Sunday, August 15, 2010 : Calico, Death Valley


It is time to leave Los Angeles. After a last-minute purchase, we take the freeway to the east. Then it is the San Bernardino Mountains and the Mojave Desert. We are on Interstate 15, which we will repeatedly cross up to long after Salt Lake City. By the way, Route 66 passed here, before it became a freeway.


We refill at the entrance of Barstow, then we arrive at Calico, a ghost town in the middle of the desert.

Calico, main entrance

Calico Ghost Town


Compared to my first visit, the site has been expanded, upgraded, houses have been restored, and the legendary business acumen of Americans has thrived. About half of the buildings are historical, the other half being shops. And, not surprisingly, entry now comes with a fee.


Calico, population chart

This town obviously had better days


Calico is the site of old silver mines. There were plenty of them on the surrounding hills. Sometimes, they were no more than mere holes in the rock, totally unsecured (I let you imagine the staggering death rate of miners crushed under rock collapses), sometimes they were better equipped, with wooden supports, oil lamps for lighting and railroads to take out ore. When silver prices crashed, taking away all economic interest off mining, population simply left, and Calico almost died. Only the advent of borax (a boron crystal, used in making detergents) mining brought back some activity in the area, and of course so did tourism, starting from the 1980s.


Calico, fire station

And where the heck did they get water from ?


With all houses built with wood, a fire station was obviously mandatory. What the story does not tell, however, is were they got water from, in the middle of the desert.


We also visited the assay office, where the purity of ore was assessed, thus setting its commercial value. We also saw a restored hotel, the courthouse, a few houses and the general store. Calico is the Far West town as we can imagine it from western films.


Calico, tombstone with epitaph

A very relevant epitaph


And, as in any decent western, there are tombstones, with their epitaphs never short on humor. This one basically says that Harry Drinkwater (his real name ?) never did it, and was not buried, but, perhaps more appropriately, pickled. OK, let's have a drink on him.


We also ride the little train that circles the hill. We see the most dangerous mine tunnels, absolutely unsecured, and very logically kept off tourists' access.


Calico, hotel

One of the hotels at Calico


This more or less restored hotel is not open for public access. We visit another one, a bit lower on the hill, of a much better category since it even had a bath ! Here, the only open part of the house is the art gallery on the ground floor.


I also visit a reconstitued mine gallery, with representations of miners' lives. Some of them even slept there, to keep watch on their all-too-precious ore.


Calico, panoramic view

The town, seen from the top


Calico is on the side of a hill. From the top, the sight of the Mojave Desert is beautiful.


Speaking of deserts ... If you happen to go there, be sure to take a lot of water with you. You get dehydrated pretty fast, and you have to drink about twice as much as in the city. Of course, you can purchase water just about anywhere. When crossing deserts, we routinely had 1 - 1.5 gal. (4 - 6 l) of water with us.


Calico, miners' tools

Miners' tools


We also see that rusty junk, which is all that remains of the tools the miners used. Since the region is not short on wind, they even had windmills.


Calico, general store and sheriff's office

The general store and the sheriff's office


On the other side of the main street, we see the historical general store (there is a much larger, and much less historical one, working as a real store) and the sheriff's office. There is also a jail, with only one cell.


Then we have a picnic in the shade (heat is well above 100°F), and we hit the road again.


CA-127, between Baker and Death Valley

Between Baker and Death Valley


At Baker, we leave the Interstate and take an almost straight two-lane road, in excellent condition. The landscape is beautiful, with a lot of colored rocks, according to the metal oxydes they contain. We will see several mines along the way.


Going down to Death Valley

Going down into the Valley


We enter Death Valley National Park at Shoshone, the southernmost entrance. I modified our roadmap that morning in favor of the road at the bottom of the valley, which passes by many otherwise not accessible points of interest. After a 3,000 feet high pass, we drive down into the Valley. Contrary to other parks, there is no control at the entrance. The visitor center is much farther, toward the center of the park.


Death Valley is large, about the size of Connecticut. From the Shoshone entrance to Furnace Creek, it's about 70 miles, fortunately with many stops and photo opportunities along the way. I confess I had quite a hard time choosing pictures for this page.


Death Valley, Ashford Mill foundry

All that remains from the Asford Mill foundry


At the turn of the previous century, gold had been found in the Valley, and a workshop had been built, to extract metal from ore. I let you imagine the discomfort of working in a foundry in an already hot desert.


The so-called Death Valley gold rush only lasted a few years.


Death Valley, Ashford Mill, lizard

Even in this hostile environment, wildlife adapts


Still at Ashford Mill, a place not especially crowded by tourists, we see this small lizard. Although we are supposed to be in the middle of a desert, yes, there is life in Death Valley.


Death Valley, between Ashford Mill and Badwater

The lower road, between Ashford Mill and Badwater


We then hit the road again, with the heat getting close to 120°F (49°C), and a strong, hot wind. How the tarmac does not melt, I don't know, but the road is in pristine condition.


Death Valley, Badwater, salt water pond

A water pond in the salt lake at Badwater


We stop at Badwater, which the signs describe as the lowest point in the western hemisphere. As its name more or less indicates, it is a dry salt lake, about 210 sq. mi, with a few shallow pools of filthy water here and there, where small white worms can be seen. How a complete ecosystem can sustain itself in such a hostile environment is absolutely unexpected.


On the other side of the road, high on the mountain, a large sign shows the sea level. We are at -252 ft. My GPS has given up a while ago, it is not able to show negative "elevations".


Death Valley, Artists Drive

Artists Drive and its colored rocks


A bit later, we make a diversion onto Artists Drive, a narrow (and fortunately one-way) road, with many colored rocks on both sides. It is beautiful and, frankly, worth the extra miles, especially Artists Palette, shown on the  picture, with all its pastel shades.


Death Valley, Furnace Creek, sunset

Sunset at Furnace Creek


At last, we make it to Furnace Creek, at the center of the park, where all important resources are gathered : hotels, gas station, restaurants, visitor center, and even an airfield and a golf course !


It is one of the few parks where we will sleep, at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Fortunately, we booked (and paid !) more than 6 months ago. At the hotel pool, we surprisingly realize that the water is warmer than our body temperature. Then, after taking a picture of the sunset, we have dinner in a grilled meat restaurant.


It is still as warm when we go to bed.

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