On my way to Death Valley, there were palm trees and then Joshua Trees. After that, there was nothing except desert sage covered in dust, making everything a monotone beige. Then there wasn’t even that.
One can’t help but think of the famous Christian biblical passage when driving into Death Valley, “…into the valley of the shadow of death….” Or is that just me?
My drive into Death Valley National Park was about five hours long through the Mohave Desert, so the roads were lined with desert vistas. Wide open, sandy spaces with random Joshua Trees, sage brush, creosote, cactus and rocks. I debated my fear of the park in the previous days, nearly talking myself out of the trip. But a name is just a name, surely and I was no more likely to die there than anywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Once I neared the park, the landscape became more desolate. It didn’t seem possible, but I watched it happen—the thought of turning around at the top of my mind. The space between developments and people became wider apart until there was no more developed space, just an open desert.
It occurred to me then, as it has in the past, that if you walked just a quarter mile into this open land, though it may only be covered by low-lying desert sage, you could never be seen again. Indeed, if you needed to hide or lose something in one of these places, well, it would never be found. I need to stop reading serial murder books.
Then the road became significantly less defined, broken and I wondered if I’d turned the wrong way somewhere in the last several turns. I’d lost my cell signal several miles and turns behind me, so I was going on hope that my screenshot maps would lead me in. Now, I was getting nervous.
Finally, just before my imagination got the best of me, I saw the sign for Death Valley National Park. Whew, my imagination goes wild sometimes and the desert is no place for it.
I’ve been to over a dozen national parks and each one is unique. Their level of accessibility and commercialization varies widely. There are parks like Yellowstone, or Zion, which are highly commercial, cultivated and developed. Then there are parks like Death Valley that are so remote and desolate you might not be sure you’re in a national park if it weren’t for the signs.
It’s remote, and where I entered in the far southwest corner, the most remote of all. But, there was a campsite there and despite the lack of civilization, I hoped it would serve me for the night.
I arrived at my campsite about an hour before sunset. I was relieved to see several other camps already occupied. People in this instance were a welcome sight. Since it was a free site, it was first come, first serve, so I decided to grab a spot and stay there instead of roaming the park and possibly getting lost in the dark.
The area is prone to high winds, the national park service warns. Desert winds are a unique challenge as they’re also likely to blind you with sand as they are to unstake your tent. A gravel road lined with Mesquite bushes and rolling hills greeted me as I made my way into the canyon.
But the elements aren’t the only thing in this area to worry about. There are also the wild donkeys.
On the road, I noticed an extensive amount of horse manure on the roads and thought it was weird. National parks are usually pretty clean, but then I read a sign about the wild burros that ran amuck in this area and understood.
The Death Valley burro story is exciting and sad. The National Park Service said this “Invasive burro” population isn’t native to the park. It was introduced by miners who used the animals to pull wagons many years ago and left the beasts in the valley when the mines were abandoned. The burro found a way to survive in the harsh conditions and their numbers grew about 20% per year.
Not only do they leave shit everywhere, but they also damage native vegetation and ecosystems and compete with native species like bighorn sheep and desert tortoises for limited resources. What’s worse, these wild burros travel in packs and can be aggressive. There’s nothing like a pack of vigilante wild horses roaming around your campsite to keep you up at night.
There were about 10 occupied sites and like all campgrounds in national parks, everyone was quiet. Death Valley is also an International Dark Sky Park, so there were no fires, and the lantern bulbs were red so as not to compete with the light of the stars.
Soon, the massive ball of fire in the sky began to set behind the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains to the west. There is nothing in the world like a desert sunset. No other place morphs so entirely in the transition between night and day as a desert. And the beauty, my God.
There’s a perfectly good scientific explanation for why desert sunsets are more spectacular than anywhere else. It has to do with the general lack of pollution from fewer humans and lower water vapor, making the atmosphere clearer to see than in other places. Or maybe it’s just desert magic. I wouldn’t argue with either point, I’m just glad it exists, and we can see it.
Once, many years ago, I had a fitted t-shirt with a colorful pink, purple and orange sunset on a black background. In tiny crystals across the chest read, “Death Valley.” I loved that shirt and couldn’t believe a sunset could look that way. I’d never seen a sunset like that and assumed it was exaggerated.
But, as I sat on the hood of my van, watching the golden sun sink behind the mountain until it was gone, that picture became real. The sky morphed before me so that every minute it was different. It was the most spectacular light show. There’s no easier way to describe it.
First, it was pale yellow darkening to orange, then lines of color began to form into a deeper orange bordering on red. As the sun departed, the sky seemed for a few moments to expand, so the colors reached more of it. Blue and pink and finally purple blended with the orange in perfect layers of majesty.
It was captivating. I couldn’t have moved my eyes away from it if I wanted to. This was why I’d made the long drive alone through the desert to spend the night in my van away from civilization. Even though it was scary, and I was unsure and doubtful. This was why.
Slowly, the colors dimmed and purple and blue took over, growing darker and darker until it was all indigo. Then, like pinpricks, glowing white dots started to appear one by one.
The stars somehow were bigger and closer than they should have been. Even though I was in a place with the lowest elevation in the United States, the stars seemed almost touchable.
Without the sun, it quickly became cold and I fell asleep to the glow of the stars until the clouds came in and covered them all.
