Death Valley Driving (of Doom)

Tuesday, October 7 (continued)

After the lake visit, I hook up and it’s back on the road. We scoot through the southern side of Vegas, then head West through the oddly named town of Pahrump and get on 190 heading into California.

This is my first time in California which is exciting, it always feels rewarding to see a state for the first time. Although on this side, it looks an awful lot like Nevada. But where are we headed? Death Valley National Park, which on a sunny day in October is still over 100 degrees, yeesh.

Taken from the car. Cause the less time spent out in that heat, the better

Taken from the car. Cause the less time spent out in that heat, the better

Feeling hot, hot, hot

Feeling hot, hot, hot

Death Valley is a neat place, no doubt, and it’s possibly the most desolate place I’ve ever been in. Unlike I think every other National Park I’ve visited there are no ranger staffed entrance stations, just a couple self pay stations and miles and miles of open road framed by ridges and badlands in varying shades of brown. The extreme heat makes wildlife sightings very rare during the day, you feel sometimes like the only living things in the world. We take a quick walk to an overlook with good badlands views, and are excited to return to the A/C afterward.

We glide down (and down) into the valley and make it to sea level, then below sea level. Salt flats shine all around us, and vegetation is scarce. There is camping, a visitor’s center, and a shop down in the valley complete with gas, but we have no real desire to stay here. We’d just be holed up in Cas the whole time with the heat like this. Signs near the sand dunes on the western side of the valley proclaim this the hottest place in the world. Have you ever been in a place so devoid of moisture that your nostrils dry out? Take it from me, it’s an odd feeling.

I’m glad we’ve driven through, but here’s one problem with driving down below sea level – there’s a lot of climbing back up to do.

Even desolate places have their beauty

Even desolate places have their beauty

At the sand dune stop, Julie gets behind the wheel for her first time ever towing a RV, and only her second towing experience ever. If I’d known what was ahead, I never would have let her. We did some preliminary road planning when we thought about coming out this way, but we’re woefully unaware of what’s to come on the western side of the park.

Signage says it's the hottest place in the world, had no idea until we got here

Signage says it’s the hottest place in the world, had no idea until we got here

With temperatures still over 100, highway 190 starts climbing up. I tell Julie to take it slow so that poor Bertha doesn’t overheat, and she does an admirable job. A sign looms up ahead: Elevation 1,000. Soon we’re creeping along at only 25 miles per hour. A Class C rental passes us at a faster pace, but that’s okay. Elevation 2,000. The red needle on Bertha’s engine gauge creeps up past the 2/3rds mark, and we turn off the A/C. I tell Julie if it gets above 3/4ths to pull over. Elevation 3,000. The Class C that had passed us is pulled over letting their engine cool down. It’s a tortoise and the hare moment. Chance (Julie’s cat) is complaining louder in the back seat – it’s heating up inside the cab now with the A/C off. Elevation 4,000. The engine temp gauge is holding steadily below 3/4ths with the A/C off. Let this be a lesson to you wannabe RVers out there: no one ever complains about having too much tow vehicle when you’re in the mountains.

At last the road levels out, and with higher elevation comes lower temperatures, phew. The A/C comes back on and we’re all a lot more comfortable temporarily. But alas, it’s only a brief reprieve, because the hardest part of the drive is still to come.

Yep, there are sand dunes in the distance...

Yep, there are sand dunes in the distance…

As I’m congratulating Julie on a job well done, the ground falls out from under us and a new sign looms ahead: 9% grade next 7 miles.

Geh! I’ve never towed Cas on an extended descent that steep before. I frantically scan the road but alas, there are no turnoffs where I can take over driving. Julie naively asks “Is this where I switch into 2nd gear?”. I’m panicking inside but I keep my voice steady as I respond “Yes, 2nd gear would be good. And pump the brakes, don’t ride them.” I hold onto my seat for dear life as we start back down the mountain. Ahead the ribbon of road resembles one of those super steep curvy water slides you pay the big bucks to ride in a fancy water park. I know it’s not really that steep, but it sure looks like it from where I’m sitting.

