Winter / Early Spring
view of snow-covered Telescope Peak (elevation
the Badwater salt flats, which at 282 feet
elevation below sea level
the lowest point in the United States.
in Death Valley
March 20, 2009)
Although the calendar was still proclaiming
winter for another week, the weather in Death
Valley was definitely spring-like. This was
a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip yet so scenic
and enjoyable that John and I vowed to make
it an annual March tradition.
This time of year is nearing
peak season for Death Valley, meaning that
the park is busy. But the park is so large
— at 3.3 million acres, it’s the
largest national park in the Lower 48 —
that only the developed areas are crowded.
The daytime highs during this
late-winter weekend were in the low 80s and
at night the temperature dropped to a comfortable
60 degrees. The waning full moon was late-rising,
giving us plenty of time for desert stargazing
before it cast a ghostly glow over the golden
hills surrounding Texas Springs Campground
in the Furnace Creek area.
Death Valley is the place to
go for pristine night-sky-watching as the
Park Service here is committed to preserving
the night sky. In the campground, there are
no lights glaring all night long from the
CCC-built restrooms, so one doesn’t
need to venture farther than their campsite
to view constellations or falling stars.
Late March to mid April is also the time to
visit the valley for wildflower viewing. We
encountered some early-bloomers while there,
but there is always a possibility of fields
of flowers if all the natural conditions align.
The driving distance to our Death
Valley campsite from Three Rivers was 315
miles, yet as the crow flies the area is less
than 100 miles due east from home. It’s
that forbidding Sierra escarpment that must
be detoured around by first driving south.
While touring the area, we saw
coyotes, roadrunners, and a rock beneath a
cliff shaped like an Acme anvil. During our
all-too-short weekend in the park, we were
able to fit in three short day hikes, which
revealed spectacular desert scenery, complex
geology, primeval wilderness, and historic
With place names consisting of
words such as death, bad, hell, dead, devil,
blood, funeral, and jackass, it’s best
not to be one and forget to carry enough water.
Also pay heed to the temperature, which can
soar to more than 120 degrees in the summer.
Bridge in Death Valley National Park.
NATURAL BRIDGE CANYON—
Much of Death Valley’s geological phenomena
are highlighted on the short hike to Natural
Bridge and beyond. The trailhead is located
off Badwater Road (Highway 178), 14 miles
south of the junction of highways 190 and
Turn left (east) off the highway
and travel 1.5 miles on a dirt road to reach
the parking lot and trailhead. There are pit
toilets here, but no water. Always carry your
Before heading into the canyon
narrows, read the information kiosk at the
trailhead. It explains the various formations
that will be encountered — slip faulting,
alluvial fans, chutes, dryfalls, differential
erosion, bedding, fault caves, mud drips.
After walking through a narrow,
picturesque, and shady canyon on a gentle
upslope for less than a half-mile, the natural
arch comes into view. Continue beyond this
high bridge and the trail is now a streambed,
which is what created the formation by eroding
this rocky hillside from below.
It’s evident that not many
people venture beyond Natural Bridge, but
it is worth it to continue another half-mile
or so until the canyon dead-ends at a dry
waterfall. There are two short dryfalls that
require some easy scrambling before the sheer
20-foot fall that blocks travel is reached.
BADWATER SALT FLATS—
It’s a vast bed of salt in the hottest,
lowest spot in the United States. Sounds daunting,
but it’s the most popular visitor attraction
in the park as it is the ultimate Death Valley
The site is just off Highway
178, about 17 miles south of the junction
of highways 190 and 178.
There is a well-trodden pathway
that’s as wide as a highway and about
a half-mile in length, which takes tourists
to the edge of the salt pan. Then there is
a narrow trail that continues another one-tenth
of a mile.
We ventured another mile onto
the vast salt flats, which are about five
miles across. Here we escaped the sounds of
the highway and the hordes of tourists. While
we were out there, no one else ventured beyond
the beaten path.
On each of these hikes, we made
a point to stop and listen to the extreme
silence. The desert’s immense quiet
is something not often experienced, and the
constant noise of everyday life is not realized
until it is no longer heard. The silence caused
a pressure on the ears not unlike what is
felt when diving deep underwater.
Being on this expansive bed of
salt is an experience similar to being on
a snowfield in the Sierra. It’s blindingly
white and the sun’s rays are intense
But this groundcover doesn’t
melt away under the sun’s heat. In fact,
it is only inches thick but firm when walking
It has miniature pinnacles that are sharp
to the touch and if one were to fall onto
the sharp, jagged surface, there would certainly
be broken skin and blood.
The human history in Death Valley
is fascinating; so many tried to tame the
elements while eking out a living off the
land. This fortitude is appreciated when on
the salt flats and while viewing the vast,
perilous expanse of the valley floor.
Upon returning to the parking
lot, don’t forget to glance up at the
vertical mountainside on the opposite side
of the highway for the “SEA LEVEL”
sign. This provides perspective of how low
the basin is and the wide range of environments
in close proximity.
