Visiting Death Valley National Park

We’re on a personal mission of visiting as many national parks as possible and thankfully, we are spoiled for choice in terms of what this country has to offer. We’ve now covered Acadia, Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Since I had a work conference in Las Vegas in February, we decided to drive down to Death Valley National Park post-conference. It was the best time we could’ve visited it considering that the summer temperatures, true to its name, climb to nearly 120ºF.

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When they say, Death Valley is unlike any other place you’ve seen, you better believe them. It’s almost indescribable in words although that’s what I’m attempting to do. The drive to Death Valley is pleasant and if you start early from Vegas, you leave civilization behind quickly before entering the arid and desolate yet captivating countryside that is referred to as the American West. You stop for gas and sandwiches at the onomatopoeically-named Pahrump, a small junction town before you begin your final drive to Death Valley. It, where I realized later, also has a GEAR UP program. Ten miles from Pahrump, you take a left at the Amarposa Opera House. I bet you didn’t expect Siri to say that while driving in a desert. Unlike the Smokies or Yosemite where you drive through heavy traffic (and wildfire), it’s almost serene here. The size of the park is inversely proportional to the visitors it attracts. In spite of the lore, not many venture here and even fewer are aware of its proximity to one of America’s oft-visited cities.

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You don’t arrive at Death Valley as much as you slowly begin to notice the changing landscape. Sure, you have the quintessential welcome sign that greets all national park visitors but you would drive through it and only gradually realize you’re in a special place. We begin our journey at Zabriskie Point, a palette of cookie dough-esque mountains with fifty shades of brown. We get our first sight of the valley after we make a short hike up one of the hills. We leave before a tour bus arrives and disturbs our solitude. Our first hike is through the Golden Canyon. It’s about 5 miles long through a winding canyon that sometimes narrows so much that I’ve to go sideways and that’s after I breathe in. The Red Cathedrals welcome you with their looming presence at the head of the trail but you move past them and go toward the Manly Beacon. In my next life, I would like to work full-time at naming various geological features in national parks. That sounds like a fun job and perhaps you can do it better after a drink or two.

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The hike gets strenuous in parts so much so that we’re literally Hansel-n-Gretal-ing our six-year-old to walk “another 25 steps”. The hike soon diverges into a longer Gower Gulch and one that takes you back to the parking lot. Of course, we do Robert Frost proud by taking the less tread-upon path. As Frost predicts, it makes all the difference. A much easier hike but a lot more desolate. The sky is cloudless and there’s nothing around except for some lizards scampering by and brown dusty mountains all around you. Ironically I almost ended up twisting my ankle on the flattest part of the terrain. I was already having thoughts of my family having to leave me behind to get help coz they couldn’t carry me and me befriending some coyotes later at night. But thankfully, it wasn’t so bad and I soldiered on.

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We even get, as the kids say it these days, an “amaze-balls” moment as we come toward the end of our hike atop a dry waterfall that overlooks the valley in a veritable explosion of space, or as my architecture school professors like to describe it.

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After guzzling gallons of water and witnessing meeting all our Apple Watch goals before noon, we are now content enough to drive to the Devils’ Golf Course (see what I mean about that job) which is basically the largest collection of hard rock salt crystals that I’ve seen. It’s one of those bizarre places that they talk about on travel channels and no amount of panning your camera around can come close to capturing its essence. The star of the day, however, is Badwater Basin. It’s officially the lowest point in North America. Well, experts may beg to differ based on events in its history but geologically speaking, it sits 282 feet below sea level. For good measure, they’ve marked a point up on a nearby mountain as to where the sea level would be. It makes you feel like Moses on the run. You can talk a mile-long hike on the salt plains and if you so desire, even taste the landscape. Interestingly, you can see Telescope Peak from this basin which tops out at more than 11,000 feet.

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By the way, make sure you get the right kind of car to this park. Even if you are not planning on driving off-road on some of the more rougher paths, you still need something more than a sedan; just so that you are not stranded in what is referred to as hell on earth. We make our way to our night’s rest stop, a lodge with exactly one restaurant, one gas station, and one gift shop, which is conveniently located in the heart of the park with views outside your room that you can die for. Literally, if you walk out in peak summer. But on pleasant days like these, it makes you feel like the Lone Ranger. We passed by Mesquite Dunes, a place that we would return to almost multiple times a day and one that made our son declare that this is a best national park of all that he has seen in his short life. He spent countless hours just rolling around in the sand as if it were snow. I guess for a Texan that’s the closest it can get. I’m sure we carried a few tons of sand back home in his shoes and hair.

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The Mesquite Flats is a tiny patch of the typical desert with huge dunes of fine sand. I say tiny but we never got around to walking to the end of it and were content to merely lie down in the sand at sunset, sunrise, and midnight. At midnight, you can literally see the most number of stars that you’ve ever seen in your life and although the Milky Way doesn’t rise until 3am, you’ll certainly see enough stars to last you a lifetime. Also, you may not have seen pitch black like you do out here in the desert at 11pm. Just be sure to carry a compass and flashlight coz you wouldn’t want to walk in the opposite direction from your car and be stranded in the beautiful but brutal desert. The sunrise, on the other hand, is a much different experience as light from the east gradually peeks over the mountains lighting up the hills on the other side with hues of red and orange. You struggle to find words to describe how you feel until a group of Japanese tourists who’re singing a morning prayer at the top of their lungs do it for you.

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Mosaic Canyon is exactly what it sounds like; polished rough walls joined abruptly by mosaiced rock faces in what I would imagine in a seismic event. It’s a real-world geology lesson waiting to be taught to eager school kids. It’s also one of the rarely-populated hikes after the first mile after which most day visitors turn around. You’re once again treated to miles of solitude, or terror depending on how you choose to think about it. Some scrambling is required in parts but not that narrow that you’ve to cut off your arm after 127 hours to get out. I pack away my camera lest it gets busted on the rocks coz I really do need both my hands out here to get out of a few tight spots. We help out a couple of senior citizens who’re struggling to climb over a particularly steep ledge. We feel particularly accomplished until a couple with just a water pack draped over their highly toned backs run past us. Nothing to feel inadequate about, they’re just doing the same hike but running it all the way, right?

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The most surreal experience, however, was reserved for later that day when we drove to the delightfully-named Ubehebe Crater. Almost Mars-like in terrain, we got fantastic views of the archetypical Death Valley landscape as we hiked all around it. The Mars comparison isn’t a stretch since we learned that the bottom of the crater has Mars-like qualities and is often used as a laboratory by scientists. That was pretty cool to know. Compared to the previous hikes, this one was a stroll in the park with a continual stream of great vistas all around us. As tempting as it was, we resisted the temptation to hike down to the bottom lest we not have time to scamper back up before dark. We got our best photographs at this location.

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We had spent nearly 3 days in Death Valley and could easily spend a week more exploring the various canyons and off-road drives. We ended up not going to the Racetrack part of the valley but it needed a four-wheel Jeep which we didn’t have. You can rent a four-wheel vehicle by the hour at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center which would be totally worth it in spite of the high rental cost. We left Death Valley with a heavy but satisfied heart and headed back to, if you can call it that, civilization.

Feel free to download and use our detailed itinerary.

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