Death Valley National Park: driest, hottest, harshest and lowest place in the United States!

Author's spouse, Susan, and author Tim stand at Badwater Basin sign on pleasant March day.

Badwater Basin is home to alkaline flats, alkaline waters and the lowest place in the United States at 282 feet below sea level!
This water trailer and wagons once hauled 36 tons of refined borax to the railroad, 160 miles from the Harmony Borax Works in the park.
Harmony Borax Works boiler and refinery produced borax from 1883 to 1888; just off the main park road, an interpretive trail in the park explains the operation’s history.
Sand dunes, weathered trees mark Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes within the park.
Our Scotty teardrop trailer outside the entrance into Death Valley NP.
Snowy Sierra peaks stand behind cabin in Olancha, just miles outside Death Valley’s western entrance.

In the hundreds of years prior to California’s 1849 Gold Rush, the Timbisha Shoshone people populated the Panamint Valley and Death Valley areas.  These are lands of extremes – the driest, the hottest, the harshest and the lowest lands in the USA.

During the California Gold Rush, several wagon trains of 49ers attempted to short-cut across the valley – after one miner died, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”, hence the name.

We approached the park from Hwy. 14/395, entering the west entrance.  Outside the park, we passed stunning Red Rock Canyon (with a beautiful state campground), passed through Olansha (and fueled up on a marvelous breakfast at the Ranch House Café).  At the Panamint Springs park entrance, gas was $4.65/gallon, pointing out our proximity to the “middle of nowhere” and need to plan ahead!

At Panamint Springs – with elevation of sea level – the land continues to drop down, eventually reaching its nadir at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the US.  Badwater retains remnants of an ancient lake, with consistent alkaline/salty water (don’t miss the sea level sign, set 282 feet up the rugged bluff just to east of the Badwater turnout); and take the short hike down to “taste” the salty lake bed!

In 1873 silver was discovered in the park and Panamint City swelled to 5000 residents. The silver played-out about four years later, leading to Death Valley’s “white gold” discovery, borax.  Stop at the Harmony Borax Works, including the old refinery which operated from 1883-88.  Their 20 mule team wagons would haul 36 tons of refined Borax (and 2000 gallons of water for the mules) 160 miles to the nearest railroad. Harmony Works lasted only five years due to competition from other borax operations in the basin area.

Gold was discovered east of the park in 1904, leading to the last great American gold rush. The gold drew thousands of people and saw several roads built to the mining district of Rhyolite – but a financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912.

Other park points of interest include Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert scene and Golden Canyon – a short hike off Hwy. 190 takes you into a truly golden canyon – your hike best taken in late afternoon when sunsets offer best colors.  Just miles south is Natural Bridge; a short drive off the main road and modest hike takes you to this natural wonder.

Within the park are Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek Resort, each offering lodging, dining and camping.  Furnace Creek offers the most upscale overnight options!  The park offers a variety of camping options, though, with little shade, summer camping is only for the very hardy!

How to get there: From Stockton, Death Valley is about 490 miles and 9 hours; take Hwy. 99 south to Bakersfield, then Hwy. 58 east, Hwy. 14/395 north, then Hwy. 190 into the park.

When to go: Spring or fall are best times to visit.  Avoid summertime when temperatures can hit 120+ in the shade!

What to see: In addition to the options already noted, if you have the time, explore other historic remnants of the park’s early history, such as the Ballarat ghost town on west edge of park, the Eureka Mine site and charcoal kilns within the park.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course.  If you plan to walk or hike,  sunscreen, a sunshade hat, water bottles and food.

Where to stay: Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek offer both lodging and camping within the park.  Additional campgrounds dot the park scene – small towns outside the park offer scant motel accommodations.

What’s nearby: Rhyolite Mining District to the east and several other smaller ghost towns on edges of the park.  Joshua Tree National Park is just 170 miles to the south – don’t miss this amazing desert environment!  And the Salton Sea area is just south of Joshua Tree, making another interesting destination.  From Death Valley, Los Vegas and the Grand Canyon are a few hundred miles to the east.

For more information: See Death Valley National Park website: http://www.nps.gov/deva for many insights on the park, lodging and camping.  The park’s phone: 760.786.3200.

For more travel inspiration, see my bi-weekly travel blog: http://blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel; contact me at tviall@msn.com.  Coming in the next week, tour Joshua Tree National Park with us!  Happy trails in the west!

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