Death Valley National Park: Desolate and Extreme

Off the Beaten Path

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Turning off of Interstate 15 onto California 127, the landscape becomes flat, rocky, and arid.  Trees are harder and harder to spot.  The road is straight as an arrow, for miles at a time.  There is no barrier, no reason for the road to curve.  We climb ever so gently.  The mountains that surround the large, flat desert floor start to crowd in.  The road snakes into the dry mountains.  A little town comes into view as we enter the tiny town of Shoshone, population 31, named for the local Indian tribe.

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We head to the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon that looks like a Western movie set, with palm trees in front that looks out of place.  This is the last place to fill our stomachs and gas tank before the park.

Highway 127 turns into Badwater road and takes us to the southern entrance of Death Valley.  The vast valley has a shimmering white floor that seems to be wet.  As I kneel down and look across the surface of the white salt flats, the heat distorts the view like a mirage.  Mountains more than a mile high flank both sides of the valley for as far as the eye can see.  The intense sun beats down mercilessly on my exposed skin even though the temperature is “only” 98 degrees.  I feel like I am under a heat lamp.

Land of Extremes

We drive through the southern entrance of Death Valley National Park, stopping to take a picture of the park sign.  This is the land of extremes.  We are in the largest National Park in the lower 48, with the hottest temperature ever recorded at 134°F.  Badwater Basin is the lowest and driest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level and less than two inches of rainfall per year.

Salty Water the Mules Would Not Drink — Badwater

We continue on Badwater road as it hugs the foot of Amargos Range that boarders the eastern side of the valley.  The scenery is desolate with very few visible plants.  Dry doesn’t even begin to describe the place.

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Traffic picks up as we approach Badwater Basin.  Tour buses shuttle visitors in and out of the parking lot.  On this day, nearly all tourists by bus are Chinese and Mandarin the second most heard language in the park.  The tourists with their selfie sticks happily click away with the huge white salt flats that cracks underfoot as backdrop.  There is a very small spring and a sign that proclaims the elevation of 282 feet below sea level.  The heat feels intense.  Who says dry heat doesn’t feel hot?

Dusty, Hot Hike

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Natural Bridge

We veer off Badwater road onto a rutted dirt road towards Natural Bridge parking area as the cloud of dust trails our car.  A short, hot hike later, we reach an arch formation that bridge both side of the small canyon.  The heat really takes a toll, even as we drink lots of water.  The thermometer now reads 108 degrees in the shade.  We return to the car, with dusty shoes and immediately turn on the AC full blast.

Palette of Color

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Artist’s Palette

Art in the foreboding desert?  We have to check it out.  As Artist’s Drive takes us into the mountains and winds around large rocks, we see the rich color palette of the rock in the bright afternoon sun: green, blue, gold and white hues layered on top of each other, exposing the different composition of the rock.  This one-way road snakes through the rock formations painted by God.  It’s absolutely stunning.

Sand With Nowhere To Go

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Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes

The sun is retiring for the day as we come upon Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes.  Rising out of the salt flats on the northern end of the valley, the fine particles are trapped by the northern mountain ranges and form a large pile of sand.  As the temperature cools down, we climb the sand dunes with difficulty.  The sand is fine and soft.  Each step I take up the dune sinks a half step back.  The footsteps mark where humans have been recently, but the wind will quickly reshape the dunes and erase all evidence.

The Hub of Death Valley

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The Ranch at Furnace Creek welcomes our tired bodies as the temperature gauge at the visitor’s center show 103 degrees in late afternoon.  Out of place palm trees, restaurants and a general store greet us.  There is even a golf course.  The accommodations are plain, expensive, but serve their purpose.  The dryness compelled us to get some lip protection but at what price?  A Chapstick is $4.00 at the general store, four times my local Walmart.

Dormant Volcano 

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After an uninspiring, overpriced but filling breakfast buffet, we head for Ubehebe Crater in the northern end of the park.  The two mountain ranges that form the valley begin to converge and the road starts to climb through some treeless hills.  Solitude sets in.  We have the road to ourselves.  There are no cars in the parking area.  We have the entire crater to ourselves.  The crater is otherworldly, reminiscent of Haleakala crater in Maui, though much smaller.  The slope is gentle enough it invites you to slide down the 600 feet to the bottom, but keep in mind, what goes down must come back up and it’s no easy task to climb 600 feet in soft sand.  Jabba the Hut would feel at home here.  We start on the rim trail that makes a loop around the crater, straddling a narrow path between the main crater and two smaller ones.  The temperature rises as the sun climbs into the clear blue sky.  We struggle up the soft black sandy path as we gaze at the fantastic view of the Last Chance mountain range.  What an unexpected find in Death Valley.

The nearby and famous Scottish Castle is closed due flooding damage, preventing our visit.

