We had been camping and four-wheeling in in the desert with our friends Brandon and Kerensa of DriveDiveDevour, and decided to head to Death Valley to catch the Super Bloom. There are always spring flowers in the desert, but only perfect conditions such as those of the winter & spring of 2016 will create the “super bloom” that results in a multi-colored carpet of flowers. It was our first visit to Death Valley and we didn’t know what to expect other than the superlatives Death Valley is known for: it boasts the lowest elevation on the continent of North America (282 feet below sea level), it is the driest spot in North America (averaging less than 2″ of rain per year), and it holds the record for the highest recorded air temperature in the world – a toasty 134 degrees Fahrenheit, set on July 10, 1913 at the appropriately named Furnace Creek. Other than that, I guess we sort of expected the whole place to be stark and, well, dead. And while it’s true that the lack of rainfall results in sparse vegetation, the wealth of minerals in the soil results in vivid bands of color. We weren’t really prepared for the stunning beauty of the valley or for how large the Park is, and we know we’ll go back for an extended visit when we can explore more of it.
The only spot in the Park with a reliable cell signal is Furnace Creek but the campground there was packed, and for us, no cell signal means no work and that’s no good. So we stayed outside the Park and explored it on 3 long day trips. Our first day in the Park we decided to drive 2 off-road trips (Hole in the Wall and Echo Canyon) in the hopes of placating Brandon and Eric with fun driving while Kerensa and I annoyed them by taking dozens and dozens of wildflower photos. The drive up Echo Canyon road also offered a visit to the deserted Inyo Mine, and we had fun exploring old buildings and machinery there.
We capped the day off by heading to Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America. Over the centuries, salts washing out of the soil have been concentrated in the low basin where evaporation has left huge beds of salt crystals.
Badwater Spring is near the parking area and, in spite of what must be hyper-saline conditions, it is home to plants and algae, the Badwater snail, brine shrimp, and several species of insects. Amazing! The spring is what gave the basin its name, when a surveyor couldn’t get his mule to drink the water and made a notation on his map that the spring had “bad water.” Smart mule in my opinion. We finished the day with a trip to the General Store at Furnace Creek and dinner, where I sampled the not bad at all Badwater Ale.
On our second drive to the Park, we started the day off with more wildflower viewing, driving a loop of Mud Canyon and the Beatty Cut-Off. We also got great views of the appropriately named Corkscrew Peak.
The next leg of the trip would cover nearly 200 miles and, since they don’t call it “Death” Valley for nothing, we headed back to Beatty, NV to gas up! Along the way we stopped to photograph some wild burros – too cute! Eric wouldn’t let me keep one so we continued on to Titus Canyon Road, which had some of the most stunning scenery in the Park. The one-lane road wound up & down steep mountainsides, over Red Pass, past numerous abandoned mines, and ended in Titus Canyon. Near the end of the drive the steep canyon walls soar to dizzying heights and in places it’s less than 20 feet wide, forming a vehicle-sized slot canyon. You can also see unsettling high water marks and debris caught on ledges 20 feet above you. Not a good place to be when it’s raining! [Apologies for some of these pictures – I think we had the camera in Night Scene mode from the Badwater Basin trip!]
Leaving Titus Canyon, we bee-lined to the northern end of the Park for the 27 mile wash-board drive past Tea Kettle Junction and out to Racetrack Playa. The Playa is the site of mysterious moving rocks. Although no one has seen them move, the best theories are that strong winds (50 mph or more) push them across the slick lakebed mud when it is wet or frozen. We raced against the sunset, knowing that the rain forecast for the following day would end our chances to walk on the Playa for the duration of our stay (the Playa substrate is basically silt and when it is wet, walking on the Playa is forbidden because you will destroy the smooth surface). It’s fascinating to walk among the moving rocks, but also sad and maddening to see how unthinking/uncaring individuals have damaged the area. We witnessed tracks that were missing their rocks (so they had to have been stolen), people who had left debris in the rock tracks, and deep footprints of selfish individuals who had clearly disregarded the prohibition against entering the Playa when the mud is damp.
A few days later we said goodbye to Brandon & Kerensa as they headed toward the coast, but we weren’t ready to say goodbye to Death Valley yet. Since we had been concentrating on the northern and middle portions of the Park, we decided to head south. Eric found an off-road route in via Harry Wade Road which would take us through sand dunes south of Jubilee Pass. Our first adventure was a side trip to Saratoga Springs. I really didn’t expect so much standing water in a place known for its lack of rainfall and high evaporation rate, but topographic maps for the Park are littered with labels for springs. We reached the springs in late morning and didn’t see any birds or wildlife, but their blueness and the green vegetation around them was still an amazing sight. We then headed north along washboardy Harry Wade Road. As I was zipping along, my eye noticed a series of darker, regularly spaced bands that stood out from the sand around them. We made a quick u-turn and found a beautiful Mojave sidewinder! He/she was slightly miffed at having its sunbathing session disturbed and was rattling to voice displeasure at being so rudely awakened. The Mojave sidewinder only grows to a maximum of about 33′, and our fellow was about 28-30″ long. A rattlesnake adds a new bead on its rattle every time it sheds, and we counted 11 in addition to the bead. And look at the horns over those eyes! We watched as it ambled, sideways, up the berm and into the shade of a creosote bush. Even though I knew where it was I could hardly see it in the dappled shade of the bush. Awesome! Stay out of the road big guy, especially until the Super Bloom crowds leave the Park. We continued on through washes of bright yellow flowers, past fluffy white sand dunes, through Badwater Basin to the turn at Artist’s Drive. This short scenic drive is one of the more colorful in the Park, with minerals staining the soil varying shades of green, pink, lavender, and more shades of tan and ocher than you can imagine. We ended our day by driving up to Dante’s Peak for spectacular views of Badwater Springs and the salt flats. It was a fitting end to the day.
TIPS FOR YOUR DEATH VALLEY TRIP
- Even in the cooler winter months, take plenty of water and remember to drink it!
- The Park is huge and there aren’t many places to buy fuel, so plan ahead.
- Be on the lookout for snakes and scorpions, and don’t place your hands & feet anywhere unless you’ve looked and checked it out.
- During the winter months, make your reservations early!
- Don’t be
a D-bagcareless! Stay on designated trails and roads, don’t take home souvenirs other than your memories & photos, and follow all Park rules regarding resources!
THE MUST-SEE LIST
- Titus Canyon Road was probably our most enjoyable and scenic trip. Although it is not paved, any 2-wheel drive vehicle with decent clearance (like a Subaru Forester or small SUV) should be able to handle it. We saw Honda Accords on the road as well, but you should check with the Ranger Station for current road conditions if you want to be sure. The road is one-way and there aren’t many spots to turn around, so once you start you’re kind of committed.
- Racetrack Playa was mystical but the road in is rough. Check current road conditions with the Ranger Station.
- Artist’s Drive, Badwater Basin and Dante’s Peak are very scenic easy drives.
Continue scrolling if you need more flower or scenery pics, otherwise we’ll catch you with the next post. Thanks for reading!