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Smorgasbord Of Geology, Breathtaking Views, Abundant Life, Starry Skies
This is the view on the way to the 5,804-foot Corkscrew Peak summit looking south. The high point on the horizon is Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet that looms over Badwater — in the white salt pan — some 22 miles away at 282 feet below sea level.

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — There is a lot of life to see and experience in Death Valley.

And after spending 202 days there during 29 visits over 37 years I’ve only scratched the surface of what the 5,270 square miles constituting the largest national park outside of Alaska has to offer.

* The park’s four mountain ranges are a geological wonderland offering glimpses at a wide array of rock formations rare to find in one place on earth.

* It is rich with visual treats from the stunning and colorful badlands of Zabriske Point to sweeping vistas from Dante’s View at 5,575 feet overlooking the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level in the Badwater Basin.

* You can walk across a volcanic crater or trudge up imposing sand dunes.

* It’s teeming with life — as subtle as it may be — as the national park is home to more than 440 animal species including 51 mammals unique to Death Valley, 36 reptile species, 307 bird species, five fish species, three amphibian species, and countless insects.

* While the rare super blooms that occur after brief rain falling when winter is on the cusp of spring lure enthusiasts, the national park is home to more than 1,000 plant species including the oldest living things on earth in the form of bristlecone pines that typically average 1,000 plus years in age and can be found in the higher elevations.

* The region is rich in history from mining under extreme situations and the lawlessness that plagued settlements around successful mining claims. Once claims started producing, tent cities would pop up and then sometimes towns with hundreds of residents with churches, bars, newspapers, and banks that seemingly disappeared overnight.

* The night skies — thanks to the valley being surrounded by mountain ranges that rise from the valley floor and the absence of significant light sources for 100 plus miles in all directions — offers a vast sea of stars making constellation hunting an easy diversion. The skies are so dark that back in the 1980s you could see the Sky Lab each time it passed overhead encircling the earth.

* You can stay at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn built for movie stars and the rich as a winter playground in the 1920s and pay accordingly or you can stay at bustling — at least by Death Valley standards — Furnace Creek Ranch with motel rooms, cabins, restaurants, a general store and a gas station with eye-popping prices as well as nearby campgrounds.

* There is also the much more low-key Stovepipe Wells — my go to place — with motel rooms, campsites and RV parking — or you can access a handful of remote campgrounds or opt to wilderness camp in the higher elevation and more remote locales.


Death Valley is a great

escape to ponder and put

life into perspective

Death Valley is the perfect antidote for the 21st century world.

Up until a few years ago — at least in Stovepipe Wells — there was no cell service, limited Internet access, and no TVs in the rooms.

In order to get cell service to avoid making what would often be $8 pay phone calls to let someone know I had made it back from a bicycle ride or a hike I’d have to get in the car and drive 12 miles until I got one bar.

That, of course, created the perfect conditions to fill time after hikes and rides with book reading outdoors basking in a warm December sun or simply soaking in the vistas as you sit pondering nothing. There’s a lot to be said about the power of not being entertained or absorbed in some activity and just letting mind and body completely relax.

What got me hooked on Death Valley was bicycling.

It’s paradise for roadies and not so much for mountain bikers.

That’s because mountain bikers are prohibited from going off roads and are only allowed on a handful of short trails near Furnace Creek.

Speaking of trails there are only a few in all of Death Valley. Everything is cross-country.

Road cyclists — those riding racing bicycles — can partake in sustained 14-mile plus downhills that are the benefit for ascending the same distance. The sight lines for motorists and bicyclists alike are measured in miles. There are 15 percent plus grades to amuse your quads. Rain derailing rides is virtually non-existent. And you can ride for miles without ever being passed by a car.

Death Valley is where I had one of my scariest and most exhilarating cycling experiences.

I had only been back on a bicycle for three months at age 30 after dismounting some 15 years earlier.

I was riding with a justice court judge from Exeter and his wife on an alternative route offered on a Backroads supported bicycling group tour I had booked. After slogging up roads through Mud Canyon and stopping at Hell’s Gate, the judge suggested I go ahead on the way back down the Beatty Cutoff. It was my first big downhill. He said I should shift it into high gear, crank it three times, go into a racer’s tuck, and enjoy the ride.

I happened to have brought my own racing bicycle on the trip while the judge and his wife were using their own touring bikes.

After less than 30 seconds I looked over my shoulder to see how close they were to me. I was stunned to see the distance I had between me and them. Then I looked down at my cyclometer and almost did the No. 2 as my heart started pounding. I was going 68 mph on a 16-pound bicycle frame rolling on 700c tires with a few pounds of air in them with only summer cycling shorts and jersey along with a lightweight helmet for protection should I lose control.