We keep up idle chatter during the descent, and I do my best not to let my nervousness show. An interminable amount of time later, we reach the bottom (in one piece!) and only then do I admit to Julie that I’ve never towed Cas on a drive that steep before. “Oh.” She says. “I’m glad you waited until the bottom to tell me.” She didn’t know to be worried.


At the bottom is another gas station where unleaded is $5.89 a gallon, the most expensive gas I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing getting fuel trucks into this valley is quite a chore. Semis are directed to turn left onto another road out of the valley, but we need to keep going straight on 190, up the other side and into the mountains again. This is, without a doubt, the most mountain driving I’ve done in my life. I’m ever so glad that Bertha is rated to tow 6,500 lbs and that Cas is 4,000 lbs at most.

Bertha dutifully chugs back up the other side, with me behind the wheel this time. The sun sets in the mountains behind us, and at the top I get out and snap a picture of the mood rising over the valley. There’s going to be some night driving ahead, because Julie and I want to get closer to our last destination before Amazon: Yosemite National Park.

190 meets up up with interstate 395 near Owen’s Lake, and from there it’s a scenic drive between mountain ridges north. Moonlight reflects off the western range, making it visible in the dark. Just north of Independence, CA we pull over at a rest stop that I researched on Tomorrow should be a good day!

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. John Stroh on October 23, 2014 at 9:46 pm


    just finished reading your entire blog from the beginning to now. I enjoyed it immensely! I will be transitioning to a mobile lifestyle as soon as I can and have gleaned a lot of knowledge from your experiences thus far. I’ve been unable to do much this year other than spend time recovering from surgeries and chemotherapy, but it has provided me with ample time to do my research. Thank you for all you do to help others.


    • Becky on October 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

      Hello John, and welcome to IO! I’m glad you’ve found it helpful and inspiring. I wish you a speedy recover and hope to hear from you on the road before long. If you have specific questions about full-timing, you can always send me an e-mail. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get to respond but I do get to them all eventually. Safe travels and happy trails!

  2. Tom on October 23, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    One trick to help with engine overheating is to run the heater on high (as if you weren’t already miserable enough).

    • Becky on October 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

      Yeah I’ve heard of that one before Tom, but I think I would have pulled over and let things cool off before resorting to that measure with how hot it was outside, haha.

  3. Jodee Gravel on October 20, 2014 at 5:38 am

    Sorry your introduction to our beautiful state was so dramatic. Many spots in SoCal stay hot until Halloween some years πŸ™ The drought makes it hotter I think, with the lack of vegetation to absorb the sun. Sounds like the perfect combination for that downhill trek – let the passenger be worried, while the driver just drives! I’m always happiest when I can use the gears more and the brakes less – even in a little car.

    Love the desert pics – it’s a special place
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..So Slow and Then Really, Really Fast!My Profile

    • Becky on October 24, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Well, it made for a good story at least Jodee!

  4. KL on October 19, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    your 3rd pic down, I have the same exact picture I took back in 2007- I am comparing them, mine is zoomed in, I was looking at my pics yesterday, now I read your blog, and I am thinking how on earth did she get my photo LOL Wish I could attach it here to share with you-emai me if you would like to see it πŸ˜‰ Kathryn

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      I took that photo at the badlands overlook Kathryn, I bet a lot of people have a photo like that – it’s only a short walk from the parking lot to get to it. How funny though that the clouds and lighting would be the same for both our visits 7 years apart. πŸ™‚

      • KL on October 20, 2014 at 4:12 pm

        It’s been so many years, I did not remember that was the over look . Thanks for letting me know. K~

        • Becky on October 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm

          You’re welcome KL.

  5. Hannah on October 19, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I just paid $2.77 a gallon for gas in a little town outside of Williamsburg VA. For once, I wished the gas tank in my RV was bigger!

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      Wow, good price Hannah!

  6. Caroline near Seattle/LasVegas on October 19, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Wow, so you’re already hard at work at Amazon !!
    Glad you had a little time off between jobs to enjoy the West a little more. Even a week is a nice little break and this is all new territory to you which adds to the adventure, Look forward to hearing about Yosemite.

