In February 2017 I crossed off a major Bucket list item when I visited Death Valley National Park. Most people in my neck of the woods will probably never see it just because of the name. Who wants to visit a place with a reputation for being one of the most inhospitable places on the planet? But reality is the contrary. Death Valley is a beautiful and magical place. Known mostly for its soaring summer temperatures, the valley contains some of the most scenic areas of the American Southwest. And if you visit outside of the summer months you can enjoy it all in the most comfortable of temperatures. On my two day visit we saw some weather extremes. Day one started out with a quick visit to Dante's View, One of the most popular vistas in the park. Sadly we were met with clouds, rain and near freezing temperatures. No view for us!
Next we stopped at Zabriskie Point. while the weather was much improved from Dante's View, I felt a return visit the next day would be more revealing. We decided to spend the bulk of the first day in the area north of Furnace Creek at Stovepipe Wells. The first stop was a hike through Mosaic Canyon. A moderate stroll with some small climbs through interesting layers of rock. Mosaic had some narrow areas but wasn't as tight as some slot canyons we had hiked in Utah.
Mosaic is a 4 mile out and back trail that ends at a tall Dry Fall. The rock colors and mixture are the draw here. I'm used to seeing smooth walls to canyons like this. But Mosaic lived up to its name with patterns of deposits that looked more man made than created by nature.
Mosaic Canyon is a hike that just about anyone can do. Everyone would enjoy. Kids can scramble over rocks a few dry falls before reaching the end. Don't expect to much solitude here. We hiked on a Saturday afternoon and the trail was very busy.
After Mosaic Canyon we headed over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. A very large area of sand just off the highway. Again the area was very crowded with hikers. We took a walk about a third of a mile into the Dunes to take a few photos. If you have never walked into a large dune area it is quite the experience. To look around and see nothing but sand in every direction. I had the opportunity to see the Imperial Dunes on a previous trip to Southern California in the late 90's. Standing at Mesquite was a bit anticlimactic for me. But still very cool!
The last stop on day one took us to Salt Creek. At this location a well a maintained boardwalk guides you to a small stream containing a miracle of the desert. Fish! This seasonal stream of salty water is the only home of the rare Salt Creek Pupfish. These hardy little swimmers must endure water temperatures ranging from near freezing to over 100 degrees. A truly amazing thing to see in a place called Death Valley.
We spent the night at Furnace Creek Ranch. An oasis at the heart of the valley. Here you will find a full range of services including three restaurants, a general store, gas station and the motel. The main park visitor center is also located here. Our room was simple and comfortable. What struck me the most was the friendliness of the wait staff in the restaurant. We ate dinner and breakfast in the Forty Niner Cafe. On both visits the staff bent over backwards to make sure we had a great dining experience. Top Marks!
On day two we got the Death Valley weather we had hoped for. Bright Blue sunny skies and warmer temperatures. Not the soaring heat that the crazy Heat Tourism visitors ( yes that's a thing) are looking for but a pleasant 80 degrees. A high wind kicked up sand and dust in the early morning but it seemed contained to the area we had visited the day before. As I type this I realize that I'm much better with photos and short descriptions. I'm going to try and capture my experiences in less words going forward.
First stop is a Death Valley Classic. just north of Furnace Creek is the Harmony Borax Works. You know, Twenty Mule Team Borax. The main industry before the tourists arrived. Unlike the day before we had this place to ourselves. That early start paid off.
Next I wanted to take advantage of the weather change. I didn't feel that we had the best conditions to view Zabriskie Point the previous day. The colors were amazing. Too bad the dust hadn't settled in the valley below.
We didn't feel that we had the time to invest in a return visit to Dante's View. Instead we drove through Twenty Mule Team Canyon. Similar to the terrain around Zabriskie, this area is as barren as the desert can get. Very little if any vegeatation. More amazing shapes and colors. It may first appear to be an off road trail but I beleive any car could handle it.
After Twenty Mule Team Canyon we back tracked to Badwater Road for our exploration of the lower valley. Our first two stops were hikes. The very popular Gold Canyon where we observed baby stollers and flipflops followed by the stunning and less populated Desolation Canyon. Sadlly flood damage had closed the Artists Palate and all of the Artists Scenic drive. But Desolation is very similar terrain and did not disappoint.
If I had to choose between the two it would be Desolation. More interesting terrian and MUCH better Colors. And just plain desolate! I read that at least one Twilight Zone episode was filmed here which added to the fun. Make sure you hike all the way up to the top for an amazing top down view of what you just went through.
Top of Desolation
Even though we didn't get to travel into the Artists Palate, here is a view from Badwater Road.
Next stop was the Devil's Golf Course. I'm sure someone at sometime has dropped a golf ball here and tried to hit it. I hope they used an old club. Very cool place.
We saved the best for last. The spot that everyone comes to see. Badwater Basin. The lowest elevation in North America and the hottest place ever recorded. This is why I came to Death Valley. From the parking lot is about a 2 mile walk out onto the Salt Flat. This is truly the heart of Death Valley. It was sunny and 80 degrees. The parking lot was full of cars but I don't believe many people walk out as far as they should. It was like standing on a snow covered lake. Very strange, very magical. A dream fulfilled. Now, should I join those crazy heat tourists and return in July?
After Badwater most people turn around and head back to Furnace Creek. We had the luxury of our next destinantion being south so we travelled the rest of badwater Road where cars and people were scarce. A quick stop to speak to a coyote who appeared to be looking for either a ride or food.
Near the end of Badwater road you will find the ruins of Ashford Mills. A nice stop before exiting the park.
Now that I have explored Death Valley I can say that my expectations were exceeded. In our quick two days we barely scratched the surface of this amazing place. I would love to return. Maybe even in summer. Not!