Death Valley comes to life in the middle of a California winter.
By Scott Kirkwood
It’s 5:30 a.m. on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park, and I’m driving from my motel in the small outpost of Tecopa, bound for Badwater—the lowest, hottest point in North America. As my vehicle climbs the foothills of the Amargosa Range, I realize that the word “death” always grabbed my attention so firmly that the word “valley” never quite registered until now. As this fact sinks in, my attention is divided between the empty black ribbon of pavement winding through desert cliffs before me and the colorful sunrise behind me, prompting a check of the rear-view mirror every few seconds.
Now, before this story goes too far, let’s get one thing straight: I’m not a morning person. But after flying west from Washington, D.C., my body is under the mistaken impression that it’s nearly 9 a.m. And I see no reason to reset my internal clock; in early December, the sun sets at 5:00 p.m., which means I need every minute of daylight to enjoy what this place has to offer. And considering Death Valley is a staggering 3.3 million acres, it’s got quite a lot to offer.
If the vastness of those 3.3 million acres is too difficult to grasp, a sign at the park border puts it in simple terms: “Visitor Center: 50 miles.” During that hour-long drive to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, you’ll marvel at the idea that people have been in Death Valley since long before the advent of sunscreen, air conditioning, and four-wheel drive. With barren landscapes, whipping winds year-round, and summer temps that exceed 120º F during the day and drop to an equally preposterous 100º F every night, it’s mind-numbing to think that tourists ever sought out this place, and even more surprising to learn that the Timbisha Shoshone Indians have lived here for hundreds of years. It’s probably less surprising to learn that many early visitors to Death Valley were drawn by promises of gold, silver, lead, and copper. In the 1800s, most of the real treasure was found in the form of borax, which was and still is a key ingredient in detergent and is now used in the creation of semiconductors, telescope components, and kitchen wares like Pyrex measuring cups.
As I arrive at Badwater Basin at 9 a.m., I find a nearly empty parking lot and a few tiny figures wandering through the salt flats in the distance. I can still recall paging through a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records as a teenager and coming across a description of Death Valley as one of the hottest places on the Earth and the lowest point in North America. But I’d never thought to ask what accident of topography made it so special. As the wayside exhibit explains, most areas below sea level are covered in water—Badwater has earned the claim to fame because it’s a low-lying area in a dry, hot desert, where rainwater doesn’t stand a chance. An early surveyor mapping the region found that his mule refused to drink from a pool of water; he wrote on his map that the spring had “bad water,” and the name stuck. I wander about a mile from the parking lot to find some of that picturesque cracked earth that hasn’t been tread upon, snap a few photos, and hop back in the car, bound for the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the heart of the park.
As I arrive, a ranger is just starting to give a talk called “Death Valley’s NASCAR,” all about the mysterious rocks on the so-called Racetrack. Rocks that generally range from five to 40 pounds appear to magically move across the landscape, as evidenced by the tracks they leave in the dried mud. The ranger explains that no one is quite sure how it happens, because the phenomenon hasn’t been seen by human eyes or captured on camera. But the leading hypothesis suggests that when temperatures drop and moisture gathers on the playa (dry lakebed), ice forms on the rocks’ undersides, and strong winds push them along the perfectly smooth surface. The Racetrack is a designated wilderness area, which means there are tight restrictions on the use of remote cameras and other monitoring equipment that might reveal the science behind the magic. And that’s how some people like it, the ranger says. I’m a little too bashful to tell him that I’d rather know the truth. But perhaps my trip to the Racetrack, scheduled later in the week, will make me appreciate the mystery of it all.
Storming the Castle
I scarf down a quick sandwich and start the one-hour drive to Scotty’s Castle, in the northern portion of the park, in the hope of making the 2:00 p.m. tour. Long drives come with the territory, but the stunning scenery makes it tough to complain, and even during the busy season, you certainly won’t encounter traffic jams like those in Yellowstone or Yosemite. I get to the site with plenty of time to wander through the exhibits scattered around the humble visitor center. At 2:00 a young park ranger wearing a pin-striped suit and a classic fedora starts ringing a bell, and the crowd starts to gather. The ranger’s Hollywood get-up makes more sense as he leads us into a small courtyard and tells the tall tales surrounding this unlikely mansion in the middle of the desert.
A con man named Walter Scott had spent several years as a stunt rider with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and he never lost his penchant for performing. In the early 1900s, Scott started telling people that he’d discovered gold in Death Valley, and he just needed a few dollars to get it out of the ground. A Chicago millionaire named Albert Johnson took the bait and fronted Scotty thousands of dollars, which he proceeded to spend in exorbitant ways, making a name for himself in the hope of impressing even more prospective funders. Most of those early investors came to their senses and realized the mine was a hoax, but Johnson held out a little longer until he, too, realized he’d been had. Surprisingly, he didn’t care. Johnson was sufficiently entertained by Scotty’s tales, and he found the desert air good for his mind and his body; the two became close friends. In 1922, Johnson and his wife began building a mansion in the middle of the desert, and they made Scotty their guest—the perfect entertainer to hold court with celebrities of the day, like Betty Grable, Will Rogers, and Norman Rockwell, all drawn by tales of the unlikely palace born of riches purportedly buried under the desert.
Ubehebe Crater is a short drive from Scotty’s Castle, so I head there for sunset. As I get closer to the site, the colors of the earth shift suddenly from brown and gray to the dark black of cinders. A park staffer at the visitor center had told me to be careful about hiking down into the 600-foot-deep crater, because many people underestimate the challenge of climbing back up. So I couch my laziness as wisdom and decide to walk its 1.5-mile circumference instead, which takes about an hour. A few visitors arrive in the parking lot at the crater’s edge, snap a few photos, and get on their way, but for the most part, I’ve got the entire crater to myself. Formed by explosions of steam brought about when hot magma met groundwater, the bowl of earth is pink, gold, gray, and black, and the view changes dramatically with every step, validating my decision to take the circuitous route.
