Thursday, August 05, 2010

Death Valley in July

Here I am again, a day late with my Travel Tip Thursday post, a writing prompt that encourages you to share the secrets of a special place to visit. Today, I’m taking you to Death Valley in July. It’s a place that most folks would want to avoid as the temperature in the afternoon soar to the 120 degree mark, near 50 degrees Celsius! But that was not the case with me two weeks ago.

As I shared earlier, due to Thunderstorms, it took us two days to fly out west. That, and some other business needs that had come up, we had to change our planned schedule. We were going to start with a long drive from Vegas to Virginia City and then work our way back to Southern Utah before heading back to Vegas in time for the Saturday wedding. But having lost a day, we decided we would forgo the trip to Virginia City, which left us with dilemma. Just where should we spend our extra days? My daughter, who has an interest in weather, had recently read in a weather magazine about the hottest day ever recorded in the western hemisphere. This happened back in 1913 (and was the world’s record for a few years, until a reading in Africa topped it). The temperature rose to 134 degrees, so hot that the person reading the thermometer wrapped himself in a wet towel as he went out to read the gauge and when he came back inside, the towel was dry. They were not calling for such extreme temperatures (only into the low 120s), so we decided to head over to Death Valley.

The drive from Vegas was beautiful, as a nearly full moon rose over the mountains, lighting up the desert in a soft light. We spent the night at the Longstreet Hotel and Casino in Amargosa Valley, which is across the Funeral Mountains from Death Valley. It was a warm night and I was up early, before the sun, enjoying what little coolness the low desert brings while I photographed the valley. The temperature must have been in the upper 80s and a warm breeze was blowing from the south. Knowing that it was going to be a hot day, we headed into the valley early.

Our first stop was at Death Valley Junction, a small community that was once a railroad stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad (a line that was abandoned in 1947, if I remember correctly). Like many towns in the west, it had an opera house. Unlike many, the opera house is still open, but we’d gotten in too late on Saturday to catch a show.

From Death Valley Junction, we headed west, into the park on Highway 190 which climbs up over the Amargosa Mountains. We took the side road up to Dante’s point, which at 5000+ feet, provides the best look of the valley from the east side. From there, the valley looms north and south, looking barren and dry. It was warm, so I’d windows down so the car wouldn’t heat up so much, but that was a mistake. The parking lot was filled with bees and many of them came inside the car. When I got back, I drove the car around, doing donuts in the parking lot with the windows down, slinging out bees. Twice, on our drive down from Dante’s point, I had to pull over and swish out a bee as another one came to the surface.
Dante's Point, looking north (Mesquite bush to right of photo)
Dante Point, looking south. Although hot, the clouds keep us from boiling under the sun!

Next stop was Zabriskie Point, a beautiful display of colorful rocks weathered by millenniums of erosion. After hiking to the top of the point, in temperatures soaring well into the triple digits, we all cooled off with bottles of cool water.

After getting to the valley floor, we drove south to Badwater, the lowest elevation in the United States, and some 285 feet below sea level. The last time I’d been in the valley, it was filled with yellow flowers with exception of the lake around Badwater. In July, there are no flowers, just baked rock and a few hardy plants and the lake has been reduced to small puddle. Where the lake had been, there was a large barren salt flat.. As water evaporates in the valley, it leaves behind salts. The soil in this barren area is more than 6% salts, a chemical desert where nothing grows. In other places, where the salt level is 3-6%, pickleweed will grow. From .5% to 3%, arrowweed grows. Mesquite, the familiar plant in this country, only grows in soils with less than .5% salts, soil still too salty for most plants.
I hiked out into the salt flats, breathing in the hot air. In most places, a 1000 feet change in elevation results in a temperature change of 3 degrees, but because of the nature of the Death Valley basin, every 1000 change results in a 5 ½ degree change. Heat is trapped in the basin which is why temperatures in the summer often reach over 120 degrees (50 degrees C).

After Badwater, we headed back north and to the Furnace Creek Ranch, the spot that was once known for the hottest temperature in the world. When we arrived, the temperature was 116, it was 120 by the time we had finished touring the museum. We then ate lunch and decided to get out of the heat by driving north, through the Valley and heading over daylight pass toward Beatty, Nevada (known for hot springs and legal brothels). Just before Beatty, we made another stop at Rhyolite, a town which once had a population of over 10,000, but today has only a handful of folks living there. I’ll post more about Rhyolite in a future post.

