Into The Valley of Death

Death Valley National Park, as the many stickers, t-shirts, and assorted tchotchkes sold at the park gift shops state, is the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America.

The land makes the Colorado Plateau seem like a lush Eden.

I thought I knew the desert. But I have never walked a landscape as stark as Death Valley.

The Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, being above sea level, had some vegetation. But was otherwise dry. In the late afternoon light, the dunes beckoned. A suitable introduction to the park.

The following day I walked along the ridge of the Black Range at Dante’s View.  Though no official trail is located here, there is a well worn social trail leading along the range. I could see Death Valley below, the ancient sea, and a dusting of snow on Telescope Peak across the way.

Fortuitous timing hiking at this area as the trailhead was closed later that day.

From a park high point at 5000′, it was time to go to the park, and North American’s, low point: Badwater Basin. (Some wags may say Washington D.C., the Pet Rock Craze, or reality TV are one of many possible lower points in American…but I digress. 😉 )

The salt flats beckoned.

The landscape was drier and more desolate than anything I’ve seen before.  I grew up in the forests of Rhode Island and live in Colorado. Even above treeline has lichen or alpine flowers clinging tenuously to the rock. Here at nearly three-hundred feet below sea level? Life, if any, was scarce.

The scarce water is not drinkable (hence the name).

A  favorite cover of a well-known song came to mind!

I continued to do other hikes in the park. A canyon devoid of water or other vegetation. And though it was in the 70s, I am not used to the heat at this time of the year. Born and bred in New England and typically skiing in Colorado, these type of temperatures are alien to me in January.

But I was entranced for those very reasons. The landscape, terrain, and environment were alien to any experiences I’ve had in the outdoors. I was not apprehensive. I was embracing the experience.

And my 12-year-old self could not help but think of the planet Vulcan from Star Trek. 🙂

I did a quick hike to the Artist’s Pallete off the road.  I explored the rocks, ridges, and small canyons.  The oxidation of different metals caused this seemingly otherworldly display of color. 
I made camp later that night in the park itself. I was a bit surprised to see a GOLF COURSE in the hottest and driest place in North America. I had the sudden urge to re-read Cadillac Desert. 🙂

The following day I did some more hiking along the trails at Zabriskie Point. Another favorite place but a little hiking gets someone away from the crowds a bit and into the “good stuff.” I was again entranced at the sheer desolation of this area. A desolation, still, beyond any experience I’ve had in the outdoors.

Death Valley was quite unique. Being so close to the growing ameba that is Vegas and the already sprawling California, it was busier than I expected. But well worth the visit. I’ll need to explore something similar in the near future by backpacking. The best way to see the land in many ways, of course.

Time to head a little bit after this and go to a place suggested by some friends. And after that? A shower and laundry will be needed!

All the photos…

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Andrew Cook
Andrew Cook
6 years ago

Awesome man! Hope your doing well.

Leo (YERMO) Adam
Leo (YERMO) Adam
6 years ago

Best article and fotitos about Death Valley I have ever seen. And I have been there so many times. EXCELLENT.
Again, so glad I found Best of any of the online mediums and their are quite a few.
One suggestion since you were so close? Baker CA area.
In the Mojave National Preserve:
Cima Dome & Volcanic Field National Natural Landmark
I know you can’t go everywhere but I bet would like this place also.

Leo (YERMO) Adam
Leo (YERMO) Adam
6 years ago

Regarding the Golf Course. When National Parks are designated, commercial “Man Crud”, as Colin Fletcher called it, stays with the park. That is also why the “Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel)” is still in Yosemite National Park. Also Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley.