PhotoWebLab is an exploration in ways of presenting, combining and interacting with Photographic and VR images.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Laguna Beach to Las Vegas via Death Valley National Park

Part 1 - Into the Purple Valley – you can check out any time you like... ( Purple links lead to full screen views, mostly 360 spherical panoramas, clicking on the word GigaPan in the images below leads to full screen views )

On Christmas day 2011 we flew into John Wayne Airport, Orange County, California, collected a rental car, and drove to visit family in Laguna Beach. Three days later we set off on our desert road trip in our maroon Accent, the color was at least a similar hue to that of the ‘Great Red Shark’ in which Raoul Duke and his' Samoan' attorney drove on their infamous journey. For us the exhilaration of driving through the haunting desert scenery was to be enough. We were heading for the same destination of Las Vegas, but taking a couple of days detour to visit Death Valley National Park. We drove north skirting LA and turning northwest somewhere around Barstow. We turned onto 395 and then drove 150 miles, through the Mojave Desert (passing near Don Van Vliet's teenage home) and on to Lone Pine, where we spent a night at a Comfort Inn. The next morning we rose to see the sunrise from our balcony, bathing Mount Whitney in glorious amber light. Mount Whitney is the highest point in the USA at 14,494 ft. and we were heading for the lowest point called Badwater Basin at 282 ft. below sea level.

We set off early passing Owen’s Lake, a huge dried up Salt Lake on the other side of which is a plant where Crystal Geyser water is extracted and bottled. As we would realize later water is the hidden actor in the desert. Here it left the salt flats as a result of ages of rain leaching minerals from the surrounding mountains. Yet still it was being pumped from deep within the ground and trucked hundreds or even thousands of miles for sale!

We drove over the mountains entering Death Valley National Park to reach Father Crowley Vista, where we walked down a dirt track to discover the spectacular Panamint Valley and Range, spread out before us. 'Into the Purple Valley' (as Ry Cooder titled his seminal album) I thought, as we descended into the Panamint Valley by way of a long winding road that passed through what seemed like an encampment out of 'Mad Max' called Panamint Springs.

We crossed the valley floor and then climbed the Panamint Range to reach the Towne Pass at around 4956 ft. and then began the long straight decent into Death Valley dropping to 4000 then 3000, 2000, 1000 feet without turning until we reached Stove Pipe Wells a few hundred feet above sea level. Stopping briefly to ask about the opening time for lunch at the local watering hole, we drove a couple of miles further to the Mesquite Sand Dunes and clambered about on the dunes that almost felt like being in the Sahara.

We then backtracked to the Stovepipe Wells Saloon for lunch and then drove on as the road descended to ‘Sea Level’ until we pulled off on a dirt track for a mile so to find Salt Creek, to see if we could get a sighting of the rare pupfish. Salt Creek as the name suggests is salty stream that bubbles along the desert floor, winding past gullied rock formations and outcrops. Standing looking into the water we suddenly notice the quiet of the desert, not a sound could be heard, no distant rumble of traffic, no wildlife, no one else, not a sound  –  a strange feeling  in a world where true silence is a rarity, like water in the desert. Still, there were no pupfish to be seen, and then a crop of fellow travelers appeared further down the creek and the sound of feet on the boardwalk returned.
Further down the road we stopped at Harmony Borax Works, site of a short lived mining operation from 1883 from where teams of twenty mules had hauled Borax 165 miles through the desert to some distant railhead.  A couple of miles down the road we reached the oasis called Furnace Creek and checked into the Furnace Creek Ranch, a 220 room resort/motel where we were to spend the night. Dropping off our bags we got back into the car and sped five miles up the road to reach Zabriskie Point just as the sun was beginning to set. Unfortunately there was a lot of cloud which dulled the effect at first but the sun broke through at times illuminating the peaks, as we took many photos and a panorama or two.

Getting back in the car we drove back towards the ranch, only to find that within minutes perhaps the most spectacular sunset I had seen in many if any a year began to unfold. We leap out of the car close the Furnace Creek Inn, an up market resort hotel that could be the one immortalized on the Eagle’s Hotel California album cover, taking one last panorama of the Sunset over the Panamint Mountains.

Part 2 - Water in Las Vegas – and not a drop to drink…
In the desert water is like gold dust, rare and bound up with minerals. In Las Vegas water is a sign of opulence, and the largest, most extravagant and expensive Hotel/Casinos have it in spades. We had arrived in 'Vegas' the night before New Year’s Eve, following our second day in Death Valley National Park.  Earlier, that morning we rose at sunrise, to be sure to have enough time to cover as much of the park as we could that day. We asked a ranger in the visitor’s center about driving times for our route and the set off for Dante’s View, a 26 miles accent from the Ranch, from 178 ft. below sea level to 5475 ft. above. Speeding past Zabriskie Point and Twenty Mule Team Canyon which we had decided we did not have time to visit, we found the turning to Dante’s View and the last 13 mile ascent that ended with a very steep winding climb to the viewing point. The vitamins (D, B2 and B12) were kicking in as we walked down to the tip of the Dante’s View to see Death Valley spread out far below, with the salt flat at Badwater Basin looking like a giant skating rink white and glistening in the sun, and a few miles across the valley the giant Telescope Peak at 11,049 ft. amid the Panamint Range.

Back in the car we set off back down the winding road, heading for the valley floor and our next stop at Golden Canyon, sculpted by eons of flash floods racing down the canyon, revealing geological history and fascinating combinations of rocks and colors including the red cathedral cliffs and a path though the badlands to Zabriskie Point.