When the sun rose, I quickly made my coffee, conducted my morning rituals and promptly drove off in the opposite direction from which I intended. My sense of direction is in many ways excellent – I have managed to travel the world alone without any significant mishaps – but I also often take the wrong way at least once in any given trip.
But this misdirection led me to the Charcoal Kilns, and I am glad for it. It was 7 am and I was the only person on the long winding road in the cold morning. The road had turned to dirt, and I was just about to turn around when the massive beehive-like structures appeared.
American Indian, Hispanic and Chinese workers built a dozen 25 feet tall kilns in 1877 to provide a fuel source for two lead-silver mine smelters nearby.
The kilns, big enough to hold an elephant, were eerie in the cold morning light and though I walked in front of each of them, I wouldn’t go beyond their doorways. Still, even after all these years, their interiors smelled like burnt creosote, a sort of citrus pine, and there is something strange about that, so I stayed back.
Afterward, I turned back and got on the correct road right next to my campground—palm to forehead. I stopped to take a few pictures and, hearing a burro braying in the distance, quickly hopped back in the van. I grabbed my binoculars, but I couldn’t find the source of the noise. Part of me wanted to see them, of course, and the other part of me didn’t want to be anywhere near these mutant, desert-thriving aggressive donkeys.
The park is enormous, but the landscape is so captivating, it goes by in a quick shocking moment. There are many different types of strange geology to see – that’s why many movies, like Stars Wars, have been filmed in the park. There are massive sand dunes, deep craters, and salt flats that go for miles. It’s a perfect description of what other planets must look like.
I was stunned, too, by the dramatic changes in temperature. On the fall day that I was there, the desert air went from the mid-40s to 90-degrees. It fluctuated anywhere in between, depending on the time of day and my elevation.
Less than one percent of the Mohave desert is covered with dunes. In the park, I learned that the dunes exist only in places where there is a lot of sand, wind, and area to settle or be “trapped,” which is a relatively rare combination, making the dunes incredibly unique.
In Death Valley, there are a few different dunes, but the easiest to get to and access are the Mesquite Sand Dunes in the Stovepipe area of the park. They even allow “sandboarding,” but there wasn’t anyone doing it when I was there. The other dunes require long drives and hikes, but if you have the time and ambition, it might be worth it.
I didn’t plan on doing a lot of hiking but wanted to spend some time on my feet in the desert, so I chose the Golden Canyon. There is a labyrinth of golden-colored (surprise) hills and narrow canyons you can trek through for a few miles. It’s nice because the trails are fairly straightforward and get you out in the desert environment.
The paths on the trail were obvious – it’s a canyon unless you’re climbing a rock wall, you have nothing to do except stay on the path. Also, the height of the canyon provides some shade, so a great hike to do. Plus, there were plenty of other people in and around the trails, so you’re never outside of shouting distance.
ARTIST DRIVE & PALETTE
Red slashes like blood, splatters of green, and drops of orange and gold dot the landscape along the multicolored cliffs of the artist drive. This is probably the best little drive in the park – maybe – don’t make me decide!
I turned down an unsuspecting road not far from Golden Canyon that led behind some common-looking golden structures. There, they’ve paved a beautiful, smooth “Artist Drive” through narrow canyons along with the “Artist Palette.”
The narrow canyon roads are like a roller coaster ride. The rock colors, formed from different volcanic deposits like iron, chlorite, and others, along with the walls, create many different rock colors.
I was distracted here by the “influencers” prancing around in their fancy, impractical dresses taking pictures for their Instagram pages. I’m grateful every day that social media didn’t exist when I was young.
HARMONY BORAX WORKS
I drove through the seemingly endless expanses and, somewhere in the middle, found the Harmony Borax Works. The park turned it into a small historical interpretive center complete with an ancient mule-pulled train (that’s how the burros were introduced).
The mine was active only a few years, from 1883 to 1888. Like most attempts at mining Death Valley, they quickly realized it was a nightmare without water and gave up (or were stopped by environmental protection acts). Their attempts left some cool artifacts and interesting history to explore.
When I was standing in the Badwater Basin, I turned to a giant cliff face behind me. High up so far, I could barely see it there was a white sign hanging from the mountainside. It was so odd and out of place, I wondered what it said and how in the heck it got there. I zoomed in with my phone, so I could see it better. It read, “Sea Level.”
The Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level and is the lowest elevation in the United States. Not only is it the lowest point, but it’s unique for another reason – it looks like it’s covered in snow – in the desert. But it isn’t snow. It’s salt.
Over thousands of years, any rain in the area caused minerals to dissolve from the nearby rock and pool in the basin. When it dried up, all that was and is left was salt. Big granules of it cover the basin and make it white. It clung to my shoes enough to cover my floor mats. I was so, so tempted to taste, but I didn’t.
On my way home, the long open roads through the Searles Valley were desolate and again, I had to rely on my screenshot maps. These are the drives of my imaginings: the wide-open west, all mine.
Then, I saw a tarantula cross the road. I handled it better than I did when I saw one in Joshua Tree. It’s amazing what humans can get used to. But, this was the second tarantula I’d seen crossing the road recently and I wondered how common it was. I did some research and it turns out they often mate in the fall and can be seen venturing farther – even crossing roads – to find females! I knew I wasn’t crazy. However, I will be if I see another one! My God, they’re amazingly horrific and fill my nightmares.
I left the spiders behind and drove on and on down long desert roads heading southwest into the setting sun.