Sage's travel tip for Death Valley: Bring plenty of water and sunscreen!


  1. Great pictures. Since I came to California, I've wanted to visit Death Valley in the winter, but not the summer. You are a brave trekker.

    The salt flats appear in a western called YELLOW SKY (1948) and look just like they do in your photo.

  2. oh would love to visit the valley...but 120 makes me sweat just reading you have some of the most amazing adventures...

  3. Ron, all my other trips have been in the winter or early spring---and often in the backcountry on the eastern side. One day, I'd love to visit the western side and to climb Telescope Peak (a climb that could be done in the summer as you start out at 9000 feet. There are also some interesting mining camps on the west side (as there are on the eastern side)

    Brian, thanks, it really wasn't bad--even walking out on the salt flats--you just couldn't rush and i drank probably a quart of water in a 1/2 mile hike!

  4. Sage,
    great pictures - especially the two from Dante Point. I have long wanted to visit Death Valley, but have just not made the time. Our off road club makes an annual trip to a riding area south of the southern entrance to the park. It's beautiful there, but I bet the park is even more so.

  5. You, sir, are a better man than I. I want to visit Death Valley, but I'll stick with winter and early spring, thank you.


    (Great photos, BTW.)

  6. Badwater. Sounds like a great name for it considering the salt. Great photos.

  7. The Canadian in me cracks a furrowed brow at the mere mention of temperatures like these. I suspect I'd need a space suit - with a/c cranked on high - to survive such a trip :)

  8. I think I already told you that I love ad miss the desert. These photos are almost surreal they are so beautiful.

  9. Wonderful photos. And lately most part of Northern India was like death valley. The temperature was hoveruiing from 46-52 degrees C!

    Worst summer we ever had. And it is still going strong.

    BTW, your comment option is ok, although embedded one. I don't have to click it more than once.

  10. Dan, you should visit the park. There are many backroads to explore and the mts on the west side are higher so they could be explored later in the spring or earlier in the fall

    Randall, this was my first time and although hot, it was okay, you just couldn't move fast and you sought out shade

    Charles, one of the signs said that the water there wasn't poisonous, just tasted bad because of the salt--in other words, I though, it won't kill you but would make you wish you were dead

    Carmi, I was surprised (but shouldn't have been for I'd heard this was true) to find so many Europeans there. Death Valley in the summer is a big draw, especially for Germans... When having lunch, we were the only English speaking folks in our part of the restuarant.

    Pseudo, don't you have desert like areas on the big island, where it's volcanoic rock (more from the recent lava than lack of water). You live in a beautiful place

    Gautami, wow, that's hot! Only a few people live in Death Valley, mostly ranger employees.

  11. What's actually amasing is that they ever built the Hoover Dam which allowed people to get near the area in the first place.

  12. What a great post, Sage. A good friend of mine -crazier than you- visited Death Valley in August! Yes, he is German! (Maybe it takes more heat than normal to melt them away, hahah).

    The desert surely has its charms -I imagine the nights, the sky full of stars, the sounds... I love the small history and anecdotes about every place you visit.

    Btw, Zabriskie Point is the name of a film, right? (Coppola, perhaps?).
    I can't wait to read your next post about Rhyolite (a town that sounds like the name of a mineral...)

  13. " we decided to head over to Death Valley". I can't tell you how many times I've heard this expression.

    I give you kudos for going into that kind of heat voluntarily...and it's great for me, 'cause I get to hear about it from my air conditioned home!

  14. Is there something wrong with me that I'm jealous?

  15. Vince, the highway goes across Hoover Dam, but it's just two lanes (I'm assuming you were referring to my previous post?)

    Leni, there are lots of Germans who like Death Vally--I wonder if their grandfathers were in the German army's African Corp... The desert nights are wonderful but with the full moon, you don't see as many stars and i the summer, the sky isn't as outstanding as in the winter. I don't know that movie.

    Kathyrn, you got a lot of crazy friends who do things like run over to DV? Stay cool, my friend!

    TC, you're not crazy, just adventurous

  16. i'm from the tropics(p.i.), just the name of the places horrifies me. death valley,funeral mountains & furnace creek. but travel stories fascinates me, great pics though. i'll try to visit this place this coming november hehehe!