During the President’s day weekend in the Winter of 2016, we headed south-east from the San Francisco Bay Area to the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America – Death Valley National Park in the state of Nevada.
Unlike any other national parks I’ve been to before, Death Valley is a vast remote landscape with many different terrains tightly woven together. After a hike through the red rock canyons, if you feel like sinking your toes in the sand, you are only minutes away from the sand dunes of Mesquite. As you scramble up and down the dunes, if you fancy getting into a crater, a 40 minute drive will land you at the mouth of an adequately large volcanic crater. The terrain choices at your disposal are varied – snow peaked mountains, a perennial waterfall, sand dunes, volcanic crater, immense stretches of salt flats and canyons all within small distances made our visit to this park very engaging.
The drive from the Bay Area to Death Valley isn’t a short one. We broke up our 8 hour onward journey into two halves with a night’s stop at Bakersfield. This gave us some much-needed night’s rest and recharged us for the second leg of our journey the next morning. I no longer have the stomach to settle down behind the wheel for that long. A quicker option in the future would be to simply fly into Las Vegas and then make the two-hour drive to the park. It was close to noon when we made it to Death Valley.
Winter is probably one of the best times to visit a searing desert like Death Valley. This place is one of the hottest on our planet and temperatures soar up to 50C/120F during summer times, rendering a visit here during summer an exercise in survivalism. Even as the rest of the country progressed through the dead of February winter, we had warm weather welcome us at Death Valley. I for sure wouldn’t want to test the elements at this desert in the summer.
Here’s a brief trip report of our visit to Death Valley.
As we entered the park, we hit a hiking trail right away. Named the Mosaic Canyon trail, this narrow pathway winds through smooth mosaic canyon walls. The drive on the unpaved dirt road to this trail head isn’t easy on cars built for the cities. My Toyota Corolla took quite a beating as it bounced and squeaked its way to the trail head . We hiked the trail for a while, watched the sunset and then got back before it was dark.
Death Valley is renowned for its night sky. Being way out and away from any major city, Death Valley ranks high in the list of places with the darkest night skies. We hoped to witness the Universe put up a grand spectacle up in the heavens. Mother Nature, however, works on her own terms and had no interest in entertaining us. A cloudy sky marred the view. I’d still gratefully take that over the few handful of stars we get to see in the hazy skies of San Jose.
Later that night, we went on a ranger walk over the Mesquite sand dunes. Having hiked on the dunes for a little while, we settled down on the sand with the fellow park visitors, gearing up for a night of Astronomical education. Much to our delight, the skies opened up a little and the heavenly bodies appeared on the scene. I scanned the skies in vain for the gaseous band of Milky Way.
The ranger talk, while informative to an extent, was a let down. I looked forward to a technical talk on Astronomy but instead got an assortment of folklore on how the stars and constellations came to be and how they got their names. Despite that, we did learn some night sky trivia on how to locate the North star, and some bits on Betelgeuse, the red-giant that is set to explode into a supernova.
Having watched a park documentary at the visitor center, we drove down to Badwater Basin. The lowest point in North America, this immense expanse of salt flats is 282 feet below sea level. We walked down the salt flats, leaving the crowds behind as we ventured out for about a mile. The fact that made our visit to the Badwater Basin unforgettable was that it was Valentine’s day – Not many couples can lay claim to having spent their Valentine’s day at the lowest point on the continent!
On our way back, we stopped over at Artist’s Palette – a collection of hills with colors so varied to have earned its name. I then hit the nearby Golden Canyon trail alone while my wife – Akshata, chose to relax back in the car at the trail head. I had the deserted trail and the canyons to myself as the sun went down. I hiked blissfully for a couple of miles, enjoying the howling winds as they blew through the canyon. However, with daylight fading away, I gradually grew less sure-footed and the canyon’s desolation began to get the better of me. I continued on for a little longer and then turned back as the shadows cast by the canyon walls grew longer. By the time I got back to my car, it was pitch dark and my concerned wife said she had begun to entertain the idea of calling for help.
Day 3 – Journey Into and Back From Hell
We checked out of our accommodation and drove to Ubehebe – a huge volcanic crater caused by the explosive venting of underground steam. I had only intended to take a little hike around the rim of the crater. As I got to the mouth of the crater, I saw a small group of people all the way down at the base of the crater. The trigger-happy reckless adventurer within me was instantly awoken and much against Akshata’s wishes, I began my descent. The path down was laden with little gravel stones giving me good foothold and I essentially ran down to the base. My gravity-assisted descent was all fun and games.
I fooled around, smug over having found myself in a place as unique as the base of an ancient volcanic crater. I waved at Akshata who was 500 feet above me at the crater’s rim. She waved back at me. Reveling in my sense of accomplishment, I started my journey back up the crater.
Gross overestimation of my physical limits is one of my weaknesses that I hope won’t cost me dear some day. As the ascent got steeper and harder, so did my breathing. Soon enough, my thighs were on fire and I collapsed down on the sloping trail with exhaustion. It was time for a rest-stop. A few deep breaths later, I got back on my legs, only to find myself squatting down five steps in. I sensed trouble when my breathing turned into wheezing and I wasn’t even half way up. I waved a thumbs up at Akshata, signalling her not to panic. She hand signaled that I sit down and rest some more.
With my thighs on fire, I could no longer walk upright and began scrambling on all fours, fighting against the ruthless pull of Gravity. As I scrambled on for a while, I had a feeling that I might pass out. I have blacked out a couple of times in the past when my physical exertion went past my aerobic limits – once during my short-lived Karate lessons when the instructor pushed me past my fitness levels. I shudder to think what would have ensued had I passed out inside the crater. The Gods spared me their wrath.
I finally limped out of the crater in one piece and collapsed down at the rim. Battered by the ordeal, I pulled myself together and chugged down on my Gatorade. Looking down into the unforgiving crater in front of me, I tuned out as Akshata admonished me on my foolishness.
Death Valley is unlike other national parks and for someone used to savoring verdant greenery and lush terrains, the barren and empty stretch of land might come across as unappealing. I however cannot get enough of the desert and totally dig the American Southwest. The vast shimmering country that lays out indifferently all around you for as far as the eye can see brings out a different set of emotions. There’s something about the harsh and ruthless desert with its raging sunsets that makes it as beautiful as a dense rain forest or an alpine lake. Death Valley is the closest one can get to experiencing what it feels like to be on the face of an alien planet.