capture Zabriskie Point as the sunrise lights up the
mountains in bright purple and pink hues.
the moment our car climbed over the rust-colored mountains
and descended into boulder-studded valleys, a sense of
peaceful solitude was the tone for our weekend in Death
Valley National Park.
five hours from the coast, the barren landscape and dearth
of cars outside our caravan of three added to the feeling
that we were a world apart from bustling Southern
California, away from civilization altogether, pioneers
exploring virgin land.
felt as though we ventured out onto the surface of Mars,
or at least, that’s where my imagination took me.
course, we’re not the first people to set foot in Death
Valley — far from it — but the vast expanses of open
space, absence of structures and preternatural silences
can inspire such musings.
is astonishing that the land in Death Valley remains as
pristine as it is, with its history of mining. In 1994,
Congress expanded the area’s protection beyond its
status as a national monument to that of a national park.
its land is characterized by sparse vegetation, the rocky
terrain is amazingly varied, from salt flats and sand
dunes to snowcapped mountains and trickling springs.
entered the park through the desolate mining town of Trona.
we driven an extra 100 miles or so, we could have stopped
to visit Manzanar, an internment camp where Japanese
Americans were confined during World War II. But on this
trip, we concentrated on the area’s ancient history.
into the park from the west meant we could stop by the
Trona Pinnacles, jagged peaks formed underwater up to
100,000 years ago in the now dry Searles Lake, according
to the Bureau of Land Management. There are more than 500
of these unusual tufa spires in the dry lake basin, their
pores and jagged edges reminiscent of corral.
group of six left our respective homes at 6:30 a.m. on a
Friday, wading through a little Southern California
traffic before arriving at our rendezvous point, the
Outpost Cafe in Hesperia. From there we would caravan into
our Trona Pinnacles pit stop, we arrived at our campsite
in Furnace Creek by early afternoon with plenty of
daylight left to pitch our tents, despite the shortened
the nine campgrounds in the 3 million acre park, Furnace
Creek is perhaps the most "plush," with sinks to
wash dishes, RV hookups, fire pits, picnic tables and
flushing toilets. It’s also the most expensive, at $18
each night during peak season. (During the park’s
sweltering offseason, the price dips to $12 nightly.) It’s
also convenient, given the campgrounds’ proximity to
Furnace Creek Ranch, which includes a motel and a
well-appointed convenience store with craft beer, firewood
and decent snacks.
miles from the Furnace Creek campsite sits the incredible
Ubehebe Crater, which was formed as recently as 300 years
ago, according to the National Park Service. Visitors park
near the crater’s precipice and can hike 600 feet into
its core, or climb up and around its rim. We opted for the
latter, walking up the pebbly path made up of tiny black
volcanic rocks, where we glimpsed neighboring Little Hebe
crater in the distance.
to camp lie the rolling Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes that seem
to stretch on for miles. Some mounds reach 100 feet in
height. Climbing to the top of a few of the taller sandy
hills is a must, if only for the view. The fine sand has
an almost silky quality, although the tiny particles
invariably find their way between your toes and coat your
skin, detracting somewhat from the landmark’s appeal.
and other minerals coating the landscape give Death Valley
a perennial winter wonderland quality.
its barren landscape, Death Valley isn’t devoid of life.
The Devil’s Cornfield, a field of low-lying green brush,
is between Ubehebe Crater and Mesquite Flat. A wooden
boardwalk at the Salt Creek Trail follows a trickling
stream in which pupfish perform a quirky mating ritual in
the springtime. Croaking ravens patrol the campgrounds on
the hunt for food.
desert dwellers, such as the hairy scorpion, kit fox,
pallid bat and chuckwalla, are also Death Valley
inhabitants, although we didn’t encounter them.
night before we left, a full moon cast a luminous blue
light over the campsite, eliminating the need for
flashlights, and dry lightning over the distant mountains
further lit up the night sky. Yipping coyotes, audible
both from the north and south, intensified the eeriness.
our last morning, we awoke before dawn to watch the
sunrise at Zabriskie Point. The slowly unfurling light
painted the distant mountains and marbled rock formations
in incredible purple, pink, orange and yellow hues.
there: There are several entry points into the park. We
wanted to see the Trona Pinnacles and took I-605 to I-210,
then caught I-15 to the 395. The road to turn off the 395,
Searles Station, isn't clearly marked, so be sure to keep
your eyes peeled for a green sign that says Trona.
tip: Check your tires before you head out. Some of the
backcountry paths are unpaved and have sizable holes and
rocks that can wreak havoc on smaller cars. That being
said, my Toyota sedan did fine.
Death Valley has highly variable weather and is the
hottest and driest place in North America. Between
November and March, though, daily highs range from an
average of 65 to 82 degrees. After March, average high
temperatures climb and by July can reach 116 degrees.
Rainfall is near nonexistent. Pack accordingly.
Campers should make reservations up to four days in
advance during peak season — Oct. 15-April 15 — at
877-444-6777 or recreation.gov. Other times of the year,
it is first come, first served.