USA – Vegas Loop

Glitz and glamour in Las Vegas. Rich in contrast Death Valley, driving pleasure, hot springs, colorful stones and Mojave desert in full bloom.

10 March – 9 April 2020

Viva Las Vegas!

Las Vegas changed a lot since the last time we were here. The suburbs have grown tremendously and some casinos have been replaced by others. However, that certain something has remained. For the next three nights we stayed at the New York New York Casino & Resort. We take a look at the casinos on the Strip, the High Roller observation wheel, which is located in a nicely designed neighborhood and let the special atmosphere work on us. Of course, the water fountains in front of the Bellagio must not be missed.

Downtown Las Vegas should also be visited. Before the giant hotels on Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, were built, Fremont Street in Downtown was the entertainment center of the gambling town. Fremont is also home to the famous neon cowboy you’ve probably seen on TV. His name is Vegas Vic. His companion Vegas Vickie hangs not far from him above the Girls of Glitter Gulch Strip Club (and since late October 2020 in the lobby of the new Circa Resort & Casino; Editor’s note). In Fremont, there is a laser show (the Fremont Street Experience) that is projected onto the canopy of the pedestrian zone. Unlike the Strip, there’s a lot more going on here. There is live music and live artists, which is sadly lacking on the Strip. Since we walked the 5 km there, we take a taxi for the way back. Is safer in the middle of the night…

There are countless things to do in Las Vegas aside from gambling. For the most part, these things are also quite costly, which is not always compatible with the budget. However, there are also things that are either free or extremely reduced, you just have to be a little flexible. So we participate in a review for a sitcom. Funny experience… We also visit the MOB Museum. It shows the story of the rise and fall of the mafia in the USA. The various exhibitions are super made and very informative. The museum is located in downtown Las Vegas.

Fabian once rented out motorhomes in the USA. His former boss, Kurt, still lives in Las Vegas and of course we visit him. We go out for dinner together, exchange memories and experiences, talk about our trip and have a nice evening.

What should not be missing on a visit to Las Vegas is a photo of the famous Fabulous Las Vegas sign. Wow, somehow you never had to queue here before… but today you do. In return, a professional photographer offers his services for a small donation and takes photos with your own camera. It was really worth it, the photos turned out great!

Valley of Fire

Since we are still waiting for parts for our camper from Europe that have not yet arrived, we explore the area around Las Vegas.

The Valley of Fire is just outside Las Vegas. When we get close to the state park bearing the same name, we see why the area is called Valley of Fire. The rocks glow in deep red, as if they were on fire. This is because of the red Aztec sandstone.

If possible, we would like to spend the night in the park. When we arrive at the first campsite we already see the sign that all places are occupied. Nevertheless, we drive through the campsite, as it has been buit between the rocks. Even if we can’t spend the night there, we still see some of the rock formations. We are amazed when we also see desert bighorn sheep grazing in the bushes between the rocks. Beautiful animals with massive horns that turn backwards over the ears, then downwards and forwards (at least those of the males). We spend the night just outside the park on public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The next day we look at the most diverse formations with names like Fire Wave, White Domes, Elephant Rock or Crazy Hill. As different as the names are the colors of the rocks – from green, red, pink, violet and yellow to white everything is represented. Fascinatingly beautiful! The state park offers 11 trails where the rock formations can be discovered. There is something for every level of condition. The Fire Wave is particularly fascinating in shape and color. The rock is striped red and white and has been beautifully sanded by wind and weather, so that it looks almost like a huge wave. At two locations in the state park you can see the petroglyphs of the Anasazi, at Atlatl Rock and on the Mouse’s Tank Trail.

Hoover Dam und Lake Mead Recreational Area

Actually, we wanted to drive over the Hoover Dam to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, this is not possible if you come from Arizona (the roadway from this side has been permanently closed). You drive on the highway directly over the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which was completed in 2010. This has a pedestrian path, which is separated from road traffic by an almost man-high wall. From up here you have a great view of the dam itself, Lake Mead and the surrounding countryside. The access to the new bridge is located within the area, which means that you first have to pass a short security check. Shortly afterwards it has enough parking spaces, from where a staircase leads up to the bridge.

