The word death conjures up a lot of images mostly of the unknown, and that’s how I felt when Leo told me he wanted to visit Death Valley National Park. Those impressions quickly evaporated as we drove the six hours from Palms Springs and entered the park, what a beautiful landscape met us, truly a contrast of colors and textures, just breathtaking.
We drove through most of the park in order to get to our campground at Stovepipe Wells. Along the way, we noticed the names of most park attractions referred to Dante and his vision. Vista points such as the “Devil’s Cornfields ” and the “Devil’s golf course”. Once at our campground we had a full view of the “Funeral Mountains” which can only be crossed by driving through the pass at “Hell’s Gate”. OK so you get the idea of Death Valley sights. Mother Nature collaborated that evening for a full effect by raising what sounded to me, like a hurricane with gale force winds that kept me up most of the night and kept our motorcoach rocking the entire night. The next morning we woke up to beautiful skies and it reminded me of required reading in college, the epic poem “Divine Comedy” by the 14th century Italian writer, Dante Alighieri and his opening lines.
“The time was the beginning of the morning. And up the sun was mounting with those stars That with him were, what time the Love Divine At first in motion set those beauteous things: So were to me occasion of good hope”
With these happy thoughts we set out for a day of discovery with out first stop at Badwater Basin which is a 30 mile drive south from StovePipe Wells. The park has a long central highway with Stovepive Wells, a 19th century frontier town anchoring the northern part of the park and about 30 miles from Furnace Creek the central “hub” of the park with two National Registry Inns and an “Oasis” with a general store and many other creature comforts. A lot of the major attractions and vistas are near Furnace Creek. Like most national parks many of the key attractions are easily accessible from the main road with no need for major hikes (unless you want to, which we did) many are very easy walks from the car park areas. However, if you want to hike and explore further they have various hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty that crisscross the Park.
Badwater Basin, our first stop, is in fact the bottom of an ancient sea that existed about 10,000 years ago. The Basin from afar, looks like a giant lake but what you are actually looking at is the leftover salt deposits from the bottom of that ancient sea. You can walk out unto this surreal barren salt flats (which is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America). We walked very carefully as the surface was very slippery in some areas as they had just experienced a severe storm (remember my sleepless night?) it left some parts of this Basin impassible and some parts of the park inaccessible.
This park has a rich history of entrepreneurship and our next stop was the Harmony Borax Works or the Ghost town of what used to be a thriving mining operation in 1880s. They have the adobe buildings of the processing plant and the wagons which were made famous in the 1960’s Borax commercial being pulled by a 20 mule team. Borax in the late 1800’s was considered “white gold” as it could be used as a laundry detergent or as a chemical additive to lower the melting temperatures of glass and porcelain enamels. You can visit the Borax museum in Furnace Creek for more in depth information. This whole operation only lasted about 15 years due to the difficulty of getting the materials out and the extremely harsh living conditions for all who worked here. By the way, the 20 mule team original roads are now trails which you can hike or off road drive, which unfortunately because of our welcoming night storm were washed away and again, in this National Park, Leo was denied a 4×4 off road experience.
Just north of Badwater there is a 1.5 mile delightful hike called Natural Bridge. From the parking area you walk up a dry stream bed to a 50 foot high arched natural bridge that was created by erosion from an old stream course. You can see the different water marks on the walls of the canyon as you walk and the temperature drops dramatically in the shady parts so you feel you as if you are walking through an air conditioned corridor.
By the end of this hike we were getting a bit tired and hungry and we wanted to stop for a picnic lunch that provided a nice view. We decided to take a detour and drive the 5 mile scenic Artist Palette road which conveniently parallels the main road as you travel back to Furnace Creek. This is a one way road that twists and turns inside a “painted canyon”. It truly looks like someone took a paint brush with vivid blues, orange, reds, yellow, browns, pink, you name it, just beautiful. These colors are mineral deposits that run down the hills and what made Death Valley so attractive to mining operations. I’m glad the mining stopped and this area has been preserved by the park services.
I’m not usually a morning person but I was glad for a bit of insomnia the following night, because we headed out bright and early (much to Leo’s joy) and reached Salt Creek before the crowds got there (everywhere you go gets mobbed by noon). This is a beautiful boardwalk trail that meanders along a gurgling stream. There is life after all in Death Valley and you see in the stream tiny fish called Pupfish, named as such because they seem to play like puppies. They are the only fish that survived the evaporation of the lake and are tough little things that brave the harshest conditions in the summer. We had the trail to ourselves that early in the day, and it was a beautiful zen like experience. I’m going to try to get up earlier from now on, we’ll its a goal, I can’t promise anything 😄
Salt Creek was close to our campground so our next stop took us on a bit of a drive beyond Furnace Creek to an overlook called Zabriskie Point. You can walk up a short steep trail to an awesome view of the Badlands. Even though they are called badlands, because of the barren nature of these rock formations, they are just beautiful. These are soft sediment rocks that have been deposited here over nine million years ago. There is nothing soft about them though, you can walk on them and there are some challenging trails you can take. This is one the most beautiful views of the park in my opinion and named after the owner of the Borax works, Mr. Zabriskie.
We were in for a lot of driving that day as we wanted to see the highest point in the park called Dante’s View. This is a good 20 miles climbing ride to an over 5,000 foot altitude lookout point and parking lot and then about a half mile hike to the highest point. From this vantage point you have a 360 degree view of the entire valley. There are trails where you can go further than the viewing area and we tried a couple of these. Here I have to say that I was afraid, the trails are very narrow and almost at the edge of the cliffs. Leo was climbing like a mountain goat and I followed but he owes me big time for this one. I was happy and proud of myself after I completed the hike and the views are “to die for”.
This was a very long day that had us stopping in many interesting vista points, really too may to mention, this park is huge. As we headed back to our campground, we pulled into the Sand Dunes which we noticed upon our first day arrival and are very near the campground. We left this for last and I’m very glad. This was fun to walk on top of these massive dunes that will leave a pleasant memory of the park for me. Families and children running and sliding down these dunes was a delight to see. They look like great ocean waves but like everything in the desert you need to use caution there are sidewinder snakes and scorpions that hide under the few bushes that exist (which you learn to stay far away from). We walked for a bit and said goodbye to this beautiful place.
There were a few things we were unable to see in the park due to road closings and we may return, after all, it is only a two hour drive from Las Vegas which is where we are headed to next. See you in Vegas folks!