Death Valley National Park has been on our bucket list for a long time. After three days of wind and rain, we woke up to sunny skies as we left Ridgecrest and traveled to Death Valley. It was not far, but not an easy drive as we passed over two mountain passes, with the second pass at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet. It was then quite a drop down to sea level, a real workout on the brakes!
Death Valley National Park is made up of 3,336,000 acres, making it the largest national park in the lower 48 states and one of the biggest expanses of protected warm desert in the world. There are four National Parks in Alaska which are larger.
Death Valley is the lowest point in North America and the hottest, driest weather in the country. It is officially the hottest place on Earth and holds the world record for the hottest air temperature of 134°F. The valley’s steep mountain walls trap the rising hot air and recirculates it down to the basin for further heating. It has the lowest average rainfall of any place in the country with less than two inches per year, with some years no rain at all. Once again the mountains are to blame. The mountains capture moisture from passing storms before it can reach the valley.
Several people have asked us what the weather was like while we were there. This was a great time of year to visit with daily temperatures in the low 70’s with a nice breeze. At night we slept with the windows open.
One day we stopped by the Visitors Center and saw a twenty minute movie about the park. We then drove through the south end of the park, stopping at Zabriskie Point with beautiful views. There are many times in our travels over the past five years where places have surprised us with their beauty and exceeded our expectations. Death Valley was definitely one of those places.
We took a drive down the Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road which was named for the twenty mule teams which pulled wagon loads of borax across the desert. The mule teams pulled loads weighing up to 36 tons. The rear wagon wheels were seven feet high and the entire mule team was more than 100 feet long.
We visited the Borax Museum where in 1881 borax was found nearby. The Pacific Coast Borax Company mining was done in the area from the 1880’s until the 1920’s when mining slowed down and the area started to become a popular tourist area. Death Valley became a national monument in 1933 and a national park in 1994.
Another day we continued exploring by visiting the Harmony Borax Works, the site of one of Death Valley’s first borax operations from 1883-1888. While searches for gold yielded little success, borax became known as the “White Gold of the Desert “ and was the valley’s most profitable mineral. Borates, or salt minerals, were deposited in the ancient lake beds where water dissolved the borates and carried them to the floor of Death Valley. Here they recrystallized as borax which was used by blacksmith, potters, dairy farmers, housewives, meat packers and morticians. Many Chinese laborers were recruited from San Francisco to scrape the borax off the salt flats and carry it to wagons to be sent to the refinery. They were paid $1.30 a day minus the cost of lodging and food. They lived in crude shelters and tents.
After lunch we stopped by Salt Creek Interpretive Trail where we walked on the boardwalk through the marshes. Imagine our surprise to find a stream with numerous pupfish. The water originates from brackish springs and marshes more than a mile upstream. The water becomes increasingly salty due to evaporation as it flows downstream. The stream flows alongside the boardwalk in winter and spring and is more salty than seawater. Soon the stream will be dry up until next winter.
The water is too salty for human consumption but manages to sustain life for many plants and animals, including the pupfish. The pupfish have a lifespan of one year or less so they use this time to quickly feed and breed. They are one of the toughest of all fish and are able to survive in salinity several times that of seawater as well as extreme temperatures.
On our last day we drove in the northern section of the park to the amazing Ubehebe Crater which is only about 2,000 years old. The Crater is a half mile across and about 500 feet deep. If it hadn’t been late in the day we would have walked the trail around the rim.
We had a wonderful time in Death Valley and can now mark it off the bucket list. We are currently back at the Elks Lodge in Ridgecrest. Thursday we travel to a recreation area in Taft, CA.