Death Valley

Most people will never experience North America’s high point at the top of Denali (i.e., Mt. McKinley) in Alaska, but it’s easy to reach the continental low point of 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park . . . just follow the map and take Badwater Road to Badwater Basin’s sizable pull-off area, which accommodates many vehicles and is 18 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in the park’s center.

On the other side of the road from the parking lot is a “Sea Level” sign perched high upon a brown, craggy-faced hillside. The sign puts into visual context what it means to be roughly 26 stories below sea level.

The basin itself is 200-square-miles of salt flats, sometimes mixed with crud from the ground beneath the salts, framed by the Panamint and Amargosa mountain ranges to the west and east, respectively. The salts are mainly sodium chloride, or table salt, which find their way into the basin via Death Valley’s 9,000-square-mile drainage system. Rains fall on distance mountains, and the floods that tumble downward dissolve salt and other minerals that eventually trickle into the basin as surface water and get trapped. High temperatures heat up the basin and evaporate the water, leaving mainly the salts behind. They dry and form funky, polygonal shapes.

Aside from the obligatory photo opp at the “Badwater Basin/282 feet below sea level” sign, the other big thing to do there is amble under the hot sun. I took a long walk along the wide, well-worn salty path which took me a good ways into the basin. Just being on the basin floor and walking out for as long as I wanted (I was way out there and could’ve gone a lot further) and experiencing the heat and knowing I was as low as it gets in North America, was its own reward. I took it all in . . . the depressed elevation, the warmth, the stark desolation framed by the surrounding brown, treeless mountains, and the salt.

Walking out far enough to where there was nobody near me on the basin floor made me feel like a speck of dust in the middle of this harsh American desert; a place forged by geologic forces of faulting and tectonic plate movement that uplifted the surrounding ranges and dropped the basin to lower depths; a process that continues today and keeps the basin floor well below sea level despite the tons of material that water-borne erosion carries to the basin floor and which can’t escape.

I was there in late October when the late-afternoon sun was comfortably warm––about 90 degrees. I suppose the hardcore way to experience Badwater Basin is to walk out on the flats in the mid-day, 115-degree heat of July to experience valley’s full-throttle, sweltering glory, but 90-degree heat the heart of autumn was toasty enough for me.

Take Your Time
Death Valley National Park is billed as the Land of Great Extremes. It’s a stunningly beautiful stretch of terra firma with multi-hued and multi-textured mountains, bluffs and canyons; blinding white salt pans; a huge, magnificent crater; and scorching, desiccating heat. In winter, the tops of the Panamint Range that brackets Death Valley to the west are powdered with snow. Wildflowers bloom after rainfalls, and fish live in isolated oases within the park.

The Timbisha Shoshone tribe are the indigenous people of Death Valley who’ve lived in this seemingly inhospitable place for more than 1,000 years, and they remain in the park within a tiny village near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

The vast majority of the park’s 3.4 million acres are in California, with a small triangular wedge incongruently spilling over into Nevada. All told, the park is almost larger than the land mass of Connecticut. Within it are more than three million acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of backcountry roads.

Its size alone dictates that you can’t truly appreciate DVNP with a quick drive through and a few snapshots. Some people do opt for the blitzkrieg route, and the concentration of notable sites within the park’s southern half near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center can lend itself to a frantic day of “greatest hits” sightseeing for those in a rush.

But the rule of thumb is that you need at least three days to take in the main sites in both the northern and southern halves, and to let the park’s stark beauty and isolated grandeur wash over you. Death Valley is a classic American West national park with its wide-open spaces and peerless views, and taking time to get to know the place engenders a sort of “slow food movement” for the senses and an appreciation for the awesome extremes of nature.

Colorful Rocks
The late-autumn and winter months are the most popular times to visit Death Valley because that’s when the park is coolest. The average maximum summer temperatures are above 100 degrees from June through September, including an average of 115 degrees in July. And Death Valley claims bragging rights for the highest-ever recorded temperature––134 degrees on July 10, 1913.

