Where does one even start when writing about Death Valley National Park? With 3 million acres of land with Telescope Peak at 11,000 feet and Badwater Basin 280 feet below, I barely scratched the surface of the park. It still was my favorite part of the trip.
For those who plan to go there, be mindful that this so unlike any other National Park. It’s one of the hottest places on earth. In March the nights were freezing and the days already pretty hot. The distances are immense, and some roads unsuited for anything but high clearance vehicles. It might literally take you a whole day of driving to get from one spot of interest to another. So my advice is to plan your trip well, have plenty of water and be ready for adverse weather.
Sailing Stones – The Racetrack
We planned to spend a night at the racetrack. So Beau Rogers and I set off in Beau’s car and Evan Jones followed us in his camper. It took us almost the whole day to get from Trona Pinnacles to the racetrack. The last 28 miles was extremely rough driving on an unpaved and very narrow road. It was good to take a break at Teakettle Junction on the way.
The racetrack playa is a dry lake bed surrounded by mountains. It is famous for it’s mysterious sailing stones which leave tracks on the playa. The theory is that the wind pushes them when the playa is icy and the stones leave a track. Some of the stones are literally hundreds of pounds heavy. Unfortunately visitors have wreaked havoc on the playa by walking on the playa when wet and moving stones. Some idiot even drove over it. Nature does fix these, but it takes years. Try to leave everything as you found it so that others can enjoy.
The playa is best photographed when the sun is very low in the sky so that the textural detail stands out. You get a very short window of time before sunset. We were literally racing across the playa being chased by the shadows of the surrounding mountains. After taking our sunset photos, we camped out in a primitive campground just north of the playa. Our friend Sasakthi Abeysinghe was supposed to be driving in from Vegas to meet us there, but there was no sign of him.
Warning – Don’t lock your keys in the car!
I woke up the next morning before sunrise and found that he had made it in sometime during the night. So we all packed up our stuff and was getting ready to drive back to the playa for some sunrise photos. That’s when Sasakthi realized that his car keys were locked inside the rental car. We spent the next half hour trying to get the door opened, but no dice. We’d make really bad car thieves. Finally as a last resort, we threw a rock in through the rear window. Man, those windows are tough. It took us multiple tries to break it.
After some sunrise photos, we started our long drive back. We made a stop at the Ubehebe Crater. The land around there just looks so beautiful and burned. I really want to go back and explore that area more.
After days of roughing in the desert, we were ready for a motel room and shower. So we headed to Beatty NV. We spent that evening exploring the ghost town of Rhyolite, but that’s for another post.
Shifting Sands – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The next day it was just Sasakthi and I. We had the whole day to kill before heading back to Vegas. So we woke up before sunrise and headed back to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley. We were planning to go some photos of the dunes in the early morning light.
The dunes are truly immense. The area near the parking lot is very heavily trampled. So head deep into the dunes trying to keep along the ridges. If you keep climbing up and down the ridges it can get very tiring. Also, keep a bearing of where you parked as you can get lost in those dunes. Another thing to watch out for is sidewinder rattlesnakes. They hide under the surface waiting for rodents and other prey to pass by. If you see parallel lines in the sand – watch out! Luckily we didn’t encounter any.
As luck would have it we had walked into a dust storm. While we still had pretty good near visibility, the surrounding mountains were completely invisible. The sunrise and the dust really made for some unique hazy photos. I tried getting a timelapse of the blowing sand, but it was way too windy.
The Drive Back
Since we had some time to kill we decided to take a drive down to badwater basin. On the way we made a couple of stops at the Golden Canyon and the Artist’s Palette. It just shows the diversity of the park. By the time we got to Badwater Basin, the sun was high in sky. The salt basin is so blinding in the sun that it was literally impossible to get any good photos.
It was time to say goodbye to the desert. We had a long drive back to Vegas. We covered Sasakthi’s rear window with part of a tent. It made for a loud drive, but at least it kept the dust out. Luckily for him the rental car company didn’t ask any questions about the broken window and the monetary damage was minimal.
Death Valley – I will be back – and multiple times. It’s going to take a lifetime to explore this magnificent and rugged park.
Check out the whole gallery of Death Valley photos Death Valley National Park Gallery.