Death Valley

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.

Visitors walk the salt flats at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

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:

A view from Rt. 160 as it cuts through Red Rock Canyon

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.

Salt Creek, Death Valley, where life is adapted to high salinity and harsh temperatures.



The endangered Death Valley pupfish lives in this creek, and a curious, salt-tolerant succulent called Pickleweed (Allenrolfea occidentalis) grows around it.


The view across Death Valley with the Panamint Range in the background


Another view across Death Valley, approaching Badwater Basin


At Badwater, a spring-fed pool in the salt-encrusted valley floor reflects the foothills of the Amargosa Range. A similar image in color is here.


Looking north across the salt flats at Badwater



A colorful rock formation caught my eye between Badwater and Artist’s Palette


The sinking sun heightens subtle desert colors.


Earlier in the day at Zabriskie Point, we admired the pale contours of Manly Peak against the soft purples of the Panamint Range.


Zabriskie Point’s mountain contours. These badlands are the remains of an ancient, eroded lake.


Another view from dramatic Zabriskie Point


The land itself seems to flow at Zabriskie Point.


Increasing clouds made for a quiet, but beautiful sunset as we drove out of the park.

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!


Vegas? Yes, Vegas.

Whiplash. That’s what it felt like, traveling from rainy, gray, sensible Seattle to colorful, hedonistic Las Vegas. As I threaded my way through crowds on the Strip on a Saturday night, my senses were bombarded by flashing neon lights, blaring music, vacant-eyed tourists clutching two-foot-tall drinks, men dressed in Batman costumes, and women dressed in, well, not much. “How did I get here?”, I wondered.

It sounded good at the time. Flights between Seattle and Vegas were cheap and hotels were giving out great deals, hoping you’d spend your money in the casino. So why not book a quick winter getaway to the desert? We could fly to Vegas and stay in a hotel there, but spend our time in the surrounding desert, exploring Death Valley and other nearby parks.

So that’s how we came to be in Sin City on a Saturday night, cruising the Strip with thousands of other lost souls.

But here’s the hard evidence that we actually made it past the slot machines and out of the city! Come along for the ride….































The Photos:

