Death Valley, California

Death Valley - it doesn't sound too inviting, does it? But when I emailed around to my friends recently, asking what we absolutely shouldnít miss in Southern California, a friend from San Francisco didn't skip a beat.

January is the perfect time to see Death Valley, she said. "Go - you won't regret it."

So we went! Steve and I checked the map and saw that we could stop in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks along the way and then wind up in Las Vegas. I've never been to Las Vegas - or "Vegas," as Steve likes to call it - and it makes a great hopping-off point for our trip to see my brother in Daytona next month.

We started out in Fresno, which turns out to be the sixth largest city in California, then headed east through Squaw Valley. As we climbed higher in elevation, the trees along the road grew bigger and bigger. And the snow got deep! I wasn't expecting so much snow. By the time we parked for the night, I was really glad to be so snug in our RV. The snow was absolutely gorgeous, though, and it made the perfect backdrop for those monstrous Sequoia trees. I've never seen anything like them - they're the tallest trees in the world, and some of them grow to be almost 400 feet tall! We saw the General Sherman Tree, the largest living tree in the world, then we went snowshoeing at Columbine and had delicious warm-up coffee at the Ash Mountain park entrance.

From there we headed south, oohing and ahhing over the incredible views, and made our way down to Lake Isabella, which was a perfect place to stop for the night. We did a little fishing, caught up on our reading, and enjoyed hiking in the warm weather after our snowy mountain experience.

A few days later, we pressed on to Death Valley National Park. This is the hottest, driest, lowest place on earth, and the park is enormous (3.4 million acres, we learned). Even with our RV, we were only able to explore a fraction of it. We entered through the Panamint Mountain range, then swooped down into a wide, flat valley that sparkled, it was so hot and dry. All around us, there were pastel-colored hills made of pink, yellow, white, and coral sandstone. I couldn't stop taking pictures!

Death Valley is really something. And boy, am I ever glad we came in the winter. They say that in the summer the temperatures on the valley floor are often over 100 degrees. Our weather was absolutely perfect with temperatures around 70 degrees every day. We did miss the wildflowers by a month or so, which made Sally sad, but I reminded her that weíd be in Florida by then, so we might as well take Death Valley when we could fit it in!

We spent a day exploring the low valley, walking the Golden Canyon trail and seeing the Devils Golf Course. It was amazing to learn that animals actually can - and do! - live here. Then we stopped off at Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in the entire country. It felt like we were standing in a big batch of nothing, on a gigantic white sheet of hard-baked sand, 280 feet below sea level. And all around in the distance we could see mountain ranges with snow on them. Talk about a weird combination.

The next day we hiked around the windy ridge to Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park. So in just two days, we went from the lowest spot in the U.S. to 11,050 feet - incredible! Telescope Peak had an amazing view. We signed in the guest book there, so look for our entry if you make it.

Now that we were in true desert mode, we headed east to Las Vegas to see the sights. I think driving is the only way to come into Vegas, because it gives you a good sense of how odd it is to find this big sparkling oasis in the middle of the desert. We had a great time hopping from casino to casino, checking out the different buildings (Sally loved Paris Las Vegas and the Bellagio the best), the water shows, the light shows, and the buffets. I really liked the aquarium at Mandalay and the big pyramid at Luxor.

After a few days of soaking in Vegas, we did some side trips to Lake Mead, to see the Hoover Dam (we took a tour right down into the dam), and up to Valley of Fire State Park. Sally wanted to see the wild donkeys at Red Rock Canyon, so we'll be heading there next before we hop our flight to Florida to see Sally's brother. You'll hear from us next at Daytona's Bike Week!

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