Like many incurious tourists, we thought that Death Valley was a barren place that was best driven across quickly. Boy were we wrong.
After we moved to San Francisco we learned that it was one of the best parts of the state in which to see spring wildflowers. The bloom, however, depends on the amount of rain the valley receives the previous fall—the more rain, the better the bloom. After waiting more than five years for a “Super Bloom” to explore the area, we decided to stop waiting for the bloom and just explore.
What’s in a Name?
Death Valley was reportedly given its name by a woman survivor of an early, ill-equipped wagon train. Although all of the members of the trip survived, the area was initially viewed as a dangerous obstacle. And not without reasons. It is
- The lowest place on earth at 282 feet below sea level;
- The driest area in the world with an average of 1.9 inches of rain per year), and:
- Arguably the hottest place in the world with a world record temperature of 134 degrees.
Still, hunters and hunter-gathers had visited the area for more than 10,000 years. The ancestors of today’s Timbisha Shoshone Indians lived in the valley for 1,500 years.
Mining in Death Valley
In the mid-1800s, Death Valley experienced a short-lived mining boom. Hundreds of prospectors poured into the area after one prospector happened to find a small amount of surface gold. Several miners did have moderate success in finding small amounts of a number of industrial metals. But the only mined resources that yielded significant returns were talc (discovered and mined by a woman) and borax (especially by San Francisco businessman William Coleman).
Enter A Con Man
Most famously, however, were the exploits of conman Walter “Scotty” Scott, a former employee of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He conned people into backing factitious gold mines. One of his targets was Chicago businessman Albert Johnson. Johnson eventually came to Death Valley to see the gold mine for himself. While he discovered that he had been conned (and wanted Scotty arrested), he found that the dry weather was beneficial to his health. Falling in love with Death Valley, he started buying land. In the 1920s, he built a magnificent home and named it Scotty’s Castle in honor of the man who brought him to the valley. He even forgave Scotty and kept him on to tell wild stories and entertain his guests. Johnson then became one of the most avid proponents of Death Valley as a tourist destination.
Note to Self: Next Time Plan A Longer Stay
Not realizing how interesting Death Valley was and how many unique environments it contains, we scheduled to be here for only 24 hours. Bad planning. We had very little time to take advantage of the many hiking opportunities in the cooler than normal (only the mid-80s to mid-90s) weather during our time there.
Death Valley Sites to Visit
Our first priority was to introduce ourselves to the range of natural and historic sites. The Visitor Center provides interesting exhibits, an introductory film, and rangers to provide recommendations. We ended up exploring a wide variety of stops.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes has 100-foot pristine dunes and trails to and up to the top. While not quite like the Middle East or Sahara, these dunes were nice. They gave us a chance to compare these pure, soft dunes with those that are hardening, those that are covered with small rocks, and those very few in the park on which vegetation is beginning to take hold.
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail is a one-mile boardwalk loop along a very salty (significantly more than the ocean) stream where millions of small pupfish have adapted to the salinity and the heat. It was fascinating to watch the larger (perhaps up to an inch long) males aggressively protect their territory from other males while simultaneously courting females into dances in which the male fertilizes the eggs. Interpretive panels describe how different species adapt to salinity. For example, due to the lack of potable water, pupfish drink the salt water versus other animals which rely on eating prey for their water. Plants also differ. Pickleweed, for example, stores salt in stems which are shed and replaced when they accumulate too much salt. Other plants shed salt onto their surfaces where it crystallizes and reflects (rather than absorbs) sunlight.
Harmony Borax Works is where you can explore the ruins of William Coleman’s borax plant that operated only from 1883 to its closing in 1888. Interpretive panels explain how the mineral was processed and why it was done in the valley rather than transporting it to a more conducive processing location. The plant exploited Chinese workers who had to sleep at the plant rather than in the rooms used by other workers. The Chinese also had to pay for their sleeping quarters and buy their food at the company store out of their $1.30 per day pay. You learn about the uses of borax by blacksmiths, potters, and morticians and how the manufacturer romanticized the use of its twenty-mule-team wagon, and the purported purity of Death Valley borax to turn it into a consumer product. The highlight at this stop is the original, big-wheeled borax wagons and water tanker that 20 mules once pulled from the mine to a rail station 165 miles away at the blazing speed of 2 miles per hour.
Although the plant’s life was short, the Borax Company leveraged the road it had built in and into the valley by opening the Inn at Furnace Creek in 1927. It promoted the valley as a tourist destination and helped convince the government to designate it as a National Monument in 1933. Death Valley was upgraded to a National Park in 1994.
Zabriskie Point is a ¼-mile uphill walk to a viewpoint over the beautifully rugged, strikingly colored badland canyons. They were formed by millennia of water erosion of land that was initially formed beneath 3-5 million-year-old lakes around which dinosaurs once roamed.
Artists Drive is a veritable palette of colors. About 5 million years ago, minerals and ash from a volcanic eruption dissolved in magma-heated water and changed chemical composition. The resultant iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium oxides are all highlighted in beautiful patterns of pinks, reds, oranges, yellows, blacks, and greens (the latter primarily from chlorides rather than copper) on the brown and white hillsides. While the colors can be seen from the road, views are better from atop the rolling hills a few hundred feet from the road.