It’s already been a long day, but I take a look at the ranger-led programs and see that the park is offering a night hike along the Mesquite Dunes, which seems like a novel way to experience the shifting sands. Some other visitors and I arrive with a few minutes to spare, and find a park ranger talking to two young men in a Jeep, who had apparently ignored the well-advertised rules against driving on the dunes. He issues them a stern warning and mentions a hefty fine, and we realize too late that the ranger isn’t leading our hike—our hike has already left. So the five of us set out with flashlights scanning the horizon yelling, “Hello! Hello!” into the darkness, until we hear a “hello” come back in our general direction. We scramble up the dunes and find the rest of the group in time to hear the ranger describe a myth about a net that was used to capture the sun, to pour its light across the galaxies, creating the Milky Way. The ranger’s stories are the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening on the dunes, although we spent a little too much time looking at the stars through her iPad app when I would have preferred looking at the ones in the sky. But it was a great way to spend an evening, nevertheless. So even if there isn’t a ranger-led tour offered during your trip, and even if you can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, grab a flashlight, a blanket, and a good friend, and spend an hour or two gazing at the night sky.
Climbing and Pedaling
My second day in the park, I decide to dial back the mileage and stick around the Furnace Creek area. During my first visit to the park, years ago, I fell in love with Zabriskie Point, and I’m looking forward to taking in a few more sunrises this time around. Every morning, the photographers arrive at dawn, climbing out of their vehicles with tripods slung over their shoulders, headed for the main viewing platform. The pastel yellow and chocolate-brown peaks of Zabriskie Point are like marble cake batter, something born from the imagination of an upstart American artist who’s clearly had enough of those stuffy European landscape painters with their chiseled granite mountains, so perfectly predictable.
Sunrise and sunset are the perfect time to visit, because light and shadow constantly change the landscape, like fingers reaching toward you, earth grasping Earth. As the sunlight obliterates shadow, visitors quickly head back to their cars and the area is nearly my own, so I walk along the ridges and experience it all up close. The dirt crumbles under my feet, like brown sugar that had been left in the cupboard a little too long. I sit for a while and eat the breakfast I’ve stashed in my pocket, taking in the silence and beauty of the landscape, all alone.
I make the 10-minute drive back to Furnace Creek to rent a bike from the general store for half a day, for $34. In a few minutes I’m pedaling toward Twenty Mule Team Canyon, just beyond Zabriskie. Most people drive through the canyon on four wheels, but two are clearly superior. It’s a long, gradual uphill, but when the pavement ends, a winding dirt road takes me through a scene from Candyland: mounds of butterscotch pudding to my left, piles of cocoa and cinnamon to my right. I stop occasionally to hike to some good viewpoints, but I’m sure to get back on the bike before my aging legs stiffen up. After about an hour of wandering, I head out of the canyon and enjoy the downhill return trip, which literally requires one pedal stroke for each of the six miles back to Furnace Creek.
On my third day in the park, I join Mike Cipra, a Park Service employee who used to work at NPCA. Our plan is to meet at 9 a.m. to make the two-hour drive to the Racetrack, to check out those magical rocks. (Since I’m still on East Coast time, I take advantage of the “late” start to catch another sunrise in Twenty Mule Canyon.) As we drive past Ubehebe Crater and onto the 27-mile dirt road that leads to the Racetrack, we’re fortunate to find a road crew just ahead of us, grading the washboard road and making it as smooth as it will ever be, which isn’t saying much. I’m reminded that even though many of Death Valley’s sites seem remote and primitive, the park’s size and extreme conditions mean that it takes a lot of effort to keep it in the shape it’s in.
As we rise through the mountain landscape, I notice small exotic plants dotting the hillside that turn out to be Joshua trees; the low rainfall in the region prevents them from reaching the iconic shape we’re used to seeing on desert landscapes. We finally arrive at the Racetrack playa, which stretches three miles long and two miles wide. We jump out of our truck and walk toward the huge wall of boulders that have coughed up smaller rocks over the course of years—dozens lie scattered at the base, most with those telltale trails behind them. It’s colder here, at altitude, and the wind is gusting slightly. I snap some photos in the harsh midday sun and imagine what it would be like to spend the night at nearby Homestake Dry Camp and stand among the rocks at the magical hours of dusk and dawn.
We head back to the north end of the playa to climb on the Grandstand, a cleverly named collection of huge quartz manzanite that rises out of the ground, like a mythical city in the deserts of the Middle East. Mike points out the Ubehebe Point trailhead, a few dozen rocks arranged in two lines, which funnel hikers toward the mountain’s base. The six-mile round-trip hike gains altitude quickly, turning Mike’s white pickup truck into a Matchbox vehicle in a few minutes. One very quick hour later, we’re standing on the peak, looking at the Sierras to the west and the Panamint Range to the east, the cold wind whipping at us from every direction. For the first time I can see the valley that earned the park its name, and I realize how far I am from Badwater, in nearly every sense.
I love traveling alone, for the freedom and the quiet and the unique perspective it brings, especially here, in Death Valley’s spare, unforgiving landscape. But there’s something to be said for the company of a sleepy crowd of photographers awaiting a sunrise, a collection of strangers gathered for a moonlit hike, and a friend at your side, to share the pleasure of the view at the top of a mountain.