Death Valley NP, California – The valley of death

Actually Death Valley owes its name to just one fatality. It was nevertheless a disaster that happened in 1849 during the Californian gold rush. Some pioneers believed to be able to take a shortcut to California when crossing the valley. Contrary to their wagon master’s advice they proceeded without knowing it to one of the hottest places on earth, had to leave equipment and wagons behind, and slaughtered their oxen to survive. When finally arriving on the mountain crest on the west side three months later, and having lost only one team member, one of the men looked back and said: “Goodbye, death valley.”

In summer 1913 the second highest temperature ever measured on earth was here with 134° F / 56.7° C, just exceeded by the Libyan Sahara some years later. Imagining Death Valley as a flat sandy desert is completely wrong. The 110 mi / 180 km long valley is bordered both in the east and west by high mountain chains and is drawn through by colourful rocks. After getting oriented in the visitor center in Furnace Creek oasis we visit Zabriskie Point where, after a short walk uphill, there is a spectacular view to the surrounding hills with stripes and gradations from yellow to brown with hidden spots of pink and green. A drive through the short Twenty Mule Team Canyon passes a closed borax mine where in former times loads with in the average ten pairs of mules started their 165 mi / 265 km long way through the desert to the south. Most mining activities floundered on the complicated conditions and the high costs after only a few years.

26 mi / 42 km to the south, Dantes View, more than 5000 ft / 1500 m above the lowest point of the park, offers a view over nearly the entire valley with its flat dry desert landscape, the salt fens, the pond-like remnants of a once huge lake, and the elongated mountain chains. From here you can see the lowest point on the North American continent with 282 ft / 85.5 m below sea level as well as the highest point in the contagious United States, Mt. Whitney with 14,505 ft / 4,421 m, snow-covered even in summer.

Badwater Basin is not only North America’s the lowest point but the western hemisphere’s one. 2000 to 4000 years ago, a lake still covered the area and left a one to 50 ft thick salt layer after evaporation, and a small pond that is four times saltier than sea water. We spy a sign high up in the mountains that tells us where is sea level. That’s a kind of frightening. A bit further salt crystals grow from the crusty dry lakebed and form coral-like structures. It is allowed to walk around on Devils Golf Course, but the ground is uneven and the crystals extremely hard and sharp-edged. The 15 km long one-way road Artists Drive is a rollercoaster ride through the most colourful geological formations of Death Valley. The highlight is Artists Palette, some hills with splattered colour spots of pink, green, purple, maroon, grey, yellow, and black.

We quickly take some photos of the pink sunset that mirrors in the saltwater, and then we have to find an overnight place. Death Valley National Park offers more or less everything: comfortable hotels, campgrounds with the whole works, and complimentary primitive campgrounds. There is none close by, but contiguous United States’ largest park kindly permits dispersed camping. A special off-road map with information about trails and backcountry camping is available at the visitor center.

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