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Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

Berkeley, California
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Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

We are planning to camp two nights at Furnace Creek over Thanksgiving. Since there are children involved, we are thinking of making some stops along the way and getting a hotel in Mojave on the way there. Is there any thing to see in Mojave? Any other kid friendly stops along the way. There is a chance that we would take the 395 one direction if the snows come late this year. Any advice would be appreciated!

Thanks,

Renee

San Francisco
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for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
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1. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a busy visitor period, so as the time gets closer, consider making a reservation for the campground. Furnace Creek is FCFS during the summer, and reservable starting in mid-October on the Federal recreation website.

www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/camping.htm

I’ll give you some suggestions, but I could be more specific if I knew how old your kids are. Some of the places I’ll mention don’t have a lot of attractions for kids, but a lot depends on their ages and what they like to do.

As Thanksgiving gets closer, keep tabs on the Sierra weather conditions. By that time, it’s very possible that Sonora and Tioga will be closed and you’ll have to go up to Tahoe, which will add about 70 miles to your trip. If the weather trend is dry and you decide you want 395, take it on the way down, so you’ll be less likely to get caught in a storm on the way home when you are more pressed for time. There is lots to do on 395 and that’s worth a separate post. Also, many other TAs have talked about it, so there is no shortage of ideas, all the way from Topaz Lake and Meadowcliff to Mt. Whitney.

For now, I’ll talk about the San Joaquin Valley. Depending on what you do on the way, you could pick a number of overnight stops. Along the way, whether you take I-5 or 99, there are convenient things to see like the air museum in Atwater (a former Air Force base), Hanford’s historic Chinatown, Allensworth, and of course the urban enticements of Fresno and Bakersfield if you take 99. There are several state prisons in the San Joaquin Valley (including Corcoran and Avenal), so check whether you have any loved ones that you want to see because it may take some time to get visitor clearance, and the prisons may have age limits.

After Bakersfield, you can take either Hwy 58 (Tehachapi Pass) or Hwy 178 (Kern River Canyon); both are scenic and similar in mileage, but 58 is all freeway. On 58 about 20 miles east of Bakersfield is the Murray Family Farm, where visitors can go and buy stuff, pick their own, pet animals, etc. You’ll see a big red barn on the north side of the road. It isn’t as extensive as Casa de Fruta, but it might be a fun stop where the kids can stretch & play. Hwy 178 is slower and goes along the river and then Lake Isabella, an artificial lake made by the damming of the Kern River for flood control. This is a major water recreation area and has visitor services in several places. If you take 58, you will go to Mojave; if you take 178, you end up at 395 north of Mojave and the next major town is Ridgecrest.

If you must stop at Mojave because you’re sleepy, the kids are fussy, or everyone is famished, it’s an OK stopover. However, it is not very interesting. It has an interesting name—everyone is fascinated by the Mojave Desert and everything it represents; but the town itself is little more than a big wide spot in the road with a population of about 2,500 and motels, stores, gas stations, and other visitor services. Most of the motels are along Business 58, which is right next to the railroad tracks where freight trains go by at all hours. The one possible site of interest might be the aircraft graveyard, where planes are “mothballed” because the hot, dry climate discourages corrosion and mold. I know some TAs have visited it, but I have not; maybe someone will come here and talk about it.

If you don’t need to stop there, I have two other ideas. One is Ridgecrest, which is not the prettiest place but has more visitor services. If you need to stock up for camp, Ridgecrest is the place to do it. There is a major museum there, the Maturango, with exhibits about the DV area and the original inhabitants. I don’t know their hours, so it may or may not be open if you arrive late in the day. Ridgecrest doesn’t have a lot of parks or open space, so try to get a motel with a pool or some other place where the kids can hang out. The weather could still be warm enough for it in November.

The other suggestion (something that might appeal to the kids if they are a bit older and maybe have seen a few Western movies) is Randsburg. This is a late 19th-early 20th century gold mining settlement that still has some mining activity, and most of the town is preserved in its historic condition. The main street is like something straight from a Western movie, with wooden sidewalks, old buildings with historic signs, antique shops, an eatery or two. Mine frames, mills, and other structures and artifacts can be seen all over town and in the nearby hills. There are two historic hotels. For a family group, I’d suggest the Cottage Inn because it has cabins with kitchen as well as B&B rooms. I’ve stayed in the B&B section a couple of times, and it’s a nice place. The Cottage Inn has a restaurant that is open only by prior arrangement. If you’re interested in this place, ask in advance about their meal service or any other eateries in town, because they might have limited hours. Randsburg is 35 miles north of Mojave and 25 miles south of Ridgecrest on rural (paved) roads, so if you need to bring your own food, you’d have to plan ahead.

http://randsburgcottagehotel.com/

After Ridgecrest, the next town is Trona. Just before town is a great place called Trona Pinnacles, which consists of tufa spires similar in origin to the ones at Mono Lake. The difference is that Trona Pinnacles is entirely dry, because the ancient Searles Lake has dried up to such an extent. You can drive there on a dirt road (usually OK for regular vehicles except in wet weather; just look out for a few rutty spots on the roads). Camping is allowed there, and there are no amenities except one outhouse. But if the kids feel like exploring or have some energy to expend, this is a good place for it.

