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Zabriskie Point overlook Death Valley

Death Valley. Its name conjures up visions of sun-bleached cow skulls, rattlesnakes and desolate ribbons of asphalt shimmering in the desert heat.

But while these images are not far removed from reality, especially in the Great Basin, which holds the unflattering title of the hottest place on earth, I learned that there is much more to see and do in Death Valley than meets the eye – and much more life here – and water – than you would expect.

I also learned that names in Death Valley can sometimes be very telling, at other times deceptive, but there’s always a story behind each one.

Death Valley: The Name is Dramatic if Not Accurate

The name Death Valley is a bit of a misnomer, especially since it implies that large numbers of people met their doom here. Certainly one look at its sun-baked landscape of sandy basins and barren mountains would seem to support that theory.

But the truth is that the valley got its name from a group of gold rush pioneers who ended up wintering here in 1849-50, having gotten lost while looking for a short cut to the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Lost 49ers Death Valley historical illustration
The ‘Lost 49ers’ were responsible for naming Death Valley

Assuming this unforgiving place would be the death of them – quite literally – these ‘Lost 49ers’ as they came to be known to history were eventually rescued and led out of the valley by two of their own men who had scouted an escape route through the Panamint range surrounding the valley. As they were leaving, one of the men looked back to declare, “Goodbye, ‘Death Valley’“, and the name has stuck ever since.

More Life Here Than ‘Death Valley’ Would Imply

Scorpion Lollipop Ranch at Death Valley
If you know where to look, there’s plenty to eat in the desert. (Uh, not!)

Despite its now infamous name, Death Valley has supported life here for centuries, in terms of flora, fauna AND humans. The Timbisha Shoshone band of Native Americans have survived here for generations by learning where to find food and how to avoid the worst of the heat and cold. And although it is one of the driest places in North America, Death Valley does see water in the form of snowmelt and rain, and when this comes, it comes in torrents.

I was actually surprised at how much green there was when we first drove into this desert, and how many dry washes there were everywhere, indicating that vast quantities of water do flow through here at times. In fact, this spring was the end of a 4-year mini-drought, with plenty of snowmelt that resulted in a ‘super bloom’ of desert wildflowers, a few of which still remained.

Death Valley Greenery
Expecting none at all, I was surprised at how much greenery there was in Death Valley

TIP: Flash flooding in Death Valley comes with little warning and can literally sweep people away, especially if you are in narrow canyons, so be sure to check with the National Park Visitor Centre for conditions before setting out on any hikes.

Badwater Basin: The Right Name for a Very Hot, Very Cool Place

Ground Water below the surface at Badwater Basin
Water is just below the surface at Badwater Basin, but don’t drink it.

In a desert, you would think that any mention of water would be a good thing, but in the case of Badwater, the name is an accurate indication of what to expect. Badwater Basin is the site of a small spring-fed pond of water, but unfortunately because of the high concentration of accumulated salt on the surface here, that water is exactly what the name suggests: undrinkable.

That same salt does make for a dramatic landscape, however, and is actually what draws people here today to see an interesting phenomenon: polygon-shaped patterns in a huge salt basin.

Badwater Basin salt polygons Death Valley
Salt polygon-shaped formations at Badwater Basin

These patterns are formed when rain or ground water repeatedly freezes, thaws and evaporates, pushing up the dissolved salt in the ground which forms a thin crust that dries in polygon-shaped patterns. The farther out you walk from the road, the whiter and flatter these honeycomb shapes become, until eventually the whiteness stretches across the horizon in a vast salt pan, one of the largest on the planet.

Badwater Salt Pan Death Valley
The Badwater Basin salt pan stretched across the entire horizon in Death Valley

The Lowest Point in North America

That white expanse drew me in, and I was determined to walk out to where the salt polygons would surround me, but I soon learned not to underestimate distances in a desert, as it took me a good 15 minutes just to get to the edge of the widest part of the salt pan. Still, I got to see enough of this strange landscape to get a feel for its other-worldly character before turning back to rejoin my group at the road.

Badwater Salt Pan Death Valley
I made it to the giant polygons at Badwater (with good water in hand!)

The journey was well worth hiking in the early June heat because now I can say I walked in Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which doesn’t just have a badass name and some pretty alien desert landscapes, but is also the lowest place in North America at 282 feet below sea level. How cool is that for one of the hottest places in the world!

TIP: The place where the boardwalk leads you out to the Badwater salt pan is actually only 132 feet below sea level, with the lowest point a few miles west. But rather than walk there myself, I’ll take their word for it!

Old Harmony Borax Works

Salt may bring tourists like myself to Badwater Basin, but it was another mineral that originally drew entrepreneurs to Death Valley: borax. Discovered here in 1881 near a place originally named Greenland (another misleading choice that was changed shortly after to Furnace Creek), borax is another product found naturally in Death Valley because of the evaporation of ancient saline lakes. It became a popular commodity that was used in household cleaning products and for a while it looked like mining Borax would be a lucrative industry for Death Valley.

