We’re finishing up a month’s stay in Pahrump, Nevada, about 50 miles west of Las Vegas. It’s a fast-growing town of over 35,000 with casinos, a Wal-Mart, and even a Home Depot, but its roots are in the history of its ranches - the Chicken Ranch, Sheri’s Ranch, and the Cherry Ranch. Pahrump is in Nye County where prostitution is legal, but the majority of visitors to the “ranches” are Las Vegas tourists (there’s a free limo service). These are not tawdry, back-alley businesses; they’re out in the open, advertise with billboards throughout town, and even have their own web sites where you can peruse the…ah….merchandise. They have a helpful “Frequently Asked Questions” section (Do you have midgets? Not at this time. Yikes!) The Chicken Ranch even invites tourists to take a tour, meet the “staff”, and shop for souvenirs. Although we didn’t take the tour, we drove past the ranches to see what they looked like. Surprisingly, they look like a combination upscale sports bar/motel, everything clean and spiffy! The Chicken Ranch even had a banner proclaiming “Voted #1 Nevada Brothel of the Year”. I’m going to assume the voting was by secret ballot.
Back to the normal……we never pass up a chance to visit a National Wildlife Refuge, and so off we went through the desert to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. It’s an amazing place – after driving through what looks like the surface of the moon for an hour, you suddenly come upon an area of trees, marsh, and incredibly clear ponds. This is a place where a large underground aquifer fuels a number of springs that make this the largest oasis in the Mojave Desert. Endangered Desert Pupfish inhabit a pond called Devil’s Hole, a water-filled cavern over 500 feet deep (the bottom has never been reached). Our first stop was the visitor center, an impressive facility with interesting and informative exhibits and staffed by (what else?) friendly volunteers. From there we headed out on the refuge roads with our first stop at Longstreet Spring and Cabin. Built in 1895 by rancher and miner Jack Longstreet, the restored cabin is next to a vibrant spring. How anyone managed to trek across the barren wasteland of the valley to find this place is a miracle – and why they would live here is beyond comprehension. But they did, and in the 60s and 70s much of the area was used for farming which almost destroyed the original springs. Fortunately, US Fish & Wildlife Service was able to acquire the land and restore it to a more natural state. Today there are literally miles of boardwalk that protect the fragile desert and that take you to springs, caverns, and marshlands. The amount of work that went into completing the facilities on this refuge is staggering – one of the best we’ve seen.
Being this close to Death Valley, we decided to take a day trip via a different route than we’ve traveled before. We have to say up front that we’re not particularly enamored with the area. While some areas are visually interesting, it’s a long dusty drive through desolate desert to get to someplace interesting. And after a while we get overwhelmingly bored by the different shades of tan, brown, and beige. We came into the park from the east, through Shoshone, traveled over Jubilee Pass, then followed the road north through the Armargosa Valley to Badwater Basin. Here, you can park and walk a mile in searing heat and sun through salt-encrusted desert to have a picture taken at the lowest point in the U.S. – 282’ below sea level. What fun! Even on this mid-April day with temperatures in the mid 90s, the parking lot was full and the trail was crowded with people. We decided that photoshopping ourselves into the sea level sign was less painful.
We detoured on the Artist’s Drive, a meandering road into the foothills that had some colorful and interesting rock formations. Then it was back to the main road for a quick stop for a snack at Furnace Creek before heading for the Dante’s View, and overlook over a mile above the valley. On the way to the viewpoint, we passed a large mine and in the distance could see a number of large buildings. Curious, I did some online research and found that it was the Ryan Mine, a long-closed mine with a fascinating history. You can read its story here and here. The 14-mile road into the mountains ends at the parking lot for Dante’s View, a beautiful overlook of the valley. We were right above the Badwater Basin parking lot and could clearly see the line of people stretching into the distance. It was late afternoon and and the sky was hazy, but even looking into the sun the view was majestic. But the sun was setting and it was a long trip back to the park, so we called it a day. Everyone should visit Death Valley, but be aware that it’s a long drive from anywhere, it will be hot even in early spring, and there will be crowds no matter what time of year. For us, this was the final visit.
We’re headed back to Oregon for a summer of volunteering for US Fish & Wildlife, so stop back and visit!