Just watched daylight slowly break over Telescope Peak. The sun crept slowly past the thin grayish clouds, burning them into a pinkish orange color that is unlike any I have ever seen. The sky slowly turned to light, creating a new day filled with promise.
I thank G-d for these moments. Watching something so much bigger than the sum of its parts, seeing time as a wheel in constant motion, viewed by the turning of the Earth in its seemingly endless cycle and, most of all, knowing that there's more magic yet to come. It truly is a day filled with so much promise, captured forever in a moment so small as this.
Then highest recorded air temperature in Death Valley is 134 degrees f. The highest recorded ground temperature is 201 degrees f, just lower than the boiling point of water. I also read that temperatures often top 120 degrees during the summer. I can't imagine driving my car through that heat, let alone a wagon train, as aspiring immigrants, miners and others did in the early 19th century.
Water spread as far as the eye could see, eighty miles north to south, ten miles east to west, in a lake so vast and a mountain valley so steep that it had to be hundreds of feet in depth. Melting ice from the surrounding mountains kept it well fed for long periods of time. How many eyes were actually here to see it though is a matter of conjecture, but it is believed that small bands of early people may well have camped at its shores during different stages of its existence. Descendants of those communities still remain today, tending to life’s daily struggles in a locale that would have been at the bottom of this colossal lake in times of yore, but now is sun baked and dry.
From 700 or more feet under water long ago, to often waterless today! Geologic transitions take eons to happen, human changes, on the other hand, occur relatively quickly. It is how the humans have interacted with the landscape here that seems to intrigue us most however.
This is Death Valley, a land of fascination, mystery, and harsh extremes. It is a place maligned by the masses, viewed as a chasm of death, but curiously visited by many of these people nonetheless. In fact, these negative undertones that are inexorably linked with The Valley are at the very core of our collective society’s strange fascination with it. In our modern times, visitors flock here to witness firsthand the vividly unforgiving terrain, upon which thousands before them labored to live modestly, or quickly crossed to get someplace else, or came to extract the riches of Solomon. It was a countryside of opportunity, a land of dreams, and an abyss of hell. So much history has played out its drama here that a lifetime of study is needed to truly appreciate it all.
It is believed that people have lived in this region for approximately ten thousand years, the earliest of which saw a different view than we see today. Massive tectonic forces molded the mountains along earthquake fault lines, creating deep terrestrial depressions typically referred to as valleys, although Death Valley is more scientifically termed a graben. Water from Ice Age periods later rushed in through a series of rivers and lakes, seeking the lowest of the low land, and finding it in what we now call Death Valley.
At 282 feet below sea level at its lowest point, it becomes obvious why water will always find this special spot. Interestingly, long ago, it may have been lower, as less debris runoff from the mountains had filled in the lowlands. Today parts of the countryside are filled by the Amargosa River. Some believe that eons into the future, this entire region will be underwater again, only this next time instead of fresh water, it will be the ocean coming in from the Sea of Cortez and running as far north as Oregon, filling a relatively narrow inlet where the Earth’s plates are pulling apart according to some experts. Scientific supposition fires our imaginations of what Death Valley might one day be like.
This trend of enthrallment for Death Valley had its roots in 1849, before the place even had an accepted name, when several small groups of loosely confederated pioneers unwisely journeyed into this unmapped void in a mistaken belief that a shortcut to the California gold fields existed through the region. In their thirst to be among the first to collect the gold nuggets that supposedly awaited them in the western Sierra Nevada Range near Sutter’s Mill, they inadvertently wrote a page in the book of Old West history that has been retold hundreds of times in as many varied ways. Their ill-advised exploits sparked an implausible stampede into the Death Valley territory in the late 1800s, which extended into the first portion of the twentieth century, and it is primarily these events upon which the modern common person is drawn to learn about Death Valley. This history, along with the unique geologic aspects of this breathtaking country, is also what led to the governmental protection of the region, first in the form of a National Monument in 1933, and then upgraded to a National Park in 1994.
Gold was found here and successfully mined. Silver likewise. Other minerals included some considered unromantic and uninteresting by most … talc and borax. There’s something exciting about running a profitable gold or silver mine, like the allure of massive riches. Problem was though, that most of the rainbow chasers who flocked to this region to take advantage of the few gold and silver lodes, left broken by the unforgiving terrain, with little or often nothing to show for it. Only a tiny handful of savvy entrepreneurs really made any money worth shouting about. A couple of hapless prospectors found the stuff, but lacked the wisdom to hold on to it – not a problem though, for someone was always waiting to grab it from them at the first opportunity. And grab it they did!
The largest financial jackpot came in the form of white gold from the lowest and most cursed land of the territory … the enormous salt pan of the main valley. Unlike gold and silver mines found in the surrounding high mountains, borax existed on the cracked and desiccated ground where some folks of yore swore they could hear the wails of the damned from hell. Yep, the big money was realized from the unlikeliest of sources out here, and when you visit, think about that as you stand at Badwater, nearly three-hundred feet below sea level, contemplating the Devil’s Golf Course. And then raise your head from the blinding white lowlands to gaze at the 11,049 foot Panamint Range across the valley, and consider the silver and gold mining in the pine trees on cool mountain slopes. Quite a contrast – just like the region itself.
Also consider what kind of determined people would even come here in the first place to find their fortunes, and you’ll quickly realize that it took a distinctively special breed. If you think this is remote and rugged territory today, ponder what getting here would have been like before roads, automobiles, and nearby conveniences! Now, you have painted a real picture of what went on out here. How many folks do you know who would have even contemplated such a life course?
