Visiting Death Valley in the Summer

Death Valley

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to stand in Death Valley during the heat of the summer. I don’t know why I had this obsession – I’m not exactly a daredevil or extremist. Nevertheless, it was on my bucket list.

I was lucky enough to take a backpacking trip out west just a few weeks ago in late July, which proved to be the perfect time to visit.  It would be HOT!

death valley
At the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center, the park rangers warn guests about the heat.

Since we would be on a tight schedule, we wouldn’t be able to do much more than drive through the park on the main highway. We made time to visit Badwater Basin, but nothing else. (That’s for another trip!)

After stopping at the national park sign and taking the obligatory photo (see more of those photos here, on my post about national park signs), we drove along Highway 190 and into the dry, desert park. Unlike most of our national parks, this park’s color palette contains shades of mostly brown, grey, and white, with orange and pink hues.   The landscape is reminiscent of a moonscape, a foreign land, dominated by stone and sand.

We first stopped at Zabriskie Point, an overlook view. It was only a short walk, less than a quarter of a mile from the parking lot to the vista, but it felt like miles. The heat was suffocating! After living in Chicago my whole life (and a year in Houston), I’m much more familiar with humid heat. I always laughed off dry heat, as there is minimal humidity. Humid or not, this place was hot, and with very little wind, the air was stifling. Zabriskie Point is famous for its erosional landscape, composed of sediments from a five million year old lake.

Very little grows in Death Valley. Everything was dry and rocky. The only animals we saw were a few birds and a straggly coyote on the side of the road.  Foliage only grows here as succulents, cacti, and spring wildflowers.

While driving to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America (282 feet below sea level), we shared the road with tour buses and various other crazy people, who the heat was beckoning to. After waiting for our turn to take the necessary “Badwater Basin” photo, we started walking out to the salt flat. It was such an interesting surface of hexagonal shapes.  I learned that the hexagonal pattern is created from freeze-thaw cycles and evaporation that occurs regularly. People walked along the center of the heavily worn flat, and respectfully avoided the untouched, salt crust on its sides.

Badwater Basin does have a small spring fed pool that is “bad water” because of its high salinity. Spring brings heavy rains to Badwater, but the water never lasts long because of the extremely high evaporation rate. Nevertheless, the water is undrinkable, but does have insect, snail, and plant life within it.

On the rocky mountains next to Badwater, a sign read “Sea Level,” showcasing just how far below sea level we stood. It’s hard to see the sign in my photo, but it’s there!

death valley

Accommodations and stores are hard to come by here, especially in the summer. There are only four places to lodge and dine at within the park, and one of them is closed during summer. Open all year is Stovepipe Wells Village, Furnace Creek Ranch, and Panamint Springs Resort. The luxurious Furnace Creek Inn is only open mid October through mid May.

While in Death Valley, we saw small caravans of identical cars driving on the road. First, we saw Dodge Rams. Later we saw Chevy sedans. We even saw manufacturer’s test cars that were sitting at our hotel. With obviously different buttons and computers in the car displays, these cars were definitely testing something – likely new engines or transmissions, in the hottest place in the US. After some research, I learned that Death Valley issues special use permits to car manufacturers, allowing them to heat test their vehicles. Most start in the town of Beatty, Nevada (3,300 feet) and drive the 55 miles to the bottom of Death Valley because as one auto representative once told,” We can’t duplicate that grade over that distance in that heat anywhere in the world.” (Interested in reading more about auto testing in Death Valley? Click here and here for more information.)

There are so many other amazing spots within Death Valley that I wanted to visit, so I’ll have to come back sometime in the fall or spring to see it all. Racetrack Playa, Scotty’s Castle, the Ubehebe Crater, Artists Palette, Natural Bridge, Dante’s View, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Devil’s Golf Course, and Harmony Borax Works are just a few of the places I need to come back and see. I would definitely recommend a fall or spring visit, as you can spend more time out of your car and not bake while taking in the sights.

I definitely think nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts should definitely get a glance of Death Valley once in their lives.  It’s like no other place I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing how someplace so hot and dry, with such little vegetation, can still be so beautiful, in its own way.

I can’t wait to go back!

Happy Travels!


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