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:30 pm

      Ayup! Had a good first week, but it is a bit different than Coffeyville. I’ll have more on all of that coming up after the Yosemite post, haha.

  7. Reine in Plano on October 19, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    My guess is that Cas is about 3300 lbs unless you’re carrying a LOT of really heavy stuff. That seems to be the average of most of the 17′ Casitas that have been weighed and is a good thing since your axle is rated at 3500 lbs. In my mind Bertha is rated about right for towing Cas and as you said, you’ll never be sorry you .

    For Becky’s followers who are reading please, please don’t take anything a salesperson tells you as the gospel truth. In general the dry weights of trailers are under reported and dealers don’t tell you what common loaded weights are. For example, the 17′ Casita Spirit like Becky’s has a dry weight of 2185. Figure on adding about 1000 lbs of water, propane, food, clothing, cooking stuff, bedding. You get the idea. I’ll take the hit on gas mileage and learn to drive a larger vehicle to have the safety factor and comfort of a larger vehicle.

    For what it’s worth, the new GMC Canyon looks like it might be a great sized truck for Casita sized trailers if it actually turns out to be a quality truck.

    The thing I can’t imagine is how the pioneers crossed Death Valley. But then it got it’s name because many didn’t make it. I hear folks yearn for the “good old days” but I’ll take AC any day.

    • Russ G on October 19, 2014 at 1:31 pm

      That sounds like good advice about vehicles. Where we part ways, however, is about the naming of Death Valley. This is what the NPS web site says about it:
      Why is it called Death Valley?
      Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost here in the winter of 1849-1850. Even though, as far as we know, only one of the group died here, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave. They were rescued by two of their young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, who had learned to be scouts. As the party climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said “goodbye, Death Valley.” This name, and the story of The Lost ’49ers have become part of our western history.”

      Just for the record πŸ™‚

      • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:28 pm

        Huh, interesting Russ. I learn something new every day. πŸ™‚

        • Ed @ Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on October 21, 2014 at 12:15 pm

          Who knows, but contrary to what Russ mentioned above, it was one of the “women” in the lost Bennett-Arcane “49er” party that after eventually hiking out over the mountains, turned and said “Good Bye Death Valley”, giving it its name. And apparently no one died. This is all according to Wikipedia. And you know that only truth can be found on the internet. πŸ™‚
          Ed @ Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..Two Wheels Two Feet – In Her Own WordsMy Profile

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:25 pm


      My Casita weighed 2,600 dry with all the modifications the previous owners did. I live full-time in it and have more gear than the average Casita owner, my tongue weight is 415 lbs (and that’s only with one propane tank!) I’m pretty sure I’m over 3,500 lbs. But I have very high end tires and every time I go through Texas I stop at Little House Customs and they do a once over, the axle is holding up so far. πŸ˜‰

      As far as weights go, this is what I tell everyone:

      Take the GVWR of the trailer in question (the maximum weight it’s allowed to be full, because it’s really easy to fill up a trailer and it’s better to over estimate than under estimate it’s weight). For a Casita, that’s 3,500 lbs. A salesman might not tell you loaded weights, but the manufacturer is required by law to put the GVWR on every RV made (it’s a sticker, on mine it’s on the outside, but some manufacturers place them inside a cabinet – do some looking around to find it).

      Divide that number by the tow rating of your vehicle (for Kristin above, that’s 5,000, for me, it’s 6,500) and move the decimal to turn it into a percentage.

      3,500/5,000 = 0.7, 70%
      3,500/6,500 = 0.538, 54%

      The numbers vary depending on which RVing forum you ask in, but you want that percentage no higher than 80%, 75% is safer. Why don’t you want the trailer to be at 100% of the vehicle’s towing capacity? Because that tow rating they give in the manual is for an empty vehicle. In the real world, you’ll never be towing with an empty truck – as a camper you’ll have all sorts of gear (and people) in there which decreases the rating.

      So Kristin’s Ridgeline at 70% is a good choice. My truck at 54% might be called overkill – but remember I’m full-timing and everything I own is in that truck and trailer so it weighs more than the average vacationer, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.