Welcome to legendary country like no other! The one and only Death Valley …
Just outside of the park to the northwest lies Rhyolite, an old mining ghost town. It is chocked full of abandoned buildings reminiscent of a mining town that went bankrupt decades ago. The jail, brothel, and train depot are also there, with a few short train cars, all for your perusal. It is a great place to wander around, and most of the buildings have plates describing what they were back in the heyday.
Just head up Hwy 374 beyond the park boundary, but a bit before the town of Beatty.
The Amargosa Opera House is located in Death Valley Junction, a tiny town that is about 10 miles east of the park entrance on the drive in from Las Vegas (and about 30 miles east of Furnace Creek). The building was originally built in the 1920s as a community center by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which owned the town of Death Valley Junction. It was bought and restored beginning in the late 1960s by Marta Becket, a dancer from New York, who still puts on performances there three nights per week from October through May. The building's interior features murals painted by Marta over a period of years.
While stopping by to photograph the opera house, we saw a beautiful peacock, which was completely unexpected given the remote desert location.
In addition to the opera house, the complex also includes a motel which has rooms with air conditioning, but no restaurant or televisions or telephones.
Panamint Valley is a desolate valley that is west of and parallel to Death Valley. The scenery is similar to that offered by Death Valley, but there are far fewer people. In an hour of driving on Route 178, the north/south road (it is paved) in Panamint Valley, we only passed three cars. It can be reached by taking Route 190 west from Stovepipe Wells up and over the Panamint Mountains.
Of course, if you have driven this dirt road, you know what to expect, however, it makes quite a shock when you all of a sudden discover them after the bend of the road. They were built at the end of the XIXth century and were used only a few years, which explains why they are in such a good condition. They are almost 10 meters high and have a 10 meters diameter. Large amounts of coal could be prepared each time they were light. Each process lasted about 2 month.
The extreme heat is not the only reason why Death Valley is a virtually lifeless zone. This land was once covered with water. When the lakes evaporated, clay deposits were left behind. These hardened over the years and made the ground incapable of saturation. As a result, when it rains, the water simply flows downhill. Over time, a series of gullies and ravines formed in the badlands' surface, allowing water to move at a rapid pace.
Ubehebe crater symbolizes the otherworldly nature of Death Valley's landscape. The crater, which is the product of a volcanic explosion, is located near Scotty's Castle. A trail leads around the steep and irregularly shaped crater and its a pretty tough walk.
Since its far from Death Valley's "main" attractions, Ubehebe Crater is not a sight you'll see on a brief park visit. But, if you have an extra day, you can easily drive out and combine a visit to the crater with a tour of Scotty's Castle.
Twilight and sunrise are the best times to view the park. While I generally prefer sunrises, there's something special about sitting on the ledge after a long day of hiking and watching the sun fade into the horizon, creating a glorious golden sheen on rock and earth and mountain.
Darwin is somewhere between Lone Pine and Death Valley. The first white travelers to pass through the area were the Death Valley. Erasmus Darwin French came through on a search for the Lost Gunsight Mine, which was believed to be in the Panamint Valley. In 1861 silver ore was discovered ten miles southeast of Darwin and the Coso Mining District was formed.
by 1877. More than 226,672 ounces of silver and 1,920,261 pounds of lead were recovered from the mines.
This one doesn't even show up on the park service map...for good reason. Want a short-cut out of the Racetrack? Then wander down the perilis Lippincott Mine Road!
From the Desert USA website: "The Lippincott Mine Road is a 7-mile, low-range climb from the Saline Valley to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. In fact, calling it a low-range climb is an understatement. It's more accurate to say that the Lippincott Mine Road is a serious, high-pucker-factor, mountain-goat trail."
These dunes are the best! They put the easily accessible Kelso Dunes to shame. Seemingly out of nowhere these dunes rise from the desert floor as though they had just been dumped there.
If you can appreciate the sublime quality of a massive dune then the 43 horrible miles of nasty dirt road is well worth it; if you can camp overnight at the dunes, even better to enjoy them.
The Racetrack is a 2.8 mile by 1.3 mile playa or dry lakebed that is, "firm, flat and vegetation free". This playa is named the Racetrack due to its oval shape and the rock outcropping at one end is named the Grandstand for obvious reasons.
This is one of at least 8 playas in California and Nevada that have the famous tracks of moving rocks. Rocks that have fallen down the adjacent slopes appear to have mysteriously slid across the wet playa. It is said that this movement is still a mystery since no one has seen it happen but the many geologist that have researched this site are sure that with the right combination of rainfall and wind the rocks slide across the playa, with reported tracks of over 2000-feet.
To see the rocks drive to the south end of the racetrack and take a stroll. Please, the Park Service rules say not to ever touch or move the rocks on the Racetrack!
To get to the racetrack take the graded road 28 miles from Ubehebe Crater.
From highway 190 take the 2.7 mile drive up the two-way portion of Titus Canyon and park. Just behind the restroom is a trail that leads over a rise and away from Titus Canyon. Continue north until you get to a large was a follow the trail up into a very large and steep canyon. Surprisingly you will quickly leave the tourist behind to enjoy a 2.5 mile hike up the canyon until its end at a sheer waterfall (dry hopefully). If you are a good climber you can go back several hundred feet to the rock carrion that marks a trail around the waterfall. Note, the trail is very thin and high.
If you have no trailer there are motels/inns located at Stovepipe Wells Village and two at Furnace...more
Stayed at stovepipe wells, Death Valley in march 2012. It was amazing. After a long drive through...more
There are campgrounds near Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. There are also camping areas in...more