We spent this past week in Death Valley National Park and I was reminded of how beautiful a place it is. It is ironic that such a hot, dry and inhospitable place with so little rain (on average less than 2 inches per year) is so significantly shaped by rain!
Arriving in Death Valley from the west, traveling along the Eastern Sierra’s and over the Panamint Range, we were afforded nothing less than spectacular views.
We spent the week camped in Furnace Creek Campground, a campground on the floor of Death Valley, situated 190 feet below sea level. Temperatures ranged from lows in the mid 40’s, to highs in the mid/high 60’s and even low 70’s – perfect hiking weather.
We were fortunate enough to have one of the few sites with full hookups (water, electric and dumping), so it was really painless from a camping perspective. Reservations are most definitely required. Did I mention the views right from our campsite? Wow.
The night here is noted for dark skies and views to the stars and Milky Way. During our visit we had some clouds and an ever-increasing moon so star gazing was a bit limited. However, we did have a clear view of a beautiful moon!
You cannot spend more than 15 minutes in Death Valley without considering how old this planet is. Hiking (or driving) through this area you see mountains with layers upon layers of rock formations. As self-important as we all think we are, you would be self-absorbed to think you are more than a spec in the dust of earth’s history.
As we did last year, we hiked Mosaic Canyon. This is a really beautiful and fun hike. It is maybe a 3-4 mile round trip hike, not strenuous, but beautiful none-the-less. We also hiked the Gower Gulch Trail, which joins up with Golden Canyon for a breathtaking 4-mile hike. This trail has some scrambling involved, and some daunting parts where you need to be very aware as the trail hugs a sharp drop into an abyss while you hike on a very narrow loose gravel trail. And we hiked Fall Canyon, which starts at the base of Titus Canyon.
We did a little sightseeing in an old abandoned mining town called Rhyolite – pretty interesting how people showed up to these mining towns, the population swelled, and before you knew it the town were deserted. Located there as well is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which is a little kitschy museum. After leaving the museum, we encountered a couple of burros. They treated us with the utmost disdain.
We also drove Titus Canyon, which is a 27 miles transit over some incredibly rough terrain – 4 wheel drive and high clearance is a requirement. Beautiful views abound and you come into Titus Canyon after a steep ascent and descent in the mountains. This was not really Karen’s cup of tea but she was a good sport. There were some areas where she kept her eyes closed, let me just say.
We drove Artist Drive where you can view spectacular rock formations. I seem to notice that I use the word “spectacular” a lot. Sorry about that, but neither the word nor the photos capture sufficiently the beauty here.
I spoke earlier about the irony of rain being such a big factor here in the desert. In October Death Valley received a ton of rain, and in fact one storm dumped 3.5 inches of rain in a day, 2.7 inches within a five-hour period! Keep in mind that Death Valley on average receives about 2 inches of rain – per year!
You have to see Death Valley to really understand the impact of rain. When rain does arrive, these are not the green mountains of Vermont or the lush mountains of North Carolina where much of the rain is absorbed into the ground or funneled into existing rivers. The mountains in Death Valley are almost all rock and the rain funnels through various canyons, focusing rain into very narrow areas. Flooding, ironically, is one of the big risks here.
Obviously there was severe flooding and in fact some roads are still out of commission due to those waters and the resultant damage. We hiked up a closed road (20 Mule Team Canyon Road), which was one casualty of the heavy rains. It is incredible the force with which the rain and flooding wiped out this road.
We benefited from all this previous rain with an exceptional display of wildflowers, mostly in the southern end of the valley. These flowers, particularly in such a harsh environment, were nothing less than spectacular. You felt like Julie Andrews would pop out and start singing the hills are alive.
And of course all the rain ends up on the salt flats in the valley itself, which is nothing less than beautiful, bizarre and completely inhospitable at the same time.
During a day in which we each did our own thing, I took a road trip to the Eureka Dunes (not to be mistaken for the Mesquite Dunes close to Stovepipe). The Eureka Dunes are the highest in California (700 feet). Located at the more northern reaches of Death Valley, it takes an hour by paved road and 2+ hours over rough dirt roads to get there. No services, no cellphone service, no nothing – so go prepared with fuel, food and water.
It will be hard for us to imagine a more beautiful setting and interesting environment on our continuing journey than what we experienced here in Death Valley.