I had presence of mind to feather the brakes. After a few minutes I started enjoying the nearly 8 mile descent.

As they pulled up to where I was waiting for them where the Beatty Cutoff T-intersected into Highway 190 the judge said I had the biggest smile he’d ever seen on someone’s face. Not a bad transition from believing I was on the verge of death minutes earlier.


What keeps me returning

again and again is the

hiking and solitude

My favorite pursuit nowadays is hiking with peaks and canyons topping my list. I spend two weeks a year in Mono and Inyo counties — Death Valley is in Inyo County.

I’m told by those who make my appetite for hiking seem minuscule that the Eastern Sierra as well as the adjoining mountain ranges ranks as a top region for incredible day hikes.

I have yet to come across a reason to doubt them.

And when it comes to solitude, amazing views, the ability to self-reflect, and to soak in endless solitude, nothing comes close to Death Valley for day hikes.

I’ve packed in a week of hiking and have never come across another soul. I’ve come across wild burros, seen bighorn sheep in the distance, watched scorpions scurry out of nests, had deer literally wander across my path within feet of me on Wildrose Peak where I was also dive bombed by a “murder” of crows (a term used aptly to describe a flock of crows), and came across fresh mountain lion tracks on snow that had fallen the previous night on a wind-swept ridge at 8,000 feet.

But none of that can top conquering a desert summit such as Corkscrew Peak at 5,804 feet and standing there taking in a 360-degree view with no visible signs of civilization on any horizon as part of a seven-mile hike with 3,093 feet of elevation gain without encountering another person.


Weather ranks as

a big draw for many

As strange as it may sound some people are drawn to Death Valley just so they can say they were at what is considered the hottest place on earth during the height of summer.

Before the pandemic curtailed global travel, Europeans and Asians made up a large share of July room bookings just so they could brag about having been in Death Valley.

Furnace Creek holds the world record for the highest recorded air temperature. That was 134 degrees on July 10, 1913. It was on Jan. 8 of that year the record low for Death Valley proper was recorded at 15 degrees.

The average high in July is 115 degrees and the average low is 86 degrees.

I’ve been to Death Valley in July for the purpose of night hiking on the valley floor and hiking in the higher elevations during the day. That trip six years ago saw daytime temps at Stovepipe Wells surpass 118 degrees with the overnight low never dropping below 90 degrees.

Given temperatures drop three to five degrees every 1,000-foot gain in elevation hiking to the tallest point in Death Valley — the 11,049-foot summit of Telescope Peak — is a fairly pleasant experience as opposed to the winter where the windswept ridge is often covered with snow. A late November hike to Telescope Peak 10 years ago still ranks as my most miserable hike in terms of cutting cold despite having ample layers.

You clearly want to stop hiking during the summer in the valley by sunrise given the ground temperature can be more severe and relentless than air temps. Furnace Creek also holds the world record high for ground temperatures of 201 degrees recorded on July 18, 1972.

It is not uncommon for those insane enough to walk across the valley floor in your basic Nikes at the height of a summer day for more than 15 minutes to start experiencing “shoe failure” in the form of the rubber starting to liquefy.

It was above 100 degrees for 154 consecutive days in 2001 with 40 days of 120 degree plus highs in 1996.

Death Valley is also an extremely dry place averaging less than two inches of rain a year. It went for 40 months from 1931 to 1934 without a single rain drop recorded.

That said even a light rain can prove deadly for flash floods as bone dry ground repels water creating massive runoff shooting through canyons and down washes with the power to move pit restrooms anchored in nearly foot deep concrete to be moved dozens of feet.

My most recent trip spanning the final days of November and the initial days of December saw highs on the valley floor of 85 degrees where six of the seven days were cloudless with deep blue skies allowing me to “work” on my tan while hiking while back in the San Joaquin Valley it was 20 degrees cooler and dreary all week long thanks to fog and cloud cover.

Last year Death Valley drew 1.7 million visitors. That’s more than triple the number when I started going there in 1985.

You can visit and take in the highlights using almost nothing but paved roads and never straying far from your vehicle. You can also take off into remote corners of the park and savor an entirely different experience.

Or you can carve out forays in between where my trips tend to fall.

It’s worth a one-time visit or repeat visits.

Either way it’s a great way to beat the refrigerator weather that plagues much of the San Joaquin Valley this time of year.

MT Perry
Mt. Perry’s 5,739-foot summit in the Funeral Mountains is reached by an 8.7-mile out and back ridge route from Dante’s View.