The place is so dry that it averages two inches of rainfall annually (and in some years it gets nada), while its evaporation rate is about 130 inches annually, and up to 150 inches in the bottom of Death Valley. That means you have to drink lots of water to stay hydrated. We’re talking copious amounts that if consumed in a normal environment would leave you bloated and constantly needing to pee. In Death Valley, such amounts go down easy––particularly when you’re hiking, riding a bike or doing anything physically active––because so much water leaves your body via evaporation rather than urination.

Death Valley’s extreme heat results from its deep basins that trap the warmth produced during the hot summer. And its extreme dryness is caused by four mountain ranges between it and the Pacific Ocean that squeeze out the moisture from Pacific storms as they roll east and dump rain on the western sides of the ranges while creating rainshadows on the eastern sides. By the time the weather systems reach Death Valley, they generally have nothing left to deposit other than dry air.

But when it does rain in Death Valley, flowers on the valley floor explode in blooming color. It didn’t rain during my visit, so I got my dose of color at Artist’s Drive/Artist’s Palette, is one of Death Valley’s most sublime sections.

Pardon the hyperbole, but Artist’s Drive is one of the most distinctive stretches of roadway I’ve ever driven on. It’s short and sweet, and it packs a visual punch and some driving thrills along its one-way, nine-mile trail through the Black Mountains of the Amargosa Range.

The drive is accessed from Badwater Road about 10 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, and it provides an almost amusement park ride feel as it dips and makes tight turns as canyon walls close in on the narrow road like vice grips before opening up to wider, grander views. The tight turns mean that vehicles longer than 25 feet aren’t allowed.

It’s a lot of fun, and it’s worth making the trip twice––the first time to enjoy the thrills; the second time to focus on the scenery.

Roughly halfway into Artist’s Drive is Artist’s Palette, a section of hillside dolloped with assorted colors that looks like globs of ice cream deposited by a large scoop wielded by Paul Bunyan. The red, pink, yellow, green and purple rocks are fanciful, if not playful. This colorful arrangement was caused by volcanic activity of ash and cinder eruptions that formed various mineral deposits––iron salts produced the reds, pinks and yellows; decomposing micas created the greens; and manganese is responsible for the purples.

This veritable rainbow in rock is one of those sites that make you say, “Wow!” While I was there a bunch of bikers on Harleys pulled up and spent about 10 minutes taking pictures and admiring the rocks. One burly guy twice said in wonderment, “Every color of the rainbow is here,” as he rattled off the names of the colors both times after he made his rainbow comment.

But it’s also one of those places that a camera can’t do justice.

Sand Dunes
Really tall, desert-like sand dunes are crowd pleasers. For starters, they’re photogenic, particularly at sunrise and sunset when they’re bathed in soft golden light and cast abstract shadows along their sinewy curves and rippled, contoured mounds. And they’re fun to play on, even if tramping up a tall sand dune is one of life’s great workouts because the effort required to lift your feet out of soft sand while running up a steep incline gets the heart a-thumping and the blood a-pumping as it burns the quadriceps and expands the lungs.

Although Death Valley National Park is a desert, only about one percent of it is covered in sand. And the best-known collection of sand in the park is at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, an area located off Highway 190 close to Stovepipe Wells Village, one of three tourist accommodations within the park and roughly 25 miles north of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

I visited the golden-brown dunes in the late afternoon to experience them at sunset. Visitors to the dunes stop at the main parking area that’s about two miles from Stovepipe Wells and foray into the dunes from there. As people fan out they leave footprints across the dunes.

To avoid the footprints and improve the odds of photographing pristine dunes, and just to get the feeling of having the dunes to myself, I parked along the side of the road about a mile before the parking area, and hiked in roughly a mile along the flat terrain of mesquite trees and a floor of hard, polygon-shaped cracked clay leftover from an ancient lakebed. Eventually, I reached where the dunes began and walked a ways along the dunes till I came to a spot that looked promising. I set up the tripod, set down my camera bag, sat on my fanny and waited around 10 to 15 minutes before the setting sun began to weave its magic of orangy glow and abstract shadow play.

