Rocks, Sand, & Silence

“It was so hot that swallows in full flight fell to the earth dead and when I went out to read the thermometer with a wet Turkish Towel on my head, it was dry before I returned.”

~Oscar Denton

With Joshua Tree in our rearview, it was time for us to journey northward. We had about a five hour drive before we would reach the Furnace Creek section of Death Valley National Park. While much of that drive would take us through flat, barren landscape, we also enjoyed a lot of beautiful mountain views along the way, and got to drive through a deserted Mojave National Preserve.

Something that surprised me about the preserve was that it had even more Joshua Trees than we’d seen in Joshua Tree. As we neared the Cima Dome area, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a sprawling Joshua Tree forest, with the twisted trees sprawling out toward the horizon.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before we came upon a dismal sight. The road was lined with the charred remains of thousands of burned trees. It was unreal how quickly the forest changed from healthy and vibrant to completely devastated.

The fire that caused this destruction was started by a lightning strike back in August of 2020, and it ended up destroying 43,273 acres of forest – about 1.3 million trees. It is unknown how many of these trees will manage to survive, but the chances are not good for most of them. Thankfully, the fire was less devastating to the area’s wildlife. Most of the animals were able to flee or take cover underground, and there is still plenty of forest left to sustain them.

If our trip could have been longer I would have loved to do some more exploring in Mojave Preserve, but we barely had enough time allotted for Death Valley as it was, so we drove through Mojave and continued north, arriving at the south entrance of Death Valley in the early afternoon. I had an extensive list of things I’d like to see, and we ran into one them right away.

Zabriskie Point is a scenic overlook the offers an expansive view of an otherworldly eroded landscape. It didn’t take long to hike a paved path, uphill to the lookout where we saw a sprawling scene of colorfully banded badlands, crowned by the iconic Manly Beacon.

On the other side of the lookout was an interesting formation capped with lava. Badlands had eroded out all around the lava, but the much harder volcanic stone remained intact.

Zabriskie Point was a quick stop, and next we headed over to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to have our park pass checked and pick up a map. Our plan for the rest of the day was to head towards Badwater Basin, a unique salt flat and the lowest point in North America, and check out as many sights as we could along the way. The first of these was Artist’s Drive.

Artist’s Drive is a scenic road that weaves through colorful canyons, offering plenty of stunning views along the way. It is a one way road with only a couple of places to stop off, the most impressive being Artist’s Palette. This is a badlands formation with brilliant hues of pink, yellow, and green. These were by far the most colorful badlands I’d ever seen. Aunt Cathy especially loved the drive because of its exciting narrow sections and vibrant landscape.

It was already getting late by the time we pulled out of Artist’s Drive so we decided to skip a hike we had been planning and save it for the following day. Instead we headed further south for a quick stop at Devil’s Golf Course. We had to drive down a long dirt road to get there and when we stepped out of the car, we were met with a bizarre site. The rock salt surface of the flat valley floor had been eroded into strange, jagged shapes that stretched as far as the eye could see.

Although this was a very unique site, there wasn’t much to actually do at Devil’s Golf Course other than look at it. Apparently it is also a popular spot for influencers to be photographed, which makes sense because influencing requires woefully impractical clothing, and the golf course is very accessible. We didn’t stay long because there was so little to do, and we were now under the wire to get to Badwater Basin by sunset.

We hopped back in the car, and drove the rest of the way to the famous salt flat. Something I was beginning to notice about Death Valley is that everything was farther away than you expected it to be. The park was massive, so a lot of time was devoted to driving. Thankfully, we still had some daylight left when we arrived at the basin, and we quickly started the half mile hike across crunchy salt. The further we got from the parking lot, the cooler the salt flat became. Badwater Basin is know for spiderweb-like ridges of salt that rise from the earth when ground water evaporates. We started to see this effect about a quarter mile into the hike, but most of the shapes had been trampled by other tourists (of which there were many). The farther we walked, the less people we encountered, and we eventually reached a spot where the salt polygons were pristine. The valley was now lit by a glowing orange sunset behind distant mountains.

I was careful not to step on any of the beautiful formations as I walked around admiring my totally unique surroundings. Only a handful of other people had made the trek out this far. A small group had brought out a drum set, and appeared to be getting footage for a music video, and of course there were influencers. Between Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater Basin, Death Valley has got to set some kind of record for the most people out on ankle-wrecking terrain in high heels and floor length dresses.

