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Doing Death Valley
Created by Georgina Wilson-Powell
Seeing California’s Death Valley (the lowest landmass in North America) for the first time is like falling through a wormhole to another planet. Death Valley encompasses the space between two tectonic plates that have moved apart and the ground has since sunk-in to fill the void. Cracks in the hills hide windy canyons that shelter coyotes and rattlesnakes. Boulders the size of lorries litter the orange toned expanse, which could double for a vintage Star Trek set. Badwater Basin and its salt flats seem surreal as they gleam in the harsh sun.
Its name shouldn’t put you off. Death Valley is full of life, human and otherwise. 785 miles of half-decent roads crisscross this unique area that spans the northwest corner of the Mojave desert. The roads link the more popular hiking trails, such as Golden Canyon, Natural Bridge Canyon and Mosaic Canyon. Even though these easy to moderate trails have signposts, it’s your responsibility to look after yourself.
Those new to hiking should get up early to avoid the heat (and try to visit between October and April). All hikers need to carry at least two liters of water while on short winter hikes (and drink four liters throughout the day). For more adventurous hikes, you’re completely on your own. Local maps mark the starting points, but be prepared for confusing, unmarked changes in direction and alternating terrain.
Hiking isn’t the only thing that’s available here. In spring famous wildflowers carpet the valley with purple and yellow hues – look for the Desert Gold and the Notch Leaf Phacelia. If you’re after fauna, not flora, then horseback riding may be more your speed. It is possible in Death Valley’s backcountry as well as in the open wilderness in the southern regions of the park. Keen mountain bikers are also welcome, although bikes have to stick to park roads and can’t be taken on hiking trails.
For those that prefer four wheels to legs or who are short on time, there are some spots where cars have an advantage. The Artist's Palette is a short nine-mile scenic drive through pastel coloured volcanic hills. Twenty Mule Team Canyon is even shorter but winds through the so-called “badlands” of the park. While Dante’s Ridge is a strenuous uphill hike, you can whiz to one of the highest promontories for a spectacular view of the valley in a car.
In Death Valley, you can’t help but notice the congregations of RVs crawling across the dry, cracked expanse, like big beetles on their way to an unknown destination. While you do need a car to explore the park (it’s 3.4 million acres in size), there are several accommodation options. Stovepipe Wells Village near the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes offers the most affordable lodging in the park; be sure to check-in during the day as its location, deep at the bottom of the valley, is a little challenging to find. Motel style rooms are accompanied by a general store, a pool, a restaurant and a gas station (fill up!). Find a printable list here of all lodgings.
If camping is more your pace, there are nine locations where you and up to seven other people can get your outdoor groove on in winter (Oct-April). You’ll need to reserve a spot ahead of time here.
Death Valley shouldn’t be underestimated. In case your car breaks down, pack extra water for drinking, non-perishable snacks and sun cream for any unexpected treks across the desert. Make sure you have full fuel tanks and current detailed maps, (or have offline maps downloaded to your phone). Even though there isn’t always cellphone service, make sure that your phone is always charged. Nowadays we’re very rarely in actual danger, but out in the backcountry, away from the more popular hiking spots, over-confidence or lack of preparation can be fatal.
The entry fee to Death Valley is $20 per car for seven days and you can pay it at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station or at one of the automated fee machines.
All photos are courtesy of Georgina Wilson-Powell.