quick brush with death
We rose before most of the other tourists, but not before the sun, which had climbed over the Amargosa Mountains on the eastern side of Death Valley and was busy baking the air.
It was already quite balmy at 6:45am when we climbed out of our car and ascended to the railing at Zabriskie Point, a must-visit overlook that offers panoramic views of the wavy rock formations of Death Valley’s badlands below. In the 70’s, Zabriskie Point served as the steamy setting for a racy film of the same name. The only thing that was hot about it when we visited was the air coming off the rocks.
After Zabriskie, we visited the Golden Canyon, walking within its multi-hued walls for an hour and half. We sought out the shade near the canyon walls and walked slowly. Even so, we finished off two liters of icy water and could have easily put away two more. It was nearly 9am by the time we made our way out of the canyon and to the car – a late hour that made further exertion highly inadvisable. We cranked up the A/C and drove to Badwater, stopping at the Devil’s Golf Course – a picturesque and scratchy landscape of salt-crusted earth – along the way.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in North America. After the spring rains evaporate, a thin crust of pure white salt forms over several square miles in Badwater. By the time we visited in mid-May, the white salt flat was long gone, the earth retaining only faint traces of the salt crystals that covered it a few months earlier. It was almost unbearably hot by the time we left Badwater, but we made one more stop on our way to brunch in Furnace Creek, taking a detour through the 8-mile-long Artist’s Drive, a one-way road that winds among the more colorful of Death Valley’s mountains.
We cooled our heels in Furnace Creek for a few hours during the hottest part of the day. Being out all morning under the roasting sun definitely had had its effects. Although we had made sure to drink plenty of liquids, we both felt a bit loopy and incoherent by the time we finally sat down to order our meal. We had hoped to catch up on our blog and email during the afternoon hours when it would be too hot to do anything other than hide indoors, but the wi-fi in Stovepipe Wells was so miserably slow that we did not even bother in Furnace Creek.
After drinking copious amounts of water for several hours, we managed to muster enough energy to drive to the northern corner of Death Valley for a visit to Scotty’s Castle and a quick peek at the Ubehebe Crater. On the way back we made one final stop, walking along the sand dunes a few miles from Stovepipe Wells.
Although we left many of the more remote parts of Death Valley unexplored, we crammed so much in during our one full day that there were not many highlights left to do within easy driving distance. We walked briefly inside the Mosaic Canyon, whose rock-encrusted walls could be seen from our hotel, and then made our way out of Death Valley towards Sequoia National Park, where we had planned to meet a friend for a camping weekend.
On the way in, we had driven on CA-190, a steep road that descends for 17 straight miles from Towne Pass at nearly 5,000 feet of elevation to sea level. Not eager to reverse the journey, we took the less traveled Panamint Valley Road on the way out, driving the length of one of the park’s spectacular valleys before exiting at its southern edge.
Despite the insanely inhospitable temperatures, Death Valley – more than any other part of California we visited on this trip – captivated our imaginations. It is a place we hope to revisit in the future, though next time we’ll plan a trip earlier in the year.