Berkeley, California
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2. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

Thanks so much for your suggestions! We are two families with kids ranging from 8-12. They have done the drive to Pasadena several times but I think more than that might be too much for one day. Randsburg sounds great. We love gold mining towns! About 10 years ago, my husband and I went on this journey and stopped at some hotsprings but I can't remember where they were. Any idea? I love the Trona idea too as we visited Mono Lake last year. I'm thinking Hwy 5 for speed...we may skip the tahoe route this time around. Thanks so much for the ideas!

San Francisco
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3. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

Hot springs on the route from Bakersfield to Death Valley? Hmmm.

There are hot springs in a few spots along 395, but those are farther north around Bishop, Mammoth, and Bridgeport. That whole area is very active geothermically and seismically. It's all part of the Long Valley Caldera, which some scientists consider a dormant mega-volcano with Krakatoa potential.

The little town of Tecopa Hot Springs, near Shoshone on the east side of DV, has mineral springs. A handful of motels and RV parks are built around them and have mineral soaking pools and such. There is also an Inyo County park with mineral baths. Tecopa is popular this time of year; some folks take RVs or trailers and stay for weeks to get away from the winter weather elsewhere (they are called snowbirds).

Farther north, just outside the eastern park boundary, is Beatty NV. At the north end of town is Bailey's Hot Springs, a privately owned RV and tent campground with mineral baths. It is right alongside U.S. 95.

Then there's Saline Valley, in the north end of Death Valley National Park. It's on dirt roads that often require 4wd, and they can be snowed in this time of year.

A less likely one is by Owens Lakebed, along Hwy 190 between Olancha and the 190-136 junction. Someone coming from Northern CA would probably not pass by there. It's called Dirty Socks Hot Springs, perhaps named by some prospector who thought the sulfurous aroma of the water was similar to what happened when he took off his boots. It used to be a popular spot, even had some facilities, but it deteriorated and I think the county got rid of the picnic tables and stuff. It's a bare, open spot with no shade or vegetation, so it wouldn't be that enjoyable to stay long.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Berkeley, California
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4. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

The hot springs were not very developed at all. It wasn't fancy in the least. It may have been Remington Hot Springs. Does that sound right?

San Francisco
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5. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

I'm not famiiar with Remington Hot Springs. I think it is in the Sequoia National Forest where there are several other hot springs areas, some with resorts built around them. But I don't know the place.

When you go to DV, be sure to allow time to enjoy the newly refurbished park visitor center. It was totally renovated over a period of about 18 months, and now has state of the art environmentally friendly utilities. In a place like Death Valley, solar energy is a no-brainer, but when the center was built in the 1960s, people didn't think that way. Now you'll see solar panels in the visitor parking lot, and there are others elsewhere; they are disguised as shade awnings over parking spaces. They will reduce the park's electricity bill by 80-90%! If you walk out the back of the visitor center, you'll see new shade canopies installed for visitor comfort, and a striking 3-dimensional mosaic of a waterfall (probably Darwin Falls) that was part of the renovation.

(BTW, Furnace Creek Ranch also uses solar; its facility is one of the biggest in the hospitality industry in the world. Visitors are welcome to go see it, at the edge of the golf course behind the FC fire station).

The visitor center exhibits are all new; they were being installed when I was last there in the summer, so I have not personally seen all of them in place. There is a 20-minute movie about Death Valley, narrated by Donald Sutherland, and if you enjoy it, you can buy a video. I have mine playing right now; I probably watch it or the National Geographic Death Valley special a couple times a week. The visitor center bookstore has scads of books, videos, maps, postcards, toy desert critters, and more.

Be sure to get the kids into the Junior Ranger program. The younger ones especially are the perfect age for it. It's one of my favorite things to do when I work at the park visitor center. Kids excited to be Junior Rangers today will be tomorrow's parents taking their own kids to Death Valley, advocates for parks, or rangers.

6. Re: Travelling to Death Valley from Bay Area for Thanksgiving

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