Even with the few other groups around us, it was still a quiet and peaceful place to experience the glowing sunset, and it was by far my favorite thing we’d done in Death Valley that day. It was dark by the time we got back to the parking lot, so we headed out of the park and drove to our Airbnb in Pahrump, Nevada.

We got up extra early the next morning since it would take an hour to get back to Death Valley, and when we finally arrived we immediately drove up a steep mountain road to get to Dante’s View where we could see the valley, along with Badwater Basin, sprawled out far below us.

The view was nothing short of jaw-dropping, so we took a short detour to hike along a windswept ridge just for an excuse to stay longer. I had ill-advisedly put on shorts that morning because the valley had been warm the day before. The air on the mountaintop was frigid (that wasn’t a surprise, but I hadn’t expected to be hiking up there), and I was full of regret as I tromped along the ridge with my bare legs turning red from the cold. The cold was worth my discomfort though because the views were insanely beautiful.

Eventually I had to call it and turn around because the cold was simply too much. Back in the car, I changed into some hiking pants, and felt much better as we retraced our path back to Artist’s Palette. We drove through one more time and then backtracked to the non-marked road that would lead us to Desolation Canyon.

Desolation Cayon, despite being right off the main road, was almost completely deserted. There were a few other cars in its small gravel parking lot, but no other hikers in sight. We started hiking through a long wash that eventually led us into the canyon, whose walls were lined with gorgeous green and pink dirt, just like Artist’s Palette. The color is caused by different types of metals oxidizing, or as Vince put it, “They’re different flavors of rust.”

The canyon was narrow, and felt mysterious in some places, and then in others it would widen and we could see endless sky and valley views behind us. There were a few spots the required some light scrambling, which only served to make the hike even more fun. The trail got steeper as we progressed, and eventually the canyon walls gave way and were replaced by a steep hill. Aunt Cathy decided to skip the hill, but Vince and I went all the way to the top where the trail ended in a view of a distant Artist’s Palette on one side, and the canyon and valley on the other.

Hiking back down to the car felt like it took no time at all and soon we were on our way back to the Furnace Creek Area where we made a quick stop to check out Harmony Borax Works. This is a historical stop with some ruins from a borax mining operation that lasted for about five years in the 1880’s. Along with some old structures and lot of interpretive signs was one of the twenty mule Team wagons that were used to haul borax out of Death Valley.

After our quick stop at Harmony Borax Works, we pressed on until we reached the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These dunes were far smaller than the ones we climbed in Great Sand Dune National Park, but they were fun nonetheless. It was once again strange for me to experience a non-coastal dune field. I’d never seen dunes with mountains in the background before 2020, and now I’ve seen them twice! Unlike our visit to Great Sand Dunes, I was actually able to jog down a dune this time. My leg has improved a lot since August, so even though it’s still a bit wonky, I am starting to figure out how to run again. I felt really good about running down a dune because it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing ever since I was kid growing up on the shore of Lake Michigan.

We were nearing sunset by the time we got off the dune field, which meant our time in Death Valley would soon be over. We made one last quick stop to see what there was to do at the nearby town of Stovepipe Wells which we were told was the first permanent settlement in the valley. These days it is a way-station that offers lodging, food, gas, and gift shopping, but there isn’t much to do there when it’s the middle of a global pandemic and you’re trying to avoid being indoors. With that mystery solved, we made the long journey back to Pahrump one last time.

It felt like the trip was over at the point, but the next morning’s drive had one last surprise in store for us. As we were traveling along a desolate highway, we saw a large carcass on the side of the road. Aunt Cathy didn’t much care, but I was excited and exclaimed that it was a feral donkey. Vince chimed in that he’d seen a coyote scavenging the donkey for meat and asked if I wanted him to turn around. I of course yelled, “YES!” as Aunt Cathy wondered why we cared about seeing a coyote eating a dead donkey. It wasn’t an entirely unreasonable thing to wonder, but Vince turned the car around anyway and pulled back toward the carcass where we saw the little coyote feasting on its insides. Soon it left the donkey and trotted off into the scrub brush where it rolled around in the dirt, rubbed its face all over bushes, and generally just acted like a lovable puppy. It was the best.

Besides a compulsory stop at In-N-Out, our coyote sighting was the last notable event of our time in the desert. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Aunt Cathy and head back to reality, but I hope to go back to California as soon as possible and explore more of its vast natural beauty.

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