Natural Bridge, where we took a one-mile out and back walk up a lovely canyon. We passed a roughly 35-foot tall and wide rock bridge that was eroded by millennia of storm-powered streams that surged through the valley. As interesting as the bridge was the smooth dry 50+-foot waterfall etched into a cliff further down the canyon.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 242 feet below sea level. Strain your neck and your eyes to see the sign in the hills to see just how far below you are. The area is a large salt pan that was initially formed by the evaporation of a shallow lake more than 2,000 years ago. The basin still serves as the collecting and evaporation point for salt that has dissolved into rainwater and groundwater at higher elevations. This forms a vast salt flat, with minerals such as calcite, gypsum, and borax mixed in. While the salt flats can be viewed from the road, a roughly mile walk on the sand takes you to thousands of polygon-shaped formations that were formed as the dissolved salt dries and expands. They rise above ground level—a phenomenon that we had previously seen on Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flats. The flats also contain a small pond of ultra-concentrated saltwater (4 times saltier than seawater) in which a few plants (including pickleweed), insects, and the endemic Badwater snail thrive.
Devil’s Golf Course is another remnant of the evaporated lake. It is located a short distance from and at a slightly higher elevation than Badwater. This spectacular, God-forbidden landscape is littered with thousands of extremely jagged, sharp salt rocks that look like bleached chunks of a coral reef.
Golden Canyon was the one true, albeit short hike of our visit. The trail greets you with a red sandstone wall at the trailhead. The 2.7-mile out and back hike deceptively begins in the wide mouth of a flat canyon. The canyon continually narrows to a point where one has to turn sideways and squeeze through narrow channels. It also gets steeper, much steeper at the end where descending the sand-coated slopes is even more difficult than the ascent. The trail ends at the foot of the Red Cathedral mountain face. Trails that radiate from the trail go to sites including Zabriskie Point and steeply, up to a tall butte. A lovely hike.
Father Crowley Vista Point is named after the early 20th-century catholic priest called the “Padre of the Desert”. It provides a view of ancient cinder cones and lava flows and an overview of Rainbow Canyon which has been used as a low-altitude training ground for military fighter pilots since the 1930s.
But Wait, There’s More
Although we covered quite a bit of territory in our allotted time, the park—the largest in the lower 48 states—covers more than 3 million acres. Some of the sites are well outside the central area in which we spent most of our time. On our next trip, we hope to visit several additional sites.
Racetrack Playa, a flat, dry lakebed in which boulders left tracks as they mysteriously glided across the sand. The phenomenon, a mystery for years, was recently solved by technologies including GPS and time-lapse photography, is apparently caused as light winds move the rocks over melting, microscopic ice sheets at speeds of up to 15 feet per minute.
Ubehebe Crater, a 770-foot deep steam explosion crater formed when underlying magna rapidly boiled underground water and created a steam explosion that shattered and threw rock into the sky.
Ghost Towns, including two (Panamint City and Rhyolite) that housed between 2,000 and 10,000 people during their short lives from the late 1980s through the 1920s.
Dante’s View is a 5,000-foot high viewpoint that can provide views of up to 100 miles, including all across the park.
Wildrose Charcoal Kilns are 25×30 foot beehive-shaped stone ovens that were used to convert local pinyon and juniper wood to charcoal for use in Modock Mining silver mines.
Death Valley Restaurants
The Oasis at the Inn at Death Valley has a lovely patio where Joyce enjoyed a seared tuna appetizer with soba noodles, cucumber, cilantro, edamame, and soy-lime dressing. Tom had a ribeye with demi-glaze, fingerling potatoes, and asparagus. We ended with a date cake with caramel and pecan that was not quite our taste. We shared a nice bottle of Domaine Drouhin Dundee Hills Pinot Noir. Tom had an acceptable 2020 Tooth & Nail Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (the only one available by the glass) with his steak.
Toll Road Restaurant where we shared a surprisingly good bacon-cheddar burger and onion rings for lunch. The restaurant also displays posters from several dozen movies that have been filmed in the valley, from several westerns through Back to the Future III and several Star Wars movies. The restaurant was named after the toll road built in the 1920s to bring tourists from Los Angeles to the Stovepipe Wells Hotel.
OK, this isn’t in Death Valley, but we stopped for lunch on our drive from Death Valley back to San Francisco in Bakersfield California. Hungry Hunter yielded two large, delicious, and reasonably priced lunches. Tom had a huge, open-faced prime rib sandwich piled high with medium-rare prime rib, mushrooms, monterey jack and parmesan cheese, and with au jus and horseradish sauce on the side. Joyce had a grilled chicken sandwich with jack cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a brioche roll. Our chosen sides were onion rings and sweet potato fries, both of which we enjoyed.
It Wasn’t in the Stars
In addition to not planning enough time in Death Valley, we had another disappointment. We expected to see a blanket of stars at night where it is possible to see perhaps 15,000 stars. We were very disappointed. The Colorado Plateau and Death Valley with their limited population, huge tracts of land devoted to parks, and a commitment to International Dark Sky Association guidelines are known for their stargazing with some of the best visibility in the world. Not, unfortunately during our visit. While some nights were far too cloudy to view stars, others were perfectly clear but offered unaided visibility of only several dozen stars. Drat!
Leave a Reply