We catch up on what we missed a few days ago and drive on the old road (SR 172) over Hoover Dam. A few turns and meters in elevation later, the old road ends at Hoover Dam Lookout. A little further down along the old road there are free parking spaces. Here we park our camper and enjoy the view of the dam and the intake towers. We now cross the dam on foot and would like to see it from the inside. However, this is unfortunately not possible, as allegedly the elevator is broken. Alternatively, we could visit the Visitor Center for a fee. However, there are safety regulations and you are not allowed in with a pocket knife. Unlike Fabian, I haven’t had a pocket knife with me since Washington D.C…. Now we are quit again. So we discover the area from the outside. The whole construction is quite impressive. The low water level of Lake Mead is also impressive. The rocks in the water are two-colored, brown-green at the top and almost snow-white at the bottom. The white part was once covered by water. Unfortunately, the water level drops continuously. It currently stands at a level of 1,096 feet. At a level of 950 feet, electricity can no longer be produced and Hoover Dam would lose its function and in Las Vegas the lights go out 😊.

The area around Lake Mead is beautiful and very rich in contrast. The water is steel blue, the surrounding hills grey-green interspersed with the red rocks typical of the area. Sometimes it also looks as if a mole has dug up the area 😊. There are plenty of pitches overlooking the water, but you have to drive around a bit until you find the perfect place for yourself.

We also want to explore Death Valley and want to wash, shower and replenish our supplies before that. We do that in that order in nearby Henderson. In the laundromat we meet a man, with an assistant, doing his laundry wearing surgeon’s gloves and a pistol (!) on his belt. That’s a bit scary… In the laundromat, news is on TV. We almost drop our jaws when we learn that the MGM hotels and two other major hotel chains on the Las Vegas Strip will be temporarily closed tomorrow due to COVID-19. Insane..! We never thought that “the lights could go out” on the Strip. That now seems to be the case temporarily. This means that Corona has now probably also arrived in the USA. After washing clothes, we want to do the same with us and go to the nearby fitness center. The young man at the reception is quite nice and lets us use the showers for USD 5.00 for both. We’re glad the fitness center hasn’t closed yet. When we enter the grocery store, we are still in good spirits. There are still plenty of vegetables and fruits available. But when we turn around the shelf, we almost get a fit of laughter. No, and I mean no, meat anymore. Dairy products, water, and toilet paper are all sold out too. Since we want to go to the desert, we just buy what we can get and then fill the main and reserve tank. You never know…

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley. At the sound of the name, one actually expects a barren valley without much vegetation. What a surprise when we drive in here! All the bushes are green or already blooming, so are the little flowers on the roadside in yellow and purple. It’s apparently pretty rare in Death Valley to see wildflowers. We make quite a bit of elevation gain. First we start at over 1’600 m above sea level, then we go down into the valley at 500 m above sea level, then up again to 1,000 m above sea level and finally to the lowest point on the North American mainland at -85.5 m above sea level in the Badwater Basin. The Badwater Basin was a lake about 9 m deep a good two to four thousand years ago. When the water evaporated, a layer of salt remained, which, depending on the location, is between 1.5 and 0.3 cm thick. We walk around a bit on the salt plain and marvel at the shapes that wind and weather have left in the salt.

Bombastic views

Extremely beautiful in terms of color is the Artist’s Drive with the Artist’s Palette. The path winds through a canyon. When we arrive at the Artist’s Palette, the highlight of this tour, we are blown away by the colors. It looks as if a painter has painted the rocks in the most beautiful pastel shades. The colors come from volcanic deposits rich in mineral pigments such as iron oxide or chlorite, which create a rainbow effect. Uniquely beautiful!

A tremendous view over Death Valley itself can be seen from the lookout point Dante’s View. Since the desert air is very dry, the visibility is correspondingly great and one can overlook almost the entire valley. From up here, you really realize how big the Badwater Basin really is. We walk the short distance to Dante’s Peak, from where you get a slightly different perspective over the landscape. Afterwards we drive to Zabriskie Point. The view of the salt flat is not as magnificent as Dante’s View, but the Badlands formations and their coloration are very beautiful and it is exactly what makes this viewpoint special. These yellow-brown striped hills have been shaped by the power of water. You can see exactly which way the water has made its way through the rock. On the other side of the salt flat, the Panamint Mountains can be seen.

Since it is not too hot at this time of year, we dare to take a walk on the valley floor one afternoon, more precisely through the Golden Canyon. Hikes or walks during the hot months are absolutely taboo in Death Valley after ten o’clock in the morning. People also die from time to time because of the unbearable heat, which regularly reaches up to 49 degrees Celsius. Again, the colors and formations are different from those we’ve seen so far. It’s amazing how diverse Death Valley is!

