Death Valley National Park

National Park Number: 37 of 59

We’ve mentioned before how very much we love the desert, so you can guess how stoked we were for this park. We knew Death Valley is a place of extremes: the largest national park outside of Alaska, the lowest elevation in North America, and the driest place in the U.S., with the highest recorded temperature on Earth: 134 F, and that was in the shade.

What we didn’t expect was how varied Death Valley is. The park encompasses elevations from 200 feet below sea level to over 11,000 ft. on Telescope Peak; the topography ranges widely, from salt flats to juniper-covered mountains, sand dunes and badlands to dolomite-walled slot canyons. We had a snowball fight in Wildrose Canyon and the next day nearly melted in the heat of Badwater’s salt-pan floor. 

We were in Death Valley for 5 days, a bit longer than we normally spend in each park (though we always, always want more time), and for the most part we were out of service, unable to stay in touch with the world. It was glorious. Being as immersed as we were made us feel completely present there, a state we often have a hard time achieving.

We got into Death Valley late and camped at Furnace Creek. Because of the government shutdown, the park’s facilities were closed and its staff limited; we knew the campgrounds wouldn’t be accepting fees, but we weren’t sure what else to expect, whether the park would be a ghost town or how different it would feel from normal. We did have lots of fellow campers and the park seemed to have a good number of visitors, but we couldn’t get any information, the visitor’s centers were closed, and we felt very strange not having rangers around.

Very, very luckily (for many reasons), the shutdown didn’t last too long; the park was back up and running by our second day there and all the rangers we talked to were relieved to be able to go about their work normally. 

But back to day one: because Death Valley is so huge, we spent much more time driving than we normally do. We wanted to cover a good range of the park; this meant spending hours in the car. We didn’t mind too much: the views were incredible and the weather divine, plus we got to experience a lot of variety in the terrain. We started by driving to Father Crowley Point, a lookout on the westernmost edge of the park. To get there we crossed over two mountain ranges, the Cottonwoods and the Panamint Range, and the elevation changes were so intense that we could smell our brakes burning, even using them as lightly as we could. 

Near the overlook is the trailhead for Darwin Falls. The hike starts out in a gravelly canyon, but a little over half a mile in, the canyon narrows in a cottonwood- and willow-filled oasis. The trail wound around the creek, crossing the water frequently, sometimes leading us over boulders or along ledges hugging the canyon walls. We saw rabbits running through bushes and heard birds overhead; it was distinctly un-Death Valley-like, cool and refreshing.

We spent a while playing around the waterfall—the novelty of seeing a cascade like that in the middle of the desert didn’t wear off quickly—before heading back down into the valley to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to watch the sunset.

Sand is my favorite—I don’t know—texture? material? surface? I love so so so indubitably much. The sand on the dunes was very fine, almost powdery; the dunes were peppered with creosote bushes (the most wonderful smell) and warm after a day in the sun, and the mountain ranges around us were all dipped in pink from the sunset. 

We slept that night at Stovepipe Wells near the dunes and woke up to a re-opened park—huzzah! We celebrated by spending the entire day driving, first north to Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater half a mile across, then south and west to Emigrant and Wildrose Canyons. Though these canyons lie just on the other side of the ridge from Badwater, they’re high mountain passes, chilly and steep. The roads are unpaved in this section of the park and we had to move slowly, rattly as the bus is. Our aim was to see the charcoal kilns, giant beehive-shaped ovens built in the late 1800s to make the charcoal that powered a nearby lead-silver mine. The kilns were much bigger than we expected and still smelled inside like campfire.

We ended the day with another sand dune sunset, and this time we hauled out the sand toys so the kids could do some digging. Graham was unimpressed with the sand’s moldability, but we did manage to make a reproduction of Ubehebe Crater that he was pretty pleased with.

The next day we took full advantage of having the park rangers back at work by attending two ranger programs! The first was at Golden Canyon, where we hiked through a gorgeous wash between golden sandstone walls and learned about the geology of Death Valley. Golden Canyon was the filming location for a bunch of Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and the landscape was delightfully familiar.

After Golden Canyon, we headed to another ranger program at Badwater to experience the hottest and lowest part of the park (and of North America). We walked out along the salt flat and learned all about what makes this place so dry: Death Valley is a rain shadow desert, four mountain ranges away from the ocean. By the time clouds make it from the ocean to Badwater, the mountains have stolen all the precipitation and this place gets an average of only 2 inches a year.

We drove north from Badwater to the Devil’s Golf Course, an area where the evaporating water has left huge salt crystal formations hard as rocks. We spent a while climbing around here—carefully; the formations were sharp!—and I was so entranced. This is one of the most strange and alluring places I’ve ever been. 

I could say that about any part of Death Valley: the variety here is staggering, the landscapes bizarre and beautiful. We drove next to Artist’s Palette, where the badlands roll along in a rainbow of shades, then to Zabriskie Point, where sunset turned the golden hills pink.

On our way back to the campground we were in desperate need of a shower, so we stopped at the hotel on the hill to ask if they had any we could use. They didn’t, but the hotel in the valley did; on our way there we picked up a hitchhiker, a woman staying at the hotel who had been a vagabond herself in the 70s. In exchange for giving her a ride back to her room, she let us into the hotel pool, so we got to have a dip and a shower both! The pool was fed from a warm spring in the Furnace Creek Oasis, and we floated under the stars and the silhouettes of palm trees, absolute heaven.

As we were driving that day, we’d noticed a bit of grinding from our back brakes. We ran into this problem in the South and ended up having to replace our rotors because we didn’t catch the worn brake pads in time. We’d had the bus in for an oil change a few weeks before and they’d told us the pads were fine, but we didn’t want to take any chances. So we took Buster into the little mechanic’s shop in Furnace Creek and sure enough, we needed new brake pads. The mechanic broke some in from town the next morning, and while Buster was getting fixed, we hung around Furnace Creek. We all picked out one treat from the gift shop; mine was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup ice cream, which is my favorite and which I hadn’t had in a while. David made fun of me because it was only 10 in the morning, but I was pretty pleased with myself.

Until later, after we’d picked up the bus and headed to Mosaic Canyon for a hike. It was an absolutely stunning place, with slot canyons and dolomite walls, and I felt sicker than a dog. At one point, wanting to avoid being sick in the narrow slow canyon where other hikers would pass, I crawled up one of the cliff walls to puke my guts out more remotely. It was far from a good moment for me.

But soon enough I felt better, and after our hike we headed to the sand dunes yet again, this time to try sledding. We’d been wanting to try sand sledding for a long time, having heard from many people who love it, and there was a toboggan in the Mesquite Flats parking lot for general use, so we nabbed it and headed for the hills.

We must be missing some crucial piece of the sledding puzzle, though, because it didn’t work for us at all. No matter what we tried, we just couldn’t get the sled to slide; still, the dunes were beautiful and we caught sunset there again, so it was far from a failure.

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