2017-02-28 11:02:05
Frugal Traveler: A Road Trip to Death Valley: Salt Flats, Chilly Nights and Kitsch

The desert, I learned, became very cold after dark. I already knew this (in theory, at least), but I wasn’t prepared for it to happen so quickly. The temperature in Death Valley National Park had plunged to a chilly 40 degrees from 75 seemingly instantaneously, and I was mentally kicking myself for not having brought a warmer sleeping bag.

I exited my tent to fetch another pair of socks to put on and was amazed by the star-filled sky, an endless sea of tiny pinpricks of light. And the silence. The yelp of a coyote somewhere on the salt flats, the sound of a fork against a metal plate from another camper, even the sound of a page turning when I was reading that night: The slightest noise was amplified tenfold in the deafening silence of the desert.

I had planned to make the classic coastal drive from Los Angeles to Big Sur, but falling rocks and mudslides had rendered parts of Highway 1 impassable. The upside of that situation is that I was forced to get creative: How best to spend a few days on the road exploring the vastness of the southern half of California, embracing its prodigiousness and quirkiness, all without spending too much money? I pieced it together over the course of three days and was able to check out, among other things, one of the nation’s most obscure and unexpected opera houses, a bizarre, deserted seaside resort town, and, of course, Death Valley, the lowest, driest and hottest place in the country.

First things first: transportation and provisions. I picked up a rental car from Hertz at about $30 a day. I recommend loading up your phone with music or books-on-tape before departure (Audible offers a free trial), as well as having satellite radio, especially if you’re planning to drive somewhere remote. Beyond that, you will just need the basics: If you’re camping, a tent and sleeping bag (I bought a good-quality one for $45 on Amazon) and, perhaps even more important, a sleeping pad. A flashlight is another must; I picked up a $15 headlamp from the drugstore on my way out.

The best road trip food is, unsurprisingly, food that travels well. Sandwiches, bottled drinks, granola bars — think hand-held and portable. I stocked up at Porto’s Bakery in Glendale, one of my favorite places in the Los Angeles area. The Cubano sandwich with ham, pork, Swiss cheese and pickles ($5.95) is a winner, as are the 98-cent potato balls, deep-fried bombs of seasoned beef covered in creamy potato. Another stop on your way out of Los Angeles is the Donut Man, a Glendora institution that has stood for over 40 years and serves the best doughnuts I have ever eaten. When they’re in season, the fresh fruit doughnuts ($4, overstuffed with peaches or strawberries) are not to be missed.

I covered Los Angeles to Pahrump, Nev., on Day 1 of my trip, fighting traffic heading east on Interstate 210 before cutting up on Interstate 15, as if I were heading to Las Vegas — the road trip most Angelenos are probably familiar with. When I hit Victorville, I exited at National Trails Highway, which is also a section of the “mother road,” old Route 66. After a little more than 10 miles on that two-lane highway, I happened upon Elmer’s Bottle Tree ranch, a fascinating art installation on the side of the road. The ranch is the creation of Elmer Long, who welded together a forest of metal “trees” and hung dozens of colorful glass bottles from each one. It’s a beautiful project that captures the desolation of the desert, Americana, and reflects on consumerism and waste. Visiting is free, though there is a tip box for donations.

With another 90 minutes of driving, I rolled into Baker, home to the world’s tallest thermometer (the perfect kitschy roadside attraction) before veering off the freeway to head up Death Valley Road. A couple of other worthy stops: The Mad Greek restaurant, colorfully decorated with faux-ancient Greek statues and columns (the gyro Greek salad, $14.99, while on the pricier side, is enormous as well as tasty), and across the street, the Country Store, which carries more varieties of candy and soda than any place I have ever been to. (Did you know there was a Castro-themed soda called “Havana Banana”? I didn’t, either). I recommend filling your gas tank in Baker — it’s much cheaper than in Death Valley.

After passing the Hollow Hills Wilderness area, I went miles without seeing a single car on Death Valley Road; the isolation of the desert became readily apparent. Miles of sand and dirt filled the landscape, scrappy desert plants and the Kingston and Avawatz mountain ranges rising out of the flatness. I carried on over the California-Nevada border into Pahrump, where I stayed in a cheap $61 room at a Holiday Inn Express before heading out the next morning.

After driving by Coffinwood, a macabre, coffin-themed property and custom coffin-making business (it’s private property but you can contact it directly for a tour), I headed toward Death Valley. I decided to attack the park from the south, entering on Highway 178 near Shoshone, as I knew I would probably camp more centrally and didn’t want to have to double back. The drive is lonely and beautiful: You get a sense of the valley as you head deeper into the park, cradled between the Amargosa mountain range on the east and the Panamint on the west. I passed Ashford Junction and stopped at Badwater, the lowest point in North America. Badwater is a popular area, and you will see other tourists there. Does it seem as if you’re standing 282 feet below the ocean’s surface? Not really, but a sign that reads “sea level” attached high on a nearby cliff grants some perspective. A wooden boardwalk leads across a flat landscape dotted with white patches; it almost looks like snow until you realize that it’s salt. Salt crystals are constantly forming on nearly 200 square miles of salt flats. Go walk around and spend some time in what truly feels like an alien landscape.

(You should pay for your park visit, too. Admission is $25, payable at automated stations throughout the park. There are numerous free campsites, but many of the larger sites with services like water and toilets require a fee. I stayed at the Texas Springs campground and paid $16.)

I made a hard right turn near the visitor center in Furnace Creek and passed Zabriskie Point, an overlook popular with visitors for its views of the valley and easy accessibility. I continued driving out toward Death Valley Junction, a tiny town in the middle of the Mojave Desert. “Tiny town” may even be overstating it — the population is less than 20. It’s the site, however, of the strange and wonderful Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. In 1967, a former New York City showgirl named Marta Becket turned the old adobe building into a place where she could perform whenever she wanted. The fact that audiences were small to nonexistent didn’t faze her — she hand-painted the entire audience on the walls. (Unfortunately, Ms. Becket died shortly after my visit.) There are performances and tours of the opera house ($5) as well as an attached hotel (rooms run $70 to $80).

After a chilly night in my campsite, I explored more of the park the next morning (check the Death Valley website for closings — heavy precipitation has damaged some roads), including Harmony Borax Works, an old borax plant, a colorful hike through Mustard Canyon, a visit to the ghost town Rhyolite and a walk on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a beautiful, rolling landscape of soft, sandy hills.

Then it was back on the road. I had planned to reach San Diego by nightfall, but I wanted to make another quick detour to a couple of Southern California’s unique sites. I high-tailed it out of the park through Panamint Valley, covering 300 long miles to the Salton Sea with just a couple of stops (for gas and for In-N-Out — the $3.75 Double-Double is the quintessential California fast-food experience). The Salton Sea is a huge saline lake near the Coachella Valley and was many decades ago a rollicking beach resort. Now, it’s drying up at an alarming rate and vistas look more “Mad Max” than French Riviera. Tilapia skeletons dot the crusty, salt-caked beaches.

My final stop was Salvation Mountain in Niland, the culmination of the life’s work of a Vermont native, Leonard Knight. His eye-popping, idiosyncratic monument to Christianity was created over decades of slowly amassing layers of sand, cement and paint. Mr. Knight eventually created a small mountain — literally — that continues to attract visitors after his death in 2014.

Images of the desert, the bottle tree farm, and Mr. Knight’s colorful monument stayed with me as I left Niland and drove toward the Mexican border, planning to loop around to San Diego. They seemed to embody what I love most about California: a vast loneliness that is both crushing and comforting, and speaks to the artist in all of us.