“To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.” Helen Keller
“Hottest, Driest, Lowest”
Why “Badwater Basin?” The story goes that a surveyor mapping this area couldn’t get his mule to drink from this pool of water. He wrote on his map that the spring had “bad water” and the name stuck. It isn’t poisonous—just salty. On the subject of names, Death Valley was named by gold-seekers, some of whom died crossing the valley during the 1849 California gold rush.
The highest mountain in Death Valley National Park is 11,049 foot Telescope Peak; the lowest point is 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. The vertical drop from Telescope Peak to the Badwater Basin is twice the depth of Grand Canyon. Twice. The. Depth. That isn’t apparent standing there because of the magnitude of space. Death Valley is a place of extremes, including the world record, highest air temperature of 134 degrees F recorded in Furnace Creek Ranch on July 10, 1913.
The Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans lived in Death Valley for centuries before the first white man entered the valley. This tribe followed seasonal migrations for harvesting of pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans. They hunted game, and for them, the land provided everything they needed. There are many areas within the Valley that remain sacred places to the Timbisha Shoshone, whose descendents continue to live in Death Valley.
The salt pan on the floor of Death Valley covers more than 200 square miles. It is 40 miles long and more than 5 miles wide. It is one of the largest protected salt flats in the world. The majority of salts covering Badwater Basin is sodium chloride—better known as table salt.
Surface crushed by tourists; basin beyond
The source of these salts is Death Valley’s drainage system of 9,000 square miles of mountain ranges. Rain falling on distant peaks creates flood and rush toward the basin. Along the way, minerals dissolve from rocks and join the flood. Here, at the lowest elevation, minerals concentrate until only the salts remain. After thousands of years, enough salts have washed in to produce layer upon layer of salt crust.
Leaving Badwater Basin the road curved in such manner that I could roll down the window and fire off a shot of where we stood in the Basin. See how small the people are in this vast, immense, amazing valley?
Over time, tourists have crushed a huge swath of salt crystals at the Badwater Basin overlook. We walked out into the Basin as well for it was there one could feel the power and enormity of Death Valley. An overpowering desire came over us to experience the basin standing in the middle of this incredible geologic miracle. We threw our arms out wide, breathing in the dust of dinosaurs and the stars. This landscape dwarfed the petty human condition and humbled me, touched my very soul, changed me.
The Visitor Guide’s newsletter headline was “Death Valley Responds to Climate Change.” I was interested to read that Death Valley National Park and its partners are creating new strategies in response to the uncertain future in the face of a changing climate. Their course towards a “greener” NPS leads toward reducing paper usage, building a LEED certified visitor center and incorporating climate friendly behavior into park operations, facility management and communications. The future is, of course, uncertain. That’s the way futures are. NPS acknowledges that plants and/or animals in the park may be pushed to find new homes, or succumb to threats and become extinct. All the Park can do is continue forward to reach its goal of becoming a carbon neutral park by 2016. There are tough questions ahead and I was very excited to learn that the Park is leading by example.
Sadly, this is likely the last installment of our Death Valley road trip. Maybe. I have scads of images not yet shared. For example, we thought it would be a grand idea to take images of the roadway there and back again. Maybe make a little movie, or photo montage. I’m not sure I’ll ever do anything with them but they are certainly fun to look through. Regardless, goodbye Death Valley National Park for now. We only visited a small portion of the part due to time limitations as well as vehicular limitations. Many interesting areas like the Racetrack and Devil’s Golf Course are down long—sometimes miles long—gravel and rocky roads only be reached in off-road vehicles with tires created for deserts filled with sharp rocks. Goals for another day, another road trip to Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley National Park was not what I expected. I didn’t expect magnificent, colorful mountain ranges. I didn’t expect an oasis, or water standing in the basin, or salt marshes much like those we have along the Cape Fear River. I didn’t expect feeling the same way I felt upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time—awe. True awe is a physical feeling. I truly loved this Park.
Informational Sources: National Park Service, DesertUSA
Leaving Furnace Creek we drove south along Badwater Road to our next destination – Artist Drive. I’ve seen photographs of this area since childhood and I couldn’t wait to see it. The Basin – Death Valley’s long, salt crusted valled was to our right, framed by the Panamint Mountain Range. To our left the Armagosa Mountain Range loomed high.
Death Valley National Park falls directly between these two mountain ranges. Panamint Mountain Range is located on one side of a tilt fault block that rises as the other side, Badwater Basin, falls. The Basin continues to drop below sea level despite millions of years of water-borne salt, silt and gravels wash into it. Erosion simply cannot keep up with the dynamics of this geologic activity.
A few miles south of Furnace Creek is a nine mile one-way loop on Artist Drive through a spectacular area called Artist’s Palette. The road is narrow and very, very curvy. RV’s and campers are not allowed because of their length. The sign along one overlook gave me the story.
“More than 5 millions years ago, repeated volcanic eruptions blanketed the landscape, depositing ash and minerals. The volcanic minerals were chemically altered by heat and water, with variable amounts of oxygen and other introduced elements.”
View from an overlook
“Chemical analyses have identified a paint pot of elements: iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium, but no copper. Some of the colored minerals here include red hematite and green chlorite.”
Folded mountain peaks
“This is truly a natural artist’s palette of color splashed across the slop. The time of day, clouds, and the rare rainfall shift the intensity of the colors, making each visit slightly different.”
