Deathless Death Valley

View of a valley with white salt fields extended into the distance.
Sculpted rocks and in the valley is that water? It’s not. What is it? Read on.

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.

At the entrance to Death Valley, Baker has a giant thermometer. Today the temperature is a balmy 97 F (36 C), almost body temperature.

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?

Dramatically sculpted yellow and grey walls of Golden Canyon
Dramatically sculpted walls in Golden Canyon

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?

rocky ground with some tiny plants and two with bright yellow flowers
Without any recent rains, only a few flowers and plants struggle to survive on this rock strewn desert. Remarkably they do!

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.

Dante’s View

mountains and valley with what looks like water but is actually salt flats
From Dante’s View one might swear that was water below but it’s actually salt flats.

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.

people walking across salt flats at Badwater Basin; mountains in the background
Seen from the distance it seems as if the people walking across the salt flats at Badwater Basic are actually walking on 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.

From Dante’s View, the sculpted landscape of Death Valley.

But the views – a surreal landscape of coloured rock and fields of misty white is remarkably beautiful. Photos simply can’t capture the reality.

The Racetrack

stones on the ground with trails behind them
At the Racetrack, the stones move mysteriously leaving trails in the ground. Some stones are huge, much larger than they appear. Photo: Wikipedia

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?

Artist’s Palette

Colourful landscape of stones
Artist’s Palette where the stone colours are strikingly beautiful.

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.

Man with his back to the camera, facing colourful stones

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.

Zabriskie Point

Almost white wind-sculpted stones in the foreground and blue hills in the background
These are natural colours of stone seen at Zabriskie Point. The shades change with the light and the seasons.

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!

Wind and water sculpted landscape
Colourful wind and water sculpted landscape at Zabriskie 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?

wagons which were once pulled by mules
Once pulled by teams of mules, these wagons transported borax to the railway

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.

old wagon wheels and closed mine entrance to the borax mine
All that’s left of the borax mines today

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.

The Oasis

pink dawn lights the mountain range with palm trees in foreground
Seen from my room at The Oasis, dawn lights the mountain range in pink.

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.

Looking for more remarkable landscapes? Check out the Grand Canyon

7 thoughts on “Deathless Death Valley

  1. Wow Liz, beautiful. Who took the photos.? Especially the one with the young man and the woman from the back? Lovely piece


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