserved, I settled for two nights of dry camping in a dry desert. Luckily, the water supply at Furnace Creek is sufficient for cooking and bathing. The first Anglos to visit Furnace Creek in 1849 barely found sufficient water to survive until their Prior to motor transit, the "Big Wheel" was used to drag large logs from distant mountains to Furnace Creek construction projects - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)rescue in 1850. By the early twentieth century, residents and tourists at the village of Furnace Creek could enjoy potable water piped to the town from artesian springs in the nearby Amargosa Range. Today, groundwater withdrawal and storage tanks support what looks like a thriving oasis, but is actually doomed to return to its dry state at a time uncertain. With such paltry rainfall in Death Valley, groundwater pumping is ultimately unsustainable. Except for rare seasonal flow, what once was a true oasis along Furnace Creek is now mostly a dry wash.

 
Although there is a wide range of tourist services at Furnace Creek, the 2010 U.S. Census pegged the fulltime population as only twenty-four hardy souls. Admittedly, most of the public and private facilities in Furnace Creek are air-conditioned, making life easier for heat-weary visitors and workers. One exception to that is the Native Americans known as the Timbisha Shoshone TribeAccording to Spokesmodel Carrie McCoy, the Death Valley Railroad never made it to Furnace Creek, although Locomotive DVRR2 still stands there at the Borax Museum - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com). As a federally recognized tribe, their small, private enclave adjacent to Furnace Creek appeared to be hot, dusty and dry. What few trees and shrubs that survive the harsh climate provide scant shade or relief from the sweeping winds. Recent data suggest that the Timbisha tribal population in Death Valley is around forty individuals.

 
During my November 2016 visit, there was not a trace of water on the vast salt pan, including the Upper Basin, Middle Basin and Badwater, which lays almost 280-feet below sea level. Furnace Creek, on the other hand, is only 190-feet below sea level. This difference in elevation means that in wet years, water will overflow the Upper Basin, pass through the Middle Basin and form a large, shallow lake at Badwater Basin. Salt, borax and alkali, which dries in Looking from Furnace Creek toward Stovepipe Wells in November 2016, the roadside was ravaged by flooding, but the Death Valley salt flats were dry - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the connecting channels suggests a short-lived, landlocked stream that may flow through Death Valley in the springtime. Upon my return in February 2017, all three basins contained surface water. By April 2017, almost all of the surface water had evaporated or settled into the graben, leaving the salt flats dry and susceptible to wind erosion and vandalism.

 
While visiting Furnace Creek in February 2017, water seemed to be everywhere. The dry lakes were wet. Furnace Creek flowed down its traditional course and water fell from the sky, in the form of rain. Upon arrival, the evidence of flood damage to roads and trails was evident. Orange traffic cones stood guard at many small washouts along Highway 190, leading to Furnace Creek. Nearby Artists Drive, a one-way formerly paved road through spectacular canyon scenery remained washed In February 2017, after an exceptionally rainy winter in Death Valley, crews were busy rebuilding parts of Artists Drive in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)out. After historic winter rains had swept that road away in many places, workers used heavy machinery to make repairs. During our February visit, only gentle showers passed through Furnace Creek. The showers cleared the air, leaving the scent of moist creosote in an otherwise desolate place.

 
Why was the winter of 2017 so wet in Death Valley? My personal observations may or may not be scientifically correct, but here is my theory. North of Furnace Creek the Panamint Range to the west and the Amargosa Range to the east form a sort of wind tunnel. Between Tin Mountain (8,953 ft. elev.) and Grapevine Peak (8,743 ft. elev.), a cyclonic effect can arise. If little moisture is available, a whirlwind or “dust devil” will rise and sweep toward Furnace Creek and Badwater to the south. If the counter-clockwise wind is strong enough, it can A dry "Dust Devil" rotates counter-clockwise near the Devil's Cornfield in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)pull moisture from the Eastern Sierra Nevada Range and feed it toward the salt flats of Death Valley.

 
Another contributing factor in rainfall is dust particles. In February, I watched a tall, thin strand of wind shear traveling along the course I already described. As it reached the Middle Basin, it had enough strength to kick up untold amounts of dust from the periphery of the standing water. Soon, we could see a large cloud of dust and rain forming against the eastern slopes of the Panamint Range. Upon our return to the campground, another shower swept from North to South. With the minimal moisture we experienced, only the rock strewn landscape hinted at floodwaters issuing forth from every canyon and wash in Death Valley. The recent winter rains must have been a dangerous, yet remarkable sight.

 
Looking from the Furnace Creek Inn toward Telescope Peak in February 2017, dust from a wind vortex lifted to create rainfall in Death Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By April 12, 2017, when I again visited Furnace Creek, it was hot and dusty. Again, I dry camped, but this time it was warmer, approaching 100 °F (37.8 °C). With the wind and sand looking to sandblast my truck, I decided to hunker down inside the trailer until the wind abated. Using my cordless vacuum to keep up with the dust in my coach was almost a full time job. If I had opened the door, it might have blown off its hinges, but would surely fill my coach with even more dust. With my afternoon spent inside a hot coach, I began to understand how the original pioneers of 1849 must have felt. Trying to allay both wind and dust, they had nothing more than brush lean-tos to protect them against the onslaught.
 
For me, temperatures above 100 °F (37.8 °C) are uncomfortable. In the heat of summer, many Norwegians visit Death Valley. Considering the cool air in In February 2017, a rare rainstorm clears at sunset, Furnace Creek, Death Valley California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)their home country, Norwegians come to Death Valley in the summer just to feel outdoor heat for the first time in their lives. Whether my Norwegian story is true or not, German, Dutch other Northern Europeans find Death Valley to their liking. No matter what time of year, it is common to hear people speaking various European languages in and around Death Valley National Park. Since older members of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe still speak their native language, you might have the rare opportunity to hear that language spoken at Furnace Creek, as well.