2y ago


Over the years, especially in the summer time, I've made many visits to Death Valley National Park in California. More often than not, it's been to photograph top secret prototypes, cloaked in black camouflage, zebra stripes or swirling fisheyes designed to conceal the details of the cars we'll see on auto show turntables and in dealer showrooms a year or two in the future. And over the years, I've had my share of scoops, all while dealing with temperatures that have reached as high as 129 °F (49 °C).

I have a set loop for this trip, starting in Corona, California, where I usually meet up with a colleague who enjoys making the trip. Then it's up Interstate 15 to the Cajon Pass for breakfast at the Summit Inn. But that's no longer a possibility as this Route 66 landmark was destroyed by the Blue Cut fire on 16 August, 2016, just after my last trip up to Death Valley. According to reports, the owners plan to rebuild the Summit Inn so that it appears as it did before the fire.

The Summit Inn, before fire gutted the Route 66 landmark in August, 2016

California and much of the US Far West has been suffering severe drought conditions for the last several years. That means that with dry brush on the ground, just a lightning strike can cause wildfires to quickly get out of control, the brush acting as 100-octane fuel, causing massive damage.

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If any building on Route 66 can be called iconic, it was the Summit Inn, which fell victim to the Blue Cut Fire on 16 August, 2016

After breakfast the route soon turns from freeway to mostly two-lane blacktop taking US395 north towards Ridgecrest. Sometimes in Ridgecrest, you'll encounter camouflaged-cloaked prototypes, especially in the summer at lunch time. But if I'm out the door early, I'll take a shortcut into the park, through Trona, a town that time has literally forgotten. And as petrol is frightfully expensive at the two stations within Death Valley National Park, it's where I always top off my tank.

The T Stop convenience store in Trona, California, is the last chance for cheap petrol before heading into Death Valley National Park

Driving north out of Trona there's the Trona-Wildrose Road, the quickest way into Death Valley. Along the way, off to your right as you enter into the valley after negotiating some sharp curves, you'll see the virtual ghost town of Ballarat. It was near by that cult leader and mass murderer Charles Manson once lived, leaving behind a truck and some graffiti.

It's not the ex-Charles Manson Dodge Power Wagon, but it is the ghost town of Ballarat where the cultist and his "family" once lived

Near the end of the Trona-Wildrose Road you actually cross into Death Valley National Park (you'll see a sign of to your right as a landmark) before the stop sign at CA-190. Make a right turn on to CA-190 and you'll head up a long hill to Towne Pass. In the summertime, especially in July and August, this is one place where you'll sure to encounter prototypes in heat-absorbing dark vinyl or zebra-stripped and psychedelic car wraps.

The sign at the entrance to Death Valley National Park on the Trona-Wildrose Road, just before reaching CA-190

Next stop, driving down more than 5,000 feet in elevation, is Stovepipe Wells where gas and food, albeit limited, is available. It was at the gas station in Stovepipe Wells that I snapped my very first prototype, back in 2000. It was actually what I would call a test mule, the upcoming 2002 BMW 7-Series E65 mechanicals cleverly cloaked under the bodywork of the outgoing E38 model. The photo was widely syndicated by noted automotive spy photographer, Brenda Priddy, including in Autoweek, when it was still a weekly.

While they were already divorced in 2008 when I took this photo at Towne Pass, Mercedes-Benz and Jeep engineers were caught working together testing the drivetrains of the next generation of the ML and Grand Cherokees which share the same platform

What's noteworthy about this stretch of CA-120, from Towne Pass down into Stovepipe Wells, is that it is one of the few places on earth with these characteristics; such a drastic change in elevation, more than 5,000 feet in just over 18 miles, where in the summer time it's well in excess of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it's just three hours from major metropolitan areas (the outskirts of the Los Angeles Basin as well as Las Vegas) and where petrol is readily available. This makes it an ideal place to test automotive cooling systems under conditions few of us will ever encounter. This is why it won't be unusual to see prototypes and test mules towing heavily laden U-Haul trailers up and down the grade, like the Mercedes-Benz ML and the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the photo above.

Continuing northeast on CA-190, the road takes a sharp turn, going southeast until you reach Furnace Creek, the second place within the confines of Death Valley National Park where you can buy petrol. The problem is that it's usually twice the cost of buying it anywhere else in California. Now paying $5.00 a gallon might seem cheap to visitors coming in from Europe, it seems terribly expensive to those of us living on this side of the "pond" where today, November 29, 2016, we can fill up for $2.49 a gallon, about what you pay for a liter.

Furnace Creek holds the distinction of being the hottest place on earth. On the afternoon of July 10, 1913, the United States Weather Bureau recorded a high temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) at Greenland Ranch, what is now Furnace Creek. The hottest I've ever encountered here is 129 °F in a 2001 trip to Death Valley in an Isuzu VehiCROSS. Unfortunately I got a flat tire which without gloves was impossible to change. Thankfully I was able to use my cellphone in the emergency call-only mode and was able to summon AAA road service to change the tire at no charge.

As hard as it is to believe, in the middle of Death Valley, there's a Pete Dye-designed golf course where on one trip, I came withing six inches of scoring a hole-in-one with my 5-iron

I always try to time my getting to Furnace Creek from between 12 noon and 2PM. Why? That's because that's when the test drivers of the prototypes and test mules eat lunch if their drive route that day has them within the confines of the park. I can't tell you how many times I've sat in my car waiting for the test drivers coming back to their cars after lunch, pealing back the car cover (prototypes that are two years out not only wear heavy camouflage but are under cover whenever parked and unattended) to see something that is new. Those are the most valuable spy shot scoops, especially of the interiors.

