It’s the lowest point in North America at -282′ below sea-level. It also holds the record for the hottest place on Earth, with a record high temperature of 134°F. In August of 2017, it also set the record for the hottest month in the US. It’s desert landscape at its purest.
It’s the Land of Extremes: Death Valley, California, and I spent a few wonderful days camping there to wrap up the end of 2017.
The day after Christmas, my husband Ron and I departed home in Ben Lomond for the roughly 8-hour drive South to Death Valley. We met my sister, along with her husband and three kids, and my mother and stepfather at the Furnace Creek Campground, which would serve as our home for the next three nights. Lows of 32°F at night? No problem – that’s what proper outdoor clothing and a 0° sleeping bag are for. That, and a glorious, roaring campfire to gather around. Daytime highs reached 78°, making for sun drenched, summer-like daytime excursions.
We reached the valley around 9 p.m., driving in on Highway 190 on empty roads. Then the saddest part of the trip happened: a white Jack Rabbit leaped from the roadside in front of our car. In the split-second I had to react and try to swerve (going 70mph, mind you), that poor sweet little rabbit succumbed to my thousand-pound death machine. Immediately, I started crying, feeling absolutely awful and guilty. It was the first time I’d ever (knowingly) hit an animal while driving, and it broke my heart. I pulled over, and Ron drove the rest of the way, going only about 45mph because he was scared to hit one himself; we saw at least a few more race across the road. Every time we go on road trips, Ron and I talk about what can be done to reduce roadkill. Animal underpasses and crossings are definitely needed to make safe travel ways for our animal friends.
By the time we made it to Furnace Creek, it was about 10 p.m., and we set up camp for the night. Firewood smoke filled the air of the campground, as we would find over the next few nights, like an inversion layer. The waxing third-quarter moon lit up the sky like a lantern for us to set up camp. We slept like rocks, tired from the long drive.
On Wednesday morning, we woke up and went for a morning bike ride with the kids, my sweet niece and nephews, around the campground. Then, we went to Badwater, the lowest point in North America at -282′ below sea-level. The vast salt flats spread across the desert like a mirage, resembling the glacial lake that once filled this valley. I watched an awesome History Channel documentary, How the Earth Was Made: Death Valley, before going on this trip, and it explained the historic geology. If you have the time and interest, check it out; it’s an awesome summary in 45 minutes.
Thinking about glaciers and lakes amid the arid landscape feels paradoxical. Then again, everything about Death Valley is paradoxical: it’s the lowest point in North America, juxtaposed with the highest point in North America only a couple of hours drive away at Mt. Whitney, elevation 14,505′. There’s water at Badwater, but it’s alkaline with borax and salt. It’s hot during the day, and cold at night. I love desert landscapes and all of their extremes.
After Badwater, we drove up the road to Natural Bridge. It was a short hike up an old river gorge until we reached the bridge. It was even more dramatic as you continued past the bridge, where slot canyons of smoothed rock narrowed the path. Thinking about an ancient glacial river rushing through these canyon walls seems like another paradox in the desert, but it’s dramatic proof of Earth’s dynamic and ever-changing geology.
We stopped for a lunch break in the shade of the canyon near the bridge.
The canyon walls grew dramatically higher, and the trail ended at a canyon wall not too much further up the trail.
We left the Natural Bridge canyon and drove North up to Artist’s Drive, a one-way, scenic road paralleling the main highway. This was a roller-coaster like road with many dips and curves; Ron kept commenting that we should bike it, or he skateboard it. It was a gorgeous mishmash of rocks and strata, making for stunning, striking scenery.
After passing through Artist’s Drive, we took a quick trip up to Zabriskie’s Point and the Furnace Creek Wash. With the sunset coming soon, we hurried back to campsite for dinner and a short sunset bikeride with the kids.
The sunset was glorious! We even rode into the Furnace Creek Golf Course and found a little pond.
The next day, we headed out to Mesquite Sand Dunes, Stovepipe Wells for a hot lunch, and Ubehebe Crater, the remnants of a volcanic eruption from only about 1,000 years ago. Walking up the sand dunes felt like we were at the beach without the ocean, which makes perfect sense since it used to be a beach.
After exploring the sand dunes, we had lunch at Stovepipe Wells. Then, we drove North to Ubehebe Crater. The loose scree slope of the volcanic rim provided a hearty workout uphill, and a fun slalom-style downhill like skiing. I took a quick jog around the rim of the smaller Little Hebe crater, imagining a giant mountaintop being blown to smithereens around me. As a Science teacher whose main passion is Earth Science, particularly Plate Tectonics, these kinds of first-hand experiences are soulful. I love the geologic perspective of Deep Time, and find it quite comforting.
We had a mellow last night at camp, and on Friday morning, I woke up early for a sunrise hike around Zabriskie’s Point; I also drove through the 20-Mule Team Canyon, where borax is mined. The morning was beautiful, and a nice finish to our short but full camping trip.
Feeling inspired by the beautiful morning, we had a nice drive home back to the Santa Cruz Mountains. We drove by Owen’s Lake on the way out (watch the movie “Chinatown” if you get a chance, as it explains the LADWP history of diverting the Owen’s River); we also flew through Red Rock Canyon before seeing huge solar plants in Mojave.
It was a fantastic trip to the desert. Though I’ve been to Death Valley several times, each time I go I feel as though I’ve just scratched the surface. One of these days I would love to mountain bike down Titus Canyon. And believe it or not, that hotel they’re remodeling looks quite nice. Either way, I know I’ll be back to the valley again. Its millions of years of geologic history will humble me yet again, giving that refreshing, paradoxical, vast desert perspective.