Death Valley National Park

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I was not initially all that excited to visit Death Valley National Park. It made it to the top of my list, because it is one of the closest and you really have to get there before Summer, but its tagline is something like, “hottest, driest, lowest,” and even though my Northwest eyes have come to appreciate beauty in desert landscapes, I wasn’t sure about driving to the middle of nowhere to see more. But I got excited as I began to research, and I was so amazed by everything I saw there that I want to yell at everyone I know to go and go now.

I really did get the sense as I was driving that I was in the middle of nowhere. I turned off on the route to Vegas to get on a highway where I saw no other cars. The road itself was everything I imagine when I think of a road trip and I took pictures out the window and tried not to worry about what I would do if there was a problem with my car and I had no phone service. I like the idea of heading into the desert alone and unconnected, but it is a loss of a certain level of security I don’t appreciate at home.

Death Valley National Park is huge, and I was afraid I would spend all of my time in the car, but many of the most interesting sights were not far from my cabin. My first stop after entering the park was Dante’s View. Even after driving up a winding road, I was not prepared for what I would see when I got to the top. I think I actually said, “Oh my God.” Far from what I expected, the landscape of Death Valley is diverse and composed of much more than flat land or sand dunes. You can look in one direction and see a beautiful sight and then turn and see something equally beautiful and completely different. The view looked unreal to me.

My next stop was Zabriskie Point, which offers a completely different view. I arrived just as the sun was setting and many people had their cameras set up and ready to capture it. I took 329 pictures over the course of a single weekend, many of which look exactly the same, because the views seemed too magical not to take home. Here on the West Coast, we think anything approaching 100 years old is ancient and are impressed by signs that say Established in 1948, so when I went to read the history on the area, I was not prepared for, “Millions of years ago . . . .” Geology has never been among my big interests, but you can’t ignore it in Death Valley.

I have been spending a lot of my time researching cheap lodging just outside of the parks, but there are very view options in Death Valley and the one I could find was still a ways out and I would summarize its Yelp reviews as, “historic but awful.” So of the three resorts within the park, I chose Furnace Creek Ranch for the simple reason that it had a cabin available. Each resort has a general store, a couple restaurants, a bar, and a gas station. Though I had to drive to get to every sight, everything I needed within the resort was easy walking distance. I had a burger and cider in the restaurant, spent some time writing, and went to bed.

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My first stop the next morning was Golden Canyon. There is a short hike through the canyon or a four mile hike that takes you through the canyon and around through another gulch. I chose the longer hike and then accidentally approached it the opposite way of everyone else and headed through the gulch first. There was a while where I wasn’t sure I was on a path at all, but eventually I started seeing people coming the other way, and then at an opportune time a group of ladies pointed and said, “that way.” I thanked them and quickly found a more obvious trail with markers.

The weird thing about some of the mountains (I keep looking for another name for them, but they seem to be mountains) is that you can simply walk on top of many of them. Where I am from, mountains are MOUNTAINS, and I had the sense while climbing a trail to the top and then seeing yet another path leading higher that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be there. The hike took me to higher views and along scarier trails than I was expecting, again playing with my sense of what is safe and pushing my known limits. So often you look to other people to confirm that whatever you are doing is okay, and alone on a trail in a place I had never been before, I had to make all of those decisions for myself. I survived the hike, took a small detour to the Red Cathedral, and then walked through Golden Canyon.

I got back in my car and drove down to Artist Drive, which is a scenic driving tour that takes you up close to beautifully-colored rocks. It is also a really fun road to drive. There are two huge dips that make it feel like you’re on a roller coaster (many of the roads through Death Valley were fun this way). Next I drove past Devil’s Golf Course to Badwater. The only reason I knew anything about Badwater is that I used to read Runner’s World when I was in college and there was a lot of talk about the ultramarathon that runs through there. In February, it isn’t impossibly hot, but it’s very cool to stand at the lowest point in North America and look up at a sign high on the rocks above that says, “Sea Level.” You can walk out far into the basin. Something about the scale of this huge flat land with mountains on both sides is stunning.

I made it back to my cabin and then made the mistake of sitting down, which made getting back up very difficult. I didn’t have enough time to take in the whole park, so I was planning my return visit before I even checked in, but I did want to see at least one more thing, so I drove out to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I had never seen desert sand dunes. I felt like I was at the beach, but the lakes are all dry in Death Valley. No matter how many pictures I took, none could capture the dunes accurately, so I gave up on that and enjoyed the sunset.

I had to leave early on Sunday morning to make it back in time for work that afternoon, so I decided to return to Zabriskie Point on my way out of the park. It was mostly abandoned and I sat at the top with my legs hanging over the rocks and stared. I had planned to sit and write for a while, but it is strange the way travel like this can bring feelings to the surface, but make it hard to articulate them. The scale of everything is so massive that you feel insignificant, but then you feel like if nobody is paying attention anyway, then you might as well do whatever you want. The one clear thought I had sitting there was that so many of the things I had written in my journal recently were self-critical, and when I read old journals everything is self-critical, and I am so tired of that if for no other reason than it’s boring.

There is a castle in Death Valley National Park, and I didn’t go see it even though I traveled to Germany for castles. That tells you something about how amazing the rest of the park is, and how much I have left to see. I felt haunted by Dante’s View, but didn’t have time to see it again; I’ll save it for my first stop on my return visit. As soon as I left the park, I found myself trying to recall the different views. They are quickly slipping from my good memory, owing I think to their unreal quality.

Death Valley is worth a trip to the middle of nowhere.