The sand storm, the wind and a little shower the previous night did not dampen our spirits, for we woke up to a beautiful sunny cloudless day at Stovepipe Wells. However, due to an event – “The 63rd Annual Death Valley ’49ers Encampment” – the 12 full hook-up sites were booked for the rest of the week. So, we moved across the street and dry camped at the Stovepipe Wells NPS Campground. For $12 you get a parking spot, no hookups. No problem, let’s save some $$$!
Death Valley….what a foreboding name. Why is the name so bleak ? A group of Euro-Americans became stuck in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California. They gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there. Despite its name this place is anything but deathly. Its geologic history has created a diverse and extreme landscape that is quite amazing to behold.
In less than a year we are back at Death Valley National Park as we promised ourselves, and we continue to be fascinated by this unique place. Though we’ve been to Wrangell-St Elias National Park (the largest National Park in America), the size of Death Valley (the largest National Park outside of Alaska) is still formidable at 5,300 square miles. It is vast with its own assortment of uniqueness and desert beauty.
Death Valley is known for its triple superlatives: hottest, driest and lowest. Officially the hottest place on earth holding the record at 134 F (57 C), the driest for it receives less than 2 inches of rainfall or none at all and the lowest dry point in North America at Badwater Basin – 282′ below sea level. This is an unforgiving, inhospitable place but it is remarkably beautiful in its own way. Winter months are really the time to come here, even the park rangers advise against doing so in the summer.
The park has a long list of attractions, and because there is little vegetation the full display of rocks, cliffs, badlands, peaks, sand dunes, salt flats and more are in your face. Going from one place of interest to another left us enthralled and awed as none of them are the same and each has its own unique character. While marveling at all these sights we also got some good exercise, as most stops require a fair amount of hiking.
But first, where did the name Stovepipe Wells originate? There was only one known water source on the cross-valley road. Because sand often obscured the waterhole spot, a length of stovepipe was inserted as a marker – hence its unique name.
Lets explore, shall we ?
Just beyond Stovepipe Wells Campground is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We were told that sunrise at the Sand Dunes is one of the best times to catch that golden glow from the sun. And true enough, I managed to catch that moment when the sun rays hit the dunes. These 150 foot high dunes are surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the primary source of sand being the Cottonwood Mountains to the north and northwest.
Also close to Stovepipe Wells is the Mosaic Canyon, where we walked through a narrow canyon with smooth, polished marble walls that enclose the trail as it follows the canyon’s sinuous curves. We observed “Mosaics” of rock fragments naturally cemented together along the trail. We missed this one on our first trip but checked it out this time. Fantastic – a must see!
Further north we followed the boardwalk along Salt Creek Trail. It is a saltwater stream which is the only home to a rare pupfish which can survive in the salt encrusted water. A salt-resistant pickle weed also thrives here.
If you have only a short time to visit the park, be aware that many impressive sights are toward the south end of the valley near Furnace Creek – about 40 miles from our base camp at Stovepipe Wells. The key here is to start early to get a good flavor of what the valley has to offer and to give yourself time to drive between all of the points of interest. To enjoy its assortment of uniqueness is to take time and explore. We would estimate that 3 full days should be allocated to explore, 4 would be even better.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Here you will see landscape of vast salt flats. Walking on the salt flats you can hear the crunch of the salt….
Next stop was the Natural Bridge, a medium-sized limestone rock formation that has been hollowed at its base to form a span across two rocks. Getting to it is a half mile walk and at the end of the trail is a dry waterfall.
The Devil’s Golf Course is an immense area of rocky salt eroded by wind and rain. It is called as such because it is incredibly serrated so that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” At first you would think it is a coral reef, but taking a closer look reveals gnarled crystalline salt spires. We tromped through this strange and rugged terrain to get a closer look at the salt formations and found several holes in the surface with perfectly clear water shining underneath.
We took the scenic nine mile drive to the Artist’s Palette, where we saw striking arrays of colors in the hills caused by the many different minerals in the earth there. Note the sea green, lemon yellow, periwinkle blue, salmon pink and purple colors that are splashed across the barren background. Exquisite and simply amazing!
The Golden Canyon Trail was another worthwhile hike that winds through a canyon of colorful rock walls. At the end of the trail is beautiful Red Cathedral, formed by extremely steep cliffs. It is composed of red colored oxidized rock.
Along with its stunning natural splendor, Death Valley also has colorful human tales. There were several mining ventures that boomed and busted in the 1800’s. One of them was the Harmony Borax Works, where a 20-mule team hauled borax 165 miles from the desert floor to the railroad town of Mojave. It only operated for 5 years.
Another story tells of a colorful character named Walter Scott, an ex-cowboy and prospector. A beautiful mansion toward the north end of the valley called Scotty’s Castle is named after him – even though it was actually built and owned by his friend, millionaire Albert Johnson. As the story goes, Scotty (a con artist) claimed that he financed the building himself from his secret gold mine, when in reality it was the Johnson’s vacation home. Scotty’s Castle is currently owned by the Park Service and has 2 very good tours that can be taken there. They also have several shaded tables which are perfect for enjoying a picnic lunch between tours.
The Timbisha Shoshone American Indian tribe lives and thrives in the heart of the valley by Furnace Creek.
The Furnace Creek Visitor center has recently been renovated and updated. We encouraged you to stop by and check out their modern and interactive displays.
Next up, 4-wheeling in a Jeep around Death Valley. How cool is that?
And here’s just a few of the many striking desert scenery and colorful canyons as seen from your car window.