those who venture up within Death Valley National
Park, vistas unfold of the mountain ranges
(including Panamint and Amargosa) that run through
VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. ó High noon at Badwater
basin, and here I am wearing a light fleece coat and
cursing it because, well, itís not my high-end,
breathable Gore-Tex rain jacket, hanging uselessly back
home in the hallway closet.
itís raining in Death Valley. This never happens. Oh,
all right, they do get a tiny measure of precipitation
here in this famously parched desert that spans 5,270
square miles ó a whopping 1.9 inches a year. Mostly,
whatever falls from the sky is slurped right up by the
thirsty soil, making nary a significant puddle, yet,
coming in winter like this abbreviated shower, helps the
always-iffy prospects for a hearty spring wildflower bloom
letís not get carried away with this meteorological
anomaly: no torrential downpour, no Old Testament gully
gusher, only enough to make drivers turn the wipers to
those whoíve visited here only at the height of summer
ó or heck, even as early as April ó this late January
drizzle is such a stark contrast to the kiln that usually
is the valley floor, where triple-digit readings are the
norm by lunchtime. Youíd never think youíd actually
need to use a furnace at the Furnace Creek Resort, but the
woman in front of me at check-in asked about central
heating on this (brrr) 61-degree day, forecast to drop to
an even more bone-chilling 47 overnight.
this amazing?" said Linda Slater, Death Valleyís
chief interpretive ranger.
hustled over to the information desk at the Furnace Creek
visitors center and looked up this seasonís rainfall
total: 0.16 inches.
seems like a lot out there today, though, huh?" she
said. "We did have some rain in the beginning of
December, but nothing more until (today)."
the record, in that 24-hour period, the official weather
station at Furnace Creek registered 0.26 inches of
rainfall; it was the talk of the visitors center. In fact,
in an amusing exhibit at the attached museum, tourists are
asked to write on Post-it notes, "Where are you from
and how is Death Valley different?" One response, in
large letters slanting to the right, as if scribbled in
annoyance: "From Seattle ó Wasnít raining there
when we left. Rained here instead. Oh well."
are two ways to look at a Death Valley rainy day: either
the proverbial rain bucketís half-full, or half-empty.
positively, the landscape takes on a brooding, almost
vulnerable presence, far removed from the fiery
malevolence of summer. Up at the geologic paint-swatch
that is Artistís Palette, looming above Badwater basin,
the rough volcanic rock and multi-hued mineral deposits
are so slick they look as if someone just slathered on a
fresh glossy coat. Below, in the salt-encrusted basin, you
can see the drops make dark brown dots in the granular
surface before fading, like time-lapse photography, in
front of your eyes, and you wonder if the briny earth
there remembers that 4,000 years ago ó a mere geologic
eye blink, after all ó that it was a lake.
negatively, hitting you like a drop of barometric pressure
that led to this rain, you feel the same letdown you might
experience when you get to see a handsome actor in person
and find his skin is pockmarked by acne scars and discover
heís wearing lifts in his shoes. The landscape is not
the vivid eye candy you expected to see, in fact, what you
did see when Googling "Artistís Palette"
before the trip. In the overcast and sprinkles, all seems
slightly washed out, the usually rutilant serrated
hillsides almost a sickly pastel, the greens and yellow
tinge of the deep fissures reduced to varying shades of
beige. Nary a glimmer, either, of Badwaterís celebrated
brilliant winter sunset, the Panamint Mountains in the
distance hiding behind thick cloud cover.
