DEATH VALLEY, Part 2—Exquisite Places in a Desolate Land

Dawn at Badwater Basin had been such a poignant experience for me, it was something Chris needed to see for himself. Fortunately he didn’t require strong-arm persuasion. Once more I was making that dark predawn drive, this time not alone.

Once the sun broke over the Funeral peaks, the landscape became transformed—and I was simply awestruck! What an entirely different look from two days ago. A clouded sky reflected brilliant color; a full moon adding the punch. Now this is something that makes early mornings totally worth it! You never know what you will find.  Such is the capriciousness of nature.


There’s plenty to do in Death Valley that will enhance your experience. The difficult part might be in choosing where to go and what to do. The best thing is just to start out. Guidebook in hand, that was exactly what we did!

Several canyons cut into the mountains flanking Death Valley. Formed by streams that occasionally create flash floods, the carved rocks make for spectacular sights. We took the trail up Golden Canyon, soon learning it was aptly named.


Known for the glowing color of the canyon walls, the views as we headed upcanyon of yellow rocks against a deep blue sky were absolutely brilliant. This is definitely a two-fer hike—your legs get the workout while your mind gets blown away!



A road once entered Golden Canyon, and parts of pavement can still be seen. In February 1976, a four-day storm dropped 2.3 inches of rain at Furnace Creek (nearly twice Death Valley’s annual rainfall!). On the last day of the storm, a violent downpour caused a surge of water, mud, and rock to flow through these narrows. Needless to say, the road was mostly washed away. Only chunks of asphalt have been left behind.


8x-southwest-1658Your reward at the end of the trail is the towering formation known as Red Cathedral.



In the afternoon we took an entirely different hike in a completely different environment. Heading back into the Panamint Mountains we had heard that a spring-fed waterfall flows year-round in a narrow gorge. Now that would be a different sight to see! An unpaved, but well-graded 2.5-mile dirt road must be negotiated to the trailhead, but it was worth the dust and bumps.

The one-mile walk to Darwin Falls involves rock scrambling and several small stream crossings, but that just adds to the adventure. Seeing green plants and actual trees with shade added a wonder to the hike. Parched land was behind us—how good it can be to see actual clear water flowing!


Talk about a veritable oasis in a desert land—this place entices all your senses! After just a few short days in Death Valley, a simple clear pool of water looks like a miracle happening. Take it as the truth—this is where we sat and just absorbed the experience, relishing a cool spray from the falls.


Later, another sunset in Death Valley continued to give us a show. Are all the evenings here blessed with stunning skies, or is it just good timing on our part?



Sunrise the following day would find me standing on a high ridge of sand. Located nearly in the heart of Death Valley, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is only about 3 miles long and a half mile wide. And it takes a lot of trudging through shifting sand to arrive at that pinnacle of photo opportunity. Aarrrgh! Burning thighs, gasping breath. But some might say it is worth it when you see dawn breaking from that high vantage point.


Most of the desert of Death Valley isn’t sand, but rather dry, rocky, infertile dirt. The sand dunes of Death Valley comprise less than 1% of the park, but seem to typify what a desert landscape should be. Trapped in this one particular area, the sand is brought down from the eroded canyons and washes, and then blown into complex and ever-changing shapes.


Sand dunes can be a photographer’s delight

Another day, another canyon to explore. Mosaic Canyon is well-known; a canyon, we were told, not to miss. We took the 3-mile-long gravel road up the alluvial fan to reach the start of the trail.


8x-southwest-1709It begins as a narrow, twisting, water-worn trail. The entrance appears deceptively ordinary, but soon the canyon narrows to a deep slot cut into the mountain. Smooth, polished marble walls enclose the trail as it follows the canyon’s sinuous curves.

The color patterns in the rock are an amazing sight to see. It becomes tighter and tighter, as you wind your way in farther.

Carved into white marble and a mosaic of recemented steam gravels, this twisting canyon through polished rock walls is only a few feet wide in places. The colors are simply beautiful, the patterns are something to marvel.


If taking hikes isn’t to your liking, or a few of them go a long way, Death Valley has many scenic drives to offer the more sedentary visitor. You’ll be driving dirt or gravel roads, some being rather washboardy. The park is a potpourri of 4wd roads. Some are short trips; others, like the well-used Titus Canyon, will be longer drives, but outstanding views will be your reward. The first one on my list was the popular Artist’s Drive. And the best time of day to take it is in late afternoon, when the light shines on the rocks, accentuating the colors. 8x-southwest-1660

Artist’s Drive rises up to the top of an alluvial fan fed by a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains. The scenic loop drive goes through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills.


Noted for its colorful formations, which are caused by the oxidation of different metals. Red, pink and yellow are from iron salts, green is from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and manganese produces the purple hues. Artist’s Drive is just one of the many places here where Death Valley belies its name.


Just north of Furnace Creek Campground stretches a long expanse of rocky empty land, typical Death Valley landscape. About 5 miles later the gravelly ground takes on a rough, pock-marked snowy appearance. It is more of the salt flats similar to what is found further south, at Badwater Basin. My curiosity aroused, I had made it my next sunrise location.


A fabulous sky greeted my arrival.

First light was tingeing the distant peaks as I made my way across the flats, better known as a playa. It is too harsh for most plants and animals to survive, yet the ground is quite fragile. The relatively thin upper crust of salt can break through to the mud layer below. One moment I was crunching on the salty surface, a few steps later I would sink in an oozy salt mud. A very unusual land.


Rain falling on the distant mountains creates floods that flow down and out into the playa. Along the way, minerals dissolve from rocks and join the flood. Here, at the lowest elevation, the flowing water comes to rest, forming small pools and streams. As the water evaporates, minerals concentrate until only the salts remain. After thousands of years, enough salts have washed in to produce layer upon layer of salt crust.


Sodium chloride—better known as table salt—makes up the majority of the minerals in Death Valley’s basins. Other evaporative minerals found here include calcite, gypsum, and borax. Coincidentally, close to where I was roaming on that early morning foray, stood the ruins of Harmony Borax Works.


So, does 20-Mule Team Borax mean anything to you? Well, this is where it all began. After borax deposits were discovered here in 1881, the Harmony operation began mining from 1883 to 1889. Chinese laborers would rake up the borate compounds that had formed clusters on the playa surface. After purification, the refined borax was hauled by the famous 20-mule team double wagons on the long overland route to the closest railroad in Mojave, CA—165 miles away.


Historic photo courtesy of the NPS.

Fortunately, for the mules as well as the Chinese workers, summers were too hot to refine the borax in Death Valley.

One more post on Death Valley is upcoming—a unique sight that deserves its own blog. Not wanting to drag this place into the ground, nevertheless I think you’ll find the subject surprising. Until then, the Death Valley sunsets keep rolling on . . .


From the canyons of a incredible place,

8x-jcw-1586Airstream Travelers,
Melinda and Chris


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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