I wanted to escape the dreary northwest winter. Though a lot can be said for sticking with the situation you’re in and making the best of it, there would still be weeks and weeks of winter when we returned. I would have ample opportunity to build my moral character and strengthen that stiff upper lip by bearing down amidst the endless parade of damp, gray days that characterizes the Pacific northwest winter (yes, and maybe spring too…and OK, maybe fall).
So we flew to Las Vegas in January with the idea of visiting three desert parks. One was Death Valley, one of the hottest places in the world in summer. In the winter though, it’s quite tolerable, with the proper precautions. What I found was a landscape that, unlike the wet temperate forests where I live, does not invite you in. In fact, the close-up view at Death Valley tends to be off-putting; salt-encrusted soil and jagged rocks don’t really make you feel like luxuriating in their presence. The wider view – those grand vistas that Death Valley is famous for – does invite “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” but it is still a very harsh and unforgiving landscape.
A few quick facts about Death Valley, California, USA: this National Park was created in 1933. 3,000 square miles (7,800 km2) of it (or 91%) is designated as wilderness. The park is huge and isolated; services are few and far between. It’s a place of extremes: the highest temperature recorded on earth happened here on July 10, 1913, when the air temperature at Furnace Creek was 134° F (56.7°C). The area receives less than 2 1/2 inches of rain a year, but there are over 160 springs and ponds. The tallest point is Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet high (3,366 m) and the lowest point in the park, Badwater Basin, is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The valley was named “Death Valley” in the mid 1800’s, by people known as the “Lost 49ers” who, with great difficulty, crossed this inhospitable land to reach California gold fields.
Driving west towards Death Valley from Las Vegas, we passed through red rock country:
Death Valley has a number of extraordinary sights but they are too spread out to visit in one day. We planned on two days, knowing we still would barely scratch the surface. However, it had not rained in about 117 days, and rain was finally on the way. After hearing the weather report, and thinking about a day spent driving through vast expanses of desert in a cold rain, we decided to scrap our second Death Valley day and go back towards Las Vegas. We thought we might get ahead of the storm, which was coming from the west. Heavy rain closed some roads in Death Valley the day after we were there, so I think we did the right thing.
We spent time at three points of interest: Salt Creek, a meandering desert creek that supports the rare little Death Valley pupfish, Zabriskie Point, a scenic overlook where part of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point was made, and Badwater Basin. We tried for Artist’s Palette, a scenic loop with beautiful rock formations, but the sun was setting by the time we got there.
If you compare these scenes with the lush, dripping greens in my previous post, you’ll understand how this rocky, spare landscape is diametrically opposed to the look and feel of northwest forests. That’s the draw for me, but the lack of plants at Death Valley was so ubiquitous that it put me off. For my taste, Red Rock Canyon was more appealing. I like at least a side dish of plant matter with my main landscape course!
Another location we explored on this trip was Valley of Fire State Park, a scenic red sandstone area about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. We also visited Eldorado Mine, an old gold mine full of odd memorabilia and junked vehicles near the Colorado River. More about those locations later!