Vintage 20 Mule Train Borax
Vintage 20 Mule Train brand Borax

But it soon became obvious that the processing of borax needed to be done elsewhere, away from the extreme heat of Death Valley. Miners hauled the excavated product out of the valley using 20-mule teams pulling wagons loaded with up to 36 tons of the material. It is because of this that many of the Borax products were branded ’20 Mule Team Borax.’

Old Harmony Borax Wagon Death Valley
These 20 Mule Team Wagons at Old Harmony hauled up to 36 tons of borax plus water for the animals

Another Misnomer: The ’20 Mule Teams’ were actually comprised of 18 mules that were led by 2 horses (since they were considered more intelligent than the mules.) I guess the 20 Mule brand was a catchier brand name than ’18-Mules-and-2-Horses-Team Borax’…

Mining borax in Death Valley proved to be too expensive and ultimately, the industry failed. Today, the remnants of one of these mines, known as Old Harmony Borax Works, serves as an outdoor museum in Death Valley where visitors can come to see what these wagons looked like and learn more about the mining process.

Old Harmony Borax Wagon Wheel

Death Valley Named the Hottest Place on Earth

Unlike 20 Mule Team Borax, ‘Furnace Creek’ in Death Valley couldn’t be more aptly named, since it was here where the hottest temperature on earth was recorded on July 10, 1913 – a record that still stands today. (134 degrees Fahrenheit or 56.7 Celsius). In fact, for 5 consecutive days that July, Death Valley recorded the hottest temperatures on the planet.

Baker Thermometer 99 degrees
A 134-foot working thermometer in Baker, California, near Death Valley, commemorates the highest recorded temp (134 degrees F) on the planet

More recently, Death Valley has also broken the record for the hottest monthly temperatures anywhere in the world for 2 years in a row (2017 and 2018) with average temperatures of 107.4 degrees and 108.1 respectively. Yikers. (Nevermind that ‘it’s a dry heat’ – those numbers are a little extreme even for me.)

Hollywood Loves Death Valley

The extreme climate and barrenness of Death Valley may have made it near impossible for people or industry to thrive here, but its dramatic, forbidding landscapes have made it the perfect backdrop for Hollywood movies for decades. In fact, there have been dozens of films shot here.

Yellow Sky and Star Wars Death Valley Movies
Hollywood classics old and new were shot in Death Valley

From early westerns like Yellow Sky and The Gunfighter starring ‘Old Hollywood’ legends like Gregory Peck, to historical epics like Spartacus and The Greatest Story Ever Told, to modern ‘New Hollywood’ classics like Star Wars: a New Hope, Death Valley has played a key role in helping bring to life the imagination of film makers.

U2 Fans Can Follow in the Band’s Footsteps at Zabriskie Point

Music legends have found creative inspiration in Death Valley, too, the most famous of which is undoubtedly U2, thanks to their Joshua Tree album cover.

U2 Joshua Tree Album cover
U2’s Joshua Tree Album cover was shot with Zabriskie Point in the background (note the pointy bit to the extreme right which is Manly’s Beacon) *Photo Anton Corbijn

That pensive, youthful portrait of Bono et al was actually shot by photographer Anton Corbijn at Zabriskie Point, a popular overlook in the National Park where visitors can admire one of Death Valley’s most dramatic and beautiful formations of sculpted rocks and hills.

Zabriskie Point view with hikers
Manly’s Beacon (the pointy bit) at Zabriskie Point. Can you spot the hikers?
Zabriskie Point close up of hikers
Can you spot the hikers now?

FUN FACT: There are other A-list musical connections to Zabriskie Point, thanks to a 1960’s counterculture film, Zabriskie Point which featured music by Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and The Rolling Stones.
The Door’s song L.A. Woman was originally recorded for the film but was later rejected by the director, and the song was released instead on the Doors’ own album of the same name.

The Doors LA Woman Album cover
One of my favourite albums ever, The Doors L.A. Woman

The Life and Death of U2’s actual Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree Album Back Cover
Joshua Tree Album Back Cover *Photo Anton Corbijn
U2 Joshua Tree Inside Spread
The iconic Joshua Tree from U2’s album of the same name is actually NOT in Joshua Tree National Park *Photo Anton Corbijn

What about that lone Joshua Tree after which U2’s album was named? Ironically, U2’s Joshua Tree is NOT found in Joshua Tree National Park, but here in Death Valley instead. Or rather, it was here until 20 years ago. Sadly, the tree was blown down in a windstorm in 2000 and it’s now only a matter of time before it becomes part of the desert sands itself.

