We as humans, are always interested in seeking out places that are novel, and places that get us out of our comfort zones, i.e. our houses. Death Valley offered me two things - one, it is the hottest place in North America and two, it houses the lowest land point (below sea-level) in North America. Despite the heat, the desert ecosystem is one-of-a-kind experience, so I wanted to visit it. I got the opportunity to visit Death Valley twice in the past 5 years - once in winter, and the other time in spring. I've never been there in summer, nor do I want to be 😅
Death Valley with it's desert ecosystem is unique when compared to the National and State Parks around SF Bay Area. These include Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Sequoia and others, and generally consist of the mountains of Sierra Nevada (with the tall green pine trees) or the rugged coastlines with ocean views. Death Valley is a contrast compared to all these parks because there is little to no water here. This translates to no greenery in lower elevations and very little even in higher elevations.
My first tip is to stay within the confines of the national park. During one of my trips, we stayed outside the national park in a motel at Ridgecrest – and had to spend considerable time driving to get to the viewpoints in the park. So plan in advance and book a campground within the park. We stayed at the Stovepipe Wells campground, and luckily, by the time we arrived, there were a few first-come first-serve campsites still available – and we snagged one. The site we got only had space for a couple of tents and cars, and we didn't have campfire or anything. I still enjoyed the experience since it was the first time we were camping in the desert. Apart from Stovepipe Wells, there are a couple of other big campgrounds here - Furnace Creek and Panamint Springs – if you're looking for more camping options. We didn't cook during our stay in Death Valley while camping, choosing to eat in the restaurant at Stovepipe Wells.
With accommodation out of the way, here's my brief overview of the park. At a high-level, there are around three sections to the park.
- Badwater Basin Section
- Telescope Peak Section
- Racetrack Playa Section
I've visited some parts of each section – so here's an outline of what I'd recommend.
Day 1 (Badwater Basin Section):
- Badwater basin
- Hanging bridge
- Devils Golf course
- Artists Palette
- Golden Canyon hike to Red Cathedral
- Zabriskie Point
- Sand Dunes Mesquite
- Dante's View
Let's dive into the details.
We started day 1 at Badwater Basin – this place is ideal during sunrise/sunset, and we hoped to hit it by sunrise but were a tad late. It was still very beautiful and as a bonus, there were hardly any other people around. This is the lowest elevation point in North America being under the sea-level. You can see the marker where the sea-level is, but it does not feel any different than being above the sea-level. The basin itself is like a salt desert surrounded by distant mountains. It is quite scenic, and very unique for a landscape in not just California, but North America. I've seen a similar landscape in Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats of Bolivia, and another place that felt a tad similar is Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Badwater Basin is much smaller than either of two though – but still vast enough to feel like a desert. I would recommend walking much further out into the basin. There's fewer footsteps on the landscape, and the basin itself is less muddy and much clearer. Going during sunrise helps with the walk into and out of the basin – because it won't get too hot! 😀
Our next stop was at the Natural Bridge. A small hike through the canyon brings us to the naturally formed bridge of red sandstone. While you can't get onto the bridge – you can walk under it. It is one of those nature's creations that you know won't last too long! We then went to Devils Golf Course – which felt very aptly named after looking at it. It felt like endless salt formations shaped like rocks, and I honestly couldn't walk too deep into it. After some pictures here, we moved on to our next stop – which was Artists Palette.
Now, Artists Palette is a one-way drive and some parts of it were closed in my first visit because of the floods. But for the second time, I did get to see it all. Artists Palette is the most famous viewpoint in Death Valley and it deserves all the glory. Nowhere else would you see such distinct colors show up on the hilly slopes in the midst of a desert-like landscape. The reason for the colors is chemicals, of course – think iron, magnesium and also red hematite and green chlorite – which is probably why red and green are most prominent. There is also a small hike surrounding the colors should you be interested in a close-up view.
After Artists Palette, we moved on to our next stop which was Golden Canyon. This was were we did a hike – to Red Cathedral. The hike itself is not long, with only 3 miles in distance – but the overhead sun can make it very tiresome if you're not appropriately geared up. As with any hike in the Death Valley, make sure you're covered for protection against the sun.
The Golden canyon itself feels very aptly named, with the canyon walls being a yellow-ish golden hue especially under the overhead sun. We saw a lot of artists painting the landscape in the early part of the hike. After a mile or so into the hike, we reached an intersection and took the path to Red Cathedral. This is like a naturally formed hilly section made of red sandstone, and there is a hiking path to an intermediate elevation on the hill. There is minor scrambling of rock involved to get to the highest point – but the views of Golden Canyon from here make it worth the hike. Endless sights of the canyons and valleys and views of the far off mountains made it a stunning 180-degree view. If rock scrambling is not for you, there are other hikes in the area like Badlands which cover similar terrain without the need to scramble.
- Distance: 3 miles (out and back)
- Elevation gain: 570 ft
- Time taken: around 2 hours
With that, I'm out of words for this post. I'll cover the rest of Day 1 and following days in an upcoming post.