For a bit of off-road feeling we drive the Titus Canyon Road. The gravel road is about 43 km long and runs from east to west. It is one-way. The track first leads through the Amargosa Valley and climbs into the Grapevine Mountains. The slopes are densely overgrown and everything is very green. Quite a contrast to the desert a few hundred meters further below. On the Red Pass at about 1,600 m above sea level it even snows a little! From there we have a beautiful view over the overgrown hills. Apart from a few crumbling huts and a few mines, nothing can be seen of the ghost town “Leadfield”. We continue downhill into Titus Canyon. Limestone cliffs rise to the left and right of the wide riverbed. Here the enormous geological forces that have folded the rocks are clearly visible. The rough, steep rocks provide an ideal habitat for the desert bighorn sheep. However, we have not seen any here. The last few kilometers are the coolest, because the canyon narrows quite a bit and the track becomes quite winding. Here you feel quite small… Overall, a beautiful track with a varied landscape and not very demanding driving. You should expect about two to three hours of driving time.

Running stones

To the west of the park is Ubehebe Crater. This is (depending on the source) between 182 and 234 meters deep and a good 800 meters wide. The crater was formed by a water vapour explosion when groundwater and hot magma met. The area around the crater is covered by lava sand, through which a delicate green fluff peeks out.

We want to continue to Racetrack Playa in Racetrack Valley. This is an ancient dried up lake on which the phenomenon of “running stones” can be observed. The lake is dried up most of the year and has a gradient of 3.8 cm. There, rocks move across the plain as if by magic, leaving “racing tracks” in the clay soil. The scientists were only able to explain this natural phenomenon in 2014. However, we leave you the joy of finding out the solution to the mystery yourself 😉. To get to Racetrack Playa you have to cover a distance of about 41 km from Ubehebe Crater. And what a route that is… Catastrophic washboard! Really not nice to drive and accordingly we make slow progress. About halfway it starts to snow heavily, as in mid-winter! And all this in one of the driest places in the world! Incredible! The snowy Joshua Trees on the roadside look quite funny with all the snow. Since we are really slow on this rough track, we spend the night at Teakettle Junction, the only place where it is allowed back here (on the photo you can see why the junction is called that). When we go to bed, it’s still snowing. Let’s see how long the snowfall lasts… The next morning the snow on the road has melted again, only on the bushes and Joshua Trees it has remained. The pink flowering cacti are also adorned with a snow cap. When we reach Racetrack Playa, we are presented with a fabulously beautiful scenery. The lake has partly filled with water due to yesterday’s snowfall and the snowy mountain peaks are reflected in the water.

Hot Springs

We got the tip from Gaby and Cornel to go to the Saline Valley, because there are hot springs there. You may now think they are crazy to want to sit in hot springs in the desert. However, at this time of year this is perfect because it is spring and it has just snowed at altitude! In Stovepipe Wells we meet Martin and Valentina. The two are from Switzerland and the contact came about through former neighbors of Fabian. The route takes us once again over a pass, the South Pass, and I have to say that this Death Valley amazes me every day. Each valley looks different in color. Also the meters of altitude that you cover are probably unique. The track is quite passable and leads through hills partly overgrown with Joshua Trees and other bushes.

Arriving at the springs, a guest explains to us that there are upper and lower springs and you can pitch where you want. Since the lower springs do not exactly make the best impression, we look for a parking space at the upper springs. The ground is stony and interspersed with bushes.

The springs themselves consist of two concrete pools that are covered with stones all around. You can imagine it like the small round pools in thermal baths where the water is hottest. Only these pools look more natural. The pools are impeccably clean. At the pools there are huge palm trees (which someone once planted) in which bats live. At dusk you can see them flying around. The water is indeed quite hot, around 42 degrees Celsius. A little away behind the palm trees there is a shower and a dish washing area, both also with hot water.

It also has a public outhouse. I honestly have never seen such a clean and lovingly decorated outhouse. Respect… There is enough fluffy toilet paper and detergent. In order to find the way there, people have marked the path with stones. In general, there is some art made of stones on the ground all over the place. You have to know that there are people at these springs who probably live here permanently… old hippies, older men with long hair and painted fingernails 😁. There is a code of honor among the visitors who come here several times. Everyone brings something with them, such as toilet paper, cleaning or washing-up liquid, etc. Also, it goes without saying that every now and then the pools are drained, cleaned and re-filled. I’m telling you, this works better than if this was organized by the National Park Service or any other public agency. Oh by the way, clothing is optional. Since it’s a bit chilly, most wear something.

