I was expecting a vast, punishing expanse of sand and rock. What else would you expect from a place called Death Valley?
To be fair, Death Valley National Park (more than 5,000 square miles) is undoubtedly formidable in its extremes. Death Valley claims to hold the record for the hottest temperature – 134°F/57°C – ever recorded on earth. And within it is the lowest point in North America – Badwater is nearly 86 metres (282 ft) below sea level. It’s also the driest place in America.
Even its name is extreme. It has been inhabited by the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans (formerly known as the Panamint Shoshone), for at least the past millennium. They called their home tümpisa, which means “rock paint” and refers to the red ochre paint that can be made from a type of clay found in the valley.
But its English name comes from first non-Native Americans who arrived in 1849, looking for a shortcut to the California gold fields. They got lost and one member of their party died. As they emerged from it, one member of the party apparently turned and said, “Goodbye Death Valley.” The name stuck.
So, why should you visit a place that seems so formidable?
Because it’s one of most remarkable places you will ever see on earth. Where else will you find rocks dramatically sculpted by erosion, colorful sandstone canyons, stones that seemingly move by magic, and striking salt pans that stretch for 200 miles?
And if you are lucky enough to visit soon after a spring rain, you will see the desert comes to life with millions of tiny flowers.
I stood at Dante’s View, 1,669 m (5,476 ft) above the valley, and I could have sworn I was looking at a huge lake. One could easily imagine those early settlers being fooled into thinking they had found water.
Even Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest point, seems to offer plenty of water. It seems to be just a few dozen metres away.
Alas, it’s all salt! Indeed, people walking across the salt appear to be walking on water.
But the views – a surreal landscape of coloured rock and fields of misty white is remarkably beautiful. Photos simply can’t capture the reality.
Look at the stones above. They appear to have been rolled or moved, leaving trails on the ground. But these huge stones move mysteriously, all by themselves. It’s called the Racetrack, and the stones are often called the sailing stones. There is a complicated explanation having to do with rain rushing down the nearby slopes – but I love the idea of mysteriously moving stones. Don’t you?
It’s not surprising that the indigenous people gave this valley a name referring to rock paint. The rocks here can be the most remarkable shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, and more.
At the aptly named Artist’s Palette, the range of hues is evident. Created five million years ago by volcanic activity which left ash and minerals, chemical analyses have identified a paint pot of elements: iron, manganese, aluminum, titanium, red hematite and green chlorite. It looks as if some metaphysical Jackson Pollock had tackled his art on a larger scale, splashing colour around with abandon.
Near Furnace Creek, one of the few settlements in Death Valley, Zabriskie Point offers a striking panorama of the erosional landscape, sculpted into extraordinary peaks and canyons. This overlook is just a short walk up a paved hill but what a vantage point!
With almost no vegetation, the sculpted landscape is stark and magnificent. The point is named for Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, director of the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
20-Mule Team Borax
Do you remember 20-Mule Team Borax?
This product sponsored a radio and television show called Death Valley Days. One of Ronald Reagan’s last television roles was as host of the show (1964-65). Sixteen years later he would become president of the United States.
From 1883 to 1889, the white, powdery borax was mined in Death Valley. More than10,000 tons of borax was actually transported using teams of 18 mules and two horses. The remains of the mines are still there.
Despite its size, lodging within the park is limited. There are both campgrounds and a very few hotels within the park, though quite a few outside it. I stayed at The Oasis at Death Valley. I was at first concerned about the amount of water needed to provide for this beautiful, palm-treed resort. But this oasis is fed by natural springs located nearby, and the water is carefully managed and returned to the watershed. The Oasis is a California Green Lodging resort. From my balcony, I watched the sunrise through the palm trees, turning the hills spectacular shades of pink and purple. What a beautiful start to another deathless day in Death Valley.