The Other Valley

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We descend from Ubehebe crater and back to the salt flats of Death Valley, as the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes comes into view.  The drive is long but the scenery is so beautiful the time passes quickly.  We stop by Stovepipe Wells to fill our tank with very expensive gas – beggars can’t be choosers – and head for the western boundary of the park.  Climbing 5,000 feet over Towne Pass, shifting to low gear as we descend into Panamint Valley, the scenery looks very much like Death Valley.  A pack of coyotes hangs out by the road, posing for photos and hoping for food.  We climb again as we continue west towards Father Crowley Vista Point.  From there, we look down at the beautiful, multi-colored, and dry valley.  The tranquility is broken when suddenly, a loud noise approach from the west as several fighter jets fly low patterns overhead, speeding through the sky.  If drones are not allowed to film the extraordinary beauty of National Parks because the noise disturbs wildlife, why are fighter jets allowed?

Fish Adapts to Very Salty Water

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Salt Water Creek

A creek in the driest place in America?  We venture onto a boardwalk path that crosses the vegetation supported by the rust colored, tiny, Salty Creek.  The vegetation extends only 100 feet from the creek.  The contrast is stark, between the vegetation and the dry rocks, as if someone drew a line of demarcation.  The water of the creek looks thick and still.  It’s only a few feet wide, salty, and very shallow.  The hot, intense afternoon sun emphasizes the harsh environment, making the short, flat walk seem longer.  Yet, life adapts.  While we didn’t see any, the Salt Creek Pupfish, unique to this small area, has adapted to the highly salty water.  Amazing.

God’s Origami

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Zabriskie Point

We arrive at Zabriskie point where the landscape looks like God took the white salt flat and folded it up like an accordion.  Walking the short path from the parking lot gives us an excellent view of this very strange landscape of shallow canyons.  The sun, shining from the west, provides the perfect golden lighting to bring out all the different shades of white and a tinge of yellow.  This is one of the prettiest places in Death Valley.

View from Above

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Dante’s View

Wouldn’t it be great to have a bird’s eye view of Death Valley?  Dante’s View is the answer.  A branch road off of highway 190 takes us up 5,500 feet for a spectacular view of Badwater Basin and all of Death Valley.  From the much cooler mountain, we look down on the inferno below.  The white salt flats shimmer in the sun, looking like a large lake.  Up here, I get a better sense of the scale of Death Valley and how inhospitable the environment is to life.  Yet, the life forces are ready, just below the surface.  The seeds lay dormant, waiting for the rare rainfall.  After the rain, wildflower bloom all over the valley, reaffirming the presence of life in a seemingly impossible place.


Thought for Death Valley

Even if the situation seems hopeless and extreme, dig deeper and you will find hope and beauty.  Just as beauty and life surround the desolate and hopeless looking Death Valley.

Impressions of Death Valley

Superlatives describe this park: lowest, driest, hottest, biggest.  Amid the desolate landscape, it offers the next layer of unexpected beauty in such extremes.  Coyotes, grasshoppers, fish, and wildflowers, all adapt to and live in this impossible land.  There is depth to Death Valley, such as the crater, the mines, Artist’s Drive, Dante’s View, and Zabriski Point.  These features make Death Valley much more than the extremes.  The park is so large, you don’t feel the crowds, except at Badwater Basin and Furnace Creek.

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Practical Info for Visiting Death Valley

  • Heat can kill in this harsh environment.  Bring at least a 16 oz bottle of water for each hour of hiking.  We carried 5 gallons of water in the car for three people.
  • The sun is brutal.  Wear a hat and sunscreen.
  • This park is big, with 300 miles of paved road and many more miles of unpaved road.  Distances between points of interest are long.  Be keenly aware of your gas gauge.
  • Two days is the minimum to scratch the surface of the park.  If you just drive by Furnace Creek and Badwater, you would miss the essence of the park.  Spend one day exploring Badwater, Zabriski Point, Dante’s View, and Furnace Creek areas.  Spend the second day exploring Ubehebe crater, Scotty’s Castle (if open), Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and the Panamint Valley areas.  A third day would allow for more hikes.
  • Be prepared to pay a premium.  For example, gas can be twice as much as normal.
  • Visit Dante’s View at sunrise or in the morning, when the eastern sun lights up the valley floor and the western range for a great view.
  • Stay overnight in the park.  There aren’t good accommodations close enough outside of the park.
  • Furnace Creek Inn is more upscale than the Ranch at Furnace Creek.
  • Take advantage of the dark sky and stargaze.

Death Valley Factsimg_4586 Death Valley National Park: Desolate and Extreme

  • Size: 3,372,401 acres, ranked 5th (largest outside of Alaska).
  • Visitors: 1,154,843 in 2015, ranked 20th.  Record in 1999 with 1,227,584 visitors.  2016 is on pace to set a new record.
  • Peak Month in 2016: March with 209,282 visitors
  • Low Month in 2016: June with 53,042 visitors
  • Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle.  $12 per person not in a vehicle.

Date Visited: October 10-11, 2016

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