A Lively Experience in Death Valley

With a start date to my new job still a week and a half away, I decided to take advantage of my free time and head out on another little adventure. All alone, I packed up the Dew Mobile and drove 6 1/2 hours to Death Valley National Park, in California. It was a wonderful drive, US 93 in Arizona takes you through valleys full of soap tree yuccas and its more famous relative- the Joshua Tree.
I arrived within the park around 2 and immediately set out on a backpack trip up Sheep Canyon; one I had read about in an issue of Backpacker Magazine. The going was tough. The canyon floor consisted of gravel and silt, meaning every step sunk in. Its walls rose several 1,000 feet above and were mostly varying colors of red and brown. The tilt of the tectonic plates that formed Death Valley was evident in the rock layers; most were at odd angles and seemed to just be out of place.

Despite receiving less than 2 inches of rain a year, the canyon wasn’t lacking for vegetation. Mesquite trees clung to rocks for dear life, while the gravel bottom seemed to be ideal for creosote bush and desert holly. I hiked a little over 5 miles before it began to get dark and I called it quits. While I didn’t make it as far as planned, I was burnt out from the drive as well as the hike.  For dinner, I cooked some Ramen noodles over my back country stove and dumped in a can of tuna for good measure. Then I read a bit of Game of Thrones before laying back and enjoying the night sky. It was a spectacular first day!

Badwater Basin
In the twilight of early dawn, I packed up my things and began hiking back down the canyon. It was a bit cool, but pants and a small pullover jacket were all that was needed. I reached my car and continued North up the valley. My next stop was Badwater Basin, officially the lowest elevation in North America. At 282 feet below sea level, the basin is mostly covered in a thin layer of salt crust. A shallow pool lays next to the sign. Apparently, it received its name when an early pioneer approached it thinking he would give his thirsty horse a drink. The horse had other plans, however; and refused to drink, thus naming it “bad water”. After a short walk out onto the salt flats, I hopped back into the car and drove on to a small natural bridge. It was about a mile hike to the bridge through a neat little canyon. Progress was stopped shortly after the bridge by an impassable dry waterfall.

Artist’s Drive was just north of this.

Artist's Drive

A one-way scenic drive, full of twists, turns, and dips, this has to be one of the most exciting drives I’ve done in a National Park. One of the highlights was Artist’s Palette, a cliff face seemingly painted with dabs of every color imaginable. It was a neat sight. For my last adventure of the day, I did a 5 mile loop in Golden Canyon with a side trip up to Zabriskie Point.

Death Valley Badlands

Golden Canyon was carved from repeated flash floods, evident in the beginning where the pavement had been torn to pieces and sent further down canyon. Needless to say, it is no longer paved! Badlands features of yellow, brown, and red clay cliffs surround the canyon. The view from Zabriskie Point highlighted these features, while the salt basin and mountains were also visible far off in the distance. Burnt out from the day’s adventures, I headed over to one of three campgrounds in the Furnace Creek vicinity. I spent the night chatting with Dave, an awesome back country ranger from Washington. We ate dinner together and talked about life and the joys of being outdoors. Once again, the night sky was incredible! The faint glow of the Milky Way was visible and every inch of sky seemed to be littered with thousands of stars!

Death ValleyFirst thing on the agenda this morning was Harmony Borax Works, an old borax mining site. Famous for its twenty mule wagon teams that hauled borax for miles across the desert, the mine ran for a decade in the late 1800’s until richer deposits were found. Next up, was Salt Creek. A permanent spring with a high salinity, Salt Creek is home to one of the rarest fish in the world- the Devil’s Hole Pup fish. These little guys are the sole survivors of the ancient sea bed, Lake Manly, that once covered Death Valley. It is a fragile ecosystem- any water in the Valley is precious. While I did not see any pup fish, I did find a coyote wandering through the pickle weed.

