Travel: Death Valley’s harsh environment home to beauty, wonder

By Steve Stephens, More Content Now

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, California — When naming this seemingly godforsaken patch of earth, the 19th-century miners who first passed through — or perished — weren't thinking of future tourism possibilities.

But today's travelers should take heart. Death Valley is not as bleak and hopeless as its name would imply, as is well known by the Timbisha Shoshone people, who have inhabited the valley for centuries. The Indians call their home “Tumpisa,” meaning “rock paint,” a reference to the magnificent colors to be found in the minerals and clay of the valley.

They consider it a place of life.

Visitors will appreciate that assessment, especially when arriving in winter or spring, when Death Valley’s oppressive and dangerous summer heat is just a vague and distant threat and its severe, colorful beauty is an immediate joy.

My first look at the valley was magnificent, if downright frigid. I had driven in pre-dawn darkness to Dante’s View, one of the most popular overlooks in the park. The spot is known for its sunrise views of the lowest point in the western hemisphere, Badwater Basin. It is 282 feet below sea level and more than 5,700 feet below the vantage point.

The temperature hovered around 40 degrees and the wind blew briskly when I got my dramatic, almost theatrical, introduction to Death Valley. As the sun pulled back the curtain of night, the magenta rays of dawn revealed a seemingly unreal scene, more like a painted Technicolor movie backdrop than an actual physical place on Earth.

Mountaintops on either side of the valley glowed with pinks and oranges, as the grays of Badwater Basin, far below, turned into deep blues and sparkles of salt white.

I continued to find magical sights and colors throughout the park as the sun climbed higher.

The short, one-way loop of Twenty Mule Team Canyon passes through what could be gigantic mounds of plowed dirty snow. They are actually odd and slightly menacing formations of rock, salts and minerals, including the borax that was once mined here.

Another one-way scenic park loop, Artists Drive, offers panoramas that are ever more weirdly beautiful. The 9-mile trip passes through hills laced with minerals that color the rocks in shades of ocher and umber, pale jade green and orchid pink. The term “earth tone” might well have been invented for Artists Palette, a photogenic pull-off where dozens of colors seem to melt and mix on the mountain sides.

Yet another renowned overlook, Zabriskie Point, gives views of badlands that look like a box of gargantuan, melting pastel crayons (earth tones, again) that were flash-frozen and cracked, forming broken ridges and valleys.

History buffs will find wonderful weirdness in Death Valley’s intriguing past. Several sites throughout the park offer information, including the former site of the Harmony Borax Works.

Some of the ruins of the original borax processing plant remain at the site, where an interpretive trail helps visitors understand the history and importance — and some of the joys, loneliness and desperation — of mining in the region. The site also displays an original mule-team wagon, used to transport the processed borax out of the valley.

The park visitors center at Furnace Creek includes a museum with more information about Death Valley’s natural and human history.

One display there shows an April Fool’s Day “advertisement” from a 1907 mining camp newspaper, headlined, “Would You Enjoy a Trip to Hell? You Might Enjoy a Trip to Death Valley, Now!”

But as the mines played out, a few visionaries grasped the real tourist possibilities in Death Valley, and the exhibit also explores the development of the area as an unlikely attraction and eventually one of the largest national parks in the United States.

Another visitors center is located at Stovepipe Wells, which also is home to a restaurant, gift shop, motel and campground.

Near Stovepipe Wells is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast expanse of ever-shifting sand and the most crowded place, relatively speaking, that I saw in the park. I suppose everyone loves the beach, even one without a hint of water. The vast dunes seemed popular with hikers, but also with sunbathers and families who just wanted a good place to let the kids run.

My final stop was at the bottom of Badwater Basin, where a marker high on a cliff across from the parking lot shows the location of sea level.

A short boardwalk takes visitors to a sign marking the elevation, a popular spot for photos and selfies, of course. (Once you’re there, there’s nowhere to go but up.)

Visitors can also get a glimpse of a fascinating small, shallow seep, where fresh water bubbles up from some underground spring and makes its way to the surface. The resulting pool of brine is not poisonous, just full of salt and other minerals and certainly undrinkable, as perhaps those first miners discovered.

But the boardwalk does more than provide a convenient access point and photo op. It also protects a unique species of snail found only in this pool and a few other salty springs in Death Valley — proving that life does indeed persist, even in the seemingly harshest of environments.

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