Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin

“Hottest, Driest, Lowest”

ImageI’m really here!

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. 

ImageBadwater Basin walkway and pool

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. 

ImageDeath Valley’s Badwater Basin.  What a view.

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.

ImageSalty basin floor

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. 
ImageSurface 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. 

ImageLeaving Badwater Basin – window shot

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. 

ImageDriving south

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. 

ImageBadwater Pool

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. 

ImageRamble on…

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


Artist Drive

ImageBadwater Road at Artist Drive

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. 

ImageView from Artist Drive overlooking Badwater Basin

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.

ImageArtist Drive

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.

ImageArtist’s Palette  (see the people?)

“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


ImageClose up of some of the colors

“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.

ImageLeaving Artist Drive with the basin and Panamint Mountains in front of us.

Furnace Creek

ImageThe historic Furnace Creek Inn

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.

ImageFurnace Creek

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. 

ImageWe gladly paid $5.06 a gallon.  That’s right.

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.

ImageThe Borax Museum


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.

ImageThe Forty Niner Cafe’s miner theme chairs;  Our tabletop lacquered artistic map of Death Valley

Out front is Old Dinah – a steam tractor with ore wagons that was introduced in 1894 to replace the twenty mule teams.

ImageOld Dinah

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.


Zabriskie Point


Zabriskie Point

          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.

ImageManly Beacon and Park Pew

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.

Image          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.

ImagePark Pew

          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.”

Image          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.

Image          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.

ImageSources:  DesertUS, NPS/Death Valley and Wikipedia

Tecopa Hot Springs, California

ImageGrimshaw Lake

          On our way to Death Valley National Park we drove through an interesting point on the map named Tacopa Hot Springs in California.  An interesting mix of trailers, an RV park, small hotel and “official” hot springs building of sorts, the town was dotted with old cars and odd outbuildings.  We commented on the oddity of this place, and I secretly wondered why someone would come here to sit inside a hot spring that’s located inside something akin to a double-wide.  Driving in and out was a fast affair, taking somewhere along five minutes, give or take.  Out my window I glimpsed items that niggled my brain but I let it go.  I let it go.  We were going to Death Valley National Park and nothing would deter me.

          Right outside Tecopa Hot Springs was this lovely wetland located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, surrounded by salt flats leaking out from Death Valley.  We had to stop and take it in.  Bob had long whizzed past a subtle sign that I didn’t catch but figured it would be simple enough to find out later just what it is.  A wetland.  Those who know me realize how cool I think this is.  Wetlands are some of my favorite places.  A wetland in the Mojave Desert close to Death Valley made me almost giddy.  The golden grasses reminded me of the salt marshes where I live.  As well, I was reminded of our trek through Kansas with its fields and fields of gold.  Sting’s Fields of Gold was playing in my head. 

ImageGrimshaw Lake

          Now home and preparing to write this blog I Googled Tecopa Hot Springs to learn about this wetlands. It is Grimshaw Lake, a great birding locale and protected wetland.  Spring and fall migratory birds swarm to the marshes and canyons in this area.  There were many ducks swimming about and some wading birds off in the distance. 

          The grandeur of this place touched deeply within my soul.  So quiet I could hear the ducks quibbling among themselves far, far away.  It was a chilly morning.  My hands noticed the cold as I took photos.  Those hot springs came to mind.

ImageGrimshaw Lake

          Tecopa Hot Springs was originally called Yaga.  Yaga was the largest Native American Paiute settlement in the region.  Clearly, the hot springs, wildlife and wetlands was a huge draw but also proximity to the trading routes that became known as the Old Spanish Trail.  Eventually, a series of mining camps were build here in the late 1800s.  These camps were named after Tecopa, a Paiute leader who was famous for negotiating peace during those turbulent times. 

          Today, winter travelers flock here to take advantage of the warm springs.  The spa and accommodations look decent online and the area itself is gorgeous.  There is a large labyrinth made from rocks collected from the region.  The Yaga labyrinth is named in honor of the original settlement of the indigenous Paiute peoples.  Tecopa Hot Springs turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  There’s an art gallery, a bistro, hot mineral baths, star gazing is encouraged, full moon hikes in the desert and the labyrinth experience is free.  Their mission:

“We see ourselves as a group of individuals

of like mind and heart committing to thinking and acting


We see ourselves as stewards

of a sacred land

and ambassadors of goodwill.

Our Mission is to create

a self-sustaining enterprise that serves and engages local

communities and visitors from around the world.

Our aim is to see that every person drawn into our

enterprise takes away something wonderful, an experience

that is hard to describe in words.”


          Learning about Tecopa Hot Springs was humbling to me.  In my haste to see the larger event – Death Valley – I snubbed, or rushed though what could have been a wonderful experience along the way.  I’m better than that.  My tendency is to avoid people and seek out nature, but … people are nature, too.  I keep forgetting that.  Tecopa Hot Springs is my kind of place.  Not fussy, not overblown, it’s real and humble.  The trappings aren’t what’s important – it’s The Experience.  Note to self.

Mojave Desert


Over winter holiday in Nevada the hubs and I took what turned out to be our favorite day trip ever to Death Valley National Park.  Death Valley is located within the Mojave Desert, the smallest of the four North American deserts.  The name “Mojave” comes from the Native American word “Hamakhaave,” which means “beside the water.”  Long ago there was much more water here but geologic forces over time raised moountain ranges effectively shutting off most of the rainfall.  The Mojave is a “rainshadow” desert, which is an area of dry land on the leeward side of a mountain range.  High mountains on the west block the movements of wet winter storms.

ImageTypical Mojave Desert valley plants

The Mojave is known as “high desert,” with elevation ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 feet.  It changes from a cold desert in the northern section and a hot desert in the southern section.  The is also a transition desert from the Sonoran Desert to the Great  Basin.  In excess of 25,000 square miles the Mojave occupies portions of southeastern California as well as Nevada, Arizona and Utah.  The Park comprises of more than 3.3 million acres of amazing scenery.  It is also unique in that it contains the lowest, hottest and driest location in North America – Badwater Basin in Death Valley.  Nearly 550 square miles of its area lies below sea level.

ImageLeaving Tacopa

Key areas in the Mojave Desert are Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Monument, Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Mojave National Preserve.  The Mojave is home to more than 200 endemic species.  “Endemic” species are organisms that ONLY live in a particular location on earth and are naturally found nowhere else.

ImageSense of Place

We left Las Vegas well before dawn for Death Valley National Park.  Follow along with us on our journey if you wish.  The route we took: I-215 to Highway 160 west (Blue Diamond Road).  West on Tacoma Road which changes to Old Spanish Trail Highway as it crossed into California.  North on Highway 127 through Shoshone to Death Valley Junction.  West on Highway 190 into the Death Valley National Park and various stops (Zabriskie Point, Furnace Creek), south on Badwater Road/highway 178 (Artist’s Pallette and Badwater Basin) and out the 178 to Pahrump and back to Las Vegas.  More to come….

Sources:, the National Park Service and the Mojave Desert Land Trust.