Death Valley Days The otherworldly wonders never cease at America's most surprising national park
(MONEY Magazine) – Cold weather got you down? Have we got the spot for you: Death Valley. The mere thought of it feels brutally hot and arid,right? The second-hottest temperature ever recorded on earth, 134ºF, was logged here. The lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level, is here too. It's also America's driest place, with an average annual rainfall of less than two inches.
These factoids reinforce a caricature of Death Valley as a barren wasteland. But this is a distortion, especially whenapplied to the full expanse of Death Valley National Park (Hwy. 190, Death Valley, Calif.; 760-786-3200; nps.gov/deva), which at nearly 3.4 million acres is the largest national park in the lower 48 states--larger, in fact, than the state ofConnecticut.
If you didn't realize Death Valley was a park, that's the first of many surprises you'll find. The next is the unexpectedly varied topography, ranging from canyons and salt beds to sand dunes and towering mountain peaks. Even the name Death Valley (coined by gold-rush argonauts stranded on their way to California in 1849) is misleading, because the seemingly inhospitable landscape actually teems with life: cactus, wildflowers, Joshua trees, jackrabbits, owls, lizards, even fish. Humans have had a colorful history here too, as evidenced by the many ghost towns and abandoned mines.
The biggest surprise, however, is the weather. Death Valley lives up to its name during the infernolike summer, but it's quite comfortable this time of year. During my three-day stay last November, high temperatures were in the mid-70s; they're a bit lower in January and won't routinely hit the 90s until April, making the next few months an ideal time to visit.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
Unlike most valleys, which are carved by water erosion, Death Valley was essentially stretched into place by seismic stresses from surrounding mountain ranges (and it's still sinking, though only by a few inches per century). You don't need a geology degree to get a sense of this: Rock strata on canyon walls run at odd angles instead of horizontally, and in many places you can see the park's expansive landscape literally tilting toward the center, as if everything's being sucked down some giant drain.
Furnace Creek Visitor's Center, near the middle of the park, is the ideal starting point. When you're ready to explore, drive a few miles south to Devil's Golf Course, a bizarre moonscape of rock-hard salt crystals that are still forming as groundwater bubbles up and interacts with surface minerals. The otherworldly terrain, spooky yet beautiful, makes a grand intro to Death Valley's charms.
A little farther south is the lowest spot in the New World (and, in summer, the hottest): the salt basin known as Badwater. The area near the roadway is "only" 279 feet below sea level; to descend the final three feet to the hemisphere's nadir, you have to walk several miles out into the salt flats. That's for diehards only, but a short walk on the flats is worthwhile for anyone. The surrounding alkali pools contain insects, snails and other critters that have adapted to the harsh conditions.
Between these two saline sites is the trailhead for Natural Bridge Canyon, one of the easiest hikes in the park. The canyon's majestic namesake, which arches 50 feet high, is halfway up the mile-long trail. Cool arches, of course, are hardly unique to Death Valley, but other formations are, such as the Artist's Palette, a series of mineral-rich hills that shimmer with blue, green, orange and violet sections. The colors, whose origins are not fully understood, are brilliant from a distance and even better if you go hiking through them, where you can see one colored area stop and another one start, like a huge paint-by-numbers project.
Colors are also prominent at Ubehebe Crater, which was formed when rising magma hit groundwater, creating a massive steam explosion. The resulting cavity--about 750 feet deep and 2,000 feet across--has distinct sedimentary layers that ring the crater in greens and oranges.
If you tire of landscape sites, Death Valley also features haunting industrial ruins, most of them relating to mining. Borax was an especially important product here between 1873 and 1927, and its legacy can be found all over the park, most notably at Harmony Borax Works, where borax was refined in the 1880s and hauled 165 miles to a railhead in the Mojave by 20-mule wagon teams (hence, the familiar brand name).
Keane Wonder Mine, built into a hillside in 1907, was a gold-mining operation. The steep, demanding hike here is well worth the effort: The site features old buildings and a mile-long tramway (its cables, incredibly, still intact), and the view from the top is breathtaking. Less taxing, but at the end of a long, remote road, are the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, 10 beehive-shaped structures used in the 1870s to make charcoal for a silver smelter. Architecturally, they're magnificent, like giant stone pinecones rising from the ground. And they still smell faintly smoky.
Many of the park's greatest elements come together on Titus Canyon Road, a 26-mile unpaved odyssey that starts out relatively flat and straight, and then entails innumerable switchbacks, steep hills followed by sharp dips, mountain vistas, a mining ghost town (Leadfield) and Indian petroglyphs, all culminating in a three-mile stretch through a towering slot canyon barely wide enough to fit a car. When you emerge on the far side and see the valley's full breadth coming into view, it's easy to imagine a choir swelling in the background.
If this all sounds like a lot, it is. And there's no better place to take it all in than at Dante's View. From this vantage, 5,475 feet above sea level, you can look down on the depths of Badwater and across to the park's tallest mountain, the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, with a full range of gorgeous terrain unfolding in between. Come up here at sunset with a few beers, survey the jaw-dropping panorama, and you'll probably come to the same unlikely conclusion that I did: Death Valley is a paradise.
Paul Lukas hopes to one day visit the lowest place on earth: the shore of the Dead Sea.