When we arrived at Death Valley's Furnace Creek Ranch, we had been driving on dark, empty roads for hours. It was great to see buildings with lights on. We were starving, but the place we wanted to eat was closing soon and there was a dress code. We checked into our room, threw on our nicer clothes, and rushed to dinner at the nearby Furnace Creek Inn just in time for the last seating of the night.
The Inn is actually a fancy resort, and the restaurant was surprisingly good given its remote location. We thoroughly enjoyed dinner, including a fried cactus appetizer served with tomatillo salsa and prickly pear jam. It wasn't all prarie cuisine, though — the house specialty is a tasty duck a l'orange.
We went to bed looking forward to seeing Death Valley in the daylight.
We woke up early (for us) and took a look around the ranch. Apart from one cheesy souvenir area, the scenery was beautiful. The mountains are majestic, the valley is barren, and the Furnace Creek area maintains an oasis of greenery.
After a big breakfast, we drove a couple miles down the road to the Golden Canyon trail, which really shows off Death Valley's varied geology:
In other words, the scenery keeps changing as you hike along. The canyon itself has yellow and green walls, and the remains of a road that crumbled away in the 1970's. It leads to a series of bright red cliffs called the Red Cathedral.
We continued out of the canyon toward our goal of Zabriskie Point, 2.5 miles from the trailhead over several fairly steep hills. We found the trail to be somewhat poorly marked, and accidentally wandered off more than once when the path disappeared. When we did stumble upon a trail marker, it wasn't always clear which direction it was pointing.
Around this time we found a small shrine someone had left for his wife, who'd died of heatstroke in May 2006.
We finally made it to the top just before noon, sweating and panting after climbing up the final ridge. I thought the people who'd driven up there would be impressed with our feat of moderate endurance, but they took no particular notice of us.
We returned to the Golden Canyon parking lot by way of Gower Gulch, which is longer but flatter than the trail from the canyon's end. We were very happy to see the car, having walked over 6.5 miles, and rewarded ourselves with a big lunch back at Furnace Creek.
There were way too many breathtaking pictures to post them all here, but you can see the whole set on Flickr.
In case you haven't noticed yet, Death Valley is hot and dry. In fact, it's both the hottest place and the driest place in all of North America. This is all due to the surrounding mountains. Here's how it works.
Wet air is generally heavier than dry air, so it sits like a blanket close to the ground. This is why airplanes can take off in a rainstorm, break through the clouds, and fly above the weather.
When a mass of wet air is blown toward a mountain range, the wettest air (closest to the ground) smacks into the side of the mountain and has nowhere to go but up.
However, air gets colder at higher altitudes, which makes the wet air turn into rain. All the moisture gets dumped out on the mountain, and the air that reaches the other side is significantly drier. This is known as the rainshadow effect.
Death Valley is separated from the Pacific Ocean by five mountain ranges. Places like the Sierra Nevada are so lush and snowy because they steal Death Valley's rain.
The mountains surrounding Death Valley form a basin which prevents the air from circulating to and from other regions. As the sun causes the local temperature to rise, the hot air can't escape. It just sits there and bakes. Temperatures reach the 120's in the summer — which is why we came in the winter.
In addition to being hot and dry, Death Valley is also the lowest point of land in North America. Usually such places get filled in as millions of years' worth of rainwater carry in sediment, but when it hardly ever rains, the process is inhibited.
It does rain a little, though — around two inches a year — and that moisture ends up a puddle in the lowest part of Death Valley. It's undrinkably salty, and thus that part of the park is known as Badwater.
It's a big tourist spot — not so much for the puddle as for the sign marking 282 feet below sea level.
There are two motels and a hotel in Death Valley, but none of them have Internet access. In fact, the Visitor's Center is the only place in the whole park that does. We stopped by with our laptops when we were done sightseeing.
They did indeed have a hotspot, though it seemed to be hooked to a dialup account. Also it was 4:45 when we showed up, and they close at 5.
However, one of the rangers told us they keep it on all night and that he knows from experience that it reaches the parking lot. So after they closed, we sat outside in the cold and waited for our mail to go through.
While our data was transferring, Mike took a few long-exposure photos:
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