|Teloscope Peak reflected in Badwater Creek, floor of Death Valley.|
Death Valley is a place of superlatives. It is the largest National Park in the country occupying over 3 million acres of wilderness. The actual Valley is the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below Sea Level. (The Dead Sea in Israel is the lowest in the world, 1371 feet below Sea Level and I've been there also.) The salt pan that covers the valley is 40 miles long and 5 miles wide. Located in the rain shadow of first the Sierra Nevada Mountains and then the Panamint Range immediately to the west of the valley, it is the driest place in North America as well. And it is the hottest place in North America. In the summer temperatures on the floor of the valley regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Its plants and animals have made extraordinary adaptations to survive the extremes here. For example, there are several species of pupfish which lives in some of the creeks and holes in the rock where the salinity is 4-5 times that of sea water. These fish have adapted to live their life quickly and reproduce in the few months when there is water in the creeks from occasional rain and snow melt.
|Salt Creek. The white is not snow, but it is salt.|
|Badlands from Zabriski Point|
|Colored rock from Artists' Drive.|
|Stovepipe Wells Sand dunes from closer|
|Stovepipe Wells dunes from a distance|
Sunsets are dramatic here. There is an explosion crater and other geothermal activity here. There are hot springs. The swimming pools at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch use hot spring water in them and they are maintained during tourist season. Furnace Creek Inn closes in May but the Ranch stays open all summer for those who are brave enough to venture here then.
|Sunset over Telescope Peak to the west of the Valley|
|Sunset on the Black Mountains east of the Valley, from Stovepipe Wells|
The evening ranger programs are full of the story about the 49ers. This was a group of people coming west to seek gold. They decided to take a shortcut across Death Valley and became stranded. Two of the men literally walked out of the area to get help and returned to save the remainder of the wagon train. Only one person in the caravan had died of natural causes, but this lead one woman in the troop to look back at the journey through the valley and name it as it is still called, Death Valley.
At one time charcoal was made at Kilns which still remain at Wildrose in the west part of the Panamint Range. And to the east of the park are several ghost towns which remain from gold rush times. They are interesting to visit.
|Two borax wagons and a steam tractor used only in Valley.|
Not much gold was discovered in Death Valley, some silver was discovered, but there was a mineral that became just as valuable as gold and silver. The surface of the Valley and its salt pan contained borax, and so did many of the surrounding cliffs and canyons. The endeavor to harvest this mineral and get it out of this remote area created and became a famous source of culture in the valley. First of all, hundreds even perhaps thousands of Chinese laborers were brought in to harvest the borax off the surface. Later mine shafts were dug into the cliffs and a multitude of these mines still exist though they are off limits due to their lack of safety. There is a movement to restore some of the shafts so that they can be visited. Getting borax out to the nearest rail head in Mojave, CA, 165 miles away lead to the development of the 20 mule hitch pulling a wagon full of borax and one or two water tanks. Each wagon was 16 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet deep. Loaded, the wagon weight 36 1/2 tons. The 20 mule team pulled on an 80 foot lead chain. The wheels were 7 feet tall. Try getting this team and its wagons around some of the curves and over the passes that had to be traversed. The back 3 teams of mules had to learn how to jump over that 80 foot lead chain when it was turning corners and each pair of mules depending on its location in the team, had to know its name and the words Stop and Go so that they could be deftly managed around the turns and through the canyons. The trip was managed by a so-called muleskinner and his cook (swamper) in 10 days, about 17 miles a day. These wagons only ran from 1883 to 1888 but they still are responsible for many stories told in Death Valley to this day. The Harmony Borax works is still a nice little stop on a tour of the Valley. There are a couple remaining wagons so that you can get an idea about the size of these mule trains. The Borax Soap company used a photo of one of these 20 mule wagon trains in its advertisement.
I can't close this description of the highlights of Death Valley without commenting on the night time sky. Though you can see a small crescent of pinkish light pollution from Las Vegas to the southeast, the night time sky in Death Valley is one of the darkest in the country. Therefore star viewing is phenomenal. I am always so happy to see the Milky Way out there. Whereas back home, I don't think I have seen it since growing up on a small farm in northern Illinois, about 60 years ago. Several night time star gazing talks are presented by the rangers. And the Las Vegas Astronomy Club comes out there several times a year to give presentations. That makes sense because otherwise this Las Vegas club would be bereft of seeing any stars. The Strip makes sure of that.
We en;joyed out trip to Death Valley this time as in the past even though it was not as much of a surprise. For anyone traveling to California in the winter, I would heartily endorse a trip to Death Valley. If you are poor, stay at Panamint Springs, or Stovepipe Wells. If you are of medium financial reserves, stay at Furnace Creek Ranch, and if you can afford it stay at Furnace Creek Inn where you will be treated like visiting royalty.
|Furnace Creek Inn at dusk nestled against the Black Mountains|