Fallen U2 Joshua Tree shrine Death Valley
U2’s Fallen Joshua Tree has become a shrine in Death Valley *Photo courtesy Steve A. Hall

The demise of the actual Joshua tree hasn’t deterred fans who continue to make pilgrimages here and leave tributes of music lyrics and other artefacts at the site, the best of which might be a concrete and bronze plaque made by superfan Ernie Navarre that reads: Have You Found What You’re Looking For?

Joshua Tree plaque in Death Valleyby Ernie Navarre
The concrete and bronze plaque by Ernie Navarre *Photo courtesy of Steve A. Hall

TIP: GPS coordinates for the location of U2’s Fallen Joshua Tree on Highway 190 are 36.330824, -117.745298  OR 36°19’51.00″N, 117°44’42.88″W (I found them on 2 different sites so I can’t say for sure which is 100% accurate, but either should get you close!)

Death Valley: A Land of Dreams and Extremes

Old Stagecoach Ranch at Death Valley
Old Stagecoach at the Ranch at Death Valley

As many of the rangers in the National Park love to say, Death Valley is a “Land of dreams and extremes”. The hottest, the lowest, and one of the driest spots you might ever visit, this is a place where water can keep you alive or kill you with spontaneous flash floods, and where fluctuating temperatures can fry you during the summer or freeze you to the bone in winter.

But Death Valley is also the place where indigenous people, pioneers, entrepreneurs, movie makers and musicians have brought their dreams and imagination to life, ironically in a place whose very name would suggest it was impossible.

Death Valley Practical Info:

Getting there: Death Valley is about a 5 hour drive from Los Angeles and there aren’t many places to stop along the way. So leave with a full tank if you are driving and bring snacks. If you do need to top up your tank or your stomach, Baker is a rest stop about 2.5 hours from L.A. where there are a handful of places to get food and [very expensive!] gas.

Baker CA Frying Pan with Eggs
“Hot enough to fry an egg” in Baker’s frying pan? Check and see.

The most notable place here is a gift shop boasting the world’s tallest thermometer where there’s also a cast iron frying pan out front with ‘eggs’ cooking that is kind of fun (apparently, the pan needs to reach 158 degrees Fahrenheit to actually fry an egg, and you can check its temperature inside the gift shop!)

Where to Stay in Death Valley: Luxury awaits at the Oasis in Death Valley, a privately-run piece of paradise in the middle of Death Valley National Park. Palm trees, lush grounds and a large pool (with a very ‘grownup’ 8-foot deep end) are just a few of the unexpected amenities you’ll find here in the desert, all thanks to a huge underground nearby aquifer that supplies the property.

Oasis at Death Valley
The Oasis at Death Valley is a bit of lush luxe in the desert
Oasis at Death Valley grounds
Palm-lined grounds at the Oasis in Death Valley

The property has undergone a 100 million dollar renovation and offers fine dining, elegant rooms and all the amenities of a deluxe property. After a day of desert adventures, this truly is an oasis of comfort where you would least expect it.

Oasis Death Valley guest room

But perhaps the best feature of all at the Oasis in Death Valley are the spectacular views of the surrounding desert offered here, both day and night.

Sunrise view Oasis Death Valley
Sunrise views like this one are gorgeous from the Oasis but the real star is the night sky

Take a glass of wine up to the 4th floor terrace and watch as the stars come out in the billions. Or check with the hotel as they often host astronomy evenings at their nearby sister property, The Ranch at Death Valley. Death Valley is the largest Dark Sky designated National Park in the U.S., and I can honestly say that I saw so many stars here, I had trouble finding the Big Dipper amongst them!

Death Valley Tips

Check in at the National Park Visitor Centre at Furnace Creek before heading out to do any hiking or exploring in the Park. It’s open year round, 24 hours a day, and offers plenty of information on desert flora and fauna, as well as popular sights in the Park.

Drink Water! In the desert, this is no idle recommendation, and as the official HOTTEST PLACE ON EARTH, you need to constantly stay hydrated and put even more into you than you’re getting rid of. In fact, if you use the washrooms in the Visitor Centre, you’ll notice a pee chart that shows you what colour your urine should be. (Think Pinot Grigio, not amber ale!)

Pee Chart Furnace Creek Visitor Centre

Hiking in Death Valley: The rangers recommend that you don’t hike after 10am in the warmer months, especially in summer when temperatures are over 100 degrees F. Some of the park trails are actually closed during these times. If you are hiking in the Park, it’s a good idea to let people know where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Artist Palette Death Valley *photo esudroff Pixabay
The Artist’s Palette is named for the different colours in the rock formations.

Driving: Most of the major sights like Zabriskies Point, Badwater Basin, Old Harmony, the Artists Palette, Dante’s View and more are easily accessible in any type of vehicle. But some locations do not allow long vehicles (think buses, large RVs, etc because of the road conditions. Again, check with the Visitor Centre and if you are driving off the main routes, let them know where you are headed.

Pinterest_What to see in Death Valley

Special thanks to Visit California who hosted my trip to Death Valley.

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