When you’re winging it, all camps are relative. It’s a balancing act between weather, availability, hiking access and routing.
Death Valley National Park in the late winter provides an awesome display of nature’s power, particularly if you are lucky enough to be there during one of its rare storms, as we were earlier this month.
We found a boondocking spot off Greenwater Valley Road, a dirt road near Zabriskie Point in the southeast corner of the park and slept in The Epic Van under the thunder, lightning and rain from an unpredicted front.
Rangers remarked that it had been months since they heard thunder over the Valley’s floor, and even though the park had lots of rain this year, it came too late for a superbloom of wildflowers like they experienced last year.
Roads to several of the park’s favorite spots were washed out by an earlier storm that dropped nearly an inch of rain, half the usual annual rainfall. And Scotty’s Castle, an attraction for decades, remains under renovation from a 2015 storm that dropped more than a year’s rainfall in 5½ hours and damaged 500 miles of roads in the park. The castle won’t reopen until 2019.
Despite all this rain, Death Valley is the driest, hottest, and lowest in the country. It’s the largest national park south of Alaska. And there is still plenty to see.
We hiked Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch, a 4.3-mile loop through mineral-colored canyon walls where you can easily see the tilting of the earth’s crust, evidence of the fault line that creates the mountains and drops the Valley floor below sea level. The trail then climbs to towering views across multiple mountain ranges and follows a downhill return through the moonscape-like gulch carved by runoff.
We also walked the closed road to the Salt Water Interpretive Trail, where we traversed boardwalks over marshes teaming with a subspecies of tiny pupfish, exclusive to Death Valley. We were lucky enough to watch them mate, the colorful male and the more subdued brownish female side to side, in a little squiggle.
We visited the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and compared them to dunes we have seen: Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan.
We took the ranger-led tour of the remains of the Harmony Borax Works, learning about the mining operations that made millions for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which produced 20 Mule Team Borax. The company’s Death Valley Days on radio and television began in the ’30s and ended in the ’60s. When the mining profits waned, the owners turned to tourism and pushed for the creation of a national monument, which later became a national park.
And we walked out onto Badwater Basin, 278 feet below sea level, where salt crystals form across miles of the Valley floor.
Awesome hardly covers it.