When you think of Death Valley, the words most likely to come to mind all have three letters: low, dry, and hot. It actually is all of those things, of course: the lowest location in North America (282 feet below sea level, at the bottom of the Badwater Basin); one of the driest (there are years when no rain falls at all); and definitely the hottest, not only in North America but on the planet. The highest temperature ever reliably recorded anywhere on Earth was a blistering 134.1° Fahrenheit at Furnace Creek, the current location of park headquarters, on July 10, 1913. So was the second-highest, the relatively temperate 129.9° F recorded just last year at the same location.
But if low, dry, and hot were all that Death Valley had to offer, it wouldn’t need to be a National Park. We could just fence off a few square miles of salt flats at Badwater, put up a plaque, and forget about it. What makes this park eminently worth visiting is not only its record-breaking extremes, but its incredible, otherworldly scenery – its dramatic slot canyons, its huge sand dunes, its technicolor mountains, and above all, its contrasts. Standing at Badwater and looking west across the salt flats, what you will see is the tall blue wall of the Panamint Range, topped by 11,043-foot Telescope Peak – close enough to the flats that it casts a shadow across them every afternoon. That peak is in the park, too. Few places anywhere have elevations so different in such close proximity to each other.
If one has any sense, one stays away from Death Valley in the summer. So we came in the winter, in February, 2010, climbing up and over the Panamints from a night spent in a motel in Ridgecrest, California. Much of northern California and Nevada were snowbound that week, but temperatures in Death Valley were in the 80s. We camped at Furnace Creek and spent two days exploring the valley – hiking some of the slot canyons, visiting Badwater, photographing late-afternoon light on the Mesquite Dunes, and topping the experience (literally) with a drive to Dante’s View, a vertical mile directly above the Badwater Basin on its east side. The captions of the pictures will tell you a bit more of the story. Enjoy.