      • Reine in Plano on October 19, 2014 at 9:31 pm

        Speaking of overkill, we’re towing with an Avalanche with a towing capacity of 7800 lbs. We upgraded from a Chevy S10 with a towing capacity of 5000 lbs. The S10 worked fine on flat hiways but struggled a bit on the hills possibly because it didn’t have the factory towing package. The notices less stressful towing with the Avalanche the first time we towed with it. We are more comfortable and arrive at our destination much more relaxed. We’re just not as worried about unexpected things on the road because the larger vehicle has more margin for error.

        Russ, thanks for the info on the naming of Death Valley. But I’m still glad I’m NOT travelling Death Valley or anywhere else in a covered wagon.:)

        • Russ G on October 20, 2014 at 5:23 am

          If you’re in an RV you’re in a covered wagon! Just a more modern one. LOL.
          Russ G recently posted..A Photo Page… At Last!My Profile

  8. Kristin on October 19, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Hi Becky,

    I have been reading your posts for a few months now and have been enjoying them.

    My husband and I recently bought a Casita and we’re waiting to have it delivered to our house in the Mojave Desert. We’ve never had an RV before. Now I am getting a little worried after reading your post. I hope our set-up will be okay! We will have a Honda Ridgeline 2014 (5,000 lbs towing capacity with a Hensley Cub hitch) and a 17 FT Spirit Deluxe Casita trailer, like yours.

    Anyway, I look forward to your next post!

    Kind regards,
    Kristin πŸ™‚
    Kristin recently posted..Thoughts About Blogging, from a NewbieMy Profile

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      You’ll be at 70% of your vehicle’s towing capacity then Kristin if you fill the Casita up to it’s maximum weight of 3,500 lbs (3,500/5000) which is under the 75% most commonly recommended on RVing forums (why not 100%? because your truck will have gear in it too which decreases it’s tow capacity) – you should be fine. Practice towing on lower grades first to get a feel for it and work your way up to the bigger stuff as you feel more comfortable. A lot of people tow Casitas with vehicles with a 5,000 tow rating and do fine. What’s important if you’re tackling steep grades is that the weight is distributed well side to side and front to back in the Casita, makes towing and breaking much easier.

      Enjoy your Casita! I absolutely love mine and I bet you will too, they’re great little trailers.

      • Kristin on October 19, 2014 at 10:19 pm

        I’m glad you’re enjoying your Casita. Thank you for your feedback, I appreciate it. Take care!
        Kristin recently posted..Driving to a Ghost Town at Sunset (Nelson, NV)My Profile

        • Becky on October 24, 2014 at 3:36 pm

          You’re welcome, best of luck!

  9. Bonnie Sanders on October 19, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Thanks for the link to the overnight RV parking website.

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      You’re welcome.

  10. mratlas on October 19, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Pahrump is where the Martians landed in the movie”Mars Attacks” comedy. Before 2008 it was a growing town for those who couldn’t afford the high Vegas housing prices. But now that’s all changed. Now it’s sort of drying up.

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      Sad to hear that Atlas, makes me want to go find that move to see if I recognize the place though. πŸ˜‰

  11. Vincent Goetz on October 19, 2014 at 7:48 am

    I love Death Valley. I go every year, and I go off road to places like the Racetrack that are pure magic. Go to my website and see some of the beauty…it really is a magical place.

    As to the heat, well, it is a dry heat…

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      Sounds like going in the winter is nice. Dry heat is better than damp heat, but I always prefer a moderate temperature when possible. πŸ™‚ Enjoy your time out there!

  12. Rayn on October 19, 2014 at 6:16 am

    If your trip up 395 was anything like ours you are now experiencing the exact opposite! We woke up near Mammoth Lakes this morning to 43 degrees inside the RV!

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 7:51 pm

      Yeah it’s certainly gotten colder farther north Rayn!

  13. Cindie Brandt on October 19, 2014 at 5:57 am

    Kudos to both of you…that was a crazy ride!! I can’t even imagine our Class C making that drive! Enjoy Yosemite, I can’t wait to see pictures!

