Death Valley – hmm, did we just land on the Moon?

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Looking south over the moonscape of the valley bottom

As a tourist you have to really want to go to Death Valley as:

  • It’s not particularly accessible as it’s a long way from anywhere and much of the journey is on ordinary highways rather than Interstate (it’s 350 miles from LA and a good 150 from Vegas)
  • There are few places on earth with a harsher climate

The guidebooks we had read urged visitors to exercise caution in late Spring and Autumn when the temperature is generally above 35 Celsius and they actively discouraged visits in July/August as the sun burns down at a head-meltingly hot 46 and certainly not without 3-4 litres of water per person for each day you’re there. Incidentally the books also advise summer visitors to turn off vehicle air conditioning as the air is so hot the engine needs all the coolant it can get to stay working. This left us with two choices:

  1. Brave the heat and risk the car breaking down , suffering heat exhaustion – or worse – and being limited to brief forays out the car to see any sights , or
  2. Go out of season when driving around would be no problem, walking would be easy and danger of death reduced to everyday levels

So we went in December.

Despite its harshness, Death Valley has a surprising beauty to it – albeit one that’s very stark. The valley itself , which is around 140 miles long and an average of 15-20 miles wide, is comprised of very rough, sharp and highly uneven rock – you should definitely have solid boots or shoes to walk on it and take care not to lose your footing as you would end up badly grazed at best and quite possibly worse. A great deal of the rock is covered in salt deposits and to see naturally formed salt crystals in the open air is really quite something.

The park visitor centre is located at the appropriately named Furnace Creek, which is well run and has lots of information about what to see and do while you’re there. As the main lodgings, shops and restaurants are based in and around the village as well, it’s worthwhile stopping off, even if it’s just for a respite from the heat.

Dante’s View overlooking Badwater Basin

The main tourist draw is Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point on dry land in America at 86m below sea level. When your read that, it doesn’t sound all that much, but it’s only when you consider that the average depths of the English Channel and Loch Lomond are only 63m and 37m respectively, you realise that you’d need to do a lot of swimming to come up for air.

Standing 86m below sea level

Other highlights are:

  1. Dante’s View, which is about a third of the way up the eastern side of the Valley, which overlooks Badwater Basin and offers magnificent views all the way up and down the Valley and with the air being so clear, you can see a very long way.
  2. Artists Palette, which is an area of the valley where the rocks are all coloured in pastel hues as a result of the oxidation of the naturally occurring metals in the ground.

Both of the above can be hiked or driven to – the time of year, your energy levels and the volume of water with you will lead your choice…

About 40 miles north of Furnace Creek is the ghost town of Rhyolite, which was founded in 1904 when gold was discovered in the nearby hills. In under 12 months its population grew to around 5,000 people, they had facilities such as phones, banks, electricity, street lights, running water, papers, schools, hospital and even a stock exchange and opera house. Roughly $20m of gold was dug in the first three years, but then the new finds petered out and by 1910 the mine had closed, the population fallen to less than 700 and most of the banks and other supporting businesses had shut; a few years later, it had been completely abandoned.

Abandoned mine workings – beware snakes, scorpions and sudden drops!

Quite a few of the buildings remain standing as the dry desert air has not weakened them too much and entrances to the mines can still be seen and some visited – although I wouldn’t recommend going very far in as the shafts have not been covered and they also provide shelter from the heat for snakes and scorpions. A few hardy souls have set up homes in what remains of the buildings and still look for gold, but it’s not thought much has been found. Worth a visit if you have the time.