After the four of us have settled down, Fabian and I rush to the pools, enjoy the hot water and the beautiful panorama. At night we see a camper with probably Swiss license plate driving past us at dusk. We absolutely have to say hello to him in the morning before we leave.

Nice surprise

The people with the camper are actually Swiss, Steffi and Ozy. They know the springs and also explain to us how the whole thing works here. Actually, we wanted to continue with Martin and Valentina today, but Steffi and Ozy persuade the four of us to stay after all. No sooner said than done. We move to a place where our three small vehicles can be accommodated. We enjoy the special atmosphere that this place radiates. After dinner comes the highlight of the day, a bath in the hot springs. Splendid! Then straight to bed and the slightly cooler temperatures no longer matter.

We are running out of supplies (and toilet paper) and are planning to go to Las Vegas anyway to check where our delivery is. Martin and Valentina would like to explore Death Valley a bit more and therefore continue their journey. Steffi and Ozy plan to avoid the worst Corona panic in Saline Valley. So we say goodbye and go our ways. We learn that our delivery will take a while. We run our errands (we actually get toilet paper too!) and pay Kurt a quick visit in Las Vegas before heading towards the Colorado River once again. We look at the village of Nelson, which is located in the middle of the hilly-rocky landscape. From here one could do silver mining tours in the El Dorado mine. However, due to Corona, everything is closed. Nelson is really cool. It consists of maybe 5 or 6 houses (all made of wood) and everywhere there are old, beautifully presented vehicles around. After several photos we continue to the river. The desert is slowly beginning to bloom and the surrounding area is lined with yellow flowers. After doing everything we had planned to do in Las Vegas, we meet again with Ozy and Steffi outside of Las Vegas in the Sandy Valley on BLM land. Unfortunately, they were expelled from Saline Valley. But that’s another story and will be told another time…

Difficult decision

The Corona situation is occupying our minds immensely these days. Our stay expires on April 28 and we should have left the USA by then. Unfortunately, the presidents of both the USA and Canada have closed the land borders to car traffic. So at the moment we can’t go to Canada with our camper as planned. Simply fly over to Canada, pick up the entry stamp and back is not an option for us due to the worldwide situation. After much deliberation and many discussions, we decide with a heavy heart to interrupt our journey until this corona (hopefully in a few weeks) is over again. Two other Swiss, Claudia and Thomas with their Bucher Duro, or simply “Dubu”, join us in the Sandy Valley. We are looking forward to finally meet them personally, because we have already heard a lot from Sibylle and Hermann about them! The two have the same problem as we do, except that they have to leave the USA already in mid-April. They told us that they have found a storage space in Las Vegas and will visit it. We are happy to join in. The facility looks good and safe and we also decide to park our camper there. We do the paperwork quickly and unbureaucratically and so the six of us can enjoy the last evening together (Dubus’s are already leaving) on BLM land near Las Vegas.

Beautiful finish on Mojave Road

We didn’t book our flight until April 8. So we decide to go on a road trip on Mojave Road together with Steffi and Ozy. First, however, the two show us a beautiful corner at the Colorado River, the Aztec Wash in Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The track leads over a mountain range, past flowering cacti and flowers that grow on the stone slopes. Depending on the elevation, the flowers and cacti alternate with Joshua Tree covered slopes. Beautiful and fascinating, like a flowering rock garden. Along the way we even see a desert turtle! We can enjoy a beautiful sunset and let the evening end comfortably with a good dinner.

Fabian gets a new, lighter and summerlike haircut from Ozy. Looks really good on him!

We drive a bit and then turn into Mojave Road. The desert adventure can begin! It is beautiful and spring has arrived here as well. The roadside is dotted with small flowers that form huge carpets of flowers. On a small hill we find a rather windy place for the night. The view is perfect for watching the sunset.

The first attraction on our way is Fort Piute. The way there branches off from the main path and is quite bumpy. We are progressing even slower than on Mojave Road. But as you know, the journey is the goal, isn’t it? The fort is located between volcanic hills near a creek. The creek itself is densely overgrown with poplars and everywhere it blooms, even the cacti. The butterflies have great fun. Fort Piute itself consists of two ruins. It was built to protect the covered wagons that used the Mojave Road – and to protect against the Native Americans. However, it was only in use for a good year before it was abandoned again (the goods were now transported by rail and the road lost its importance).

It’s exciting to see how the vegetation changes the further we go. There are now much larger creosote bushes and fine grass fluff on the desert floor. At some point we drive through a real Joshua Trees forest. Since the sun is shining, it is really pleasant outside and we enjoy once again a nice evening with fine food.