Unfortunately, our visit fell during the bright sunlight of midday so the colors were not as vibrant as they would have been at the suggested optimum photography time of late afternoon. Matters not for Artist Drive and Artist’s Palette was everything I’d dreamed it would be and so much more. Next stop – Badwater Basin – the lowest point in North America.
Leaving Zabriskie Point we rounded a sharp turn and ran right into Furnace Creek Inn. Rising from rounded mountains, overlooking Death Valley’s famous basin, Furnace Creek Inn is an “elegant hideaway” and has been housing guests for over 86 years. It is a AAA-rated four diamond resort in the middle of Death Valley. The Pacific Coast Borax Company built the Inn in 1927. Designed by prominent LA architect Albert C. Martin and landscape architect Daniel Hull the Inn flows nicely into the surrounding landscape. Martin’s work includes Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Hull designed Grand Canyon Village, Old Faithful Lodge and the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.
Furnace Creek is a true oasis located in the heart of Death Valley. Timbisha Native Americans have lived at this oasis, their ancestral homeland, for centuries. Furnace Creek was formerly the center of Death Valley mining operations for the Pacific Coast Borax Company and the historic twenty mule teams hauling wagon trains of borax across the Mojave Desert. We decided to top off the tank here as gas stations in Death Valley are few and far between. It took us three hours to get here…and we were just getting started on the tour.
Our next stop was the Visitor Center, Borax Museum, and the Death Valley Natural History Association Bookstore. A bookstore! Exhibits were enjoyable but I found myself fascinated by the walls and walls of rocks, minerals and fossils discovered in Death Valley. As well, the history of the twenty mule teams was vastly interesting, as was the outdoor exhibits of various wagons, trains and other items. Frankly, the more I learned the more I felt sorry for those poor mules.
Twenty Mule Team bells
MASSIVE wheels on this old wagon. Each wheel was a slice of wood from a tree.
Wagon on display
Train on display
We lunched at the Forty Niner Cafe, which was a fun experience albeit a tad pricey. Our waiter reminded me of Bilbo Baggins, but taller and thinner. He had a accent I couldn’t place and his name was Ivan. I really enjoyed his presence. The clientele was very international. We heard German, French, Japanese as well as what we guessed was a local dialect. …but we don’t know.
Out front is Old Dinah – a steam tractor with ore wagons that was introduced in 1894 to replace the twenty mule teams.
Furnace Creek is where we filled our car with gas, our tummies with food and our brains with facts. And I bought a cool book and a rock. We were itching to get back on the road to see more of this incredible place. Next stop: Artist’s Drive.
The Route: I-215 south and out of Las Vegas to Highway 160 west. (Blue Diamond Road); West on Tacoma Road which changes to Old Spanish Trail Highway as it crosses into California; Through Tecopa; North on Highway 127 through Shoshone to Death Valley Junction; West on Highway 190 into the Death Valley National Park to Zabriskie Point and Furnace Creek; South on Badwater Road/Highway 178 to Artist’s Palette and Badwater Bason; out the 178 to Pahrump and back to Las Vegas.
First stop in Death Valley National Park is an amazing area called Zabriskie Point. Despite the number of tourists clambering up a long slope toward the outlook it was quiet as a tomb. Everyone spoke softly, with reverence. Zabriskie Point is named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, Vice President and General Manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 20th Century. The company’s twenty mule teams were used to transport Borax from its mining operation in Death Valley.
Signs told us what we were seeing and gave us history: “Three to five million years ago – before the deepest part of Death Valley had formed – shimmering lakes filled a long, mountain-rimmed valley here. Fine silt and volcanic ash washed into the lake, settling to the bottom, ultimately creating the thick deposit of clay, sandstone and siltstone that make up the Furnace Creek Formation. These once-level layers are being tilted by seismic activity and pressure that is folding the ancient valley’s floor. As the layers are lifting and exposed, periodic rainstorms cause powerful gullywashers that erode the soft rocks into the chaotic yet strangely beautiful landscape we see today.” Camels, mastodon, horses, carnivores and birds left their tracks in the muds all along this area, known as Furnace Creek Formation. Some of these fossils can be seen on display at the Borax Museum in Furnace Creek.
Manly Beacon is named after William L. Manly, who along with John Rogers, guided members of the ill-fated Forty-Niners out of Death Valley during the gold rush of 1849.
Slowly climbing up, up, up to the overlook, stopping to catch my breath and take it all in I embraced the vast spaces around me. It was almost to much to take in – like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. I’ve always said Nature is my church and Zabriskie Point is by far one of its grander sanctuaries. A disconnect occurred between this vision before me and my beating heart, my lungs filling with desert air, my ears straining to hear the earth’s noises. Then it came to me – it isn’t that people are talking differently but that their noises are being whisked away into the incredible space and distance before us. Instead of ricocheting back to me voices had no choice but to continue down and out, to the mountains beyond and basin below.
Youth have no fear. They scuttled down slippery, gravelly paths not made by the park service, despite posted warnings. Teenagers and young adults wandered down to a low hill to take selfies and photos with their phones. One young lady balanced precariously on a ledge for her photo opp. My stomach did a slow roll. My husband called it “evolution at work.”
Death Valley National Park falls directly between two mountain ranges – Panamint Mountain Range to the west and Amargosa Mountain Range to the east. You can see Panamint Mountain Range above, on the other side of Badwater Basin. I’ll get more into the dynamics of these ranges later.
There are no guardrails. Instead, low rock walls, likely built by the CCC, house the informational signs while offering a clear, unobstructed view to the grandeur. Zabriskie Point was an impressive first stop in our Death Valley National Park road trip.