‘Goodbye, Death Valley.’
Pahrump, NV may be your last chance at civilization, so stock up on supplies. The journey into this 160-mile gash of barren salt flats may be an insurmountable challenge for some, but the trek is worth the effort. Death Valley is considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and for good reason. This sunken crag is ringed by mountains and cliff sides ranging in the thousands of feet of elevation. Home to sidewinders, rattlers, coyotes and roadrunners, the specialized nature of this formidable tundra is both fascinating and awe-inspiring.
Death Valley runs from the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the northwest to the Amargosa River in the southeast. To trek across the middle of the valley may leave you stranded in one of the driest environments in the northern hemisphere if proper planning is not done beforehand. The National Park system has threaded highways throughout the valley’s most desirable trekking locations and has an approachable camping network designed to be family friendly. The main site can be found at Furnace Creek which comes complete with a small general store, resort and showers. Alongside Furnace Creek are a couple of campsites built to “rough it”—to a degree. For instance, the Texas Spring campsite has flushable toilets and running water.
Note: Furnace Creek requires reservations. As in all National Parks campers must stick to the campgrounds; off-site camping and driving is forbidden without proper permits.
Further north is Stovepipe Wells, the second major camp zone. Located across the road from the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, this campground is more unforgiving and brings the dry heat of the desert with it. Regardless, all of the campgrounds have spectacular views and wonderful hiking just minutes off the park arterial road.
Desert camping can be unforgiving so plan your trip ahead of time. The heat can be cruel and overbearing especially during the day. At times you may find yourself hiding under the slightest shade just to stay reasonably cool. As with all National Park campgrounds, be sure to arrive prior to eleven a.m as these grounds sell out quickly. When you reach your campground your first task is to build some sort of shade retreat. This can be either a large tent or a tarp secured from your car to a nearby overhang. Shade is essential as the midday sun can dehydrate you in just a few hours. As they say—if you are thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Once your water source is secure and a campground is set up then you can begin planning your trek across the local trails.
What’s interesting about a dry heat is that given the time of year an 80 degree day can be very pleasant in the shade. With very little moisture in the air the heat cannot permeate much further than where it directly contacts a surface. In a humid environment the heat can transfer through the air more easily due to convection forces. An 80 degree day in Georgia can cause more suffering than the same temperature in place called Death Valley. Strange.
But then again the real threat isn’t so much the heat but the arid terrain. The lack of water is stifling. Your lips, eyes, and all moistened skin will begin to dry out, crack, and crust over. Very little is required to becoming dehydrated as moisture is continuously wicking away from your skin. This dry climate is rather comfortable otherwise. The lack of moisture means less uncomfortable sweating, and the dirt of Death Valley is relatively gentle and fine leaving your skin smooth and dry. Go figure the hills are actually ripe with talc, the primary ingredient in talcum powder.
In the end, be sure to avoid Death Valley in the summer when temperatures can easily reach the high 120s fahrenheit. Provided that you brought at least a gallon of water per day, per person, you should find your stay at the lowest point on Earth unforgettable.
Sights to See
A highly anticipated touring area is the Badwater Basin sitting 282 feet below sea level just 20 miles south of Furnace Creek. The basin’s dry salt flat is both impressive and menacing. If you have never seen a mirage before then do not be surprised as you drive along Badwater Road and the salt lake out your passenger window transforms into an empty basin of crystallized salt. Along this route is Arch Rock and the Artist’s Drive. Both showcase the auburn, mineral laced foothills and wonderment surrounding the valley.
Death Valley is perhaps one of the most inspiring and breathtaking locations in the United States. This extremely desiccate stretch of land is both heaven and hell on earth for those who enjoy one of nature’s most unique and spectacular journeys. But to the pioneers who first traveled this forsaken land, all they could bare to say as they fled this treacherous stretch of rock was “Goodbye, Death Valley.”