I first visited Death Valley National Park in California a couple of years ago on an undergraduate geology field trip. Since then it’s been one of my favorite national parks for a number of reasons. First, it’s a vast, remote expanse filled with diverse and fascinating natural features to explore. Salt flats, sand dunes, canyons, and mountains spread far and wide. Second, it’s a land of extremes; it’s one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on earth. Third, there’s a lot of cool geology to see here, and even if you’re not into the science it makes for some beautiful scenery. Lastly, there are interesting organisms to find even in this blistering desert.
Last week I found myself in the vicinity again, this time with two coworkers. With the last day of a business trip to ourselves, I easily convinced them Death Valley was worth seeing. We also planned to visit Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park on the same day, so with our busy schedule we had little time to waste.
We entered the park from the west at daybreak, and our first stop was at Panamint Springs for breakfast. The food here was surprisingly good, and the views of Panamint Valley and the western slopes of the Panamint Range at dawn were impressive. Telescope Peak is the highest point in the area at just over 11,000 feet, and it dominates many of the views in the park.
The landscaping outside the restaurant featured some of the local flora, including agave (Agave sp., Asparagaceae), prickly pear (Opuntia sp., Cactaceae), cholla (Cylindropuntia sp., Cactaceae), and several non-indigenous palms (Arecaceae).
After we ate we drove across Panamint Valley and started up the Panamint Range toward Death Valley itself. The view back toward Panamint Valley was impressive:
As we approached Towne Pass at nearly 5000 feet, we were able to look back to the west and see the distant Sierra Nevada mountains. We were even able to see the snowy and cloud-covered Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet:
After a rapid descent into Death Valley, our first stop was at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
This is one of several areas in Death Valley that provides the three ingredients necessary for sand dune formation: A source of sand (mountain weathering), wind, and a trap (the mountains on either side).
Just east of these dunes we visited the Devil’s Cornfield. These plants are arrowweed (Pluchea sericea, Asteraceae), and the wind here removes the sand from around the dense roots. The bare roots and tall shoots of the plants cause them to resemble corn shocks, hence the name “cornfield.”
From here we stopped by the beautifully-patterned badlands around Zabriskie Point:
Artist’s Drive featured various oxidized minerals, providing some brilliant color:
As we drove south we stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course. A 1934 National Park Service guide said “only the devil could play golf” on such rough and hard salt formations:
Speaking of salt, more than a little has accumulated over the millennia at Badwater Basin. As the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, this basin once held ancient Lake Manly. As the area became more arid, the lake dried up and left behind a salt pan. The area is so white it seems to prompt more than a few people to initially ask “Is that snow?”
Near the base of the mountains in the photo above you can also see some of the textbook alluvial fans that Death Valley is known for.
Heading further south toward one of the park exits, we came across several coyotes (Canis latrans, Canidae) standing in the road. I stopped the car and they immediately ran up to us.
Some visitors toss food to coyotes despite park warnings and common sense, and this brings them begging for more. Although it might feel good to feed the animals, it can actually harm them in several ways. When they learn people can be a source of food, they spend time near roads where they can be hit by cars. They may also become more aggressive toward people, which could necessitate their extermination. They can even become dependent on people for food, and that can be detrimental to their natural foraging behavior. Interestingly, this was almost the exact same spot where I saw someone feeding a coyote on my last visit.
On our way out I got one more shot of the beautifully-colored rocks of Death Valley:
Despite visiting Death Valley twice for a total of about three days, there’s still a lot more I’d like to see here. Unexplored canyon hikes, remote dunes, ghost towns, Ubehebe Crater, and the Racetrack still leave more to discover.