The plan all along was to head to Death Valley National Park after Mr. Adventure’s conference ended. A five-hour drive through long stretches of empty road and seemingly empty Mojave landscape brought us to the 3.4-million-acre park, the largest in the lower 48, before dusk, and we set up camp in Furnace Creek Campground. That night, a front moved in, dispelling the unseasonable heat that had characterized the trip thus far. The wind howled most of the night, coating us and our gear in desert grit. The morning was cold but calm, and we shook, brushed, dusted, and rinsed what we could.
We had two days to see the park, which gave us a chance to do almost everything on the park newspaper’s “don’t miss” list. Some park visitors insist on getting off the beaten path and avoiding the iconic sights and their attendant crowds. I get that. More than ever during this National Park Service centennial year, many parks were crammed with people. It’s not much fun to jockey for a good photo or wildlife viewing spot. Nonetheless, the iconic sights are iconic for a reason, and that’s why it’s important to see them. We try to avoid the crowds by traveling in the off-season if possible, going very early or very late to popular sights, and adopting a Zen approach about hordes of people (“Hey, just think of all the goodwill and support the parks are getting!”).
For some sights, though, there is no avoiding the rush, and Zabriskie Point is one of those places. Everyone said to watch the sun rise there, so that’s how we started our first day in Death Valley. It was cold and windy, but oh so worth it to watch the colors ignite when the sun hit the valley floor.
The thing about visiting Death Valley is that it’s, well, a valley, which means lots of great vistas. We got back in the car, turned up the heater, and headed to Dante’s View, about 25 miles south. Both Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View are on the eastern slopes of the valley, in the Amargosa Range. Death Valley runs northwest to southeast, with the Amargosas on the east and the Panamint Range on the west. Buffeted by a stiff wind and shivering in 36-degree temps at Dante’s View, we looked up and down Death Valley and across at the Panamints. The range’s highest summit is Telescope Peak at a skosh over 11,000 feet, and it’s apparently a thing to hike from Badwater Flats, the lowest point in North America, to the top of Telescope. It’s something like 30 miles round trip and 11,331 feet of elevation gain. In other words, not a quick day hike.
And we wanted a day hike. Fortuitously, we timed it to coincide with a a ranger program at Golden Canyon Trail. As with iconic sights, I am a big fan of ranger talks, and this was a good one. We learned that Death Valley was once part of an enormous lake and that the waterline mark is still visible if you know where to look, that fossil beds exist in the park but aren’t public, and that the mineral layers that make the park visually appealing attracted miners hoping to strike it rich, though few did. The canyon trail was once a road allowing access to mines, and large chunks of asphalt are still visible in places. After the talk, we explored the rest of the trail, marveling again at the saturated colors and the tilting stone walls.
From there, a short drive took us to Artist’s Palette, with its vivid strokes of color. It was wild to walk out into it, one foot on aqua and the other on mauve. Again, it’s iconic for a reason.
The afternoon brought another ranger program, this time at the Harmony Borax Works historic site. I was curious whether borax mining in Death Valley was connected to the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, a borax millionaire. Although the Harmony Works and Mather weren’t directly associated, Mather was later an employee of Frank “Borax” Smith, who had owned the Harmony Borax Works. Other than that six-degrees-of-separation tidbit, it’s worth noting that Harmony Borax Works is known for its 20-mule teams, which transported the borax to railroads over punishing terrain. And that’s where 20 Mule Team Borax, available at your local big box store and now owned by Dial, comes from. Harmony Borax Works has an impressively large borax train on display.
We ended the day at Badwater Flats, 282 feet below sea level. Walking out along the salt flat, we watched the sun go down and the first stars sparkle into view. Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park, and as the park map advertises, “Half the park is after dark.” After talking with a photographer who was waiting for the Milky Way to appear overhead, we headed back to a night sky program.
Can I just say, I think those laser pointers that astronomical interpreters use are really cool. I first saw them used in central Oregon, and they are genius. The colored beam makes it so easy to pick out individual stars and constellations. And wow, what a sky! I have no photos because night photography is outside our skill set, but trust me, it was spectacular. The Leonid meteor showers were in full swing, and we spotted 12 meteors over the hour-long program.
The next day, we looked at the park to-do list and realized we needed to head north. First we drove over Daylight Pass, between the Grapevine and Funeral Mountains (and no, I don’t know why the adjacent ranges were named as such, but their juxtaposition is intriguing) on the off chance of spotting some bighorns. No luck, but we did cross into Nevada and stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town on BLM land that was once home to 10,000 people. There are ghost towns all over Death Valley. It’s what happens when the vein plays out or ore transport is too expensive.
We crossed Death Valley and headed to the western slopes, stopping briefly at Mesquite Sand Dunes. Our destination was Mosaic Canyon, a narrow slot canyon whose walls have been scoured to a smooth polish by repeated flash floods. It really did look as though places had been buffed to a marble-like gloss. If you’ve got time and are game for some fun scrambling over and around several dryfalls, it’s worthwhile to hike to the end.
The sun was starting to sink, and we had a choice to make. We could drive over the Panamint mountains to Panamint Springs or head into the range to the Charcoal Kilns, a series of 10 beehive-shaped mining relics.
Choosing the kilns proved the right move, as we spotted several jackrabbits and cottontails before ending up in a pinyon and juniper forest that seemed light years away from Death Valley. Stumps are visible all around the kilns, evidence of trees cut to make charcoal for smelters at a nearby mine. And driving up the road toward the kilns, we spotted something moving along the floor of Wildrose Canyon.
Well, this was unexpected: a pack (herd? flock? passel?) of burros nonchalantly sauntered through the canyon, stopping here and there to nibble on a desert shrub. We’d read nothing about burros in any of the park literature, so finding them here was mysterious. As it turns out, the burros are descendants of mining-era escapees, and the park would prefer to eradicate them altogether. But between the expense and the opposition of passionate wild-horse-lovers constituency (burros helped save a lost hiker in 2015, adding to their appeal), it’s been difficult to accomplish. So there are under-the-radar burro bands roaming the park. And they are awfully cute, in that big-eyed, charismatic-megafauna way.
Driving back to the campground, we watched the sun set over the Sierra Nevada mountains. That night, we attended another star party, gazing through telescopes at astronomical phenomena like binary star systems and neighboring galaxies. Kit fox and coyote slipped through the dark, searching for food.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, lowest national park. Edward Abbey found it to be “an ugly place, bitter as alkali and rough, harsh, unyielding as iron.” It’s justifiably labeled a place of extremes. Summer temperatures climb past 100° and stay there for days. But that’s summer. November is lovely. No super bloom of wildflowers (for that, come in April or May after a rainy winter), but crisp blue skies and daytime temps that top out around 70°. As always in the national parks, we left much undone. A four-wheel-drive vehicle and another week would have expanded our horizons considerably. Next time.
Next week, the final episode from the Mojave. Spoiler alert: It happens on the drive to the airport.