#1 Winter Fitness Destination: Death Valley, CA (December 2013)

We usually spend 1-2 weeks at a time, once or twice a year, in Death Valley (DV) in our in-bed truck camper. We linger long in DV not because the fitness or sightseeing venues warrant so much time but because it is warm, dry, and peaceful. We let out a string of deep sighs when we are in DV because it feels so good to be there. Bright blue skies and dazzlingly starry nights in the winter are a treat for us. And with its many unusual geologic features, DV has more visual interest than many desert areas. It's been challenging for us to get enough intense exercise while in DV and here's how we have resolved our conflict between enjoying the weather and ambiance without it having much to offer us conditioning-wise.

Bringing up the sun above the Texas Springs campground.
Fitness Activities
We finally accepted that the high elevation gain, steep hiking we crave for our fitness isn't available in DV so we've made peace with DV being a cross training venue for stretching, scrambling, walking, and biking.

Stretching Venues
Stretching and targeted strength work, our "mat work," are key elements of our fitness program. Drawing largely from yoga, the time on the mat delivers the daily maintenance work that allows us to continue to push hard on the trails and on the bikes even in our 60's. It's where we prevent and treat injuries.

Death Valley is our premier venue for doing our 1-2 hours of pre-breakfast mat work because it's usually so pleasant to be outside at sunrise. Texas Springs is our favorite campground in part because we can haul our 8' x 8' Sand Free mat to the top of one of the dried mud mounds that surround the campground and do our exercises with a stunning 360 degree view. We go up at first light and watch the sun rise behind us, gradually illuminating the valley. It's mesmerizing to see the light change and fun to hear and see the campground wake up below us. The venue makes it easy to spend the extra time we should take to move beyond our usual maintenance routines and do the forgotten stretches that clean up neglected tissues. DV has become one of our big "tune-up" places for rebalancing our bodies by doing longer sessions on the mat.

Honing our scrambling skills where we can.
Stovepipe Wells is the other place we linger in DV and there we enjoy hook-ups in the 14-slot RV park. Beyond the row of RV's is a hollow in the grit and rocks that's been made by our Sand Free mat. Each visit we clear a few more rocks from beneath our mat. It's not nearly as idyllic as being at Texas Springs but the days spent at Texas Springs rekindle the habit of a long, leisurely stretching session that transfers to Stovepipe. Though lacking the elevated perch and detailed views we enjoy at Texas Springs, Stovepipe does give us a huge, expansive view of the desert and surrounding mountains which makes unwinding the body more inviting than a visually more enclosed spaces despite the cool temperatures.

If you aren't camping and want a pleasant outdoor stretching area, check out the huge lawn near the Furnace Creek Village swimming pool. If you are staying at the motel in Stovepipe Wells, you can easily access the barren land in front of the RV's that we use. Very public and unglamorous, but it works.

Death Valley is a top destination for scrambling up dryfalls in slot canyons. We aren't great scramblers--too much fear--but we do enjoy it. We are meticulous about being confident that we can get back down safely before we go all the way up a dryfall, so we are frequently blocked and turn around in defeat. But when we get blocked, we'll make a dozen or so trials in the safe zone to hone our skills. Sustaining injuries from a fall doesn't pencil out for our program--we always have enough little injuries as it is.

We highly value scrambling for cross training. It takes our strength and flexibility work and applies it in odd angles with unusual stresses. Scrambling takes our mat work out into the real world and integrates the body lessons in new ways. We both think that scrambling is particularly valuable for fending off the disabilities associated with aging because it is multi-planar to the extreme. And it definitely keeps Bill doing the drudge work of daily hamstring stretches because the pay-offs for good flexibility are huge in scrambling.

The downside of scrambling up dryfalls in DV is that it usually involves long, tedious trudges up rocky washes to get to the scrambles. The going is so slow that we don't get much in the way of CV work or distance, just tedious footwork. There are 4 exceptions: 1 slot canyon that is off of 20 Mule Team Canyon, 2 that are off of big dips in the road on Artist's Drive, and a series of falls at Mosaic Canyon described below. Unfortunately, we get blocked early on some of these, but we keep trying. Bill uses the 2007 edition of "Hiking Death Valley" by Michel Digonnet to find dryfalls on canyon walks for us.

