Death Valley National Park – A Reprise

Hi everyone,

Today, November 8, 2020, if we were in normal times, I would be attending the first of a five day photography workshop in Death Valley National Park. This was also a reunion of attendees from a photography workshop five years ago at the Madeline Island School for the Arts (MISA). Brenda Tharp, landscape and travel photographer extraordinare, was our workshop leader at MISA and would be our instructor at Death Valley. Sadly, due to the virus, it was all cancelled with the hope we could try again next year.

Meanwhile, I’ll take you back to Death Valley in the “before time.” As in before the pandemic.

In January and February 2018, my Traveling Partner and I made a sojourn to America’s Southwest. In addition to visiting family and friends along the way, we toured many national parks, monuments and historic sites on our 9000 mile trip. The last park we stopped at was Death Valley. While all the national parks we’ve been to over the years are special, we found Death Valley to have a remarkable allure. It has mountains, a desert, salt flats, sand dunes, colorful canyons, blue skies with poofy clouds, and so much more.

We parked our trailer in Beatty, Nevada and drove into the park each day. There wasn’t a lot going on in Beatty, there were a couple of restaurants but not a grocery store that we could find. The campground had a few food items for sale, pickings were slim. We found out later that there was RV camping in the park at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, knowing that would have saved us some miles.

Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the lower 48 states with over 3.4 million acres within it’s borders. It’s also the hottest and lowest national park. The hottest month is July when the average high is 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.9 C). Death Valley has the highest temperature ever recorded at 134.1 degrees F (56.7 C). One of the days we were in the park is was a pleasant 63 degrees F. The lesson from this riff on temperature, avoid the hot summer months and come in the cool months of the year!

The lowest spot in the park is at Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level. It’s one of the most popular stops in the park. There were several tour busses the day we walked the salt flats.

One of the few benefits of staying in Beatty was that the ghost town of Rhyolite was nearby. The town was born in a gold rush when gold was discovered nearby in 1904. It quickly grew out of the desert to nearly 5000 people. By the early 1920’s it was nearly empty. Below is a photo of a bottle house that was built early on with some of skeletons of the remaining brick and stone buildings reflected in the window. 

Nevada Highway 374 was the route we took from Beatty across the Nevada/California line into the park. Our first day, we noticed a dirt road going off to the north and west. Our park map informed us that this was the Titus Canyon Road. This twenty-six mile one-way unimproved dirt road would take us through a remote portion of the park past the old mining town of Leadville. A high clearance 2-wheel-drive vehicle was required. We qualified with our 4-WD Ford F-150. We were cautioned that the road was rough and there were some narrow passes and protruding rocks. With all that information, we decided to take the chance. It was easily my favorite part of our visit to the park. We nearly had the road to ourselves as we only saw a few other vehicles during our few hour journey. I often stopped in the middle of the road to take photos and breath the clean, crisp, fresh air. There was hardly a cloud in the sky. I often dream of doing this drive sometime in the future, maybe in the “after times.”

After driving the Titus Canyon Road we were near the Ubehebe Crater. This 800 year old volcanic crater is a half mile wide and over 700 feet deep. Note the layers of sediment exposed on the walls of the crater. It’s quite a sight. Visitors should know that it’s often very windy at the top of the crater with gusts up to 50 miles per hour. 

We took a nice leisurely hike through the Mosaic Canyon Trail. The walls of the canyon are polished marble with unique and interesting patterns. It was a pleasant day and not crowded.

Before being designated first as a national monument then a national park, there were several mines within the borders of the modern day park. They mined for gold, silver, zinc, tungsten, antimony, talc, and borax. Borax was the most abundant and the most profitable. I remember Mom using 20 Mule Team Borax in the old wringer washing machine, it originated in Death Valley. Here’s a photo of the remnants of the Keane Wonder Mine.

Another of my park favorites is the Artist’s Palette. It’s located at the end of the nine-mile one-way Artist’s Drive.The color’s are produced by the oxidation of the metals close to the surface of the earth. The photo below gives you an idea of how it looks. At the right moment a cloud popped over the horizon to add to the beautiful scene. 

The lookout at Zabriskie Point was crowded with cars and tour buses in the late afternoon when we visited. Many of those cars and buses were headed back to Las Vegas, about a two-hour drive, bearing day-trippers taking a break from the slot machines. We jockeyed for the 270 degree view of the eroded landscape. Since it was late in the afternoon, the shadows were beginning to fill, creating a dramatic scene. The poofy clouds were a nice addition.

Another of my many favorite places to visit in this park are the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes. The dunes rise out of the desert but are built from the grains of rock from the nearby mountains. The top photo was taken at distance in the late afternoon using a telephoto lens. The second photo is from the dunes parking lot and the third photo was taken as we walked among the dunes. The last photo is of a dead dried out mesquite tree. I like the lines, textures, and patterns this specimen presents.

As I wrote this post and poured over the photos, I got the bug to travel back there to see some more of the park. Places like; the Racetrack Playa where the rocks move mysteriously across the surface of the sand; Sarasota Springs in the southern part of the park; Scotty’s Castle that’s been closed for repairs due to a flash flood since 2015; and definitely another drive through Titus Canyon. But for now a bug keeps us from traveling too far from home.

Hope you enjoyed the reprise.

Until next week, happy virtual travels!

Tom

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