I shot photos for a half hour. The time went fast, and interesting shadow plays came and went in less than 10 minutes on a particular dune before it was time to focus on the next dune. By 6:00, the dunes and distant Grapevine Mountains were cloaked in dusky shade. A slight, pleasant breeze blew and it was very quiet.

I saw two people on a dune in the distance toward the main parking area. Other than that, I felt like I had this moment and this corner of the world to myself. Dunes that a half-hour before had danced with life in the interplay of flaming light and shadows now seemed dormant and ready to sleep for the night. It was an exquisite moment. I looked back to make sure my car was still there. I glanced over at Stovepipe Wells, whose lights in the gloaming gave it an inviting, middle-of-nowhere oasis feeling. I looked forward to a relaxing evening, a couple of beers and a hearty meal.

North End
Furnace Creek is the heart of Death Valley National Park both geographically and logistically. That’s where the visitor center is, as well as the tourist accommodations at Furnace Creek Ranch and Furnace Creek Inn. And it’s the gateway to many of the prime attractions in the southern half of the park. In some ways, it has a crowded feel . . . as much as Death Valley can feel crowded.

Roughly 25 miles north of Furnace Creek is Stovepipe Wells Village, a more low-key tourist oasis that’s the gateway to the northern half of the park that has its own gems, along with a greater feeling of seclusion.

Two of the north end’s popular attractions are in Stovepipe Wells’ immediate neighborhood––the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Mosaic Canyon. The latter is a two-mile hiking trail past stretches of canyon walls of polished marble and blue-gray rocks that look like mosaic tiles.

The other main attractions in the park’s northern half––aside from the miles of backcountry roads––are located more than 40 miles north of Stovepipe Wells and are accessed by taking Scotty’s Castle Road.

This particular Thursday afternoon in late October wasn’t busy, and Scotty’s Castle Road was practically empty. Few vehicles passed in the other lane, and there wasn’t anybody in my lane either ahead of me or behind me the entire journey north. I was in no rush, and I kept to the speed limit as I soaked in the magnificent scenery in the early-afternoon sun.

On my car’s satellite radio a song I had never heard before, “Red Apples” by Kurt Vile, was followed by a song I’ve heard a million times, Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold.” Those two tunes, played back-to-back on that lonely western road surrounded by fabulous scenery, were a perfect soundtrack for that very moment in time.

To my right were the variegated Grapevines and their panoply of colors (beige, dark and light shades of brown, hints of pink, copper and red, along with a little blue) and different designs and patterns (striations, globs, marble cake-like swirls, and scallop shell-shaped alluvial fans). To my left lay the valley and the brown Panamints beyond––the valley tilted downward from the Panamints until the land flattened out in the center, providing a visual clue to the geologic faulting that has shaped the land here.

It’s 42 miles from Stovepipe Wells to the Scotty’s Castle turnoff. Bearing right at the fork in the road takes you to Scotty’s Castle, a two-story Spanish-Mediterranean mansion with a colorful history involving a con man, the millionaire he conned and the friendship that developed between them. But I wasn’t interested in a house tour, so I turned left at the fork and drove another five miles to Ubehebe Crater, a spectacular hole in the ground with many colors and contours.

The crater is 600-feet deep, and there’s a trail to the floor comprised of semi-soft black gravel and assorted pebbles that was soft sliding into the crater. I had to slow down and steady myself a couple of times because I was going too fast and the footing wasn’t firm.

From the floor looking up to the crater’s rim, the top seemed very high up (higher up from the bottom than the bottom seemed deep when looking down from the rim). That was especially so when the few people who visited the crater while I was there stood along the rim and seemed very tiny, which provided scale to the panorama of the crater’s 1.5-mile circumference. Ubehebe was formed by massive steam explosion when hot, molten material came in contact with groundwater. It’s estimated that event occurred only about 300 years ago.