Valleyís visitors on this day ó many of whom, I notice
with self-laceration, have thought ahead and brought rain
coats ó seemed a little befuddled but entirely
undeterred. Cameras still clicked mightily, no one
bemoaning the lack of vivacity in the images before
posting to Snapchat. Sturdy hiking poles went right on
plunging into the slightly sticky silt and clay on the
popular Golden Canyon Trail heading to Red Cathedral,
which, though not quite so brilliant as the name implies
on this day, were still Crayola-like sharp. Twelve miles
up Danteís View, 5,000 feet above the basin, people
still gamely got out of their cars and gazed down on the
view, however obscured.
mean, what else can you do? You canít Photoshop nature,
this, too: That scrim of moisture on your brow has come
from misty rain, not ever-accumulating beads of sweat from
baking in the summer heat. Always a good thing, in my
is, after all, a large subset of Death Valley visitors who
have a perfectly pleasant time visiting here in winter,
the so-called off-peak season. While March and August are
reportedly the most popular months among the parkís 1
million annual visitors ó the first because of spring
break ("All the college kids," Slater said) and
the second because some off-hinged folks crave intense
heat ("Especially the Germans," Slater said) ó
some make it a point to visit in December, January and
February, before the thermometer and tourists rise
course, Iíve always known it gets hot here," said
Chris Fitzpatrick, a tourist from Wisconsin, quite
comfortable in a cardigan sweater on the observation deck
at Badwater. "My husband, Bob, was laughing because
he said the name, Death Valley, doesnít really draw you
here. This is a good time to come."
been here in May before," Ali Barnes, her friend,
interjected. "Thatís definitely the latest Iíd
come. It was over 100 then, yeah."
is a little scary," Fitzpatrick added. "There
was a story, wasnít there, recently about a lady who
went through here in summer with their kid, and she didnít
have water along and, you know what happened. Oh, it was
I wasnít expecting rain," Barnes said. "Itís
something different. Iíve been here five times. First
time itís rained. Wintertime, well, today the sunís
not really shining, but when weíve come out in winter
before, the angle of the sunlight, because itís such a
low angle, is so much more dramatic than the one time I
was here in May. Then, it was hot and little miserable.
(In May) you had this real tall, direct sunlight. No
thanks. The low angle of the winter sun makes the rocks
shimmer, the definition pops out."
winter visitor does, indeed, have some advantages without
having to endure sweat-lodge conditions. Hiking is not
limited to mornings. Mid-afternoon saw the parking area
near the popular Mosaic Canyon Trail, hard by Stovepipe
Wells Village, packed, as was an area dotted with
shutterbugs nearby searching for "good light"
while training their lenses on the Mesquite Dunes. People
looped around the volcanic crater at Ubehebe without
feeling the hot breath of phantom eruptions.
donít have to weigh yourself down with provisions like a
survivalist, either, though rangers still recommend
bringing plenty of water and maybe some electrolytes, even
in cooler weather. Your carís radiator will thank you,
as well. Itís easier to get a reservation at either the
Furnace Creek Inn or Ranch, or accommodations at Stovepipe
Wells Village or Panamint Springs but, alas, youíll
still pay felonious prices for food (a three-topping pizza
for $31; a chicken Caesar salad for $19) and gas ($3.47 a
true that fewer people may visit in winter, but there
seems to be more action. Maybe the extreme heat just
encourages sloth, making even the 400-yard trek from your
room at the Furnace Creek Ranch to the on-site Borax
Museum an act of Olympian toil and testament to personal
bravery. Not so in milder days. I passed several pelotons
of cyclists whirring like a swarm of bees down Highway 190
and along Badwater Road. More than a few runners were
chugging along the soft shoulder, too, without having to
wear silly white heat-resistant suits those crazy Badwater
Ultramarathon participants do so they arenít grilled to
perfection in the late July broiler. The horses rented out
at the Furnace Creek Corral appeared energized, not
think this is the only time in 2015 itís going to rain
right here right now," said David Walker, of White
Plains, Md., strolling the basin (sans jacket, I might
add) with his wife, Karin. "We came for the day from
(Las) Vegas (a 2Ĺ-hour drive), and we knew it was going
to be rainy all day there so figured itíd be nice here.
But Iím OK with it."
late January rain also augurs a fertile, if still too
brief, wildflower season coming very soon, perhaps as
early as late February, Slater said.