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 6:41 pm

      Haha, if I’d known ahead of time Cindie I bet I would have chickened out. My GPS doesn’t give me elevation or road grades, so things like this always turn out to be a surprise for me. πŸ˜‰

  14. Russ G on October 19, 2014 at 4:33 am

    Sounds like quite an adventure!

    Imagine this if you will… The last time I was in Death Valley there were people and kayaks paddling over the salt flats and wildflowers were everywhere. That’s right. I’ve been there several times and most recently after the wettest winter on record. I had intended to stay three or four days but could not tear myself away until eight nights had passed. Of course, in the spring it’s not nearly as hot so it’s more conducive to stay and explore. They landscape there is amazing, but I’ve never heard it referred to before as Badlands before. I guess that’s because you spent some time in the Badlands of South Dakota πŸ™‚

    Death Valley has the lowest point in the contiguous 48 states. They call it Badwater. Not far from Death Valley is the highest point in the contiguous 48 states: Mount Whitney. I think a person can visit both in the same day. It’s also possible and California to go surfing in snow skiing in the same day! I know the stay well. I’ve lived there a long time.

    You must have driven north on 395 in order to get to Yosemite. I hope you you were able to make that part of your drive during the day as it goes right along the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the views are gorgeous.

    I think the best time to visit California is in the spring but there’s great stuff to say any time of year. I hope you make it to the redwoods of the north coast. Being amidst them is a magical experience.
    Russ G recently posted..A Photo Page… At Last!My Profile

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 6:40 pm

      Heya Rus,

      Well not all of Death Valley is badlands, but parts of it are. Capital B Badlands refers to the park, but lower case badlands are a geological feature, and can be found in several areas of the west.

      I bet it was something to see people paddling out there! How deep did the water get, do you know? I’m not likely to go back again soon, but perhaps someday.

      More about my time in California is coming up. I only saw a small fraction of all the state has to offer I’m sure. I’ll be seeing more of it someday. πŸ™‚

  15. Terri on October 19, 2014 at 3:37 am

    I think it’s wonderful that you were with Julie and she was with you on that drive. If I had been alone, I would have freaked out (internally and externally.) You obviously know Julie very well and handled the situation very well (probably better than you thought you were, in the moment.) You bring up a very good point about the towing capacity. I have been looking for lighter trailers because I don’t want to get a huge, huge truck. Every dealer salesperson will say, oh yes, you can tow this (XX) with that (YY) vehicle.” I don’t want to be towing something that puts my tow vehicle at near max capacity when driving on a straight and level road (wishful thinking, right?) You are very smart to have a vehicle that is what some people might call “overkill” in terms of capacity, but which I just think is “downright smart.” Wow. 9% grade!!
    Terri recently posted..Little Things for Which I am ThankfulMy Profile

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      Julie is the sister I never had, I wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to drive down that with all my worldly possessions. πŸ˜‰

      The good thing about something like this though, having done it once, I won’t worry so much next time it happens. Once you have your RV, stick to smaller grades at first and slowly work your way up to the bigger scarier stuff.

  16. jonthebru on October 19, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Great line: “no one ever complains about having too much tow vehicle when you’re in the mountains.” You were probably never in any danger. I am confident that you crossed your I’s and dotted your T’s!

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      We’ll never know for sure. I did get hot break smell later on in the trip when I had my windows open. Windows weren’t open for this particular descent. I’ll never forget the drive into Roaring River State Park in Missouri when the breaks stopped working and I flew through the intersection at the bottom at 50 mph, luckily was a nice long flat road to stop on after that. πŸ˜‰

  17. Yamila on October 18, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    I live in that poopy little town of Pahrump. I hope to be full time RVing soon to get the heck out of here. All our belongings are gone and the RV is loaded. Now we just need to sell our house!

    If we’re towing we take the southern route to California using 15 South. There’s still some grades, but not as bad as the heat in Death Valley.

    • Becky on October 19, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I was pretty amused by the name Yamila, didn’t see much of it on the drive through. Good luck on the house sale! Hope it goes quickly and I hear from you on the road soon. πŸ™‚

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