Caught just after lunch in Furnace Creek in 2008 was this near-final version of the 2010 Mercedes-Benz E-Class in a photo that appeared on Autoblog and was pirated to many other websites around the world

Sometimes, though rarely, I will overnight in Furnace Creek when on assignment rather than freelancing on my own. The benefit to this is many of the test drivers need a place to stay during test sessions. They will park their test vehicles in the hotel parking lot over night, giving me a chance to get some shots the following morning, hiding behind nearby bushes.

Heading south out of Furnace Creek take the first right hand turn south towards Badwater Basin. Badwater holds the distinction of being the lowest elevation 282 ft (86 m) below sea level in North America. When you are standing in the visitor center you can look across the road and see a sign that says "Sea Level" giving you some idea of how far below you are of the level of the earth's oceans.

These Honda engineers were none too happy when I caught their caravan of 2010 Acura TLs at a stopover at Badwater with the sea level sign just across the road (but not visible in this photo)

Continuing south on Badwater Road you will encounter some challenging curves and switchbacks before reaching the intersection of CA-127. This intersection is noteworthy as on the night of 18 December 1969, a super secret SR-71 Blackbird crashed at this location. At the time the area was sealed off while most of the remains of the aircraft was recovered. But if you look east from the intersection you will see some power poles with no wires. These wires was where part of the SR-71 crashed. Over my many visits to the area since 2000, I have recovered some parts of the aircraft including some of its titanium skin, electrical circuits and some pink material which I believe to be some sort of insulation. On my last two visits in 2014 and 2016 I failed to find any new bits to add to my collection. I'm thinking that the site has now been pretty much picked clean.

Taken by a passing motorist in December 1969, the burning wreckage of SR-71 Blackbird 17-953 where you can see the power poles mentioned above

By now you're probably thinking, this is a long, roundabout way, 350 miles, to find the best Prime Rib between Los Angeles and Las Vegas but trust me, it's worth it. And along the way, especially in June, July, August and into the first week in September, you are getting the chance to play car spy photographer. Throw in the chance to recover some bits of a super secret spy plane, and by now you've probably worked up quite an appetite.

Continue south on CA-127 about 1.6 miles and you'll see the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon on your left, across from the Chevron petrol station. What's interesting, to me at least, are the almost universal four-star (out of five) reviews that the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon has garnered on websites from Yelp to Trip Advisor. I think that speaks to how good the food is here. It's not a Michelin-starred restaurant, nor would one expect one out in the middle of nowhere. It's simply great food served in an unpretentious way. So if you're sightseeing in Death Valley, testing a top secret prototype or simply driving north or south on CA-127, you won't do better than the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon for three hours in any direction.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, there will be something on the menu that will satisfy your appetite

In all the times I've eaten at the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon I've had the Prime Rib more often than not. But if you're not up to 12 ounces of beef and want something lighter, especially at lunch, I certainly can recommend the Reuben sandwich. It's done classic New York-style with sauerkraut, not cole slaw (that's served on the side) and is near perfect. Who would have thought one would find a spectacular Reuben on rye in the middle of the Californian desert?

A flawless Reuben sandwich with Cole Slaw on the side works for lunch or dinner, depending on what time you arrive in Shoshone (Chriss L via Yelp)

Even with an early start, if one has had any success in chasing down test mules and prototypes during the day, by the time you're finished eating dinner it's likely to be around 8PM. For me that means still having a three-hour drive home. If driving back to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, there is a place to call it a night in Shoshone, the Shoshone Inn. It has been recently remodeled and post-remodel, has gotten mostly four- and five-star reviews from guests on both TripAdvisor and Yelp websites.

While it doesn't pretend to be a Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, the recently renovated rooms at the Shoshone Inn will not disappoint (Photo courtesy Shoshone Inn via TripAdvisor)

Now on the home stretch, it's about an hour south to Baker where you can pick up Interstate 15 to Las Vegas going north or Los Angeles going south. If you've ever traveled on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (and stuck in Friday night traffic going north or Sunday night traffic going south), you know what Baker is best known for, besides over-priced petrol. It's home to the world's tallest thermometer. Baker has a number of petrol stations with attached convenience stores, fast food and, for a time, a Starbucks, which is now closed.

Yes, the famous thermometer in Baker, California, where on this evening, at 10PM, it still was 99 °F

Now it's the boring drive back to Corona where my colleague's car is waiting. As it's night and as I've driven this stretch of Interstate 15 dozens of times, this is easily the most boring two hours of the trip. It's close to midnight when we pull into the Barnes and Noble parking lot to retrieve his car.

Two final notes. This photo essay is a compilation of three trips to Death Valley, in 2008, 2009 and 2013. The summer 2008 trip was especially fruitful on the spy photography front as you literally couldn't spit in Death Valley without hitting a 2010 Mercedes-Benz prototype. The Spring 2009 trip was a validation run in the Kenne-Bell supercharged RPO Camaro, this one with 750-horsepower on tap. It performed flawlessly at temperatures over 120 °F. The 2013 trip was when my editor from Classic Mercedes in London was visiting in-laws who lived about 30 minutes from me. And on that trip, the Trona-Wildrose Road had been washed out and not yet repaired so Ballarat was as far north as we traveled before being forced to turn back.

Even in the Spring, expect temperatures in Death Valley to be above 110 °F

The second comment is that I tried not only to route you on the way to awesome Prime Rib, but to give you the road map for your own car spy photography adventure, to unleash your inner Hans Lehmann or Brenda Priddy. For a long time there was the thought by some of the photographers in the spy photography community to not disclose all this information. But this story has been told in so many car magazines, from Automobile to evo, and on countless websites I just don't think it matters any more. That, and the fact that the car companies simply don't do as much testing in Death Valley as they once did. Still, it's a wonderful adventure and experience. But in the summer, remember to bring along plenty of water.