“There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snowline,” wrote Mary Hunter Austin. Austin began writing about Death Valley back in 1888. Her book, Land of Little Rain is an influential work of environmental writing.
Death Valley National Park. Like bugs to flame, the extreme heat of Death Valley draws thousands of curious visitors each summer to experience this desert inferno. Summer temperatures frequently exceed 120° F. The highest recorded temperature was a toasty 134° F in July of 1913. One hundred years later, Death Valley recorded temperatures of 129° F or higher for five consecutive days. Those visiting loved it!
To the west, Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range stands tall at 14,491 feet. Badwater Basin in Death Valley is a lowly 282 feet below sea level. Within 100 miles of each other, these two landmarks are the highest and lowest points in the US respectively. The mountains to the west serve as a “rain shadow” helping to keep the valley hot and dry by forcing the moisture out of the eastward-moving clouds before they reach the desert floor. To the east, the Amaragosa Mountain Range traps the hot air from escaping the valley floor.
When to visit: If you want to experience why they call this park “death valley,” go there in the summer! For a more tolerable experience, visit the park from November through April.
What to do: The 200 square miles of desolate salt flats of Badwater Basin was once the bottom of a vast lake. Badwater Basin is now covered with a surreal “saltscape.” A devastating amount of rainwater flooded Badwater Basin in October 2015. Hopefully, once the newly formed “lake” dries up, it will again leave the crusty salt patterns as seen above. Located in the park’s northern reaches, Scotty’s Castle is worth the visit. A tour of this desert mansion will take you back to the life and times of the Roaring 20’s. Please check with park officials as Scotty’s Castle was heavily damaged during the rainstorm of October 2015.
Hiking: There are very few constructed trails within the park. Most hiking is done free form – meaning you make your own path across the desert floor, up canyons or along ridges. Hiking season is between October and April. Hiking during the summer heat can be deadly! The highest mountain in Death Valley National Park is 11,049 foot Telescope Peak. The vertical drop from the peak to the Badwater Basin is twice the depth of Grand Canyon!
Don’t miss Zabriskie Point at sunrise. In the early morning light, the hillocks of Zabriskie Point resemble large scoops of Neapolitan ice cream. The steeply eroded hills are bone dry and completely devoid of vegetation. Another popular vista is Dante’s View considered by many to be the most breathtaking view in the park.
Where to stay: There are 9 campgrounds within the park offering over 750 individual campsites. Campground elevations range from -196 feet below sea level to 8200’. Four are open year round while 5 are seasonal.
Trivia: Covering 3.4 million acres in California and part of Nevada, Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US. This park is referred to by its Native American name as the “land of little rain.”