Death Valley National Park

Location: California & Nevada | Area: About 3.4 million acres | Established: October 31, 1994 | Elevation: 282 ft (below sea level) – 11,049 ft
Dates Visited: 11.22.12 – 11.26.12 | Total Inter-City Miles Traveled: 7,470 miles | Total Hours Traveled: 154 hours (6.5 days)

Inter-City Transportation: Green Tortoise Adventure Travel Tour Bus | Origin: San Francisco, CA

Death Valley, the land of extremes, is one of the lowest, driest and hottest locations in North America, receiving an average rainfall of only 1.96 inches a year. With in the park, Badwater Basin marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282-feet below sea level. A beautiful place of harsh and varied landscapes, Death Valley is also where I chose to spend my Thanksgiving break.

The Valley lies east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and sprawls across 3.4 million acres from California into Nevada, making it the largest national park south of Alaska. Although the name and the extreme conditions here may give the national park the impression that it’s a barren wasteland, it’s anything but. Numerous species of flora and fauna that have adjusted to the desert environment–which sees average temperatures of over 120 degrees fahrenheit in the summer–populate Death Valley, such as coyotes, lizards, roadrunners, and bighorn sheep. Death Valley is also the host of geological wonders as well as some of the best examples of the earth’s geological eras.

Death Valley got its moniker from the first group of non-Native Americans that traversed the unforgiving landscape in 1849. Although only one member of their party died, the group had believed that the valley would be their grave. When they finally climbed out of the valley over the Panamint Mountains, one of the men turned, looked back, and said “goodbye, Death Valley.”

Unlike Yosemite National Park, which although is difficult to explore carless but not impossible, Death Valley National Park is only accessible by a vehicle. Fortunately, Green Tortoise Adventure Travel operates a three-day tour of the park leaving right out of San Francisco. After taking part in the Thanksgiving dinner at their hostel counterpart, I took off in their bus that night.

Along with the two bus drivers, there were 24 people (capacity is at 36 and the bus converts to a sleeper at night) who attended the tour. It was a pretty interesting mix of people of all ages and backgrounds. As a fairly international crowd, the tour also included travelers from as far as Australia to Belgium. All meals but one were cooked communally and setup, breakdown and clean up of the campsite and cooking area were also done as a team.

My trip to Death Valley National Park was preceded by my trip to Yosemite National Park by only a few weeks; separated by a distance of less than 250 miles, it’s amazing how the landscapes of these two National Parks contrast so sharply. Though Yosemite’s lush and green alpine forests could make Death Valley look like a lifeless dustbowl at first glance, after spending time hiking both landscapes, it becomes apparent that each are made up of a series of distinct and evolving landscapes, ever-changing by the forces of man, erosion, water, time, and shifting tectonic plates.

We did a number of short hikes (and a bit of scrambling) during the Green Tortoise Adventure Tour and I’ll devote a post to the landscapes we traversed on each hike.

Other than the beautiful hikes and sights, other highlights from the trip include:

First time camping. Instead of a tent, a tarp was laid out on the dusty desert ground, a few bus cushions were thrown down, and a group of other people and I crawled into our sleeping bags to sleep under the desert sky. Since we were near the lowest areas below sea level in the Western Hemisphere, the stars weren’t really as bright as they were at Yosemite, but we still managed to see a couple of shooting stars.

But Death Valley is a place of extremes. Though hot and sunny during the day, the temperature took a plunge as the night went on. And around 4AM, half of the campground was deserted as most headed back for the bus. I felt the cold too and woke up several times through the night, but resolved to suffer through the dropping temperatures and keep sleeping.

When I woke up, it was bright blue skies and sunny; I was still shivering. But I remember, after the initial discomfort wore off, just how beautiful it was, waking up to the huge blue sky and that endless stretch of mountain range, painted dusty reds, purple and browns, that followed the curvature of the earth.

Watching the desert stars and sunrise. The next night, I decided to wise up and not sleep outside. I had heard, however, that when people left the campsite to sleep inside the bus at 4AM, they were able to see the stars at their brightest when the moon had set. I set my alarm for 4:45AM and after waking, dragged my sleeping bag outside and sat on the picnic table to observe the stars. They were bright, beautiful and in abundance. I could even identify a few constellations. It was also incredibly cold.

Long story short, since I also wanted to see the sunrise I sat outside for a while longer. Unfortunately since we were camping in a valley, I’d have to wait until the sun climbed over the mountaintops to the east. I sat there on the metal picnic table for over two hours.

Bathing in natural hot springs at dusk. Our last stop before heading out towards Bakersfield, CA, we stopped at a natural hot spring next to the side of the road. But unlike the natural hot springs that I was used to when I went to Taiwan, these hot springs were fairly undeveloped; the “walls” of the ditch were slick with mud and the whole experience of moving through the water was a comedic struggle. People would have to be careful to not get stuck in a squishy, muddy mess and sink too deep into the mud.

As the sun set and the temperatures dropped, it felt wonderful to wade in the hot spring. The moon was nearly full that night and it hung low and luminous in the sky, surrounded by a scattering of bright, flickering stars. It was amazing.

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