Death Valley, CA, is described as the hottest place in the Northern Hemisphere. This does not surprise the traveller who stands in the bottom of the valley and watches silhouettes shimmer and shake in the roasting sun. What may surprise him, or her, is the variety of landscape to be seen in this one small area of California, which nestles on the border with Nevada.
If you approach this national park from the Nevada border, turning at Death Valley Junction onto Highway 190 continuing west, you will enter the park close to Dante?s View. A quick tour up to this highpoint, a mile above Death Valley, will let you stare in awe at the vista of white that explodes in the valley beneath. The expanse of the salt flats can truly be seen up here, where the air is a little cooler than in the cooker below, and the breeze catches your breath to make you believe you are standing at the gateway to the heavens.
Travel back down from the top of the world, and you will pass Zabriskie Point. This open area, with its undulating rocks in a kaleidoscope of beige and brown, is a good introduction to Death Valley and hints at the wonders of landscape and colour to come as you explore deeper into the park. Stop at the small parking lot and do a little exploring, as you acclimatise to the oven-like temperature and convince yourself that you are still on earth and haven?t travelled to some strange lunar park.
Soon after Zabriskie Point you will come to a junction, at Furnace Creek, where the 190 meets the 178. Options are a left turn, towards Badwater Basin, or a right turn towards Stovepipe Wells. It would be a shame to miss the lowest point of Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level, where even the lakes dry in the heat and leave behind vast plains of minerals and salts that crackle and pop in the sun, so take a left and head for Badwater. Once on the highway you will pass Artist?s Drive. Take a short sojourn on this loop road and you will come across the colourful Artist?s Palette, a wall of outcroppings and crags in all colours of the rainbow. Take your time and wonder at nature?s beauty, after all, these are the ores and minerals that gave the ancients the ability to paint in the first place.
Continue along Artist?s Drive and the twists and turns of the road will take you through passes and under overhangs that loom like calcified giants. This unusual landscape will take your breath away with its surreal beauty.
Once back on the main highway continue left towards Badwater Basin. Here the sea level is marked on a cliff high above you. As you cook in the breathless air take a walk onto the salt plain and bask in the knowledge that you will never be able to get to a lower altitude on the North American continent, and the highest altitude is just over a hundred miles away at Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
On leaving Badwater Basin, travelling back along the 178 towards Furnace Creek, you may want to make a slight detour to Devil?s Golf Course. This plain is similar to Badwater in that it?s a salt flat, but its troughs and mounds make it much harder to walk on. Standing alone at the information board, you can hear the ground crackling like the embers of a beach barbecue as the blistering sun mercilessly sucks the land dry.
Drive from Devil?s Golf Course back onto the 178 and continue to Furnace Creek, then rejoin the 190 to Stovepipe Wells village. Take your time on this drive and soak in the scenery. This is a beautiful wasteland that desiccates in the sun, created by the weather patterns over the mountain ranges between here and the Pacific Ocean. Take in the stunted vegetation, the dusty plains, the sweltering mirages, but see through the aridity to the wonder and majesty of a natural basin rarely visited by rain. Then breathe a sigh of relief as you reach the oasis of Stovepipe Wells.
This is a fairly small haven; just a few chalets, a gas station, a restaurant and a swimming pool, but, in this vast desert, it is a joy to find such a pleasing place to rest. After dark the traveller may wish to wander from their door and look at the night sky, unsullied by any light pollution, and view the whole celestial panorama in all its glory. Then you can take a swim in the pool, if only for the novelty of being able to say you took a swim in Death Valley. The pool is open until midnight, and the remnant of the day?s heat will dry you in minutes, even in the late hours of the night. If you are a nature lover you might be lucky enough to see the local bats flit and swoop over the pool, presumably attracted by the lights at the bottom. You can even swim as they dance above your head, a rare opportunity.
Once daylight floods the valley again, visit the nearby Sand Dunes. These enormous crests of fine sand are more reminiscent of the Namibian tundra than sunny California, but here they are, incongruous and bizarre, yet a delight to behold.
After playing in the sands backtrack to the crossroads at Mud Canyon and take a left, heading for Scotty?s Castle. Instead of turning off to the castle, which you can visit on your return, keep on this road until you reach Ubehebe Crater. This great dent in the ground is the remnant of an ancient volcano, and, standing on the rim, you can try to resist the windblast while you stare into a bowl of coloured rock, and imagine how the heated magma, that once spat out of the earth here, might have looked from this vantage point.
On your return to Highway 190 take the turning to Scotty?s Castle and stop for a tour, or a light refreshment if you don?t wish to go inside. Not actually a castle, this large sprawling house was the home of Walter E. Scott, who conned a rich Chicago couple into building the house with his claims of large amounts of gold to be prospected in the valley.
Whether you leave the park by the 190 through the Panamint Mountains, or head back the way you have come, this park will leave its mark on you. You can?t help but be inspired by the incredible magnificence of this landscape.
Death Valley, CA, is a national treasure that can offer so much to the traveller. From alien rock formations, to natural salt plains, there is so much to see here one trip is never enough. Take the opportunity to visit Death Valley, and you will be so gripped by its splendour you will want to return time and time again.