In December 2005, after Death Valley National Park had cooled off for the year, I drove to California and spent a fascinating four days exploring the place. Memories of that trip still pop into my head from time to time. Apparently, I was impressed.
You probably know the basics about Death Valley, even if you haven’t been there: it’s the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America.
In July 1913, an all-time world record high of 134°F was recorded on the valley floor. In July of the year I was there, the temperature reached 129°F. Best to avoid Julys.
Rainfall-wise, the valley has averaged about two inches per year over the last 30 years. That’s an improvement. The historic yearly average is 1.6 inches.
Altitude-wise, the lowest point in the valley is the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.
Death Valley got the way it is because of its unique geography; the valley is a long, narrow basin walled in by mountains. On the west side, the Panamint Range blocks storms moving in from the Pacific Ocean. The western slopes get the rainfall, and almost none reaches the valley.
Deprived of moisture, the desert air becomes steadily hotter and drier. The heated air rises, but is trapped by the mountains on both sides. It cools a bit, falls again, and compresses the air below it, heating the air further. You learned that in high school physics, right?
If you look at the daily high and low temperatures in Death Valley over the course of a year, you get an average high of 90°F and an average low of 62°F.
So, Death Valley is a hot, dry, low-lying desert. Those fundamentals, I knew. But when I finally got there, I wasn’t prepared for the diversity.
For one thing, I didn’t expect to find heavily-forested mountains that are snow-capped in winter. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamints, rises 11,049 feet above sea level. Badwater Basin is a mere 15 miles away.
The Park has plenty of other surprises…
A giant salt flat on the floor of the valley covers 200 square miles. The salt has accumulated over thousands of years, washed down out of the mountains by periodic floods. Because the valley is an enclosed basin, the water is trapped in temporary lakes. When they evaporate in the arid climate, another layer of salt is added to the crust.
In the surrounding mountains, countless canyons and dry washes deliver a steady supply of sand to the valley floor. Most is dispersed by the constant wind. But in a few places, sand dunes accumulate. Death Valley has five sets of dunes, the largest standing over 700 feet tall. The sprawling dune field at Mesquite Flat is conveniently located next to the Park’s main road.
Salt isn’t the only mineral buried in the valley floor. In 1881, large-scale borax mining began in Death Valley. The operation at Furnace Creek became famous for using teams of 20 mules to haul double wagons of borax 200 miles over the mountains to the nearest railroad. The site of the old Harmony Borax Works, closed since 1889, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the most incongruous sights in Death Valley is “Scotty’s Castle,” a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920s by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson as a vacation getaway. When construction started, Johnson’s friend Walter Scott, a free-spirited prospector of questionable repute known as “Death Valley Scotty,” told the locals that he was building the mansion himself, using proceeds from a secret gold mine. Amused, Johnson let Scott have his fun, and the name “Scotty’s Castle” stuck. The mansion was turned into a hotel for a while, and now the Park owns it.
Another odd sight: high in the Panamint Range are 10 masonry charcoal kilns, beehive-shaped and 25 feet tall. The kilns were built in 1877 by rich mining expert George Hearst (daddy of rich publisher William Randolph Hearst). The charcoal was used to fuel the smelters at Hearst’s nearby lead and silver mines. When the mines played out, the kilns were abandoned. You can go inside them, but mind the soot.
Death Valley is home to eight ghost towns, most founded by miners or outlaws between the 1870s and the 1920s. The largest of the towns is (was) Rhyolite, located just outside the Park on BLM land. Rhyolite lasted from 1905 until 1916. In its heyday, the town had over 5,000 residents, two churches, and 50 saloons.
The “Bottle House” in Rhyolite was constructed using 30,000 empty beer bottles. Except for the bottles, it’s just an ordinary building. The Bottle House was badly vandalized after Rhyolite was abandoned, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the building as an investment; by then, the place was being used as a movie set.
There’s plenty more to see in Death Valley. Ubehebe Crater (pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee) is a volcanic crater, age uncertain, that is 600 feet deep and half a mile across. Ubehebe (a marvelous word that should be spoken with feeling) is a Shoshone word that means “big basket in the rock.”
Elsewhere, tucked away in a remote canyon, is a massive natural bridge. You are not surprised to find such a thing in this rocky, bone-dry country.
However, in another remote canyon is beautiful Darwin Falls, hidden in a fern-covered glen. Totally unexpected.
Then there is “The Racetrack,” where rocks mysteriously slide across a dry lake bed, leaving tell-tale tracks behind them. No one has seen it happen, but the speculation is that after a rain, the surface becomes slippery, and the wind is able to push the rocks slowly along.
And there is “Devil’s Hole,“ a hot water spring inside a limestone cavern, fed by a vast aquifer. The pool is known to be an indicator of seismic activity around the world. Earthquakes as far away as Japan have caused the water in Devil’s Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub.
All of the above is tourist stuff. Anyone can see it, photograph it, write about it, and plenty of people do.
But my trip to Death Valley that year had an added benefit that was private and personal and intimate.
Well, maybe someone else experienced it, but not from my vantage point. Let me explain.
The morning I left Death Valley to start the drive home, I was on the road before dawn. I left early because the motel dining room at Stovepipe Wells didn’t open for another two hours. Hungry and irritated, I drove off in hopes of finding breakfast somewhere else.
What I found was a spectacular sunrise.
I remember it vividly. I had just left the Park and was driving south through Panamint Valley, heading for the little town of Ridgecrest and civilization once again.
For miles, the road was arrow-straight. Beyond my headlights, everything was black. I knew from the absence of headlights and taillights that it was just me and the stars and the desert.
Then slowly, the predawn light began to reveal the landscape. I could make out a few mountain shapes in the distance. I could see faintly the outlines of ocotillo and saguaro cactuses. I became aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, revealing where the sun would rise.
Soon, I came to a place where the highway climbed a small hill. On the right, at the top of the rise, was a large, level pullout. I coasted in and turned off the engine.
For the next 20 minutes, I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the sunrise, enjoying the solitude, contemplating what a fortunate fellow I am.
When the sunrise came, it was glorious.
The photos I took that morning are among my all-time favorites. A 30” X 40” enlargement of this one has been on my living room wall ever since.