With a name like Death Valley you’d expect it to be a desolate desert with sand and tumbleweeds and no signs of life. You can imagine my surprise when I found a variety of plants, several different rock formations, copious amounts of salt and borax, snow capped mountains, and a rare species of fish. Although the national park lives up to its name in the scorching summer months, you can witness signs of life in the winter and spring seasons.
The drive into Death Valley from LA is a fun one, with the landscape quickly changing from newly green mountains and palm trees to dusty desert with stone hills and joshua trees. Cell phone signal is nonexistent 100 miles outside the park, so I was happy I downloaded offline GPS directions ahead of time. Once I got to the park I had cell phone service in one area by my first hike, and didn’t get it again until I was well on my way to Pahrump, Nevada for the night. It was wonderful to be forcefully unplugged from the rest of the world, especially since Death Valley felt like a whole other planet altogether.
The first hike I did was the Monarch Canyon trail. I walked the ridgeback portion of the trail (high up and narrow, on top of a rock ridge) for about a mile before getting distracted and climbing to the top of the canyon. The rocks were perfect for gripping, with the hardness and sharpness of ancient coral (which is probably what it is, as Death Valley used to be a giant lake), but they were rough on the skin of my hands and knees. When I almost reached the top, 1000ish feet up, I looked down and saw I had an audience waving to me from below. I ended up running into all of those people later in my hiking, and was asked about my professional climbing skills and Death Valley knowledge…which to their surprise was no professional skills and no Death Valley knowledge.
When I reached the normal walking path I came across an older couple that were having trouble climbing up some rocks on the path. I helped them up them, and we stuck together like glue for the rest of the hike. The hike ended at a waterfall…or what was usually a waterfall. There was no water flowing, so we laughed about the non-climatic finish to the trail and made our way back. It was awesome sharing the hike with them and I hope to be like them when I am their age, hiking the national parks and traveling.
Next I went to the sand dunes, which are giant piles of sand in the middle of the valley. If I had my four closest friends and a few wakeboards, the dunes would have been a blast. Since I was in hiking-mode, I chose a dune to eat my lunch on and continued on my way. My next stop was Mustard Canyon, a bright yellow rock area with the remnants of a borax mining area close by. In the mid 1800s people mined and worked in Death Valley hoping to find gold. Instead they found borax, calling it “White Gold.” I saw borax on the ground and thought it was salt so I licked some of it and found that it was indeed borax, and was similar to eating a piece of chalk (I would know…high school).
My last few hikes of the day included a saltwater creek (I drank that water just to be sure they weren’t lying) where a rare species of mudpuppy survives year after year, and two lookout points with views of the valley and mountains. I was going to stick around for sunset, but clouds quickly took the sky over, so I headed to Pahurmp, Nevada to my Airbnb. The next morning I headed back to Death Valley, to the Badwater Basin. Now, it only ever rains in Death Valley a few times a year, and I was so lucky to experience constant rain all morning. It was only 60 degrees (it had been 80 the day before), but usually the Basin is the hottest part of Death Valley since it is 282 feet below sea level (lowest part of North America). This made exploring fairly enjoyable, and I made my way across part of the salt flats. When I reached an area of pure salt, I tasted some of course and took plenty of pictures of the strange landscape.
After the taste of salt left my mouth, I headed to the Natural Bridge and Golden Canyon. The Natural Bridge is exactly that, a naturally occurring bridge between both sides of the canyon. The Golden Canyon was way more fun because of the strange colors and water paths leading up the sides of the canyons. Once again, I developed an audience as I scaled as far up as I could go, and starred in a few tourist photos. I think I may have been a big horn sheep in a past life. Once I tired myself out, I headed out of Death Valley. On the drive out I smelt a foul smell, maybe the smell of death. I did some research and found no answers for why miles of the park made me want to puke, but it definitely made me happy I was leaving. On my way out a thick fog rolled in, ghost-like and quick. Such an interesting change in weather from the sunny day before.
Death Valley is definitely the land of extremes. Extreme colors, extreme salt and borax content, extremely awesome rocks, extremely low points and high points (Mount Whitney is in Death Valley), all around an extremely extreme place. I couldn’t believe all the different types, colors, shapes, and textures of the rocks. Many of them seemed out of place, like they should be on the shores of Lake Superior. Much of the canyon rock is very fragile, crumbling beneath your hands and feet. I’m sure Death Valley is a geologist’s dream.
I encourage everyone who comes to this side of the US or the globe to spend a few days checking out this national park. It is such a contrast to Yosemite and Sequoia, and taught me a lot about the diversity of desert landscapes. Next on my list is the Joshua Tree National Park, where I can hop on more rocks and gawk at the weird trees/cacti. Sidenote, I went whale watching on the Pacific Ocean the other day and saw a ton of awesome dolphins, so I threw in a few pictures of those too (they WEREN’T in Death Valley).