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Death Valley National Park owes its name to a group of pioneers who thought they had found a shortcut to the California Gold Rush in the winter of 1849. Unable to get their wagons over the mountains, they spent over a month in the valley believing they would die there. When rescuers finally arrived to lead them out, one woman turned and said “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Death Valley can live up to its name if you’re foolhardy enough to go there
in the height of summer, as some German tourists have been known to do. That’s
when you’re likely to encounter heat that can reach 56.7°C, a world record
set in July 1913. (A 58°C reading at Al Azizia, Libya in 1922 was the
world record until the World Meteorological Organization invalidated it in
2012.) But in the winter or spring, the climate is far more hospitable. That’s
a much better time to experience Death Valley as a place of great beauty.
Like any valley, Death Valley is surrounded by mountains: the Amargosa Range on the east, and the Panamint Range on the west. It’s a geologically active mountain-building area, so there are ridges, faults, and hills of different colors and textures (and ages) throughout.
Zabriskie Point offers a panoramic overview of Death Valley. Set your alarm clock to get there at sunrise, when the golden light dramatically reveals all the textures of the nearby folds and hills, the valley, and the Panamint Mountains.
Beware! The Devil lives in Death Valley. I’m amazed that the Religious Right hasn’t objected to his residence on federal land. Devils Golf Course is on the valley floor near Badwater, the lowest point in North America (86 meters below sea level— and 128 kilometers east of the highest point in the continental United States, Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains). The eerie formations are dried silt and crystallized salt from what used to be the bottom of Lake Manley, which filled the valley during the Ice Age. The lake evaporated some 2000 years ago, but it sometimes reappears temporarily during a rainy winter. The formations are rather fragile and will crumble if stepped on. Viewed from the mountains, the salt deposits look like snow.
When Lucifer isn’t busy playing golf, he might be tending his
cornfield. Devils Cornfield is actually a collection of arrowweed plants
that have adapted to blowing sand and perpetual soil erosion by growing
Artists Drive is a 14-kilometer one-way loop road south of Furnace Creek. It leads to the Artists Palette, a multi-colored rock formation resembling the jumbled collection of paints on an artist’s palette. The colors (from various minerals in the rocks) change throughout the day with the angle of the sun, but are most intense near sunset.
When most people think of a desert, the first image that comes to mind
is of sand dunes. You’ll find them in Mesquite Flat, near Stovepipe
Wells Village. Sunset is the best time for a hike in the dunes. The
silence, the sinuous sand, and the pink glow of the Amargosa mountains
creates a tranquil and contemplative atmosphere.
Scotty’s Castle is the one noteworthy man-made structure in Death
Valley. Officially called the Death Valley Ranch, this incongruous
Spanish-Moorish mansion was the winter vacation residence of Albert
Johnson, a Chicago millionaire. Built in the late 1920s, its popular
name derives from one Walter Scott, otherwise known as Death Valley
Scotty. Scotty was a notorious teller of tall tales who bamboozled a
number of wealthy businessmen into investing in his “secret gold mine.”
For some inexplicable reason, Johnson took a liking to him. Assuming the
role of Scotty’s “banker,” Johnson willingly played along with Scotty’s
claims of owning a castle built with profits from his (nonexistent)
Most of Death Valley National Park is in California, with the Nevada
border marking its eastern boundary. But one small triangular section
(mostly inaccessible by car) extends into Nevada. The ghost town of
Rhyolite is just outside that triangle, near the little town of Beatty
can find the nearest inexpensive accommodations for visiting the park).
Named for the local gold-bearing mineral, Rhyolite was a mining town
that thrived between 1904 and 1907, declined between 1908 and 1911, and
was completely abandoned by 1916. At its peak in 1907 it had a
population of 10,000. It had electricity, a school, banks, bars.... and
of course a brothel, without which no proper Wild West town could be
The Bottle House is one of the few complete buildings still standing in
Rhyolite. Its walls are made of glass bottles set in concrete, a rather
clever alternative to windows. And like any ghost town, Rhyolite has its
share of abandoned cars and other detritus.