National Park · Road Trip · USA

Barren Beauty: Death Valley

Anytime I ever hear the word ‘beautiful’, it almost always has evoked images of lush greenery and flowing water in my mind but Death Valley, contrary to its name, was full of life and was about to change the perception of beauty for me.

Entering Death Valley

Death Valley was the first stop on our ultimate year-end road trip with friends and is it was far from home base, we were sleeping over at Bakersfield (Motel 6, Mojave) Friday night, in anticipation of all the things we would get to see starting the next day.  Early next morning, high on excitement we begin driving but knowing well we had a busy day ahead, we planned on a scrumptious breakfast stop at the Amargosa Café. Talk about lesser known jewels and this was definitely one. With a hearty meal and sufficient caffeine kicking into our systems, we move straight to the national park’s entrance, or rather one of them. We take our customary pictures with the signboard and decide on the order of our stops for the day. The first place we visit inside – the Devil’s Golf Course. One look at the terrain and one can only imagine why people thought there’d only be devils golfing around here or more like Cadbury’s cute aliens dancing around, as per my imagination. The place seemed like a huge area filled with chocolate milk (mud really) churned, frothed and whipped peaks formed and then frosted over resulting in icy crystals (it was of course all salt and one of us was even stupid/daring enough to taste it; ain’t me).

We hopped around for a bit and then started to the next salt flats on our list, the Badwater Basin. This time the terrain is truly fully flat and much below sea level so such a great feeling to walk on and marvel at the perfect natural polygonal (mostly hexagonal as far as I recall) outlines in the salt flats between the mountains.

After the salt pan and flats, we were on our way to Artist’s palette. When entering, my first impression was that it didn’t look too different from the canyon cut mountains that you keep coming across when driving in the area but I was wrong. The shades suddenly begin to change and we are finally looking at what seem to be pale sandy mountains that were painted over or more like paint poured over (they are actually natural color from the mineral deposits these rocks hold within).

Artist’s Palette

Some walking around, snacking and other breaks later, we were headed to our final stop for the day, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We quickly got out and started walking up one of our chosen sand hills while there was still was light so we could sit back and relax on top of that giant pile of sand when watching the sun set in the sky. Lovely hues of red and purple soon filled up the sky and we stayed on to appreciate the dark moon and starlit skies a bit and finally got moving so we could get closer to our stay for the night and grab some dinner.

Driving through badlands and no town in sight at first, approaching this cute little lit up town, Beatty in Nevada in close distance was such a relief. I say cute and little cause trust me one can see the start and end of the town when driving into it itself. We had this cozy house at a place called Atomic Inn and while we would really have loved to warm up inside, there was still dinner to be had. We check in and head out for dinner. Luckily, there’s only 3-4 restaurants really (and one of them inside a casino complex) so it was an easy choice. We drove to the closest place (we could really have walked down there in a couple of mins but remember how chilly a Dec night can get or I just remember how hungry we were by then) that would serve us food the quickest hopefully, the KC’s Outpost Diner.  There’s something about family run diners that makes you feel right at home. And well, apart from the pizzas, if you get lucky to have the best homemade lemon cake ever for dessert like we did, you’re set for a blissful sleep.

This was just day 1. Death Valley has so much to explore that a single day would just not cut it. Luckily we had our day 2 also planned for here (not that 2 days feel enough either). The sun comes up and we set out for our adventures for the day, well some hours later after a nice warm bath and oats and coffee and biscotti. We wanted to do a hike so we drove straight to the Golden Canyon. The orangish brown cliffs on the sides were so welcoming that we started going up one of those first although our actual plan was to do the Gower Gulch loop (~4mi and it naturally takes you all around). Climbing up that narrow and steep canyon was a little scary for me for there were a lot of loose stones that you’d slip on before regaining your balance against edges of some slot. It was definitely a fun experience though. Half a mile or so later, seeing my struggles and with us getting delayed for the actual hike, we decided to get back to the ground (which of course involved a lot more fun sliding) and start onto the trail. Fast forwarding, couple of miles and hours and hundreds of photos later, we were seeing so many different shades of the canyons (black, dark brown, sandy, red, golden) along the way. Every turn on the trail was revealing a new or different eroded hilly landscape to pause and admire. Soon, we finished our hike and treated ourselves to some snacks and drove to our first view point in Death Valley, the Zabriskie Point.

View from top

With a road going up to the point, it was a short and easy walk to the top to sit and soak in the lovely view of the canyons we had just hiked through.

View from Zabriskie Point

Our growing love for canyons there took us to the 20 Mule Team Canyon next. We decided to do this quick drive here as it takes you through the canyons so you can enjoy an up and close look at them. The curvy roads and dirt track make you feel like you’re in some gaming or racing arena. There’s even a steep drop beginning at one turn out point where you just can’t see the road ahead (of course the road continues ahead) so it’s a good thrill ride for the person driving. And boy, it was fun! So much so, that we all (except one fool) took turns driving there and we did the same whole drive thrice. It might seem silly but we had plenty of time at hand until the evening so doing a fun 15 min ride thrice made complete sense to us.

Anyways, with this, we were now headed to our close, for the day and for our Death Valley visit, the Dante’s view point. From as low as Badwater Basin, this was as high as one could get in Death Valley so it was a perfect point for us to appreciate a bird’s eye view of all the places we had been to over there so far and climb up some cliffs to catch the sun set over all of the valley.

Sunset at Dante’s View
Death Valley from Dante’s View

Most amazing thing about Death Valley is just how vast all of these different areas were, stretching far and wide to as far as one can see. At Badwater Basin, you’d think the mountains at the other end are not so far off and you could almost run and reach the other end. But viewing the basin from Dante’s, we were really glad we didn’t attempt doing that (the thought had crossed our minds) for we would have practically never made it.

What a lovely way to sum up our time there and bid goodbye. Running low on fuel by the end, we made our way to Furnace Creek for a fuel stop and drove out of the realms of the valley, onto our next adventure.

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