Your vision of Death Valley National Park might be like the one I had if you’ve never visited it before. I equated the name to a place so harsh nothing lives there, not a bush, tree nor creature of importance.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Believe it or not, there’s a natural oasis, probably more than one, within Death Valley National Park and I happened to be staying there for two nights. It’s the The Ranch at Furnace Creek. I was there with my youngest daughter. We were on a whirlwind six-day trip through three of California’s national parks – Yosemite, Death Valley and Joshua Tree.
This vacation was special for me for a number of reasons. First and foremost I was going to be spending time with my two daughters. Second, I had never before been to Death Valley nor Joshua Tree National Parks. Both somehow escaped my attention on my many past forays out west over the past forty-five years.
Within thirty minutes of arriving within the boundary of Death Valley, I knew that it was going to be jaw-dropping beautiful. We were nearing the end of a punishing 9-hour drive from Yosemite National Park. The drive would have been just a little over four hours had the Tioga Pass road at the north end of Yosemite been clear of snow.
My college degree is in geology and there’s more geologic eye candy here than any place I’ve ever seen. The variety of rocks and the range of their colors took my breath away.
Before we left New Hampshire on this ten-day vacation, my daughter agreed that she’d have no problem me playing radio for several hours at each park. Just a little over 48 hours before I had successfully activated Yosemite National Park. I was anxious to try to activate the three parks we’d be visiting as part of the year-long NPOTA event.
Once we checked into our two-unit spartan room at The Ranch at Furnace Creek, Kelly and I took a walk through the compound. Just 600 feet to the west of our room was the swimming pool, golf course and a very large lawn area that was available to a motel-like structure where more guests put their heads on pillows.
I was astonished to see two massive salt-water cedar trees in a large patio area next to the lawn. Each had to be at least 40-feet tall – more than enough to string up my thin wire antenna.
The next day I set up once early in the morning before Kelly and Ieft to explore the park. I got skunked. The band simply wasn’t open.
Later in the afternoon, I came back around 3:45 PT and set up right under the one giant salt-water cedar tree. Magic was about to happen.
I went to 20 meters, texted my outdoor radio mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID that I was on 14.060 and he spotted me. Spotting is everything if you want a successful activation as part of the NPOTA. I’ve got a few other tips below.
Once I was spotted, my Elecraft KX3 was put to work. I had it attached to a 29-foot wire that hung vertically from the massive salt-water cedar tree. The end of the wire was connected to a 9:1 unun and a 25-foot coax cable snaked across the ground to my radio. My understanding of the connections within the unun lead me to believe the coax cable acts as a counterpoise in this configuration.
Here are the stations I made contact with at Death Valley:
- K5RK 05-01 22:58
- K8NWD 05-01 23:03
- W7OM 05-01 23:03
- W1PID 05-01 23:04
- W0IS 05-01 23:08
- W6LFB 05-01 23:08
- W4OV 05-01 23:15
- N1IX 05-01 23:17
- WT8C 05-01 23:18
- KE0HWZ 05-01 23:20
- KD8DEU 05-01 23:23
Once I put the micro Pico paddles down after my last QSO, I was elated. Never before had I done that many QSOs in such a short time outdoors. It was a balmy afternoon and I realized I had reached yet another new level in my amateur radio journey.
If you plan to do an activation at Death Valley, I highly recommend working under the giant trees I used. The area is fairly private and the tourists shouldn’t bother you. Don’t think about putting up a tripod antenna setup. Just put up a simple wire antenna as I did. It’s stealthy and it works.
You’ve got cell phone service at The Ranch so you can have a friend back in civilization spot you. Take advantage of that. Forget about activating this place between June 1 – September 30, 2016 unless you bring some eggs you want to fry on the stamped concrete next to where you’re operating.