Death Valley National Park
Brave the lowest, driest, hottest spot in America
Located in the northern reaches of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park enjoys the dubious distinction of being the lowest, driest and hottest spot in America, with scorching summers that can reach 125˚F (51 degrees Celsius)—and in 1913 topped out at 134˚F (56 degrees Celsius). Its fearsome name draws visitors from all over the world. What strikes them is not just the area’s brutality, but its spectacular and varied beauty, with Parched Deadman Pass and Dry Bone Canyon standing in contrast to the dramatic hills and mountains, such as 11,000-foot Telescope Peak. Under the desert sun, hundreds of species of plant and animal life are indigenous to this desiccated land (with just two inches of rain a year), with 40 species found nowhere else on Earth.
Death Valley is actually not a valley at all, but a plate of crusty salt flats that has been steadily dropping between two mountain ranges that are slowly rising and sliding apart. Within the long, narrow park confines (140 miles from one end to the other), one of the most popular sights is Artists Palette, where mineral deposits have caused swathes of red, pink, orange, purple and green to colour the hills. Others are Zabriskie Point, with its views of wrinkled hills and perfectly sculpted Sahara-like sand dunes. Find the dead-end road that leads to the mile-high (and aptly named) Dante’s View, from which you can see 360 degrees for 100 miles, taking in both the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48: Mount Whitney, at 14,491 feet, and Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level.
The park’s most peculiar happenings take place on the flat dry lakebed of Racetrack Playa, where boulders weighing as much as 700 pounds sometimes move hundreds of yards at night, leaving trails in the sand as testimony. No one has ever seen them move, and scientists are at a loss to explain it.
Air-conditioned cars and luxury inns have improved on the experience that led 19th-century pioneers to give the valley its name. The 1927 stone and adobe Mission-style Furnace Creek Inn is a veritable oasis of natural springs and palm gardens, with an 18-hole golf course thrown into the bargain. Take a nighttime dip in the pool, and gaze up at the desert sky filled with a sea of stars.
Further south is Joshua Tree National Park, 800,000 acres of high desert whose most prominent feature is the distinctive and ubiquitous Joshua tree, festooned with creamy white blossoms in the spring. (Mormon pioneers believed the limbs of the trees resembled the upraised arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land.) Joshua Tree is one of the most popular rock-climbing areas in the country, with more than 4,500 established routes, ranging from friendly bouldering to immensely challenging cliffs. Desert Hot Springs, named after its wealth of natural hot springs, has many resorts, but only at Two Bunch Palms (legend has it) did Al Capone come to soothe his nerves. Sink into the unusually pure mineral water that comes out of the earth at 148˚F (64 degrees Celsius) but is cooled for two different tubs in the palm-shaded grotto, one a soothing 98˚(36), the other still toasty at 104˚(40).
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.