Artist’s Drive is a nine mile loop via the Artists Pallete, a crazy roller coaster ride through volcanic scenery displaying the colors of the rainbow.

Almost as soon as we left that behind, there was a turning down another dusty track out towards the Devil’s Golf Course on the edge of the great salt flats, this strange terrain made up of countless salt spires is what remains of a lake that evaporated 2000 years ago.

And then finally we reached Badwater Basin where we were able to walk out hundreds of yards on to the salt flats we had peered down on from a mile above on Dante’s View just a few hours earlier. Here we had reached the lowest point in the USA, at 282 feet below sea level.

It was time to hit the road as we wanted to arrive in Vegas before sunset.  We drove along the remaining 25 or so miles of the valley floor gradually climbing to sea level and then the road veered left and began to climb more noticeably.  First though the Black Mountains to the Jubilee Pass at 1290 ft. The scenery was again spectacular with every mile and every turn revealing strangely formed and colored geology. We stopped briefly to take some pictures them sped on passing two Coyotes just hanging out by the side of the road, probably awaiting some unsuspecting traveler to stop! Then up again to Salsberry Pass at 3315 ft. and the across the Greenwater Range we finally reached the park exit sign although we drove many more miles without any noticeable signs of life until finally arrived in the small settlement of Shoshone, the first signs of civilization, other than the occasional car on the road, since we left Furnace Creek at around 8am that morning, it was now approaching 4pm. After a brief rest stop we continued on crossing into Nevada and reaching the sprawling desert town of Pahrump were we stopped for gas, and then turned onto the road for Las Vegas. Huge road side signs and billboards confronted us with local exhortations to buy everything from Ice Cream, Psychics and Casinos to Jesus. Obviously billboard space is cheap in the Nevada or at least until the Pahrump city line where thankfully they ceased.

One last long climb to the pass at Mountain Springs and then we began the long straight decent toward Las Vegas, similar to the descent into Stovepipe wells a day earlier except this time the sun had just set and we could see the city lights in the distance ahead. We navigated the sharp right turn on to I-15 with some uncertainty as to whether the GPS was correct but thankfully arrived, without too much difficulty, at our destination The Gold Coast Casino/Hotel.

If you’ve only seen Vegas in the movies, the first time you see it for real is eye opener. After walking through acres of slot machines to find the elevator to our room, we decided to take things one step at a time and grab some food in the hotel rather than start walking around town in search of a restaurant. The Ping Pang Pong served authentic Chinese food which was attested to by the mostly Asian clientele. After dinner we boarded the free shuttle bus service for the 1.5 mile ride to ‘The Strip’ in the main downtown area also known as ‘Paradise’, where the biggest, brashest and most famous Casino/Hotels have created a kind of Adult ‘Disneyland’. The bus dropped us outside of Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon at the junction of Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard. We then walked north on the Boulevard passing the Flamingo, Imperial Palace, Harrahs and Casino Royal to get to the Venetian.

This side of the street was very crowded and every few yards someone would try to thrust a card into your hand which contained photos and phone numbers of Girls, Girls, Girls. There was even a vehicle sporting a mobile billboard offering more of the same just in case you refused to read the cards on offer. This side of the street was more like Time Square where the buildings are close to the pavement with the sights and sounds of this ‘three ringed circus’, speakers blasting and people spilling in and out of the casinos like they were fast food outlets.

Our goal was to get to the Venetian as we had been told that it was a sight to see. We eventually managed to navigate all the afore mentioned obstacles to be confronted with a condensed view of Venice with the Rialto Bridge, and elements of the Piazza San Marco like the Campanile and the Piazzetta façade all squashed together with the Grand Canal sweeping between them and in under the facade with gondolas passing through.

As it was between Christmas and New Year, there were green laser illuminated seasonal motifs displayed on the Campanile and music blasting at fantastic volume from speakers on the Rialto Bridge. Then a strange white bird like figure high on the bridge began singing or was it rapping to the pumping beats. We decided to take a closer look and boarded the escalator that took us in to the bridge and as we passed over the middle the performance hit full gear with more white/crystal dancers gyrating on the parapets of the Rialto Bridge for the audience in the street below.

Beyond the Venetian is the Palazzo the tallest building in town, but we decided to cross the boulevard on an elevated walk way to the other side with Treasure Island to our right the Mirage on the left.

We walked along the frontage of the Mirage which is separated from the public street by a long ornamental lake. A crowd was gathering in front of the railings along the lake and when asked what was happening we were told that on the hour there was a display with fire and lights, a sort of Las Vegas Son et Lumiere. As it was close to 10pm we waited for the show, which began with the amplified sound of crickets and the jungle and moody lighting and then exploded into sound and fire emitting first from a rock like island structure, a kind of miniature volcano and then all across the lake fire burst out of jets in the lake itself and the island erupted into fire and multicolored lights. This re-creation of some volcanic fantasy continued for about five minutes and then subsided and the crowd dissolved.

Next is Ceasar’s Palace which is a huge complex of buildings recreating scenes from Rome, including the Colosseum,  a 4296 seat auditorium, the Forum shopping complex and 3,960 hotel rooms and a convention facility of over 300,000 sq. ft.  There are also several pools and fountains including a re-creation of the Trevi Fountain.  

It’s hard to believe Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert with so much water around. The height of this aquatic ostentation must be the Bellagio, another giant Casino/Hotel with a huge lake in front from which giant fountains  gush on the hour.  After two hours of shelping around  the Strip we felt the need for refreshment only to find that a bottle of water cost the earth!  And like water in the desert, the next morning we were gone, turning in the maroon Accent and flying back home.

No comments:

Post a Comment