Day 2: Furnace Creek to Mesquite Springs Campground (north of Furnace Creek)
Location: Death Valley National Park
Points of Interest: Harmony Borax Works Museum, Salt Creek, Ubehebe Crater
Campground: Mesquite Springs Campground
Hike: Salt Creek boardwalk (0.8 mile loop trail on boardwalk)
After putting a cap on how many pictures of this roadrunner my daughter could take at the campground (one million, that’s it!!), we packed up and headed north in the direction of Mesquite Springs campground, a first-come, first serve 30-site campground about an hour north of where we were at Furnace Creek Campground. Not knowing what it was going to be like up there, especially after hearing about all the campers that had to be evacuated from Mesquite Springs during the October storm (2015), we made tentative plans. If we liked it we would stay and if we didn’t, we had a second night reserved at the Furnace Creek campground anway.
First stop, just north of the campground was Harmony Borax Works museum which is an open air museum that explained the borax processing operation that took place here. It takes you on a self-guided tour of a borax plant built in 1883, a display of a double wagon which was pulled by the famous 20-mule team, and points out structures left from the town that existed during that era. This museum was perfect for my daughter who enjoyed reading the information boards and just absorbed it all in. Cool, she actually learned something.
Only about 5 minutes further north, we came upon the Salt Creek sign. Oh man, another gravel road! We debated for a bit, but decided to go since this road was much shorter (than the road to Mosaic Canyon) and we were going to go REALLY slow. Besides, we couldn’t miss the pupfish! Salt Creek is named exactly for what it is, a creek that has high salinity. It is home to the Salt Creek pupfish which are only found in Death Valley and nowhere else in the world. How can you pass that up? There is a 1-mile loop trail on a boardwalk that takes you around this area and allows you to see the pupfish up close. Or so they described… because we did not see a single one. Ok, so I didn’t read the part about pupfish being the most visible in Spring until we were leaving, but maybe we could have seen just one pupfish. Wasn’t there one naughty pupfish that didn’t want to listen to their mom and swim up to the surface? Nope. It was a beautiful hike though and it was exciting to see sparkling, crystal clear water in the desert.
So, this next part is for other campervanners- don’t freak out if your check engine light comes on during the drive on the gravel road. And then don’t sit in the parking lot thinking of worst case scenarios, one worse than the other. If if doesn’t have an error message next to it, it was probably due to all the jiggling (or so we assumed after reading the Sprinter manual) and the check engine light will disappear. It did disappear, thank goodness! Seriously, that was a bit scary, car trouble in Death Valley is no laughing matter.
The drive north from Salt Creek to Mesquite Springs Campground was about an hour (this park is BIG!), we still had to decide if we wanted to stay there that night. We turned onto and drove down the Mesquite Springs campground road before entering the campground through a grove of, you guessed it, mesquite trees. Before we even started on the campground loop, we were certain that we wanted to camp here. It was that amazing! Two other sites were occupied (a few more campers came much later in the evening), so it felt like we had the place to ourselves, but we weren’t completely isolated. Also the ranger station was within a 5 min drive and we actually saw the ranger make his rounds the next morning.
It took us much longer to decide on a site, there were so many good ones. In the end we chose #11, which was a site on the outer edge of the campground, but really any site would have been great.
The view from the side window when parked in site #11.Quickly, we paid for and reserved our site through a self-registration machine by the front entrance and headed up to Ubehebe Crater. It was a quick 25 minute drive up to the Ubehebe crater, where we parked in the parking area immediately in front of the crater. Ubehebe Crater is this large volcanic crater 600 ft deep and 1/2 mile across. When you first walk up to it and peer over the edge, it’s a sight to behold! Not only the sheer size, but the beautiful colors and layers of earth that are visible just take your breath away. It’s something you have to see for yourself.
One con about traveling in December is that it gets dark too fast. We’re always having a hard time fitting everything into the day. Or maybe it’s just a pro that Death Valley has so many cool things to see. Either way, we had planned on and really wanted to hike the Ubehebe Crater rim trail (1 1/2 mile loop), but we wanted to also have some time at the campground before it got dark, so we compromised and walked up to see the first of the little craters. Upon reaching the top, if we had any inkling of wanting to continue to do the rim trail, they were utterly and completely gone. The strong wind, biting cold and soft ground made the trek uphill, so much harder than it looked. This rim trail would take a lot longer than expected.
Back to the campground (darn you 4:30 sunset!)…there was one other family there when we returned to the campground and their little boy promptly came over and checked out what we were up to. I smiled and waved at him and he smiled back shyly and sprinted back to his campsite. As we were setting up the campsite, he came back and asked my junior high daughter if she had any kids. That question just blew her away. She just stood there, not able to reply. “What?” “What?” So, hubby told the little boy, “sorry no other kids here” and the boy slumped his little shoulders and walked back to his campsite again. He just wanted someone to play with, so cute.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the clear night sky with the almost full moon, as evidenced by me walking into the picnic table (twice). At night the moon lit up the whole campground, so we could see far into the distance without any kind of artificial light. The moonlight covered everything in a soft glow, like nature’s Christmas lights, it was a peaceful and quiet kind of beautiful.
The winds did pick up that night, not as bad as Red Rock Canyon, thank goodness. I called sleeping on the gaucho downstairs. Dibs! Hubby and I can fit on the gaucho bed, it’s a little “cozy,” but that night he wanted to try out sleeping in the penthouse top. He wanted to see how the wind affected it. We reparked the campervan so that the front faced the wind and this worked out great. The wind only hit the front of the penthouse top (away from the back where the bed was), so there was good sleep to be had by everyone.
If you’re interested, check out part 3 here (Furnace Creek Inn, Mesquite Sand Dunes)