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On Visiting Death Valley National Park

I visited Death Valley National Park in January 2018 as a side trip on my business trip to Las Vegas. It was completely unplanned, and was time crunched between a 10am flight arrival in Las Vegas and a 7pm business event also back in Las Vegas.

My brother gave me the idea and the push to just rent the car and go, no matter how little time that I actually had in the Park.

I am so glad he did.

I’m not sure what my expectations were for Death Valley. I knew that it was an extreme place. And I knew that it was a National Park for good reason. But I didn’t quite grasp just how special it was until I got there.

I drove the very scenic drive from Las Vegas through Pahrump straight to the Visitor’s Center at Furnace Creek.

Except that the landscape was so unreal, so desolate, and yet so colorful that I stopped at the first overlook.

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The land was surreal. It was desert – but different. It was chalky and packed with minerals. It was completely devoid of any life – no even little scrub plants.

And the contrasts were jaw-dropping. Coming from the West, you have the Funeral Mountains on your right, Death Valley straight ahead, and the Panamint Mountains just beyond.

I eventually made it to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to buy my pass, change, get a souvenir, check out the exhibits – and most importantly… GET WATER.

I visited in January, so the heat was not extreme, but it was already crazy high for the time of year. I can totally see why water is such a huge deal. The National Park Service had these signs everywhere –

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The exhibits were fascinating, but I had to rush through them due to time. I wanted to get out of the car and hike!

I went to the nearest trail system that winds through the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch. This trail system is either a love it or hate it situation.

On first impression, it’s dusty, barren, exposed, hot, confusing, rocky, and never gets too far from the main road. But. I felt like I was in Wonderland. It’s amazing. But you’ve got to look, observe, and do a little bit of true hiking.

When you look, the minerals in the soil create layers of subtle color throughout the sand. And not just brown, more brown, and sandy. You’ll actually see pinks, greens, reds, oranges, bright yellows and purples all throughout the landscape.

There are abandoned wildcat mines all over the place. It boggles my mind to think of crazy dreamers scratching out a living here looking for gold, silver, basalt, and uranium.

I ended up hiking around 8 miles in full sun. Here’s a few pictures from the hike.

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When I got back to my car, I turned south and headed down the Valley to Badwater Basin. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America.

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What I did not realize though was that Badwater Basin looks directly up at the 11,000ft Telescope Peak. The contrast in elevation is incredible.

You can also walk out onto the salt falts, as long as you stay within pre-established paths to protect the endangered life living in the salt pools.

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From Badwater Basin, I decided to continue driving south through the Park and go out the back entrance before heading East to Las Vegas.

This was the first drive in America where I genuinely got panicky and a bit scared. I knew the mileage. And I felt confident in my rental car. I knew that Death Valley was the largest Wilderness area in the lower 48.

But. I had no idea just how isolated and out there you really can get.

For hours, there was nothing but road and landscape. No cell phone signal. No signs. No cars. Nothing.

And it was absolutely amazing.

It made me want not only want to come back to Death Valley, but also to seek out more Wilderness. I get why people *really* get into seeking out truly undeveloped parts of our world, and why the National Wilderness Preservation System is so special and worth protecting.

Eventually, I reached a junction at the exit of the Park. It was nightfall. I headed back East towards Las Vegas and made it to my meeting with about 15 minutes to spare.

It was a ton of driving, and a bit of an expense, and a bit stressful, but absolutely one of the best experiences of my life.

When I got home, I immediately started planning a 2 night trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry.

All the Parks out West immediately jumped to the top of my “life travel queue”. I’ve heard that our National Parks are really hard to over-hype. And I found that to be absolutely true. They are also worth funding and protecting, so that everybody, both present and future, can experience them.

I joined the National Parks Conservation Association and the Wilderness Land Trust. Both are organizations doing good, high impact work to protect National Parks and Wilderness areas.

Other Observations

As an Easterner, there were a lot of things that were simply new to me. Here are a few quick observations.

The size. Everything out West is huge. And Death Valley National Park is no exception. It’s actually the largest National Park in the lower 48. So there’s no “doing” Death Valley in 1 day or even 1 week or 1 month. There’s only seeing a few spots and finding out about all the other places to explore.

The popularity. I know that our National Parks are a huge deal. But I was visiting on a random weekday in January to a Park that is not even in the top 10 for number of visitors…and yet, there were quite a few people there. It wasn’t crowded, but I was interested to see how many people were out. Now – keep in mind that the crowds only appear at the main places (visitor centers, easy to access overlooks).

International Tourists. Ok – I also knew that National Parks are a big reason why tourists come to America. But, I had never been to a National Park before (other than driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) either. There were so many non-Americans in the Park! It was super-cool and made me realize that I was at a lot of people’s bucket list spot. There were several tour groups from China and India along with many backpackers from Europe. Even though I had never been to Death Valley, it was funny to catch myself wondering what they thought of “my” Park, and to feel both proud and protective of “my” Park. I’m thankful that of all the places in the World that they could come – they chose Death Valley. It also made me thankful that I got to just drive over here with no visa and no hassles – and that I have the responsibility to help protect the Park for future generations.

The diversity. Death Valley is known for Badwater Basin. But I did not realize just how much high country it had. I’d love to do a backcountry trip and explore it a bit more.

A big thanks to Franklin Roosevelt for declaring Death Valley a National Monument. A thank you to everyone who fought for Congress to elevate it to National Park status.

If you are in the vicinity of Death Valley, I definitely recommend stopping in. Even if for a few hours. I know that I’ll be back.

By Nate

I'm Nate Shivar - I live in Atlanta and love exploring the city, outdoors, books & Internet. Read about me, my Now page, or my work.

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