For instance, consider that Mount
Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous
U.S. at 14,495 feet elevation — 14,777
feet higher than Badwater, the lowest point
— is less than 85 air miles to the west.
view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley
the badlands and the salt flats beyond.
the right side of the photo is the trail that
through the colorful hills from Golden Canyon.
gray wash in the foreground is the return
route via Gower Gulch.
GOLDEN CANYON AND GOWER
GULCH— It is a beautiful one-mile
walk up Golden Canyon. This is an interpretive
trail with 10 geological points of interest
along the way that correspond with a guide
that’s available for 25 cents at the
The parking lot for the trail
is just off Highway 178, two miles from the
junction of highways 190 and 178.
Until 1976, there was a paved
road into Golden Canyon. But that year, a
torrential cloudburst caused the area to flood
and wash out the pavement.
At one mile, the final stop of
the interpretive trail is reached. Looking
beyond is Red Cathedral (originally called
Dripping Blood Mountain, which appropriately
describes the florid formation). After taking
this spur for less than a half-mile to the
base of Red Cathedral, near where the parking
lot for Golden Canyon used to be, backtrack
to the Golden Canyon trail and its junction
with the trail to Zabriskie Point/Gower Gulch.
Here the trail begins its wanderings
through the badlands. Because there are many
side canyons and washes, the trail is delineated
with markers from here to Zabriskie Point
and well-signed at every intersection.
The route takes hikers, of which
we only saw a handful, up and around Manly
Beacon, a prominent sandstone peak just south
of Red Cathedral. It seemed like quite an
accomplishment to climb to this high point
of 440 feet on the trail after being down
under in Badwater only an hour or so previously.
Looking at these mountains from
the inside of a car speeding along the highway,
one may have the impression that the badlands
are a bleak, achromatic place. By experiencing
them on foot, a rich and dramatic landscape
is revealed; the hills are alive with vivid
shades of red, brown, golden, black, and green.
It’s a miner’s dream.
In fact, as we headed toward the pass below
Manly Beacon we could see hillsides that were
dotted with mines and prospect holes, as mining
for borax occurred here until 1933 when Death
Valley became a national monument.
now-abandoned borax excavation in Gower Gulch.
It is unsafe to enter any of Death Valley's
We had started this hike just
before 2 p.m., and the temperature was about
82 degrees. When we were hiking low on the
hills, the air was still and very warm; when
on the ridgetops, there was a steady breeze
to keep us cool.
The trail beyond Manly Beacon
descends to a wash, which is also a signed
trail junction between Gower Gulch and Zabriskie
Point. We climbed up a dry creekbed/trail
toward Zabriskie Point, which truth be told,
can also be reached by vehicle via Highway
190, although it is only a real Death Valley
adventure if you trek across the badlands
to reach the scenic overlook.
We walked through a notch in
the hillside just a short way from the Zabriskie
Point parking lot, then walked up to the viewpoint
where we could look back at where we had hiked.
A woman taking photos from the overlook commented
to her husband that she could see a trail
I appreciated the opportunity
to tell them that we had just been on that
trail and that hiking it is an enjoyable way
to get to know Death Valley.
Zabriskie Point is named for
Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, who first came
to Death Valley in 1889 and eventually became
a powerful figure in the Pacific Coast Borax
From Zabriskie Point, we backtracked
down to the junction and began our return
to the Golden Canyon parking lot by way of
Gower Gulch. There is no trail here, but this
dry riverbed is easy to follow.
Along the way, we marveled at
the rock formations and the sculpting power
of water as flash floods have carved out this
canyon. Although we noticed the contrast of
the gray rocks that line the drainage compared
to the golden sandstone cliff faces surrounding
it, it wasn’t until later research on
the area that we learned that Gower Gulch’s
erosion has been accelerated since it serves
as a diversion to Furnace Creek.
If we would have walked a couple
hundred feet up the wash we would have noticed
the artificial cut made in the rock face to
send flash-flood waters this way to protect
the Furnace Creek developed area from these
Gower Gulch honors George Truman
Gower, whose son Harrison was a superintendent
for Pacific Coast Borax Company for many years.
We continued down the wide, gray
Gower Gulch, craning our necks at the picturesque
canyon walls and peaking into the long-abandoned
tunnels dug out of the mountainsides by early-day
miners in search of borax. At the wash’s
lower reaches it narrows and bends left, so
much so that on our approach it looked as
though we were boxed in.
Instead it was a 90-degree turn
and a short dryfall to scramble down. Then,
as we followed the wash to the end of the
canyon, we encountered a 30-foot dryfall.
For a brief moment, we thought we would have
to negotiate our way down this vertical rock
face… then we saw the trail that contours
down along the cliff side before heading north
at the base of the mountains to the parking
This desert jaunt was about six-and-a-half
miles in length, took three hours to complete,
which included dozens of photo stops, and
had a vertical elevation gain of about 950