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A place like no other – Death Valley National Park

April 17, 2011

A year ago (almost to the very day), we made our first visit to Death Valley National Park. If I were allowed only one word to describe all that we saw, it would have to be “Surreal”.

Death Valley National Park, California

Anybody whisked away to Death Valley National Park in the middle of the night when asleep, would wake up the next morning and look around wonderstruck, thinking “I must have crash landed on Mars”. The thought would not seem out of place given the scale of desolation and magnificence that is Death Valley. It’s a place like no other. Whether you are scaling the snow capped high mountain peaks or getting blinded by the sun reflecting off the white salt flats or feeling like an insignificant speck in the universe at Badwater basin when gazing up at twinkling stars embedded in the inky night, every moment spent in Death Valley is filled with wonder and awe.

Wildflowers … a riot of yellow on the stony desert floor

April is one of the best times to visit, spring is the only time the desert landscapes come alive with a riot of color. Cacti flowers showcase their full glory, animals that have made the desert and dry mountains their home are out and about in the tolerable heat, and the desert floor is flush with yellow and purple wildflowers. It’s much like crash landing on Mars and finding that the red mineral rocks are capable of supporting life.

A drive worthy of a road warrior

A regular weekend might be too hectic for a national park of this size but it’s still do-able. Driving from the bay area is what takes up a big chunk of the time. It’s both pleasurable and tedious, and for the true road warrior, it’s worthy. With just two days to see all that we could, our itinerary was chock-full. We were lucky to have the company of a couple friends familiar with the park, one of whom we unofficially named the “Death Valley President” because he’s been to the place a gazillion times and knows every nook and corner and unsurprisingly never tires of visiting again and again. Now on to the details of the actual trip. So much to see! Click here for the full map of Death Valley.

The glorious drive ahead …

Our detailed two-day itinerary –

We set out on a Friday at around 8PM. The plan was to drive for 5 solid hours and get to Tehachapi, CA for the night. We booked a Holiday Inn Express mainly so we could partake in their scrumptious breakfast spread (included in the price) before getting on to the road again the next morning. The drive to Tehachapi was uneventful. Everybody was excited and waiting with anticipation to see Death Valley in spring.

Trona Pinnacles, and spot the huge red truck … not so huge anymore, eh?

After a good night’s rest, we started out early Saturday morning  from Tehachapi around 8AM towards Death Valley, now a mere 4 hour drive away. Our unofficial ranger/guide friend was keen to show us these gargantuan stone outcrops named Trona Pinnacles. These are huge tufas which really set the tone for the rest of Death Valley. Looking at these from far away, one does not realize how big they are until you see a tiny red speck, almost a dot in the distance driving at the foot of these pinnacles and realize that’s a red truck and from where we stand, it looks like a dot next to that huge tufa! Yellow wildflowers were in abundance, growing defiantly out of the rocky surface.

This is how riding a bike on Mars must feel like …

A dust storm in the distance announced the arrival of sand rovers and motor bikes … its riders gleefully speeding across the alien landscape, no doubt feeling like they were Indian Jones-esque explorers on Mars. Two million acres of desert, mountains, salt flats, dunes, canyons … one cannot even begin to describe how magnificent that is!

A spot of green amongst the sand

One place in particular which had us excited like kids on a field trip was the Mesquite sand dunes. Miles and miles of gentle sloping dunes, a spot of green and yellow here and there, amongst the mostly light-coffee colored sand. It’s a great place to pretend to hike, while want you really want to do is run up and down the dunes, kicking sand into the air and yahooing around like a berserk Calvin. It’s best to visit the dunes in the early part of the day, else you’ll get a taste for what it must surely feel like to be out on the Sahara in the peak of summer. After sunset on a full-moon night is perhaps the best time to visit too, as the sand cools down after being baked all day … but you will need to keep a watch out for rattlesnakes! Not a comforting thought. I think I’d rather be sunburned than bitten.

A picture of calm

The dunes are a very calming place to be. Nothing like being surrounded by the shifting sands of time to make you realize that you will also one day be part of this. It takes the pressure off of living, honestly.

Male pupfish courting (chasing!) the female

One thing you’ll get to see only in April is pupfish! These rare tiny fish, just a few cm long are busy mating in spring and populate the entire length of Saltfish creek. They don’t exist anywhere else in the world and can be seen in Death Valley only in the spring months. The males court the females relentlessly, everywhere we saw darting slivers of silver and gray, flicking their tails at the surface of the water, causing ripples and then darting away before we could spot them. The short path along Saltfish creek makes for a very nice relaxing walk.

Zabrieskie Point, great for sunsets

Dusk was approaching and we hurried on to capture the golden light at sunset over Zabrieskie point.  Mountains colored uncannily like marble-pound and lemon cake (I guess I was hungry) made for a breathtaking sight. Strategically placed benches along the short walk up to the visa point beckoned. We didn’t see a soul at all the other spots, but this one had a lot of people gathered to see the sunset. I’ve always loved sunsets more than sunrises, because the light is so gorgeous when the sun is close to the horizon.

Earth’s multi-fingered hand?

Everything is lit up with a mellow aura, and a warm happy feeling courses through your body, the happy feeling of a day well spent coming to an end. Zabrieskie point provides a vantage view above the mountains, and from the pics the mountain folds (fingers of the land as I call them) look deceptively small until you see a speck of a human being on them and realize their scale.