February is the month," she said. "The flower
season here starts earlier than (at) other desert parks.
If it gets real hot in March, then the flowers wilt and
droop. Thatís happened before. It all depends on the
weather, of course. If it stays reasonably cool in March,
then the flower season will last. Remember, (the flowers)
move up in elevation. If you were to go to Telescope Peak
(11,049 feet) or Mahogany Flats (8,133 feet) in the
summer, youíll still see the flowers up there.
rain (in late January) may even do something by tomorrow.
You may see all these little sprouts shoot up, with this
rain ó maybe."
only reason flowers can take root and sprout in such a
harsh milieu is that they are annuals, meaning they bloom
for one growing season, the seeds using the modicum of
rainfall to flourish briefly before bowing down. They come
in yellow, pink, red and pale blue to purple, everything
from the woolly daisy to gravel ghosts to Mojave aster.
(Every Friday, the parkís Facebook page updates bloom
sightings, Slater said.) Death Valley veterans still talk
about the so-called "Super Bloom" of 2005, when
above-normal rain brought out scores of photographers, not
to mention droves of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.
winter? Meh. Not so much.
ó and professional ó photographers have more than just
flowers to focus on. There are those sublime winter
sunsets (weather permitting) and a variety of critters
hanging out at different elevations. Snails and cottonball
pupfish struggle to survive on the salt flats, snakes and
kangaroo rats around the sand dunes and valley floor,
desert tortoise, fringe-toed lizards and bobcats at high
elevations. Tour vans from outfits with names such as
Aperture Academy pull over seemingly every few miles for
shutterbugs to capture the sublime color contrast between
landscape and blooms.
matter the season, you have to go searching for many
desert creatures (though doesnít it always seem
rattlesnakes will seek you out?), but they can be found if
youíre willing to stray from the familiar, i.e., paved,
path. Slater and others recommend lesser-known trail
offshoots for those seeking a wilder, as well as a
quieter, nature experience.
thing about Death Valley," she said, "is that itís
so big that, if you want to get away from crowds, you can
get away. Iíve been here on a Presidents Day weekend,
and itís been very busy. But I can find another canyon
to walk in where I wonít see a soul. I did one recently.
If you go to the west side of Titus Canyon (northeast, in
the Grapevine Mountains, on the way to Scottyís Castle),
thereís a trailhead for Fall Canyon. Lots of folks hike
there. But I went into the next one over (Red Wall Canyon)
and there was nobody there. Maybe itís not as pretty as
Fall Canyon, but it was very peaceful."
STORY CAN END HERE)
and quiet lured tourists Kathleen and Darryl Toupkin from
their Scottsdale, Ariz., home. They are runners and
cyclists who use the park as a playground, yet they said
they also like to slow down and enjoy the solitude in
is one of our favorite places on the planet," Darryl
said. "Best way to describe it: Itís the closest
mankind can get to being on the moon. Iíve done three
century (100-mile) rides up here, and itís great to get
away. You get such a diverse landscape. The Panamint
Mountains (start) at 4,000 feet over there (to the west),
and then thereís Badwater here (at 280 feet below sea
level) in the same place. Now thatís pretty
time we were riding our bikes up Artistís Drive, and itís
kind of hard, uphill, you know," Kathleeen said.
"So weíre biking along and thereís absolute
silence. Just beautiful. Except for this one big old crow
just following us and (seemingly) laughing at us. But itís
the quiet. Thatís what I like, the quiet."
quiet that, on this day, you could hear the rain, faint
yet steady, plink against the salty, crusty Badwater soil.
in the park
Creek Ranch: www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/the-ranch-at-furnace-creek
Creek Inn: www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/the-inn-at-furnace-creek
Creek Resort RV Park and Campground:
Wells Village Hotel: www.deathvalleyhotels.com
Springs Resort: www.panamintsprings.com