Mojave Desert to See The Stars

It’s been a while since my partner took out the telescope and helped me see some celestial places up close. This weekend the moon was a late-rising crescent and the forecast called for clear skies and no wind so a last minute trip was floated this week and Saturday morning we headed out. No waking up early, just a leisurely drive to the desert, a northwestern part of the Mojave just west of Death Valley, where I knew it was remote (few people) and high elevation (5,500 feet) and open views for all but the lowest horizons.

I figured we’d break up the long summer day by stopping at a few places along the way I’d “discovered” in my exploration off the familiar roads these past couple years. First we had to get out of SoCal, fairly easy and event free (normal traffic stressors) and onto my beloved 395, gateway to the eastern Sierra Nevada. A few breaks here and there, it was nice late morning car ride – except the temperatures were climbing!

Veering north at Red Mountain, we eventually made it to Trona Pinnacles – remnant tufa towers from when the place was underwater ages ago. We mostly drove, getting out of the car into an oppressive 104F only to read a few signs, for a bathroom break, and to get close to one tufa to examine the interesting geology. I like the views from here, too, rolling mountains all around the Searles Lake basin – a big flat area.

Trona Pinnacles tufa spires as we drive around.
Trona Pinnacles tufa spires landscape view.

We continued north, over a lovely pass providing excellent views of Panamint Valley before descending into it and visited the Ballarat “ghost town” where my guy got to see one of the wild burros walking around in the now 116F heat (why? I figured they’d all be up higher in the nearby mountains already). We did not exit the car because I thought I’d die in temps this high so I only drove close to building remnants and we read signs from the car. The Panamint Mountains to the east, which break off the valley we were in from Death Valley proper, are very eye catching with bands of color. There are great mountains to summit in there: Telescope and Wildrose – this last I have done (in winter and in some snow) and it’s absolutely stunning atop its wide top with excellent views.

The southwest Death Valley National Park sign along Panamint Valley Road with bands of color visible on the Panamint Mountains behind.
View from Father Crowley Overlook back down at Panamint Valley and the winding road that we just drove up.

We pass a park sign and turned left, west, onto the 190 away from Death Valley proper and gain elevation, happy to watch the temperature drop below 100F. A break at Father Crowley Overlook into the canyon where top gun pilots train at low elevation in the tight space and more valley and mountain views – plus a lot of sign reading and a bathroom break, of course. We continued our drive west and past another Death Valley National Park sign before reaching my goal: a flat, if very bumpy, dirt road into Saline Valley – specifically Lee Flat. We found a turnout, parked out of the way, set up camp, and waited for the sun to set (hours away still). It was 91F, mostly calm, with vague clouds, just as the forecast predicted.

There are so many joshua trees here – the cover the high desert (5,500′ elevation) and all the surrounding mountains – they do not seem to end and some are giant.
Car, tent, telescope, sunset: not one other car or person at all the entire time.

My partner set up the telescope as the sun set the small storm cloud we were pondering to the west didn’t move but just dissipated. A few coyotes howled. Some squeaks were heard. There were signs of wild burro. Maybe a small bird flew. Then nothing – except for a few small insects, it was utterly silent and we were alone in this place. Nap time! Around 11pm my car made weird noises so I had to get up to start it and “fix” it, whatever “it” was. It was time to wake up anyhow: the stars were OUT!

The Milky Way was so bright and streaked over head, west to east and curving a bit south. It was awe-inspiring. My astronomer queued up Saturn with clear rings and rain shade. Magical! Then the Andromeda galaxy. Neat! Some nebular. Baby stars! Jupiter finally rose, very bright, and we looked at some of its moons. Cool! It was now in the high 60sF and I was kinda chilly. We didn’t bring warm clothes or much of anything for a single night. I kept returning to the tent and a light bag between viewings. Anyhow, it was rad and I fell asleep dreaming of Saturn’s rings.

A couple of bird tweets as the sun light started but not yet over the mountains woke me early (also, natured called strongly) so we quickly packed up before it was hot. When the light was direct the temps rose quickly. A long, bumpy ride out was broken only by a quick detour to Boxcar Cabin, weird place (as most desert “stuff” seems to me to be). We noticed some small birds that landed atop the spines on a joshua tree and worried about running over some sizable lizards. Eventually we were on the paved 190 again, who-hoo, and continued west.

Morning sun at Lee Flat with brush and joshua trees casting long shadows.
Boxcar Cabin

Two more stops I wanted to share with my man. One was the U2 album plant, “THE Joshua Tree” which is dead and covered with noted of love. I think you actually get emotional in places these even if I don’t really care about the band too much because all the fans that did visit seem to imprint the strong emotions there. Also, the views from away, instead of right underneath, of the southeastern Sierra Nevada are lovely. A different perspective is always welcome.

Note of “One Love” in rocks
Plaque asking “Have you found what you are looking for?”
The now dead tree with the Sierra Nevada west across the sandy place.

The second stop was a quick one: Dirty Socks Springs. It’s a couple pools of vaguely warm water (about 90F) lightly bubbling and smelling of sulfur – which was not bad this day, on a prior visit it was rather awful. I guess some people get into the dark, algae covered water, but not us! Used to be some sort of organized park but now in a bit of ruin. Well, that’s it then, time to get back onto the 395 and drive a few hours to get home. We made it alive, no thanks to a lot of poor drivers. Put gear away, rest, eat, muck about, shower, home stuff!

Dirty Socks Sprints views.
Dirty Socks Spring bubbles a bit with the Sierra Nevada to the west.

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