The views of DV's varied geology are great on the way to Zabriskie Point.
..A Trail
In my mind, there is only 1 outing in DV that qualifies as a proper hike but it is lovely. (Most other 'hikes' in DV are low elevation gain meanders up rocky washes.) At only 5 miles round trip and about 1400' elevation gain, it's more of a relative rest day activity than a big workout, but hiking from Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point and back delivers stunning DV views. Not "WOW" class but "ahhh." We happily repeat this route for the views and the barefooting opportunities. It also has suitable surfaces for intervals of trail running. You can add a little distance by making a loop with Gower's Gulch but I prefer the out-and-back to adding more time in the bottom of yet another tedious wash.

..The Roads
During our 2013 visit to DV we abandoned our previous strategy of driving all over the park looking for good hikes and instead settled for walking on roads. One of our current training goals was to increase our walking speed on relatively flat terrain and walking on roads, not washes, supported that goal. The 20 Mule Team Canyon road was closed to traffic because of recent rains so its fine grit surface made a pleasant out-and-back walk with a side trip up a wash for a little scrambling. The trophy walk however was deciding to walk 9 mile long, one way only, Artist's Drive.

Our reward: lunch at the best vantage point on Artist's Palette.
We broke the Artist's Drive walk into 2 outings. The first day we parked at the entrance to Artist's Drive, but on the main road, to avoid doing the fuel-consuming drive on Artist's Drive itself for our return. We walked a little over 4 miles to Artist's Palette and discovered that the postcard view of it was in our line of sight, though off the road. When the road swooped down and to our left, we continued overland in a straight line. It only took a minute to figure out an easy route down and then up the deep wash separating us from the perfect view. If you go that way, odds are good that you'll find the pair of small rock piles we assembled for our picnic lunch seats. It's a stunning view of one of the park's top features. After lunch, we walked back to our rig on the road. This was 8.2 miles round trip including a little detouring for views and about 1400' gain.

On Day 2 we parked at the lower, exit end of Artist's Drive, again on the main road. It was hard to imagine that walking this direction (against the traffic) to Artist's Palette would be as grand as the first route but it was even better. We walked past the turn off for Artist's Palette and found our 'chairs' with the best view in the area for our lunch stop. Round trip, including extending to our picnic spot and walking on a few mounds within the official view point, gave us about 10 miles and 2000' gain. One could do the entire 9 miles in one day and walk back to their rig on the main road but the main road looked too, too boring for us and we were happy to have 2 grand walks from the popular tourist stop.

We will definitely do both of these walks on Artist's Drive again. Even on Thanksgiving weekend, the traffic was calm enough to feel safe on this narrow, one way road with no accommodation for pedestrians. Most motorist's were obeying the 25 mph speed limit, or driving slower, and we were quite visible most of the time. I chose to walk in the shoulder grit and Bill, who has more trouble with rocks in his footwear, was happy to be on the asphalt. The un-rocky surface meant we could pour it on when we chose to and could look up to admire the stunning views rather than stare at our feet. We've biked it, driven it, and now walked it and unquestionably the superior way to see the fabulous sights on Artist's Drive is to walk it.

Next time we are in DV, we'll walk all or part of the way to Dante's View from the trailer parking lot which is part way up the road.

..The Dunes
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a favorite place of ours to walk in DV. We spend hours barefooting there, putting on flips for 10-15 minutes to get out of and back into the Stovepipe Wells campground, and then going barefoot the remainder of the 30 minute walk to and from the dunes and on the dunes themselves. Sand dunes, especially barefoot, are superb cross training. The feet get a huge strength and mobility workout--one that can make the calves sing later that night and cause injuries in novice barefooters.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are great fun for fitness walking.
When at Mesquite Flat, we look for the highest dunes (100') and go up and down their steepest faces repeatedly, accumulating over 1000' in elevation gain while effectively doing intervals. The steep 'ups' in sand really pops the heart rate and walking on the sharp ridges and steep faces is excellent balance training. This challenging dune walking is also a nice pairing with our extra stretching while in DV. Our longer daily stretching session while in the park increases our range of motion in many places and the very challenging walking in sand forces the muscles to strengthen in our newly expanded bodies.

The dunes themselves are fascinating and are noteworthy for having both crescent and star shaped mounds. They captivate both our bare feet and our brains with the frequent and sudden changes in the temperature and texture of the sand and we could spend hours watching the varied flow patterns created by our steps and the latest wind storm. The addition of a "scat & tracks" guide also keeps the interest level up as we ponder the stories of the beetles, kit foxes, and coyotes from the vantage point of their leavings.

