A Drive Through the Desert

I’ve never been to the desert.

Before entering Death Valley National Park itself the landscape changes. Coming from Yosemite, we were lucky enough to drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains with high, snow-capped mountain peaks and plenty of green vegetation. But that slowly gives way to multiple shades of browns and tans, drier air and cacti. There is just heat. But it’s beautiful.

Coming around a bend in the road you can see a valley in the distance. If you look closely enough, you can make out a road that stretches all the way across and into the next mountain range. Don’t get excited – this isn’t Death Valley, but rather Panamint Valley. There’s no sign of human life here, just blowing dust and another road that seems to head nowhere. You have to follow 190 even further over some mountains to reach Death Valley.

It was my first time in the desert.

Death Valley was named by a group of pioneers who were lost there in the winter of 1849-1850. According to the National Park page:

Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost here in the winter of 1849-1850. Even though, as far as we know, only one of the group died here, they all assumed that this valley would be their grave. They were rescued by two of their young men, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers, who had learned to be scouts. As the party climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said “goodbye, Death Valley.” This name, and the story of The Lost ’49ers have become part of our western history.

I must confess that when planning this road trip I specifically picked places that I knew nothing about. Death Valley topped this list; the only thing I knew about it was that parts of the park were below sea level. We were able to find and consult a map to decide what we wanted to see; we didn’t have too much time and knew that the more often we left the car, the sooner we would tire out and want to leave. We picked our destinations and set out.

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The road leading to Death Valley

The first stop we made was at the Mesquite Sand Dunes. These are the most famous dunes in the park and very easy to access with a parking lot right off of the highway. While they cover a lot of area, the tallest dune only reaches about 100 feet! You can walk anywhere you like in this part of the park; there are no specific trails so you pretty much make your own. We were outside of the car for about ten minutes, walking to the top of the nearest dune before we turned back. It was close to 115 degrees, the air felt like it was pressing down on us.

The next stop we wanted to check out was the Devil’s Golf Course. This is an area of rock salt that has been eroded by wind and rain into rather jagged spires. It got it’s name because it’s said that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”

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Driving through Death Valley it would appear that there are multiple areas with salt flats, at least to my eyes. How true this is, I’m not sure. Our map didn’t give us quite as many details as I had hoped and I was never sure if what I was seeing was truly there or just my eyes playing tricks on me. The most well-known (and indeed perhaps only) salt flat found in the park is Badwater Basin, which we stopped and attempted to walk to.  We were walking on salt, which was good enough for us so when we were feeling a little too hot we turned around.

Badwater Basin has the lowest elevation in North America, coming in at 282 feet below seat level. The area covers nearly 200 square miles, making it one of the largest protected salt flats of the world. Three things are needed to create a salt flat: a source of salt, an enclosed basin that doesn’t drain to the sea, and an arid climate. The salt here is sodium chloride, otherwise known as table salt.

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Our final stop in Death Valley wasn’t really a stop at all, but rather a drive up to the Artist’s Palette. The Palette is an area that is found on the face of the Black Mountains known for a variety of rock colors. I’ve never seen anything quite like this, greens and reds set into the rock. The colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals such as iron (red, pink and yellow), mica (green) and manganese (purple). This beautiful feature has a rather ominous past; the unit provides evidence for one of the area’s most violently explosive volcanic periods.

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Look at those colors!

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Death Valley proved to be one of the most beautiful parks we visited. I’m so glad we made the effort to come through here; I was enchanted by all of the stark nature and learned to appreciate a brand new kind of beauty!

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