Men who rushed from the East toward the California gold fields in 1849 had a choice to make when they reached Salt Lake City. They could risk crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains and get caught in the snow as the Donner Party did, or wait until spring to cross (missing out on staking a good gold claim). Or they could take the much longer southern route on the Old Spanish Trail or try a relatively unknown route that might shorten their trip by as much as 500 miles. A few, not wanting to miss their golden opportunity, chose the latter. As the group headed over mountains and desert, they found their route becoming progressively more difficult. Water sources became sparse and forage for their livestock was insufficient. Still they continued determinedly westward, hoping and praying to reach their goal.
When they descended into a deep valley, they were distressed to see their path blocked by a tall rugged range of mountains. The majority of the group found escape routes from the valley, but two families in desperate condition were unable to continue. They slaughtered their oxen for food and burned their wagons to cure the meat. Two men from the party then bravely set out on foot to find help, leaving the others camped on the valley floor. After wandering hundreds of miles across uncharted territory, they found supplies at an outpost near California’s San Fernando Valley. They quickly retraced their path back to the marooned families and led them out to civilization. This courageous rescue stands as a lasting tribute to the fortitude of these hardy pioneers. As the rescued party stood high on a peak in the Panamint Range overlooking the scene of their valley encampment where they had experienced so much stress and suffering, they collectively said, “Good-bye Death Valley.” And thus, even though no one reportedly died from the ordeal, the valley received its name.
Fast-forward 100 years to 1949. A group decides to commemorate the encampment of those hardy souls stranded in the valley of death by re-enacting the events that occurred a century before. This group soon became known as the Death Valley ‘49ers and since 1949 they have been hosting an annual encampment each November to celebrate the pioneer spirit and that special place called Death Valley.
While the original 1849 encampment consisted of a few wagons and families attempting to survive, today’s encampment has mushroomed in size and involves over a thousand RVs with their occupants enjoying food, festivities and fun.
The Death Valley ‘49ers Encampment will be held this year from Nov. 10 to 14.
Activities will include a costume contest with people dressing as their favorite western characters, a parade, a golf tournament, gold panning, a horseshoe contest, a pet parade, true tales contest, wheelbarrow race, an art show, a photography and craft show and lots of music.
A wagon train will travel to Furnace Creek to commemorate the arrival of encampment pioneers, and a parade of Model T cars will symbolize the fact that many adventurers came to Death Valley in those cars years ago.
Other events will include guided scenic drives, backcountry hikes and educational talks.
As you can see, there is plenty to keep an active RVer busy during encampment week, all in a sunny and warm climate. And it is considerably more enjoyable than the original 1849 encampment; no need to burn your RV or eat cured oxen meat either!
The event is organized by the Death Valley ‘49ers, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that seeks to expand public awareness of Death Valley. They have no headquarters office, equipment, vehicles, paid staff or employees, and receive no government or other funding.
Death Valley is a national resource and recreational area that is protected and preserved by the National Park Service and others for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The aim of the Death Valley ‘49ers is to foster appreciation of Death Valley as a rare desert environment having unique natural and cultural histories, which played an important role in the settlement of the west and the addition of California to the Union.
Membership in the Death Valley ‘49ers is required to participate in encampment events. Annual membership is $35 for an adult or couple. For information, visit deathvalley49ers.org.
The National Park Service operates several campsites in the Furnace Creek area where the encampment is held. Hookups are not available. Rates are $12 to $18 per night. More information is available at nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/camping.htm. A large overflow area is opened up in the desert for the encampment.
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote manufactured home & RV shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle. Join in their RVing adventures by following Dave’s weekly blog at rvlife.com.
Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.