Death Valley, although as mentioned in the previous post seemingly muted, can claim a rich and colorful human history going back at least 10,000 years. Native Americans, foolhardy ’49ers, hardscrabble miners, boom towns, 20-mule-teams, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and most recently tourism and the creation of the largest park in the contiguous United States.
At the height of the California Goldrush a group of pioneers decided, against the warning of their wagon master, to take a “shortcut” across the unknown deserts of the West. Legend has it that as they finally staggered out, someone stood on a hill and bid adieu saying “Goodbye, Death Valley” and gave us the name of this now popular National Park.
Established as a National Monument in 1933 and as a National Park on Oct. 31, 1994, Death Valley National Park comprises more than 3.3 million acres containing the lowest, hottest, driest location in North America. Nearly 550 square miles of its area lie below sea level it contains the lowest point in the western hemisphere — 282 feet below sea level near Badwater — as well as numerous high-rising mountain peaks, including Telescope Peak at over 11,000 feet.
Interestingly enough this seemingly barren landscape provides home for 37 reptile species, 6 kinds of amphibians, and 58 species of mammals, 347 species of birds and 1,000 plant species.
“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson
With so much vast space the visitors disperse well over the landscape and it is easy to find places in the park to enjoy without crowds. There are numerous hikes and off-roading opportunities and December is a great month to visit and explore without the blazing summer heat.
Willow Canyon & Sidewinder Canyon Hikes
After a recommendation from the Ranger at the Visitor Center I headed out to explore both Willow and Sidewinder Canyons. Much of Death Valley is explored by cross country trekking with no road and no hiking route signage. It was fairly easy to find the Willow Canyon route and make my way up through the canyon to a currently dry seasonal waterfall.
A hike mainly in the sun it would be pretty uncomfortable in the hot seasons. And not the most popular or easily reached I saw no other adventurers on this part of the hike.
After exploring Willow I made my way south looking for Sidewinder Canyon (more popular but still without a marked trail or signage). After making my way up two side canyons (not sidewinder) and enjoying those views it was time to call it a day and head back to camp.
Titus Canyon Off-Road
The Titus Canyon drive has it all—rugged mountains, colorful rock formations, a ghost town, petroglyphs, wildlife, rare plants and canyon narrows. It is easy to see why this is the most popular back-country road in Death Valley National Park.
Starting out in the flatlands near the old mining town of Rhyolite the elevation change to Red Pass at 5250′ elev makes for a fun and interesting drive.
On the other side of the pass is the ghost town of Leadfield that “boomed” for less than a year in 1926-27 after the lead deposits bottomed out quickly. You can explore what is left, a few shacks and a number of mine shafts, and an interesting stop for lunch.
After leaving Leadfield, the road enters the main fork of Titus Canyon where the limestone cliffs rise above the wash traveling past Klare Spring where even in the driest of seasons there is water available to the desert creatures. There are also petroglyphs around the spring but they appear to have been badly damaged by uncaring park visitors.
The final 1.5 miles narrow down to in some places barely 20′ wide just before opening out onto the vast valley. A great drive with varied desert environments to enjoy along the way. It is highly recommended that you have a high clearance vehicle and conditions can change rapidly so check the weather!
Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch Hike
The muted colors continue in the golden colored hills and winding narrow canyons around Golden Canyon. My goal was to hike the loop trail which included Golden Canyon & Gower Gulch but was derailed once again by my dislike of heights (this is really starting to get old, any ideas out there?).
There are times on this journey when having others to hike with would have made it easier and much more doable and this was one of those times. Instead, I hiked Golden Canyon and partway up toward Zabriskie Point then returned to the parking lot and hiked up Gower Gulch from the other side. All in all it was a good hike and another great day.
And what would a trip to Death Valley be without a walk out onto Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. You only have to walk about half a mile out to get away from the crowd of visitors that seem to be tethered to their vehicles.
In Death Valley, nature puts on a spectacular show and here’s to hoping that more and more people will develop an affection for this unique land.
“California’s deserts have always been hot, but nowadays, from Palm Springs to Death Valley, there’s also a coolness to them that hasn’t been felt since the Rat Pack era, as they’re transformed by a new crop of hipsters, artists and outdoor adventurers.” – ANDREW BENDER
Lonely Planet Writer