I find the desert relaxing. Skies that extend as far as the horizon, wide open spaces, rock monoliths, all combine to make me feel very small, and therefore my problems insignificant. So when the chance to spend a few days in Death Valley National Park came up this week, I jumped at it.
Death Valley, so named for a group of prospectors who perished in the arid valley on their way to the California gold mines, was created by the raising of the Black Mountains on one side and the Panamint Mountains on the other due to volcanic and seismic activity. As these ranges push up and out, a rift is created between, and the rift has deepened at a rate faster than debris from the mountain ranges can fill it in. The result is the lowest point in North America – Badwater currently sits at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.
Looking across Death Valley at the snow capped Telescope Peak.
Death Valley is one of the driest places on Earth. Average rainfall is only about two inches per year, though the surrounding mountains do often see snow in the winter. (Telescope Peak, sitting at over 11,000 feet, had snow on it this week in early April.) And much of the water in the Valley is – as the earlier name connotes – bad water, high in salinity, even saltier than the oceans at some times of the year. However, to assume based on these factors and the park’s name that there is no life in Death Valley would be incorrect. Birds, lizards, snakes, and insects are in abundance. Small mammals like kangaroo rats come out at night to forage, and are in turn hunted by coyotes. Bighorn sheep make their homes on the mountain slopes.
Temperatures are moderate in winter, but summer is hot – record-setting hot. The hottest temperature on the planet ever reliably recorded was in Death Valley, 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 Celsius) in 1913, but temperatures will routinely hit 120 (49 Celsius) in the summer months, with nights sometimes not even cooling below 100. The Park Service posts signage all over warning visitors to stay hydrated, but even so, deaths occur yearly. Don’t be a statistic. Use common sense, drink plenty of fluids, and don’t stray too far from your vehicle.
Visitors who brave the heat will be rewarded by some of the most beautiful desert scenery anywhere in the world. Perhaps the most iconic landscape is that of the salt flats at Badwater. There is no drainage out of Death Valley, so snowmelt from the mountains gathers here at the lowest point, forming Badwater Lake. As the water evaporates, the salt flats re-emerge, crystals pushing up through the clay ground, creating beautiful patterns.
The Badwater salt flats, 282 feet below sea level.
The various canyons of the surrounding mountains offer hikes for all ability levels, although most are accessed by some pretty rough dirt roads. Mosaic Canyon, just west of Stovepipe Wells, offers some truly spectacular rock formations to scramble over in a roughly 3.5 mile round trip.
There is no shortage of incredible viewpoints in the Park. While Dante’s View is currently closed, head instead to Zabriskie Point for incredible views of the badlands, and trailheads for exploration of those. A short, paved walk will take you to the viewpoint, where this vista will greet you.
The view from Zabriskie Point, roughly 700 feet above sea level, or nearly 1000 feet above the floor of the valley.
For the authentic desert experience, the sand dunes at Mesquite Flats offer a ton of fun scrambling up and over dunes stretching for miles. In order for sand dunes to form, three things need to be present: sand (typically abundant in the desert), prevailing winds blowing mostly in a single direction, and something stopping that wind (in this case the bulk of Tucki Mountain). The dunes can be accessed directly off the main road, and are a lot of fun to scamper up!
Along the ridge of one of the taller dunes. This was a tough climb.
One of the best spots to see unique wildlife in Death Valley is Salt Creek, home to a highly adapted species of pupfish. These small fish are a joy to watch, playing like puppies (hence the name) in the shallow waters. They have evolved to deal with the changing water levels of varying seasons, and its associated changing temperatures and salinity levels. There are several species of pupfish, each living in isolation in tiny microclimates like this one. There is a boardwalk stretching in a 1.2 mike loop, making this one of the more accessible sites in the Park.
Pupfish are pretty neat to watch!
There are two places to stay inside Death Valley: Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, plus camping options. Stovepipe Wells is basically a motel, and on this trip, was embarrassingly understaffed. Furnace Creek has both a casual lodge and the famed Inn at Furnace Creek, now called the Inn at Death Valley. It is expensive but beautiful.
The Inn at Furnace Creek
Death Valley National Park is isolated, several hours’ drive from either Los Angeles or Las Vegas, but definitely worth a trip for those who, like me, think the desert is one of the more beautiful places out there. Make reservations well ahead of time, as you’ll want to go in early spring or late fall for the best weather, and make sure to drink plenty of water!
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