I love the desert. I love the tough as nails plants and animals that scrape out a living in a surprisingly colorful environment. I love the study in extremes, heat and cold, dry and wet, life and death.

It’s impossible to go there, safe in the confines of your fast moving car, and not think of the first pioneers who walked this massive desert. In 1849, to avoid the grim fate of the infamous Donner Party , a group of settlers avoided the mountain passes and walked right into the gaping maw of an unnamed Death Valley. The story claims that their brush with the Grim Reaper was so close that upon climbing out of the valley one of the young men turned and said “Good-Bye, Death Valley!” And hundreds of years later, people keep coming back.

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Salt Flat Near Badwater Basin

My first trip was in November, but we got there pretty late at night, so I had no idea what to expect. All we could see were the headlights of our borrowed jeep and the thousands of stars that pinned back the heavy sky. We set up the tent in utter darkness, crawled in and fell asleep after our long drive.

Coming out of the tent the next morning, I was absolutely stunned. It was early, so the sun was just peeking over the horizon, but we were camped on the edge of a great flat swath of white sand, that swept up into craggy purple mountains. I don’t know what I had expected, maybe I thought it would be more drab and lifeless, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In three days, we saw a ton of the park. We did the brief but spectacular two mile hike through Natural Bridge Canyon Trail. (2 Miles, Easy)

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Natural Bridge!

We were greeted by this pointy faced coyote who watched us serenely from the side of the road.

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Desert Friend

We even saw water! Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation point in the United States held some  fairly stagnant H20. It also was one of the more popular places we visited within the park. It was pretty easy to get away from the crowds otherwise, Death Valley is nothing if not vast.

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My favorite stop was definitely the Racetrack Playa, which you may have seen in the news lately. Once a mysterious location where rocks appeared to take effortless nocturnal strolls across a dry lake bed, Science has recently confirmed that they are shepherded by a combination of ice and incredibly high wind.

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Mysterious

It was beautiful and eerie and wonderful. We walked amongst the stationary stones and marveled at the distance they had traveled. At the time of my visit,  the theories regarding the movement of the Sailing Stones were unsubstantiated. The mystery gave the Playa a spooky air, as if the ghosts of pioneers who died of dysentery or heat addled miners could spring forth at any moment. However, the reality is also crazy: some of the rocks are gigantic and have slid an incredible distance, moving feet at a time, then stopped in their tracks until the next freeze.

It’s a bit of a drive to get there and a car with off road capabilities is recommended because the roads are bumpy and can be washed out. From the dramatic Ubehebe Crater, it is 20 miles to Teakettle Junction. This fun landmark means you’re almost there! We did not stop to look, but visitors have left messages on the kettles they abandoned.

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So go explore Death Valley! Spring, Fall and Winter are the times to go if you do not want to boil to death (Summer temperatures rise into the hundreds, the hottest temperature recorded was 134 Fahrenheit). However, be mindful that the desert is also cold. At the gas station we ran into some confused and chilly tourists who had unfortunately prepared for intense heat.

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A study in extremes

It’s one of the most captivating places I have ever been. If you get a chance, be sure to visit! Though I said good-bye, I know I will be returning.

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