A Failed-Flasher’s Guide to Death Valley Showers and Baths

17 Jan
2012

“Yeah, the Hearst Castle is amazing. The guest houses are four-bedroom mansions! Can you believe that? I’ve been there 10 times.”

I’m getting travel tips from a gent that’s probably 60+ years old. He works in the area and just finished a night shift. I assume he works at one of the casinos in Pahrump, but I don’t get a chance to ask. He’s got old-man glasses and calloused hands. His glasses keep fogging up and he dips them in the water to clear the condensation. Which is why this situation is a little odd. We’re in Tecopa, California, and, to quote Seinfeld, sitting in a tepid pool of our own filth. Naked, natch.

I hear about the Hearst Castle’s artwork and pottery and landscaping. Sounds nice, but I’m having a tough time picturing it because there are two too many penises visible during this conversation. We’re the only ones in the baths.

“He had bench seating in the dining room and ketchup and mustard on the table. He said it was so that his guests remembered they were still on earth when they were staying there.”

Sure, fine. I’m enjoying learning a bit and getting some travel ideas, but I wish he’d quit it with the yoga poses and the hamstring stretching. I’m seated in the corner, having trouble limiting my peripheral vision when I make polite eye contact. I wish for showers. This is only my second soak.

Searching for showers at the Stovepipe Wells campground.

The showers aren’t exactly intuitive at the Stovepipe Wells campground in Death Valley. Here’s the tip: they’re across the street by the resort’s pool. Go to the resort’s front desk to pay the fee ($4 per) and get a key.

The layout isn’t great — instead of a connected changing area, the showers and dressing rooms are separate. Fresh off my nude bathing experience in Tecopa, I’m ready to stride nakedly across the bathroom to the showers, but instead I decide to be a bit more modest and cover up with my towel. It’s not until after I’m finished and about to throw back my shower curtain that I realize what I’ve almost done.

I look first, because somebody has propped the door, and immediately see a little girl diving in the end of the pool. Her father is shooting a picture right outside the door. A few seconds earlier and the little girl would have had a perfect line-of-sight view of my immodest exit. Why is this door propped? I picture myself arrested, the Death Valley flasher from Chicago. Cripes.

Lisa barely avoids the same fate. There’s a foreign family full of petulant children in her bathroom; one is a young boy. The mother fails to reign them in, but Lisa is able to avoid being a flasher too. “All you hear about is how terrible American tourists are,” she starts, “but I’m learning it’s not just us. Terrible tourists come from everywhere.”

Pièce de résistance showers at Furnace Creek.

We ask some fellow travelers about the showers at Furnace Creek. They dismiss the showers at Stovepipe Wells and tell us they can’t compare to the showers at Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek is basically Death Valley’s urban center, so we avoid it at first.

“They’re the pièce de résistance. Is that the phrase?” the man asks his wife. “They’re amazing. The water is naturally heated and they’re beautiful.”

We should have stopped there instead. It’s the same setup as at Stovepipe Wells — fee showers ($5 per), ask at the resort’s front desk. The National Park Service doesn’t manage any of the showers in the park — they’re all private. The campgrounds have nearly no lights so that they don’t pollute the night sky. Water is scarce. Electrical hook-ups for RVs are rare.

Panamint Springs has “showers” too.

Later, we’re staying in Panamint Springs at the Panamint Springs Resort. It’s in Death Valley’s Saline Valley, but it’s a private campground. For $7.50, you can camp, use the shower, use their flush toilets, and enjoy the solitude of the western edge of the park. But the prices are inconsistent. At the restaurant, there’s a pizza that is priced at $35. The all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet is $10. The beer selection is amazing.

Careful where you sit in Panamint Springs.

Careful where you sit in Panamint Springs.

The quality of construction is wildly inconsistent. Picnic tables in the tent-camping area are falling apart. The women’s bathroom is missing its screen door so it’s filled with bugs. It’s also missing the privacy doors on the showers. The men’s bathroom has two showers, but only one has a door. Both of the men’s showers have plastic chairs to hold your clothing while you shower, something both the women’s showers lack. Neither, however, will turn you into an accidental flasher. This place is pretty quiet, but it’d be exponentially nicer if these honey-do projects would get wrapped up.

When we first arrived, I asked Lisa how the showers looked. She replied: “Well, they spray water from the wall.” In every other way, they could be improved.

Tecopa has the best showers in the Death Valley area.

Tecopa hot springs from above.

Tecopa hot springs from above.

Tecopa takes the prize as having the best showers in the Death Valley area. The usage fee is built into the camping free, so you don’t get double dinged. But it’s not too low like in Panamint Springs where they can’t seem to afford the maintenance. And the showers next to the baths are great even if you don’t want to commit to a nude soak. Or you can pay for a private room, but no lewd behavior, please (say the signs).

If you’re planning to camp in Death Valley, stop in Tecopa on the way in and again on the way out (and don’t miss the China Ranch and its awesome date bread). The weirdness of the nude bathing is liberating, but I can’t imaging traveling thousands of miles for a bath like the Japanese tourists that flock here. Just remember to bring a nice big towel. Good luck with the eye-contact.

UPDATE: We tried the Furnace Creek showers and they’re pretty good. Definitely the best showers inside the park boundaries, but Tecopa is still better if you include the surrounding area. The showers are in a pool house, just like Stovepipe Wells. They only have a single curtain, but they’re warm and wet and you can get clean in them. That said, beating the system is a hot topic here. You could theoretically buy a single key and let your significant other in with it and save $5. Or you could do the reach-around and break into the place which is what the people at the campsite next to ours recommended doing. Best idea: plan to spend the day at the pool lounging around in the sun. Then $5 is a deal.