When the sun dipped below the horizon, we wanted to make one last stop at Badwater Basin before heading on to our campsite for the night. It was a long drive to Badwater, but nobody should miss seeing it at night. Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point in the United States. There’s not much to see of Badwater during the night, but the inky sky above more than makes up for it. If you’re lucky, it will be a cloudless sky that night, with crisp air, and a comfortably cool temperature. As you walk towards the center of the basin, with all lights off you won’t be able to see even your own hand a few inches from your face. All around is black velvety darkness which surprisingly does not engulf you menacingly or make you feel claustrophobic … instead it makes you feel free. The band of the milky way is barely visible as you crane your neck upwards, it is more visible when you don’t look at it directly. Spot the star configurations you know of and wonder if this is close to what early man would have seen hundreds of thousands of years ago. Maybe not exactly, but I like to think not much has changed. I don’t recall how much time we spent in Badwater Basin in the utter darkness, just walking around not knowing where we were, but confident that it was all salt flats, so we wouldn’t be at the edge of any precipice with a risk of falling off. It could have been an hour, or it could have been eternity.

 Dawn brightens up the skies on a glorious Sunday morning

That night, we were faced with a real challenge when setting up our tent at Sunset Point campsite. What made it challenging was the howling wind, it never gave up trying to whisk us away to Kansas. Even with four pairs of strong hands and four pairs of legs standing on top of the tent, we faced some difficulty in setting it up. Once it was unfolded and pinned to the ground, we held it down until a few backpack bags were thrown inside to keep it on the ground. We were very sure it would otherwise just fly away like a parachute. The others were soon snoring away like badly tuned lawnmowers, but I stayed awake for a long time, blissfully excited … this was what I would always remember as being my very first camping experience.

Sunday morning, we headed to Badwater again, to see it properly in the daytime. Flanked by mountain ranges of Sierra Nevada, Badwater basin is home to spectacular salt flats. Miles and miles of salt-crusted land, deceptively white like snow. The real snow capped peaks of Panamint mountains in the distance completed the surreal picture. If there had been rain, we would have seen the salt crusted puddles of rain water which are far more interesting and very photogenic. Note the small specks of people in the pic, because there is nothing on the salt flats to measure relative distance or size with, it seems like everybody is far far away when they’re actually pretty close. Or maybe it’s the other way around. All I remember is I felt I was there on the salt flats all by myself with nobody around for miles.

There is no dearth of interesting things to see in Death Valley. And most of them are interestingly named too. “Devil’s golf course” is an apt one. Chunky globs of earth form a major part of this landscape, earning it the name. “Artist’s drive” is another rightly named spot. Mineral deposits color the mountain surfaces, imparting rich hues of blue, green, pink, yellow and red … a breathtaking and inspiring sight!

Devil’s golf course, you can see why it’s named so!

Artist’s drive, gorgeous greens, pinks, purples, reds and orange

There are plenty of day hikes one can do amongst the canyons. Golden canyon and Titus canyon are both great for shaded hikes. Walking amongst the layers of land shifted by earthquakes that occurred a long time ago, layers which are now slowly eroding as the weather and time take their toll …

Hiking inside one of the canyons … tormented layers of earth, tossed around like pieces of paper

With that we had to bid Death Valley adieu. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and time to start our long drive back to the Bay Area. As we drove by, tall Joshua trees whizzed past our window. We made a few vista stops to see these trees and admire their resilience in surviving such harsh conditions. That’s one of the most amazing things you’ll see in Death Valley. Even in the hottest, driest, lowest place in the United States – life thrives.

Wildflower aglow!

Quick overview of itinerary and things to see –

  • Set out on Friday evening around 8PM
  • Drive for 5 hours. Stop for the night at Tehachapi, CA.
  • Saturday around 8AM, set out for Death Valley from Tehachapi, 4 hour drive away
  • Camp at “Sunset Point” for Sat night
  • Rest of Sat and most of Sun in Death Valley
  • Sun evening around 3PM head back to Mtn View
  • Drove all the way back – Reached home late at night

Places to see in Death Valley –

  • Trona Pinnacles
  • Charcoal Kilns
  • Salt Creek, pupfish
  • Artists Drive
  • Badwater Basin (must visit in the night to see the star-studded sky and in the day to see the salt flats)
  • Golden Canyon (good for shaded hikes)
  • Zabrieskie Point (great for sunsets)
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (open hike on sand, wear sturdy shoes and plenty of sunscreen)
  • Titus Canyon (good for shaded hikes)

Places further away, must-see on our next visit –

  • Racetrack Playa – “Sailing stones” as they are called. Huge rocks and boulders, seemingly immovable, leave trails in the sand as they battle the elements.
  • Scotty’s castle

Both of the above are in the northern most area of Death Valley and it takes a long drive on a rough, unpaved road in a 4×4 to get to Racetrack playa. Having heard a lot about the magical place though, we are keen on making a return visit and seeing this for ourselves. “Sailing stones” which nobody has ever filmed moving, but which leave an unmistakable trail behind them with micro movements due to wind and other elements … amazing!

Into the mountains and beyond …

Death Valley is a place of such scale and desolation and magnificence that it will be imprinted on your mind forever. Far away from familiar cityscapes and throngs of people and other human-sized things that provide perspective, it’s a welcome break to just stare at a scene that’s surreal and other worldly in equal parts, where you are compelled to reach out and touch the canyon walls and the salt flats and the sand dunes to prove that you are there this moment and have indeed traveled back in time … or perhaps it’s the future?


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