..Another Canyon
Mosaic Canyon, almost straight up the road into the hills from Stovepipe Wells, is another geologically interesting walk. Unless it's recently graded, it is a very rough, dusty road to the trail head so we usually walk the 2.5 miles from the campground rather than drive. Walking to the trail head from the campground adds about 1000' of elevation gain and doubles the gain we accumulate from this hike. Picking our way through the rocky wash takes about an hour each way. The upper reaches of Mosaic Canyon have a series of fun dryfalls, many with alternate paths around the falls. One of the last ones we do is fine for us to go up but we happily take the side trail on the way down--which is a rare opportunity in DV. We turn around at the impressive, near-vertical 25' dryfall though there is a bypass trail. Our hiking book mentioned above describes where to look for the trails if you miss the cairns.

We did 1 week cyclotours in DV twice in the late 1990's in preparation for our overseas touring but now we only do day rides in the park. We usually only do 1 route, which is from Stovepipe Wells campground to the junction with Emigrant Canyon Road and the Wildrose turnoff at Emigrant campground and back. The route accumulates a little over 2000' in gain in the 9 miles to the little rest area with a stone building on each side of the road. You can of course bike all the way to Towne Pass at almost 5,000' or turnaround anywhere in between. The descent is chilly even on a warm day. Traffic is heavier in other parts of the park, so we don't bother riding elsewhere. But wickedly steep grades are to be had on Artist's Drive and to Dante's View if you really want a workout or you could go beyond Emigrant on the road we do.

There are 3 motels available within the park, 2 are at Furnace Creek and 1 is at Stovepipe Wells.

Furnace Creek Area
The Furnace Creek area is our favorite area in DV, in part because it is close to the best sightseeing, like on Artist's Drive and up Golden Canyon. Texas Springs primitive campground is our favorite campground in the park because of the ambiance. We select an end campsite at the high end of the campground for the views of the mud mounds. Flush toilets; tote-able, potable water; picnic tables; fire pits; and a dump station are the limit of the amenities. No generators are allowed.

Sunset Campground down the hill from Texas Springs is where the big rigs congregate in a gravel parking lot because generators are allowed. There is also a small, privately owned but recently enlarged RV park with full hook-ups in the cramped employee residential area at Furnace Creek Village itself. The ambiance isn't as nice as at Texas Springs but the hook-ups are a plus. The price of an RV slot there buys you a pass to use the pool and showers on the grounds. There is an inexpensive public laundry right in the RV park, which we do use. The park service's Furnace Creek campground near the village and visitors center has some hook-ups. We no longer bother looking for a site there because the hook-up sites there are usually booked far in advance and we prefer the sloped setting of Texas Springs to being in the bottom of the valley like with these other options.

Stovepipe Wells Area
We step-up at Stovepipe Wells and pay for hook-ups in the 14 slot private park. Guests at the RV park have access to the tiny pool and shower house of the motel. Fresh towels come with the pool pass. There is slow and intermittently available wifi open to all guests near the motel office. Reservations for the RV park are advisable because groups occasionally congregate there. A National Park Service (NPS) campground is adjacent to the RV park and little store. The 2 campgrounds are easy departure points for Mosaic Canyon, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the bike ride to Emigrant.

The Ubehebe Crater area looks like nothing else in Death Valley.
Mesquite Spring Area
The NPS campground at Mesquite Spring has running water but is quite isolated. At the north end of the park, it is a good location for visiting the dramatic Ubehebe Crater and for driving Titus Canyon if you have a small, rugged off-road vehicle.

Other Considerations
We usually approach Death Valley from Pahrump, NV where we refuel, restock the pantry, and get caught-up on our internet chores. If we stay for more than 10 days in DV, we usually plan a day in Pahrump to redo all of those activities. We've also entered the park from Beatty but do NOT plan on a serious resupply stop at Beatty. There is single, off-brand gas station and a very meager market.

Free potable water and dump stations are readily available in DV for RV's but everything else is scarce and expensive. Furnace Creek has the most resources; Stovepipe Wells has only regular gas, no propane, and scant groceries. Verizon service includes voice and data in the greater Furnace Creek area; there is no cell phone service as of late 2013 in Stovepipe Wells or any where else in DV.

There are a number of venues that we never make it to in DV because we lack the proper "wheels." Our long bed truck with 4WD and an off-road package is miserable on the choppy dirt roads. People tow their little off-road rigs into DV to access a number of trail heads and sights we can't get to. (We did however drive Titus Canyon only to learn later that long bed trucks aren't recommended on the road, to which we whole-heartedly agree.)

Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails in DV except for the "urban" walks.

There are small airstrips at both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.

Check for road closures before heading into DV; there is always a road closure somewhere in the park.

Ranger talks can be a good introduction to what's special in Death Valley.

And of course, check the weather forecast before you go.