If you read Wikipedia's entry for Death Valley you will find mainly a series of temperature statistics. It holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded (56.7°C). During that heat wave in 1913 there were five consecutive days where the temperature reached at least 54°C! It also holds records for the highest daily low (42°C) and the highest average daily temperature (47.5°C). The only time in recorded history that snow has been seen lying on the ground was in January 1922.
The Valley nestles between the high mountains of the Amargosa and Panamint Ranges, and its floor lies 86m below sea level. The basin is the lowest point in the United States but is less than 90 miles from one of the country's highest mountains, Mt Whitney. This unusual combination of extreme height and depth causes it to act like a convection oven - dense valley air is heated, rises and then cools and falls, setting up convection currents which bring hot air down to the valley floor.
This area seems completely inhospitable, and place names such as 'Chloride City', 'Furnace Creek' and the 'Funeral Mountains' certainly reinforce that impression. Yet despite this, and my hatred for hot
weather, I have always wanted to visit Death Valley. Possibly because it is one of the most extreme places on the planet. Possibly just because of the name.
As we drove through the Amargosa Valley, we were surprised to see a sign claiming it was home to 1200 residents. We couldn't see any signs of a town or more than a few scattered dwellings. An even bigger surprise awaited us a few minutes later as we drove through the tiny hamlet of Death Valley Junction which boasted its own opera house (the Amargosa Opera House)! We must go back for a show.
Not far beyond Death Valley Junction we passed a mountain which obviously had an interesting history - it was formed of brightly coloured strata, like many of the mountains, but rather than lying horizontally these were perpendicular to the ground. I could only wonder at the immense forces that could do this To such a volume of rock.
We turned off the main road and onto a smaller route which wound steeply up into the mountains. This road took us to an overlook called Dante's Point. From the car park at the top the views
were awe-inspiring. I gasped out "wow", momentarily lost for both breath and words. The mountain we were parked on was stunning, with its bright red crags dropping away steeply to the valley below. However, this paled to dullness compared the the wider landscape.
In the distance was a snow-capped chain of grey mountains. These towered over an immense flat valley - Bad Water Basin. Large parts of the basin were white due to a layer of salt. Occasionally, a small green pool of water still lingered, though surrounding concentric rings showed these were rapidly evaporating. Usually these pools had dried salt rivers leading into them, making them look like bizarre giant tadpoles on the valley floor. On the expansive salt-flats we could see occasional roads threading their way across the plains - looking just like a thin pencil line drawn on the landscape. Above us the sun was getting more intense and the sky taking on a deep blue hue.
We went for a walk down a reasonably formed path to get slightly different views. From the end of this steep route we could get a better sense of scale as we could see cars moving on the
curved road below, looking about the size of ants. We also got a better view of the next mountain in our small chain. This one was striated with purple, which stood out as a beacon of colour against the whiteness below. The walk back up to the car park was tough in the thin mountain air and hot bright sunshine. By the top we were desperate for water.
We drove back down the mountain and soon came to another overlook, Zabriskie Point. Half-way up the short path we came across a man incongruously dressed as a monk but also wearing bright orange trainers, posing for a photoshoot. I can only imagine what product he was selling. From Zabriskie there were views across a wide expanse of yellow gullied rocks set against a grey background. We lingered for only a few minutes before pressing on to the visitor's centre at Furnace Creek. Here we were hoping for a coffee to go with our cheese sandwiches but were disappointed and had to settle instead for just a post card. We sat in the car to eat, enjoying the air conditioning as we watched the thermometer jump by 1°F every thirty seconds.
Sadly it was at this point we found that the lovely seeded loaf we thought we had bought was actually covered in strong burnt garlic. Yuck!
We drove on from Furnace Creek, very conscious of the time and knowing we had a long drive beyond Death Valley. I would have loved to spend a lot more time exploring the area but we'd only planned it as a drive through on the way to Yosemite. I once read in a photography magazine about a set of "Beehive" kilns in the area which looked worth seeing. Sadly, by the time I'd realised we were in the right area we'd passed them and didn't have time to go back. Like so many other things, we said "next time".
Not far beyond Furnace Creek the desert was transformed in front of us. The orange-red sand was now carpeted with golden flowers. As far as eye could see these went on and on. The sight was incredible. All the more so as this is a fleeting phenomena which doesn't happen every year. This year the rains had fallen at just the right time in sufficient quantity and the sun hadn't yet had chance
to kill these hardly plants.
A little further and we came to the small settlement of Stovepipe Wells. Here, in the far distance we could see mountains of sand amidst the hard barren rock. We didn't have time to get closer but it was a beautiful view.
The edges of the National Park are around five thousand feet high. The climb felt relentless and was so steep that we were warned to turn off the air conditioning. The views on this stretch were much more bland, certainly not the flower strewn vistas we'd been enjoying earlier. I spent the time wondering how this part of America could have so many amazing sights and reflecting on how beautiful desert landscapes can be.
When we emerged from the park, the views improved and we came across another series of salt flats in front of distant coloured mountains. Beyond the mountains the landscape became much flatter and I turned my concentration to the six-hour drive ahead of us.
We paused to get petrol in a tiny town which claimed to have thirty nine residents... I can't even remember its name! After a couple of hours of battling down a
busy highway with the sun in my eyes, we came to the large city of Bakersfield, California. After four hours in the drivers seat, tired, hungry and dehydrated, rush-hour in a major city was not what I needed. We pulled off the highway just beyond Bakersfield at the smaller town of Delano, where we found a Denny's. This was to be our first experience of this diner chain and sadly it wasn't a great first impression: the food was okay but the service and prices weren't.
It was still two-hours drive from here and we were both exhausted, feeling the long days and heavy driving of our road-trip. Lindsey drove on along the dark road and we drove through some small towns emitting putrid smells (which we hoped weren't part of the food chain). After what felt like forever we turned off the highway onto even darker rural roads with dozens of almost invisible level crossings. We came to the town of Mariposa and it didn't take long to find our accommodation for the evening. After a long day we were grateful for a steaming cup of hot chocolate with a giant marshmallow each.
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