I walked around the crater floor and imagined the force, sound and fury of the moment when the explosion occurred that created this huge divot in the Earth’s crust.

The ascent from the crater floor was a short yet intense workout due to the soft footing in the loose gravel and the warm sun. It wasn’t as difficult as hiking on a sand dune, but it did provide a quad-burning workout.

Before leaving, I walked around a portion of the rim to an elevated section that provides an overview of the whole of the Ubehebe hole and the colorful Grapevines in the distance. It’s a powerful site to behold.

Good Hiking, Grand Views
One of the signature experiences in Death Valley National Park is going to Zabriskie Point, located several miles from Furnace Creek along Rt. 190, and walking the 100-yard-long trail from the parking lot to the viewing area overlooking stunning views of Golden Canyon, the valley floor and the Panamint Range beyond. For shutterbugs, sunrise or sunset are the ideal times to visit Zabriskie to capture the best that the color spectrum has to offer as the sun lights up the variegated layers of the Golden Canyon badlands and casts striking shadows.

But rather than just ogling at the scene beneath Zabriskie Point, the more intimate way to experience the awesome beauty of one of Death Valley National Park’s most fabulous sections is to get your hiking boots dusty by walking down into the badlands. I took the Golden Canyon Trail trail between Zabriskie Point and the Golden Canyon trailhead, a 5-mile round-trip hike through a magnificent badlands terrain of straw-colored formations enlivened with crimson and brown streaks and striations, and offset by brown-colored buttes. The colors are vibrant and the contours feel other-worldly. The fanciful landscape has almost an enchanted feel about it.

The trailhead at Zabriske is just off of the parking lot and to the right of where the paved path to Zabriske Point begins. (Conversely, the opposite end of the trail can be accessed at the Golden Trail trailhead located a short drive from Furnace Creek along Badwater Road.) The trail is curvy and drops more than 900 feet into the depths of the canyon floor of washed out gullies, with a few steep ascents and some stretches of high-up narrow ridges with sharp fall-offs where it pays to pay attention to where you’re stepping. It’s an accessible hike for anyone with a decent fitness level.

The Golden Canyon badlands are sculpted mounds of soft rock, clay, sand, silt and mud that during the eons have been compressed into conglomerate formations. Various minerals create its colorful layers. The Golden Canyon trail brushes by pointy Manly Beacon and provides close-up views of imposing, reddish-brown Red Cathedral, Golden Canyon’s two most prominent landmarks.

The trail is fully exposed to the sun, which means takes plenty of water with you. And the trail on the canyon floor can be a little confusing with its gullies and side canyons that all look alike––there’s signage, but the distance between signs and the sameness of the terrain can easily lead hikers astray if they’re not paying sharp attention. I know, because I got off trail a few times and probably lost about 15 minutes retracing my steps to get back on the trail.

I was parched and pooped by the time I got back to the parking lot at Zabriske Point in the late afternoon, but felt elevated from my hike into the depths of Golden Canyon.

I said goodbye to DVNP the next day on my way back to Las Vegas with a stop at Dante’s View. Heading east on Rt. 190, the road forks and I veered right onto the very scenic route to Dante’s View lined with reddish/brownish hills. Dante’s View sits 5,475 feet up in the Black Mountains of the Amargosa Range and provides a sweeping overview of Badwater Basin and the valley floor. The distant vistas were enveloped in the blue haze of the early afternoon sunshine, but the view was worth savoring, especially in the context of the appreciation I felt for the 72 hours I spent in DVNP during four contiguous days.

Lodging
Lodging in Death Valley National Park isn’t cheap, and some folks opt to stay in outpost towns beyond the park such as Beatty, Nevada or Tecopa, California to save money. Those places are easier on the pocketbook regarding lodging, but their distance (40 miles and 67 miles to Furnace Creek, respectively) is a time crunch and means added fuel costs in an area where gas isn’t cheap to begin with.

