Death Valley can be an extremely difficult place to be. My first visit was a drive through in the middle of the summer on our way to Mount Whitney. We stopped in Stove Pipe Wells at the saloon and had ourselves a cold one only to return to the car and a thermometer that said 120 degrees. It was difficult to even sit in that car for about 15 minutes as the AC desperately tried to cool us down and we sped as fast as we could out of there.
The extreme heat and open space left me intrigued and it has been on the list of places I wanted to go for quite some time. It’s been a tradition of KB and I to go somewhere for New Year’s Eve, somewhere where you can’t watch a ball drop and are highly unlikely to no know anyone within a couple miles of yourself. Our original plan was to do the Southern loop the Baja Divide, but due to some timing and an AC going out just at the wrong time, we were unable to procure the plane tickets needed to get there (when I went to buy them there were 3 seats left for the needed day, and four of us who were supposed to be going). This lead to a Plan B type of scenario, the southwest deserts were thrown out as options and I don’t recall who suggested the Valley of Death, I was all in from the get go.
We arrived, had lunch and the Lickers took us on a hike that left from the campground. A campground with 100+ sites and that was full every night. The hike went around a hill right off the bat, there was no sign, almost no foot prints and once around that hill, we didn’t see another person during the entire 4 hour journey. While there it was a jaunt to get to the mouth of Funeral Canyon, once inside the slot was a maze with what seemed like almost endless possibilities and crazy formations around each bend.
Funeral Canyon was pretty much the norm and exemplified what I call the Couple Mile Rule. The CMR states that all you have to do to find solitude is to journey just a little farther. There were masses of people in Death Valley. Finding parking at any of the tourist attractions was a nightmare and we spent one day doing that to tick them off the list. Every other adventure we indulged ourselves in was done in almost complete solitude.
The Panamint Sand Dunes are a prime example. These impressive dunes rise above the valley floor and are much more spectacular than the more popular Mesquite Dunes. However, they are a bit of a drive and the short dirt road will take forever unless you have a trophy truck and the big kicker, it’s a 4 mile hike to the dunes that took us almost 2 hours to accomplish. When we arrived there were 2 cars at the trail head. We saw no one on the way into the dunes and there was a couple on one of the dunes enjoying lunch. We kept our distance and headed up one of the adjacent sand ridges. After about 15 minutes, they left and we had the dunes entirely to ourselves from the next 30 or so minutes that we spent photographing and exploring.
Most of the dunes were untouched and the entire back half, the stuff on the other side of the tallest dunes were 100% devoid of footprints.
While normally having trees, plants, bushes, cactuses, or anything alive would seem like a bonus. It is exactly the lack of these things that makes Death Valley so beautiful. There is no soil. And I’m not exaggerating. The few things that do grow, grow in sand. The landscape is rock in one stage or another of deterioration. The lack of foliage opens the valley revealing colors that seem like they are out of a fantasy drawing, rocks that are purple, orange, green and even blue. The viewpoints afford one the ability to see the effects of water and the giant
Peruvian alluvial fans that spread across the valley are extraordinary.
And probably the best part, we spent 6 solid days wandering around in this desert and barely scratched the surface of what is available.
Death Valley may seem like a boring place you would want to avoid, with its 50 shades of brown landscape, extreme heat and crowds at the signed trailheads, but if you step beyond what is easily seen and enjoy what isn’t there, it will give you everything you ever wanted.
P. L. and R.