California is a state full of natural wonders, including many state and national parks. See interesting sites in San Francisco and beyond.
Travel Destination Extraordinaire!
This incredible Death Valley National Park has extreme temperatures ranging from sizzling highs to frigid lows. It has elevations from hundreds of feet below sea level to thousands of feet high. It experiences some of the driest conditions in the United States while sitting on top of one of the country's largest aquifers, and there is much more.
Come along with my friend and me as we did some exploring while on vacation. My traveling companion and I visited ten national parks and other interesting sites on a fantastic road trip from Houston, Texas, to California and back in 1998. After seeing the grandeur of parks like the Grand Canyon and the majesty of parks like Yosemite, this park surprised and delighted us both.
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states of the United States and contains 3.3 million acres. One could spend a lifetime exploring just this one park, and we had only allotted several days.
The springtime flowers in May were putting on quite a show! They were both in the mountainous areas of the park and the below-sea-level desert floor. The colors in the rocks were multi-hued and beautiful to behold.
Most of Death Valley, to this day, is wilderness. There are countless places to hike and explore, and most visitors to this national park enjoy coming in the winter and spring of the year when the temperatures are more moderate. There are some hearty souls (many of them from other countries) who purposely visit this park in the summer of each year because they want to experience the extreme temperatures. May was hot enough for my friend and me!
The desert does cool off at night, but during the day while hiking, one must be sure to carry enough water to stay hydrated.
Most of this national park is in California, with a small eastern portion located in Nevada. Paved and unpaved roads run through this park, and all of them are well marked.
Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort
I made reservations ahead of time for us to stay at this oasis within Death Valley National Park. There are two distinct lodgings. There is a historic 66 room Inn at Furnace Creek and the very family-friendly 224 room Ranch. My friend and I chose to stay at the Ranch and were delighted with the accommodations. (What was once known as Furnace Creek Ranch is now known as The Ranch at Death Valley.)
In the middle of an arid desert arises a veritable oasis where the spring-fed Furnace Creek brings life. It has housed native Americans in this location for numerous years. Next came the Forty-Niners, the discovery of Borax mining, and now tourists arrive in droves to rest and relax after a day of enjoying the sites.
Death Valley Museum
Relics of the old gold rush days and the famous 20 mule team borax wagons, plus other items of interest, are on the grounds of Furnace Creek Ranch. Wagons that carried the ever-important and life-sustaining water to gold crushing equipment to old locomotives that hauled ore from the nearby mines, that and more is on view up close on the grounds adjacent to the museum. It comprises quite an exhibit for history buffs or just for those curious onlookers who find themselves in this part of the national park.
Museum Grounds at Furnace Creek Ranch
Visiting Golden Canyon was our first adventure in Death Valley. First, we enjoyed a refreshing swim in the Furnace Creek pool. Oh, to have lazed around the pool all day would have been fun, but we had more of the park to see!
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The hike into Golden Canyon takes one on a path that rises about 300 feet (91 meters). One can plan on spending about an hour and a half or more, depending upon how many photos one decides to take of the myriad rock colors, which present themselves along the way.
Again one is advised not to go too long without hydration. The warmth of the sun heats those rocks, and it must seem like a blast oven in the middle of the summer!
The sheer beauty of what one gets to see up close as one goes hiking makes Golden Canyon a worthwhile destination.
Devil's Golf Course
Can you imagine the sheer horror of pioneers traveling in wagon trains headed west when they got to this area?
A sign at this site portrays the following:
"DEVILS GOLF COURSE
Interbedded salt and water-bearing gravels are more than 1,000 feet thick beneath the devil's golf course. Great horizontal forces exerted by crystallizing salt, push these columns upward. Wind and rain carve them into fantastic shapes."
Other tourists and we walked gingerly on these rough and irregular shapes being careful not to fall. The jagged shapes could probably easily cut one's skin if a mishap occurred. Those pioneers would have had to find another way around this obstacle on their westward journey.
A short hike, which was only about 1/2 mile, took us to another location called the Natural Bridge. Amazingly tucked into the nooks and crannies of these desert floor rocks are blooming plants. Some of them look to be quite delicate. Rainstorms can awaken long-dormant seeds in the ground and bring forth emerging plants, some of which have beautiful flowers.
At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and what greets one's view is a flat white sea of salt with mountains rising in the distance. Small pools of undrinkable water are also present, depending upon rainfall. Be sure and wear your sunglasses when you explore this area!
Ashford Mill Ruins
One day we had lunch in this spot. It is the site of an old mining operation that proved less than fruitful for its owners.
The name of this part of the national park was of particular interest to me. Just as I have had a mixture of colors on my artist's palette, the colors in the rocks in this part of Death Valley certainly lived up to their assigned name.
These photos do not do justice to the vibrant mix of hues found here, but they will give you some impression of what there is if you were to visit. As in all desert scenery and most other landscapes, time of day and lighting factors can cause these colors to fade or intensify depending upon conditions.
Salt Creek Pupfish
Visitors to Death Valley National Park have the rare opportunity to view up-close fish that are truly living fossils. The small pupfish has, over thousands of years, adapted from living in freshwater to saltwater. Boardwalks take one alongside the Salt Creek, where one can see these tiny fish wiggling their way through the shallow water.
20 Mule Team Borax
Anyone of a certain age (mine certainly!) will remember the old radio and television series showcasing the 20 mule teams in Death Valley, hauling their heavy loads of ore down from the mountains. It gave a distinct flavor to the Old West.
My friend and I traveled the graded one-way road into the 20 Mule Team Canyon and got to see some of the areas where those teams of mules and miners would have been operating. Undoubtedly the mules and miners did not have such a smooth road to traverse back in those days.
At one time, there were hundreds of mines. There are warnings for people to stay out of them if discovered while hiking as they could be very dangerous. Gradually they are being sealed off.
My car was put through its paces, getting to this beautiful spot around 5,475 feet above sea level to enjoy this panoramic view of Death Valley. One can easily see the white salt flats of Badwater Basin, some 282 feet below sea level from this vantage point. In the distance are the High Sierra mountains rising some 14,000 feet and providing a dramatic backdrop.
My traveling companion and I enjoyed the meadows filled with a profusion of spring-flowering plants and took many photos. This site was our last stop before moving on to other adventures as we headed back home.
While we did not get to see everything, we did our best on the days allotted. Videos show you more of what there is to be seen and enjoyed if you are interested. If you only have time to watch one video, be sure to make it the one below.
My friend and I would heartily recommend visiting this fantastic national park if you ever get the chance. It is simply wondrous!
- National Park Service: Death Valley National Park
- National Park Service: Lodgings in Death Valley
- Wikipedia: Salt Creek Pupfish
- National Park Service: Pupfish in Death Valley
- From Borax: History of the U.S. Borax 20 Mule Team
- National Park Service: Badwater Basin
© 2010 Peggy Woods