A real driving challenge consists of a steep washout to drive down. We ladies go ahead so that we can position ourselves strategically for photography and filming while the gentlemen with the vehicles pass this spot. The so-called whoop-de-dos can also be challenging. However, more for the stomach than for the driver. Those who are not seaworthy will find the rocking half the fun. In any case, you can produce butter from milk 😁.

A sight that is almost not to be missed is the Mojave-Road Mailbox. As the name suggests, there is an American mailbox and a flagpole without a flag. Normally, a US flag is hoisted there. But unfortunately not now. Instead we find the “frog garden” located behind the mailbox. We all sign up for the roadbook. Ozy and Steffi explain that every traveler should actually put something small in the mailbox. Hmmm, but what? Of course, we have a Liechtenstein flag with us! Of course, it will be hoisted right away! If we Liechtensteiners have already renounced Alaska, we are now conquering the Mojave!

Not far from the Mojave-Road Mailbox, volcanic cones come into view. A small detour leads us to the lava tubes located there (tubes created by liquid lava). What is special about these lava tubes is that the ground is covered with fine dust. With every step, the dust whirls up and the light that shines in through holes in the ceiling conjures up beautiful lighting effects. We look for a nice place and enjoy the time in the sun and end the day with a fine dinner.

The next stage continues through the flat desert landscape until a long white spot becomes visible in the distance. Soda Lake. The dried up salt lake is very dry today and the drive to the Traveler’s Monument is easy. Of course, we also brought a stone, which we added to the monument. We now know the secret message hidden between the boulders. What is it? Well, you have to go there yourself and read it… The right way is less and less recognizable. Fortunately, huge wooden planks stand as signposts at the neuralgic points. We set up our next camp in Afton Canyon. The rock formations that make up the canyon are fairly colorful, similar to those in Death Valley. In Afton Canyon there is also a slot canyon, called Spooky Canyon, which of course we have to explore. Steffi, Fabian and I march into the canyon equipped with headlamps. The further we go in, the narrower and darker it gets. At some point we come to a steep wall, which can only be overcome with ropes. Fabian and I take the first one, the second one is much too steep. Not far from our pitch, the Union Pacific Railroad line passes by. There are trains here that take a whopping 5 minutes to pass completely! They’re really long!

The last stage takes us through Afton Canyon and through the ford of the Mojave River. Ozy masters the ford confidently. A little boring for the two of them, because since their last passage the bumps in the underground have apparently been smoothed. Fabian has such fun at the water crossing that he wants to drive through it again. And yes, the Land Rover is actually not watertight. As good as the water flows into the Land Rover, it fortunately flows out again😁.

Near Barstow we enjoy a hot shower in a truck stop and spend the night in the nearby Rainbow Basin Natural Area. This is managed by the BLM and, according to its own statements, has extraordinary geological and paleontological peculiarities. Therefore, it would be planned for visitors to spend the night at the campsite. Since this is closed due to Corona, we are looking for a suitable other place where boondocking is allowed. Not so easy, especially since the area is quite dirty and there is garbage everywhere. Finally we have found a suitable place and set up camp. Unfortunately, it is rather cool and rainy, so we can not sit outside. So we spend one last nice evening with Steffi and Ozy in their home. The next day it is unfortunately time to say goodbye. We drive back to Las Vegas and Steffi and Ozy want to stay in this area for a while. The weather is cloudy and grey and that’s exactly how we feel.

We have become very fond of Steffi and Ozy in this short time and it was wonderful to travel the last part of our journey with them. Thanks to both of you and we hope to cross paths or drive again soon!

The last two days before our flight home we could stay with Kurt. Since we can’t take everything with us, we have to think carefully about which garments we can take with us and which we can do without for a while. At least for me not easy… We also subject our camper to a thorough cleaning. Kurt takes care of our creature comforts during this time. Thank you again for your hospitality!

On April 8, 2020, the time has come. We park our camper in the storage. A very sad and depressing moment… Kurt takes us to the airport and it’s time to say goodbye. Hopefully this Corona will pass soon and we can come back in a few weeks. From Las Vegas via Denver we fly to Zurich and land on Holy Thursday. We have never experienced anything like this before. There is a yawning emptiness at each of the airports and there are practically no people on the way. Claudia and Thomas pick us up in Zurich. Many thanks to both of you!

We are setting up in our temporary home in the mountains and still hope to be able to continue our journey somehow. Until then, we enjoy the wonderful mountain spring!

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