Death Valley from Dante’s View
The name “Death Valley” does not evoke pleasant thoughts. However, we were quite surprised when we visited in January. Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. I do have to say that there is no way you would get me there in the summer as last year (2013) the temperature rose to 134°F. However, in the winter, it’s really fascinating and very comfortable temperature-wise.
We first ventured into Death Valley from the south. Quickly apparent was Death Valley’s tremendous geologic diversity. It’s completely chaotic and, as Tom said, “This place has more going on geologically than anyplace we’ve been other than maybe the Grand Canyon.” The mountains continually displayed different colors and different types of rock.
At Badwater a sign announced the elevation at 282 feet below sea level and another sign, so far up the mountain you could barely see it, represented sea level. The small Badwater pool reflects the mountains behind it and is the only water anywhere near. The salt basin stretches out over the valley.
For our first full day in the park, we started with a visit to Dante’s View. In the Black Mountains at 5.476 feet above the valley floor, it affords the most panoramic view of Death Valley. From Dante’s view the morning light playing on the salt in the valley below was gorgeous.
Death Valley from Dante’s View
The one-way, 2.7 mile, dirt Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road winds through the badlands near Zabrinskie Point. The dark-colored material capping the ridges in this erosional landscape is lava from an ancient eruption.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon Zabrinskie Point
Although many prospectors came to Death Valley to look for gold, silver, and other precious metals, these were nearly all failures. An exception was the mining of borax, “the white gold of the desert.” It was mined profitably from the 1880’s to 1927. The Harmony Borax Works gave us the immortal 20-mule teams and although the teams only ran for six years, 1883-1889, they became an enduring symbol of the Old West. This was primarily due to a successful advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap and the long-running Death Valley Days radio (1930-1945) and television (1952-1970) programs. The 20-mule-team (actually two horses and eighteen mules) hauled two wagons and a 1200-gallon water tank out of the valley to the railhead at Mojave 165 miles to the southwest. The wagons were among the largest ever pulled by draft animals, designed to carry 10 U.S. tons of borax ore at a time. It was a grueling ten day trip with stops along the way to refill water tanks and supplies for both men and mules.
Harmony Borax Works Ruins 20-Mule Team Wagons
In 1927 Pacific Coast Borax Company discontinued mining but retained their land and water rights, and built Furnace Creek Inn, a high-end resort. Beginning in 1933, tourist accommodations were also provided at Furnace Creek Ranch. We stayed in a cabin at the Ranch. The Ranch offered a variety of accommodations, restaurants, golf course, activities, a post office and the Borax Museum.
As we hiked and explored we were constantly on the lookout for some of the desert wildlife but alas, all we saw were two ravens and a lizard. We went to Salt Creek in search of a place for lunch and the pupfish. This stream of salty water is the only home to a rare pupfish, Cyprinodon salinus. which is a species that can inhabit desert water, both fresh and salt. We didn’t find any pupfish but we did find a place to eat our lunch.
Exploring more of the park, the conglomeration of features and formations continued to amaze us. The Devil’s Golf Course is a layer of salt three to five feet thick covered with jagged pinnacles of salt.
Devil’s Golf Course
At Artist’s Palette, iron minerals colored the rocks green and pink and orange. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile wide and 600 feet deep. The dark layers at the top are ash and cinders from the most recent eruption (sometime in the last thousand years).The sunsets were brilliant and the stars at night were incredibly bright.
We moved on to Stovepipe Wells, which is the site of a historic well that was an important water source in this arid environment. The facilities here are a bit more minimal than at Furnace Creek but quite satisfactory. The Mesquite Sand Dunes are in constant flux near here covering fourteen square miles and up to 100 feet tall. In this area, Mosaic Canyon provides a nice hike. The narrow canyon has marble on one side and conglomerate on the other – chaos reigns again.
A trip to Death Valley would not be complete without a visit to Death Valley Ranch, more commonly known as Scotty’s Castle. Scotty’s Castle is the result of the unlikely friendship between a millionaire with a love for his own vision of the “wild west” and the money to create a castle in Death Valley, and a con artist who was a wonderful storyteller and thus provided “local color” for the Johnsons and their guests. We toured the “castle” and found it extremely interesting. Scotty (Walter Scott) and Albert Johnson formed a bond which lasted their lifetimes. They both seemed to want to keep the public interested and guessing. Begun in 1922, construction on the castle was never completed as it was halted in 1931 after the stock market crash of 1929. The ironwork details for the door hinges, lights, etc., the monogrammed dinnerware, and elaborate furnishings are indicative of the care and planning involved in this massive undertaking. During the tour, guests are treated to the sounds of the 1,121 pipe Welte theater organ in the upper music room. With an advanced electrical generating system and solar water heating, it was state of the art for the time period. Death Valley Ranch was deeded to a foundation by Johnson and purchased by the National Park Service in 1970.
Death Valley Ranch Courtyard Great Hall
In 1933 Death Valley became a part of the national park system as a National Monument. It was designated a national park in 1994 and is the largest national park in the lower 48, and well worth a visit.
For information on visiting see:
Death Valley National Park