Death Valley is not the most of enticing of names when you are pondering vacation spots for getaways. Their marketing team must not have been trying to improve the ambiance with forbidding names like Devil’s Gold Course, Badwater basin, Dante’s Point, Devil's Cornfield, Furnace Creek, Funeral Mountains and Rim of Hell. Despite the fire and brimstone monikers, I found Death Valley to be a place of stark beauty, not to mention the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the United States.
I headed to the desert in early April in the hopes of beating the sweltering summer heat, but even then the days hit 95 degrees. I planned my days around making the most of the cooler moments, early sunrise hikes and late night photography sessions. After driving in through Titus Canyon, which felt like a ride on Thunder Mountain, I headed straight for the Mesquite Sand Dunes. As the wind travels between the peaks on either side of the valley it has deposited enough sand to make steep dunes. The sand was fine and smooth, rippled by the wind across its surface.
Next stop was Badwater Basin, which marks the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. The surreal landscape is covered with salt flats, turning a brilliant white in the hot afternoon sun. What was truly remarkable is that Telescope Peak towers just above the basin, and with the summit at 11,043 feet it was covered in snow.
Tucked in the middle of this arid landscape is an oasis, the Ranch at Furnace Creek. Once a place for the borax mule trains to rest and get water, it has become a hacienda style village with natural spring fountains and pools to beat the heat of the desert. There are individual cabins to stay in, complete with rocking chairs on the porches.
Due to its remote location, there is some of the best stargazing in the country in Death Valley. The lack of light pollution gives the park its Dark Sky designation. So we headed out to the Devil’s Golf Course with a tripod in hand and sat out long enough for our eyes to adjust and see the milky way come to life overhead. The human eye can’t see it, but long exposure photographs show an eerie yellow haze on the horizon. It turns out this was Las Vegas and Los Angeles, over 120 miles away.
For sunrise, I headed out in the dark to Zabriskie Point. As I set up my tripod I had no idea what to expect, but as the first rays of daylight began to illuminate the landscape I could see I was surrounded by jagged spines of multicolored rock. From the point, we hiked into the labyrinth of trails below the point. The trail, called Golden Canyon, loops through these colorful badlands that were once the bottom of an ancient lake.
After just three days in Death Valley, I felt I had barely skimmed the surface of what there was to explore. The desert was a trove of unexpected rock formations and stunning vistas. On my next trip to Death Valley the slot canyons, Racetrack Playa, and a massive crater are at the top of my list to see.