Death Valley Journey: In Autumn, the Fabled Desert Park Is at Its Most Hauntingly Beautiful. Hike, Explore, and Experience a World Unlike Any Other

By Taggart, Lisa | Sunset, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Death Valley Journey: In Autumn, the Fabled Desert Park Is at Its Most Hauntingly Beautiful. Hike, Explore, and Experience a World Unlike Any Other


Taggart, Lisa, Sunset


AT ZABRISKIE POINT in Death Valley National Park, my husband, Jim, and I are watching the world change colors. At this canyon overlook in the southeastern California desert, the striated rocks stretch in sculptural towers and eroded gullies off to the eastern horizon. With every passing moment, they shift shades, emerging from predawn violet and slate to glowing pinks and golds as the sun peeks over the ridge to the east.

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We hold our breath and try to absorb each moment in the cool early-morning air. It is a fleeting, phenomenally beautiful show. Jim and I have learned that here in the desert, timing is everything. And we have come at just the right time. We're on what a friend of mine calls a "babymoon"--a last excursion before we have our first child. And this spot, the harshest, driest place in North America, far from cell phone range and everything else, offers nature raw and unveiled. I can't think of a better place for appreciating life anew.

Vast and surreal, dry and hot and wild, Death Valley stretches far enough to let your mind run to thoughts of deep time. Sandstone canyons etched over eons and slowly expanding Badwater Basin--created as two mountain ranges separate themselves from each other--make geology a visible and active presence here.

Death Valley is the West at its most extreme. An isolated 150-mile-long finger of wilderness, it's the hottest spot in North America; a record summertime temperature of 134[degrees] has been bested only once (in the Sahara Desert). Yet the place holds lots of evolutionarily innovative spirits: Desert pupfish, for instance, survive in water five times saltier than the ocean. A certain kind of mouse spends its life roaming Mesquite Flat's dunes without ever needing a drink of water.

A secret inland ocean

Death Valley is big. The park consists of more than 3.3 million acres of mountain and desert--so large that even though we have five full days here, we have to make some choices on what to see. Because it's our first visit, we opt for the classic, brand-name attractions: Badwater Basin, Scotty's Castle, Zabriskie Point, Artists Palette, Furnace Creek Inn.

Even getting to Death Valley involves some effort. In terms of time, the journey isn't long: a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, five from Los Angeles. But for desert novices like us, it tests our understanding of the world. As Jim and I wind along State 178, we keep thinking we've reached the park, only to zip over another pass. We climb over Argus Range; I look out expectantly at rocky Panamint Valley, but we're not quite there. We drive on, Jim whistling to his road-trip iPod mix; Guy Lombardo croons, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think."

We finally descend into Death Valley, arriving at Stovepipe Wells late in the morning. We stop here to get a drink and a sun hat for me (since I've foolishly forgotten mine), then read the warning signs about hiking without water or leaving your dog in the car during the day. The message: This is unforgiving country--and we can see that all around. The dirt is bleached and cracked; the air quiet with the stillness of midday.

But we're here at a great time. November temperatures are much milder than summer extremes, with warm but not hot days and cool nights. And fall is a quiet time to visit too: Today it seems to us that the park is practically empty. We have millions of acres to ourselves.

Beyond Stovepipe Wells, the dunes at Mesquite Flat undulate off to the horizon. It's as if, after all of this driving, we've arrived at a secret inland ocean. We have to explore. But the heavy, rippling sand sucks at our feet, and at five months pregnant, I'm not in my best hiking shape. …

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