Death Valley: A desert full of surprises

By John Marshall

This desert beauty's salt flats, sand dunes and craggy peaks are draped in colour, writes John Marshall.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is a popular and easily accessible way to see one of the park's five sand dune areas. Photo / Peretz Partensky, Flickr.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is a popular and easily accessible way to see one of the park's five sand dune areas. Photo / Peretz Partensky, Flickr.

The perception of Death Valley is that it's hot and desolate.

The hot part is right, at least in the summer, when Death Valley is one of the hottest places on Earth. Even in spring, it's about as hot as many other places are come summer, with April and May temperatures ranging from 21C to 28C.

As for desolation, yes, the landscape is stark. This is a desert, after all. But there's also a certain beauty to it, a mosaic of colours from the salt flats and sand dunes to the striations of craggy peaks. Some years, stunning wildflowers bloom in spring and early summer, and the National Park Service reports "a pretty decent bloom this spring" thanks to rainfall at higher elevations of the park.

"There's really something for everyone," says Denise Perkins, director of marketing and sales for Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley.

Death Valley is a geological wonderland. Photo / Randy Lemoine, Flickr
Death Valley is a geological wonderland. Photo / Randy Lemoine, Flickr

"People often think, 'I can't tolerate that heat,"' she adds, "but that kind of heat we're talking about is not all year."

Death Valley marked its 20th year as a national park in 2014.

About two hours drive west of Las Vegas along the California-Nevada state line, Death Valley is in a class of its own.

Part of the Mojave Desert, it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 86m below sea level at the salt flats of Badwater.

The valley was formed by parallel fault lines along the mountain ranges on opposite sides of the valley pulling away from each other, creating a trough effect. Shifting fault lines over eons have created a geological theme park of sorts, filled with picturesque canyons, sand dunes, multicoloured mountains that rise up to 3350m above the valley and dramatic vistas.

"Something people aren't aware of are the mountains that surround here," says Alan van Valkenburg, a ranger at Death Valley National Park.

"One of the comments we get most from visitors is that they are surprised how rugged it is here, how beautiful it is here, when they were expecting it to be flat and boring."

The hub of Death Valley is Furnace Creek, where you'll find the visitor's centre, along with the two properties of Furnace Creek Resort: an upscale inn and family-oriented ranch, several restaurants, a grocery store and a golf course.

Perhaps the most popular drive in the park is the 27km drive from Furnace Creek to Badwater, a salt flat marking the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. To get a sense of how low the spot is, look up at the mountains to the south where a sign shows sea level.

Along the road, stop by the Devil's Golf Course, an area where rock salt in the valley has been eroded into jagged spires, then swing through Artist's Drive, a narrow one-lane with scenic views of the multiple colours of the mountains to the east. There's also a short hike to Natural Bridge Canyon off the road.

A coyote in Death Valley. Photo / Grandjean Seb, Flickr
A coyote in Death Valley. Photo / Grandjean Seb, Flickr

Zabriskie Point is the viewpoint in the park where all the sunrise photos are taken, overlooking strangely eroded and multicoloured badlands. Dante's View is a 45-minute drive, but well worth it, offering perhaps the best view of Death Valley from 1500m.

To the north, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, is a popular and easily accessible way to see one of the park's five sand dune areas.

A little farther north, there's the Ubehebe Crater, a deep volcanic crater, and Scotty's Castle, a Spanish-style mansion built by a wealthy Chicago couple who were duped by a scam prospector named "Death Valley Scotty", but decided to stay anyway because they liked the area so much.

The park is filled with miles of rugged backcountry, particularly on the peaks above the west side, and some great hiking areas, including Mosaic Canyon, a narrow stretch of polished marble walls.

The night sky is brilliant and clear for stargazing; some people see the Milky Way for the first time in Death Valley.

A February update on the park's website noted the best wildflower display in more than a decade, with colourful spring flowers popping up in various areas of the park thanks to an unusual series of storms back in October, followed by enough winter rain to cause a large scale bloom.

But "even without the bloom, it's a very, very beautiful place to appreciate in its own right," Perkins says. "There's so many reasons to come out here."

A sign in Death Valley warns visitors of temperatures that can climb above 49C in summer. Photo / Fosco Lucarelli, Flickr.
A sign in Death Valley warns visitors of temperatures that can climb above 49C in summer. Photo / Fosco Lucarelli, Flickr.

Okay, the heat. There's a reason why it's called Death Valley, and why places around the park have names like Furnace Creek, Badwater, Dante's View, the Devil's Golf Course.

Summertime temperatures in Death Valley routinely climb above 49C. Earth's hottest temperature ever was recorded here, a whopping 56.7C in 1913. If you visit from May to October, expect to be hot.

The rest of the year, though, it's moderate, highs between 21C and 27C, 5C to 10C during the coldest part of the year.

"It really can be miserable in the summer," Van Valkenburg says. "But the rest of the year it's actually quite nice."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: American Airlines flies daily Auckland to LA. From there, Death Valley is a 483km drive north.

Safety tips: A handful of tourists have died in recent years while visiting Death Valley. Don't underestimate the need to take water with you. Don't stay in the sun long. Tell someone at home what your travel plans are, and don't go off main roads; GPS directions have sometimes led visitors astray.

Further information: For information on US National Parks and their centenary (which is on Thursday), see nationalparks.org.

- AP

- NZ Herald

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