  1. Vegas Suite: The “Eiffel Tower” replica at Paris, a major casino/resort; a woman holds her huge drink while waiting for the Bellagio fountain show, a fun extravaganza of waving fountains set to music; two women walk to their car after work; the lights on the Strip.
  2. We’ve driven 45 minutes northeast from Las Vegas and we’re exploring the beautiful Valley of Fire, Nevada’s first state park. The park features 46,000 acres (19,000 ha) of red sandstone, limestone, shale and conglomerates, in amazingly eroded and weathered formations. (All of the road photos in this post were taken from inside the car, most with a camera that had a polarizing filter on the lens. I should have removed the filter; it had a bad effect on the colors, especially behind the windshield glass.  More often than not, I would have been better off without the filter, even in the bright sun. Next time I’ll use it more judiciously.)
  3. The Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) is frequently encountered in the desert around Las Vegas. This plant relies on a particular moth for pollination, the moth in turn relying on the yucca as the place to deposit its eggs. After hatching, the larvae eat the yucca’s seeds: coevolution! The yucca’s roots, fruit, flowers and leaf fibers were all used by indigenous people, and yucca extracts are used medicinally. A yucca extract is used as a flavoring agent in root beer, too!
  4. Badlands on the way to Zabriskie Point, Death Valley.
  5. A few acorn caps remain on this Shrub oak (Quercus turbinella) at Red Rock Canyon, just outside Las Vegas.  The missing acorns could have been eaten by Bighorn sheep. We saw a pair of young Bighorn near the Visitors Center; they’re not too difficult to find at Red Rock.
  6. The blue hour arrives early in January. Short days make it difficult to see all the sights in Death Valley, where a long drive separates most points of interest. Winter is still better than summer though; summer high temperatures average over 116°F (47°C).
  7. A close view of Valley of Fire sandstone, showing (I believe) small, compaction band fins, caused by weathering and erosion. If you like rocks, Nevada is your place. It’s a giant geology lesson, laid bare!
  8. The road to Badwater slices through barren desert rock in Death Valley.
  9. A patch of sandy ground at Valley of Fire State Park, littered with dead wood, and if you look closely, many animal and bird tracks as well.
  10. A road through Red Rock Canyon, showing a typical band of red rock. The attractive color derives from hematite which has oxidized, like rusted iron. Compaction over millions of years has deepened the colors. The clouds were building that day, dulling the color somewhat. Soon after, it rained, and there’s nothing like the smell of rain after dry weather in the desert: a rich, mineral sharpness excites the air.
  11. The pretty gray leaves of White brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) at Valley of Fire. In Spring, after a good rain, this plant will be covered with yellow, daisy-like flowers on long stalks.
  12. Driving into Valley of Fire State Park.
  13. Reflections at Death Valley’s Badwater. This lowest point in the western hemisphere, at −279 feet (−85 m), is a very popular place even on a Monday in January. That’s salt in the foreground. Along with calcite, gypsum, and borax, salt becomes very concentrated as it drains off the surrounding landscape and comes to rest here, with nowhere else to go. Thick crusts from years of deposits make interesting patterns on the desert floor. The environment here is incredibly harsh; with no plants big enough to cast shade, the sun beats down on the sere landscape and dryness seems to crawl under your skin.
  14. Roadside geology is writ large on roads throughout Valley of Fire State Park. The very dark areas on the red rocks are probably desert varnish, a coating of windblown clay that slowly builds up, with the help of moisture and chemical processes. Many petroglyphs were carved into desert varnish in the American southwest. They can be seen at Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon. We were sorry to see rock art made by Desert archaic peoples thousands of years ago that appeared to have been vandalized in more recent times.  On a more positive note, in northern Nevada the oldest known petroglyphs in North America, dating to 10,000 – 14,000 years ago, are located on a Paiute reservation, where they should fare better than rock art on public lands.
  15. A nice specimen of Mojave yucca and the rocky landscape are silhouetted at Red Rock Canyon.
  16. It’s 4:45pm and the sun has set at Valley of Fire State Park. Time to head back to Las Vegas…


If you plan a trip to the area…

  • Avoid summer! Way too hot! 🙂 Always carry more water than you think you’ll need when out in the desert, even if you’re staying in your car. Services are few and far between in many areas. And watch your step – I had a nasty fall when the ground gave way under my foot – turns out, I was walking on top of an underground burrow! Unfortunately, that fall couldn’t have been predicted, but most hazards can be seen if you keep a watchful eye out.
  • Las Vegas is a good spot to base yourself if you want to explore the desert. Other interesting sites include the Hoover Dam and numerous ghost towns. Death Valley is a good two-hour drive, and really cannot be seen in one day. Consider staying in that area overnight. Grand Canyon is fours away. Closer to the city, one could easily be satisfied spending days at Valley of Fire and Red Rock Canyon.
  • Many hotels in Las Vegas have casinos on the first floor. In case you want to avoid the noisy, smoke-filled atmosphere of a Vegas casino, book a hotel without one. We did, and we were glad!
  • Vegas has some great eating opportunities, from elegant, top chef restaurants to little places away from the fray. We had great food and good experiences at two smaller restaurants (Mexican & Thai) in somewhat sketchy, downtown Vegas.
  • Before you go, get the Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas by Bob Sehlinger, published by Adventurekeen. Actually, get this before you book your flight and hotel, because there is invaluable information about hotels, casinos, shows, rates, fares, etc.  Snell Press puts out an excellent guide to Red Rock Canyon, Red Rock Canyon Visitors Guide. It contains information useful for the entire area. There are at least two guides to photographing Death Valley. I picked up an older one, The Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley, Countryman Press. It is excellent. The author, Shellye Poster, is currently a ranger at Death Valley; we ran into her at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.