A Day in Death Valley
I’m a national park nut. Every year I renew my America the Beautiful annual pass and try to visit as many parks and monuments as I can. California is home to 9 total (more than any other state) and I have yet to see them all. But I’m close. Especially since I just crossed one off my list when I recently spent a day in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley is a place of extremes. It’s the hottest place on earth, the driest place in the US and is home to the lowest point in North America. It’s also the nation’s largest national park at over 3 million acres and it’s right in my backyard. A 4.5 hour drive gets me to the main visitor center at Furnace Creek and I’ve long been itching to visit.
But the extremes of Death Valley are no joke and, as any Californian knows, I’d be a fool to visit in the summer. So as soon as the weather started cooling down I made my travel plans for a temperate fall day when I knew it would be bearable. During my visit the temperature did reach 90 but with plenty of water and a full tank of gas I spent most of my time there in relative comfort.
I allotted myself a full day to see the sites, entering the southern end of the park via Baker and exiting to the east near Lone Pine where I spent the night. In the interim I had plenty of time to explore and, after gathering my bearings at the visitor’s center (always a good place to start), I headed to my first stop, Badwater Basin.
As I mentioned Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America so I knew it was a must see. Its name is a bit of a misnomer as there is no bad water there. There’s hardly any water at all! But years ago a surveyor’s mule wouldn’t drink the little water there was and it was assumed to be bad. Instead, it’s just super, super salty.
I wasn’t about to grab a drink but I made sure to walk along it and it’s quite the experience.
The ground is coated in salt crystals and as you walk you can hear the crunch, crunch, crunch of them under your shoes. It’s also super flat and arid and offers an impressive view of the surrounding mountains and enormous sky above.
From there I made a stop at the Devil’s Golf Course, so named because “only the devil could play golf” there. The ground is covered with large salt formations that make popping noises if you listen close enough. There are warning signs to not walk over them as they’re murder on your ankles and several visitors have suffered broken limbs for the sake of a photo op. I chose to take just a quick pic before I headed on.
My next stop was a bit longer as I decided to hike the out and back Natural Bridge trail. The visitor’s guide listed it as an easy hike at only 1 mile but I soon discovered the term “easy” can be widely interpreted. First off, the road to the trailhead is unpaved and uphill which makes for some truly bumpy driving. Then the hike itself is uphill. I’m no slouch when it comes to hiking and can handle most moderate trails but this was unexpected, especially in 90 degree heat. I have to admit I almost threw in the towel halfway through but managed to tackle the whole thing.
As you can see from the tiny hikers in the picture the bridge is pretty impressive and it was well worth the effort to get to it. Plus it offered plenty of shade which gave me ample to time to take a break before I headed back to the car. Of course, the hike back was downhill and it ended up offering some pretty impressive views of the valley below.
Needless to say, my next activity was much more relaxed as I took the Artists Drive scenic loop. The drive is 9 miles through one of the most spectacular parts of the park, Artists Palette.
Artists Palette is an area of multi colored rocks and pictures just don’t do it justice. You can sort of see the different colors above but when you’re there they truly jump out at you. There are greens and oranges and purples and so much more. And you can walk right through the rocks seeing all the colors up close.
This was hands down my favorite part of the park and I only wish I could have stayed longer but it was time to head northeast towards Lone Pine. Soon the landscape started changing and before I knew it I was seeing large sand dunes and, of course, I had to stop to take a stroll.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are not extremely high but cover a vast area and visitors are welcome to walk over them. As it was late afternoon the sand was nice and cool and I couldn’t help but take off my shoes and sink my feet in. It was soft as powder and felt so nice between my toes.
It was the perfect spot to take a final walk and I felt refreshed as I headed back to the car. Thank goodness, because the ensuing drive was a lot more nerve wracking than I expected. Here’s the thing: I hate windy, mountain roads and I did not expected to encounter them in Death Valley but when I headed east on highway 190 I found myself climbing over 5000 feet and traveling through two mountain passes. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale but it wasn’t pleasant…for the most part. When I was almost out of the park I happened upon the Fr. Crowley View Point and am so glad I was able to see it.
Fr. Crowley was a 20th century priest devoted to the people of the Owens Valley. After seeing their livelihood destroyed when Owens Lake was drained he campaigned for the area to be a tourist attraction as it was home to both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) point in the US. Clearly, his campaign was successful and he’s one of the folks we can thank for making Death Valley the place it is today.
The fantastic views from Fr. Crowley View Point were the perfect close to a day in Death Valley National Park. I had long wanted to visit and it did not leave me disappointed. Home to a world of wonders it’s one of the most unique places on earth and I’m so glad it’s in my home state.