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Death Valley: More Than Just Desert
By Charles Shugart Jr.
Located on the border between California and Nevada, Death Valley was identified by the famous American scenic photographer Ansel Adams as one of only two places where he would never run out of exciting things to photograph. For those who know Adams’s work, that is high praise, indeed. (The other place was Point Lobos—along the California coast, just south of Monterey.)
Death Valley is not, however, easy to appreciate. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the light is “flat” almost everywhere and the incredible textures disappear under direct sunlight. Photographers understand that during the first couple of hours after sunrise, and the last couple of hours before sunset, landscapes sometimes offer “golden light.”
Some travelers—particularly campers—spend those early golden hours cooking, eating and relaxing. Then, about 10 in the morning, they pile into their cars and look for the magnificent sights they’ve seen in travel articles, brochures and calendars. By four in the afternoon, they’re hot, thirsty and tired. Having seen little they consider memorable, they return to camp—unfulfilled. Try sightseeing the way serious photographers work. You’ll love it!
Furnace Creek is the center of things in the national park. Paved highways from three different directions meet there. It has the park headquarters and visitor center, accommodations, store, restaurant, gas station, and a couple of campgrounds.
For sightseeing you must leave the trappings of “civilization” and go exploring. Caution: this is serious desert, and almost every year someone dies because of the heat and their own carelessness. Summer high temperatures average 120 degrees in the shade, yet people don’t hike in the shade; they hike in the sun. You lose water through perspiration at a fast rate—but you can’t tell because the dry air evaporates the sweat so rapidly. You must drink plenty of water. You can mitigate this potential problem by going to Death Valley in winter, when the climate is much more agreeable. But even then, if you go hiking, take and drink water.
From Furnace Creek there are three routes that lead to excellent sightseeing opportunities. You can drive south along the eastern side of the valley, stopping when you see something interesting, or wherever you think you might like to take a photograph.
Sites To See
There are some special places along this road. Devil’s Golf Course is one. The mud and salt are several hundred feet deep here, and at the surface it breaks up into a texture that is rough enough to understand why it was given such a name. The Devil may not play golf, but he designed a few wicked “golf courses.”
Further south is Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest surface elevation in the western hemisphere. You are on the edge of extensive salt flats. Interestingly, only a few miles to the west are the Panamint Mountains topped by Telescope Peak, at more than 11,000 feet elevation. Not much farther west is the Sierra Nevada range and its pinnacle, Mt. Whitney, which at 14,494 feet, is the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The uplifting that created the Sierra Nevada Mountains also created Death Valley’s collapse, so there’s a definite connection. Continue beyond Badwater until you’re ready to turn around.
Returning toward Furnace Creek, a turnoff to the right takes you along a bumpy dirt track to Natural Bridge. Well, you park and then walk to it (bring water if it’s a hot day).
Continuing north, take the one-way loop to Artist’s Point (no big RVs). The Palette is a combination of colorful minerals that, if you catch the sun at the right angle, is spectacular. Early afternoon is the best time because you have the color of the minerals, plus the shadows that reveal the marvelous textures of the surrounding rock.
Approaching Furnace Creek Inn, make a right turn at the stop sign and drive east. This is the highway leading to Las Vegas. Zabriskie Point is a magnificent view spot, especially at sunrise. Nowhere in the national park have I found textures so visually apparent as here.
Then continue eastward and make the turn south to Dante’s View. From a mile-high elevation, you look down over the Badwater area and much of the rest of Death Valley, plus you have the Panamint Mountains to the west.
Another direction to drive is from Furnace Creek north to Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes. Don’t walk among the dunes in mid-day because they look 100 percent better when the angle of the sun is low. In early morning or late afternoon the shadows display the textures at their finest.
You’ll have noticed that I’ve mentioned Death Valley’s textures several times. For me they are the single most fascinating characteristic of the national park.
The community of Stovepipe Wells has accommodations, swimming pool, restaurant, store, gas station, and campground. Plus, the only public showers in the park.
West from Stovepipe Wells (and making the turnoff to the south) takes you to abandoned mines in the high country of the Panamint Mountains, as well as some brick kilns that were used during the last part of the 19th Century to make charcoal.
East of Stovepipe Wells is the turnoff to Scotty’s Castle (all of these directions will make better sense when you have the park map in hand). You leave the low elevations and head north, noticing the changing kinds of desert plants as you slowly gain altitude. If you spot some interesting cacti, pull off and investigate.
Continue to Scotty’s Castle. There’s a whole story about the so-called “Castle.” I’ll just mention that its real name is Johnson Ranch (after the person who owned and paid for it). He was a wealthy man from the mid-west who befriended Death Valley Scotty and together they designed and built the castle. Scotty lived near the ranch year around, whereas Johnson made regular trips west. Scotty was a con-man and a real western character, and the two became close friends. You should sign up for a ranger-led tour through the castle, and then walk around the grounds while you wait for it to begin.
Returning from Scotty’s, take the turnoff to Ubehebe Crater. It’s a small volcanic crater, and you can drive right up to the edge. Notice the cinder-like gravel in the surrounding area. How can those plants live in a place where the so-called “soil” is so porous?
For the adventurous, there is a dirt road from Ubehebe to The Racetrack. It’s a long and bumpy ride, but a regular car can make it okay. And it’s worth the effort to get there. Try to figure out how the “traveling rocks” actually travel. And please don’t move them.
Geology and Geography
For more than a billion years, rock layers were formed in what was later to become Death Valley. Great deserts and shallow inland seas led to the creation of sandstones and limestones. Unbelievably powerful compression and heat transformed much of the sedimentary rock into extremely hard metamorphic rock. Add to this the infusion of molten magma, some of which cooled deep under the surface, becoming igneous rock—such as granite. Some of the magma reached the surface, forming lava deposits. Now let’s mix it all up: twist it, fold it, and fracture it. The pushing up of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains caused a tilting and subsequent collapsing of what is now Death Valley. It’s a jumble out there.
Additionally, so much water is taken out of clouds because of the High Sierras that the regions just east of the mountains have become deserts. That includes the most “deserty” of them all, Death Valley.
The shaping of the land we see is largely due to the erosion of wind and water. You may wonder: how can a place with less than two inches of rain per year have so much water erosion? It’s a valid question. The answer: surrounding mountains get much more rain than the valley and during occasional periods of heavy, concentrated rainfall, there is unbelievable flooding. And that’s when most of Death Valley’s erosion occurs. A few million years of “occasional” flooding can do wonders to a place.
There are five routes leading into Death Valley. A close look at your California and Nevada maps will guide you to your best choice. Caution: Highway 190 over Towne Pass (the main gateway from the west) is a very steep grade for a number of miles. Of especial concern is traveling westward down the hill with a heavy rig. Gear down as low as you can and don’t ride the brakes. But all RVers know that. Don’t they?
Furnace Creek offers the park headquarters and museum, accommodations, restaurants, gas station, a store, and camping (some sites with hookup).
Stovepipe Wells has a store, gas station, accommodations, restaurant, swimming pool and the only public showers in the national park. Plus, a campground with restrooms.
Scotty’s Castle has a gas station and snack bar.
Near the western edge of the national park, Panamint Springs has a restaurant, hotel, store, and camping.
Should you go? Absolutely yes!
How long should you stay? Three or four days at least!
Death Valley can become your best desert experience ever—if you do it right.
(And if you visit during winter.)