I opted to stay in the park for the convenience, to capture the early morning light for photography within the park, and to feel like I was enveloped in the bosom of Death Valley for a few days.

The three in-park tourist accommodations are Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs Resort, which is at the western edge of the park about 32 miles west of Stovepipe Wells. I can’t speak much to the latter other than repeat some information from its website, such as that it’s a small and rustic western-style resort that doesn’t have an official physical address, so it’s not advisable trying to find it using a GPS device unless you use resort’s own coordinates. The prices are more reasonable than either Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek, though.

Both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells are overpriced for what you get, but if you want to stay in the park and be close to the main attractions, then you have no choice other than camping. They offer different vibes and different experiences, and I don’t regret staying at either.

Stovepipe Wells has the cozy feeling of an outpost of food, lodging and other tourist amenities in the middle of an open, rugged landscape. Rooms at Stovepipe are basic 21st-century motel Americana––clean and comfy, but generic. The shower heads provide wonderful showers. But a sense of moral consciousness and civic duty impede one’s full enjoyment of the shower, due to the notice in the bathroom reminding you that you’re in a desert so please be mindful of water conservation and keep your showers short.

Stovepipe Wells has a general store, a pool, a gas station and two restaurants––the Badwater Saloon and the Tollroad Restaurant. I had dinner at each (a plate of nachos in the former and chicken dish––I don’t remember exactly what it was––in the latter). They were decent. During my two mornings there, I filled up on the all-you-can-eat $13 breakfast (taxes included) at the Tollroad Restaurant. It wasn’t award-winning, but it was filling and satisfying enough.

Ultimately, Stovepipe Wells’ main selling point are twofold: its proximity to the attractions in the northern half of the park; and its mellow, less-congested feel.

Furnace Creek has less of an oasis feeling because it’s near the visitor’s center, is closer to many of the park’s main attractions and is buzzing with human activity. It consists of two entities. The Ranch at Furnace Creek comprises a village-like setting with a general store, three restaurants, post office, pool, golf course and the borax museum. The museum pays homage to the famed Twenty Mule Teams from the late-19th century which hauled borax mined in Death Valley on 10-day, 165-mile journeys over unforgiving terrain to the nearest railhead.

The Inn at Furnace Creek is the higher-end experience a mile away on a hill housed in a Spanish Mission-style complex built in stages during the 1920s and 30s, and is enveloped in palm trees and mountain scenery.

After an afternoon of hiking in Golden Canyon and a second visit to Artist’s Drive, I checked into my quarters at the Furnace Creek Ranch, which was half of a duplex cabin on a quiet lane (Dante Drive) lined with similar, dark gold-painted and brown-trimmed cabins. The room was snug, and the front porch had a table and chair in front of both door’s of the duplex. Nobody was in the other half of the duplex during my one night at Furnace Creek, and I enjoyed sitting on the porch at dusk as the day’s heat receded and pleasant nighttime temperatures took over.

There are four dining options at Furnace Creek. The restaurant at the Inn has a fine-dining atmosphere, while the three restaurants at the Ranch––The Wrangler, 49er Cafe and Corkscrew Saloon––are more casual. I originally planned to dine at the Inn, but the mellow vibe I felt sitting on my cabin’s front porch in the gloaming made me lazy and not wanting to shower and drive the mile to the Inn. Instead, I moseyed down the lane to the Corkscrew Saloon, found an open seat at the bar and ordered a $20-plus veggie pizza.

The Corkscrew is pub grub and beer, and on this Friday night was packed and lively due to the contingent of people who descended on the park for a sponsored bicycle ride the next morning. The pizza and two Sierra Nevada pale ales I ordered filled my belly and put a smile on my spirit.

It can be argued that the pizza was overpriced. But that’s the price you pay for staying in the heart of Death Valley where you’re a captive audience. With that in mind, remember to fill your vehicle’s gas tank before entering the park because the two fueling stations within the park charge exorbitant prices.

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