Los Angeles behind us, we headed to Las Vegas and its neon. But, first, a detour: a brief eyeful of Death Valley National Park. One spring, I mean to return and better explore its 3.4 million acres–this is, after all, the largest park in the contiguous United States. On this trip, I fell in love with the colors and textures of the valley’s south-central tip, its most visited. For the afternoon, we stepped into an abstract pastel, a rugged moonscape:
Five million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions coated the landscape in ash and minerals. Exposure to the elements conjured a palette of pink, yellow, purple, and turquoise rock. The display is at its most brilliant at Kaleidoscope View, impossible to miss. The time of day, cloud cover, and [rare] rainfall rearrange the intensity of hues, making your view on each visit unique.
This jolt of color savored, head south on Badwater Road to another side tour (this one, along a 1.2-mile dirt road, one-way): the Devil’s Golf Course, aptly named.
Before you is the park’s lowest saltpan. Wind and rain shape its mixture of clay and salt into a petrified sea of swirling, jagged pinnacles.
Be gentle. This land is more fragile than it looks. Salt spires grow slowly (less than an inch over 35 years) and are easily damaged.
I wanted to linger here, but we had to push on–to Death Valley’s most famous spot: Badwater. This pool of salty water lies 279 feed below sea level, once claimed to be North America’s lowest point (there are actually two lower spots further into the salt flats, both recorded at 282 feet below sea level). The pool may look modest, but it is impressive for what it represents: A persistent body of water in what may be the hottest place on Earth.
Life clings to the pool: pickleweed, insects, and this spot’s most charismatic fauna, the Badwater springsnail, known to live only here.
A trail of salt extends from Badwater. It seemed like everyone in Death Valley was there with us, so we did not go far. The scale of the scenery is humbling: The ground you walk on is tough, unforgiving, and rising above you are the snowcapped Panamint Mountains, with the summit of Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level.
As a farewell, we drove up to Dante’s View, a vista at 5,475 feet above sea level, overlooking Badwater. Because of the difference in elevation, the temperature here is about 25°F lower than in the wasteland below. The scenery is breathtaking. As you look down, you take in some of the continent’s highest and lowest points within one glance.
Tough desert plants cover the slopes. And, in spring, they bloom: These subdued bursts of life are more startling, more refreshing in this harsh setting than an entire meadow.
On our way down, we spotted a desert tortoise and helped it cross the road. These creatures burrow deep underground in summer and winter to survive the extreme climate and can live up to 80 years.
Soon, we were scaling down the mountain, to the lowlands of Badwater Basin, and back up again–on our way to Las Vegas. The detour delayed our arrival by about 4-5 hours (2 extra hours of driving and the time we spent at the park). I would do this again in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t you?
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- Sunset and Sunrise in Bryce Canyon: Of “Fairy Cities in Painted Stone”