By late morning, I reached the trail head for Fall Canyon and the start of my second over-nighter. Fall Canyon was another neat canyon full of surprises around every bend. It became spectacular after bypassing a 30 foot dry waterfall.For about a half mile, the smooth walls of the canyon closed in each other and a wonderful section of narrows occurred. Water carved a beautiful slot canyon through the blue rock and it was a blast venturing through it. After the slot, I continued up canyon for another couple of miles, but unfortunately I had passed the best part. I spent the night in the canyon before retracing my steps in the morning.Fall Canyon Death Valley

Emerging from the canyon just before noon, I found the weather had changed and the valley was being bombarded by some serious gusts of wind. In an attempt to escape the blowing sand and dirt, I drove up into the Panamint Mountains, the range that forms the valley’s western border. It was a beautiful drive. Despite the continued presence of the wind, I decided to climb Wildrose Peak. It was a fairly easy 8.4 mile round trip climb. The views on top were impressive, but the 40+mph gusts of wind shortened my stay. I descended back through the patches of snow and decided on spending the night at a free campsite back near Stovepipe Wells.

Wildrose Summit Death Valley

I woke up this morning to the sound of drizzling rain. Rain? Here? In a place where they receive less than 2 inches annually and sometimes none at all, rain is a precious thing. I sure didn’t let it stop any of my plans. I took off early in the morning, heading out into the vast dune field of the Mesquite Flat. One of 6 or 7 dunes in the park, this one is within a mile of Stovepipe Wells and therefore the most accessible. I was still the only person to venture deep into the waves of sand. For some reason, sand dunes are one of my favorite things to explore. I love looking out and seeing rolling dunes for miles. I also loved sand boarding, though there was nowhere to rent a board in the park. I made do wandering the dunes by foot and enjoying the great views the tops provided. These dunes were nowhere near as large as the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, but they were still big and covered a large area. In this park, large is a relative term though.

Mesquite Sand DunesCovering nearly 3.5 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest in the contiguous United States. After an hour or two, I returned back to the car and drove Northeast out of the park. About 5 miles before Beatty, Nevada, I came across an old ghost town called Rhyolite. A small mining town, Rhyolite was short lived. Founded in 1904, it quickly rose to a population of about 5,000. Just as fast, by 1911 the mine shut down and the population was almost back to zero. It was interesting to wander through the ruins of the buildings and wonder what it would’ve been like during its boom. At least the casino still seemed to be in pretty good shape!

 

Colorado RiverJust south of Vegas, literally two exits after the Hoover Dam, was White Rock Canyon. Officially part of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, the canyon takes you down to the wonderful Colorado River. Even more exciting, is the nearby Hot Springs! It was for these that I once again packed up the backpack and set out down yet another gravelly wash.It was only a 2.2 mile hike to the Colorado River and another half mile to the springs. Yet, when I reached the springs, only one other person was bathing. I stripped down to my undies and waded into the thermal springs. A sigh of relief immediately came out- it was awesome! Two separate pools had been made by stacking sand bags filled with gravel from the stream bed. The lower pool was a nice 98 degrees while the upper was a bit hotter, 106. As it turns out, my fellow bather was the man who made the pools.

Arizona Hot SpringsA Las Vegas resident for the past 20 years, John makes a trip down to the springs at least once a week. He also leads guided tours to other hot springs in the area. He was an interesting man and we had some nice conversation. When he left, I was visited by another nice couple. I soaked in the springs until nearly sunset and had planned on spending the night along the Colorado River. However, the clouds moving in were dark and looked ominous so I started heading back. Almost immediately, it started raining and continued my whole hike out. A rainbow appeared above the canyon, easing my burden ever so slightly.Rainbow

I made it back to the car at about 6:30 and decided it was time to head home. It was another fun and exciting adventure, but I was eager to sleep in a nice comfy bed again.

So long for now Death Valley!

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Written by Jake G

I'm a 26 year old who loves to hike, bike, backpack, and explore the outdoors. I'm a Midwesterner who currently resides in sunny Arizona. I hope to inspire others with my adventures and maybe give some advice for your future vacations. Follow me as I travel around the country and...
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