Death Valley, Unexpected.

Back home in Colorado, there’s a town called Greeley. Whether deserved or not Greeley is known as sort of a dump. The constant smell of cattle feces from the neighboring feedlot doesn’t help. A while ago, Greeley came up with the somewhat odd marketing slogan “Greeley Unexpected”. It implies: “We know you think we’re a dump, but hey give us a chance, we’ve got award-winning tap water!”.

Much like Greeley, Death Valley has a dubious reputation. I remember watching TV as a kid and seeing the standard Death Valley tropes. Wile E Coyote crawls on the ground dying of thirst. Guy hallucinates about the imaginary oasis on the horizon. But hey, if Greeley deserves a second look, why not Death Valley?

After leaving Joshua Tree, we made our way to the hottest place on earth, the lowest place in North America, and somewhere I never expected to visit, Death Valley National Park. Following a brief overnight stop in Baker, CA (home of the worlds largest thermometer), and a slight detour to Pahrump, NV to buy groceries and gas, we dropped below sea level to our new home in Sunset Campground near Furnace Creek, CA. We parked amongst German and Japanese tourists in rental RVs in what was essentially a big parking lot, but hey it was only $14 per night. Not bad for a National Park Campground, and no reservations necessary.

Sunset over Sunset Campground at Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

The drive in was beautiful, with multicolored rock formations, desert flowers, and white-capped mountains in the distance. When we got to Furnace Creek I was astonished to see an oasis with palm trees, two luxury hotels, and a golf course. A small stream even ran near the campground. The temperature when we arrived was a comfortable 87 degrees, and temps barely breached 90 degrees the whole time we were there. So far Death Valley was not what I expected. We toured the visitors center, stamped our passports, smashed some pennies, then settled into the for the night.

Not too hot by Death Valley Standards.

On our first morning, we made the touristically obvious choice and visited Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. After barely finding a parking spot, we found a small spring of ‘bad water’ surrounded by miles and miles of white salt flats. A sign high on the cliffs above denoted sea level. A wooden boardwalk led us to a well-worn path into the salt pan basin. As we hiked onto the salt flat, the ‘sea level’ sign disappeared behind us. This will definitely be the low-point of our trip. The weather was beautiful, I barely broke a sweat.

On the Salt Pan of Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

Later that same day we drove the Artists Drive loop and viewed the amazing scenery of Artists Palette. We also visited Devils Golf Course, another large salt pan, formerly the bottom of dried up Lake Manly. Unlike the flat salt pan at Badwater Basin, Devils Golf Course consists of jagged salt and rock formations several feet high. An interpretive sign instructed us to listen for the crackling of the salt, but an RV was camped out with generator running. Bad form.

Artists Palette
Devils Golf Course

The day’s sightseeing was closed out with a visit to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. From our visit to White Sands, we knew how much the boys love sand dunes (and how much energy can be burned on them), so we had to go. The dunes couldn’t compare to White Sands but provided plenty of room for the boys to roam, roll, slide, and tumble.

Tommy on Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

During the rest of our stay, we hit a smattering of other attractions, although nowhere near everything the park had to offer. Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48. We could have explored for weeks, but with California gas prices (over $5 in the park) it would have gotten expensive.

We hiked (part of) the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, which offered yet more colorful rock formations. Golden Canyon is the most popular hike in the park and scenes from the original Star Wars movie were filmed there.

Hiking with a heavy 2-year-old on my back in Golden Canyon.

Ever since we were thwarted by Amboy Crater, we had a chip on our shoulders regarding volcanoes. We decided to visit Ubehebe Crater, located on the north side of the park, in search of redemption. The inside of a volcano was something we needed to see. We hiked around one side of Ubehebe Crater, and up to another crater named ‘Little Hebe’. We held on tight to the boys as mother thought they would fall in the giant hole at any second. The trail did look precarious in spots, but there were actually people sliding down 600 feet to explore the bottom of Big Ubehebe Crater. We did not go down to the bottom since the hike back out looked like work.

Ubehebe Crater, if you look close there are people at the bottom.
“Little Hebe”

Death Valley was pretty great, but the highlight for me was viewing Pupfish on the Salt Creek trail. Specifically the ‘Death Valley’ or ‘Salt Creek’ subspecies of Pupfish. These boisterous fish are the most colorful I’ve seen in North American waters. The Pupfish looks like it belongs in a tropical aquarium rather than a shallow, hot, salty stream in Death Valley. Originally named Pupfish due to their playful behavior (actually male aggressiveness), these fish can live in waters from 116 degrees to nearly freezing, and are considered an endangered species. When we visited in mid-April, mating behavior was clearly on display, very neat.

Death Valley Pupfish at Salt Creek

Our last day in Death Valley saw the temperatures climb. Forecast high was in the mid-90s. In the morning we decided to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of our Jeep, so we made the journey to Dante’s View. Sitting at 5,476 feet above sea level, almost directly above the ‘sea level’ sign at Badwater Basin, Dante’s View provides a superb view of Death Valley and the surrounding mountains. We could look straight down and see hikers at Badwater Basin below sea level, then look to the horizon and see the highest peaks of the Sierras. On the way home from Dante’s View, we made a quick stop to Zabriskie Point to take in some more multi-colored badland rock formations.

Death Valley from Dante’s View, Badwater Basin directly below.
Zabriskie Point

Our final afternoon at Death Valley was spent swimming at “The Ranch at Death Valley”, home to the previously mentioned golf course. We bought day passes to the spring-fed pool ($10 per adult, kids free). The pool is naturally heated to a balmy 87 degrees, perfect even when the air temperature soars. We splashed and played for most of the afternoon, then showered and shaved. Very refreshing, and once again unexpected.

So who would have thought? Death Valley is an awesome vacation spot (at least in springtime, probably winter too). It’s hot, it’s dry, but it’s not all desolation as pop culture led me to believe. From here we’ll travel to the Alabama Hills just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

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