DEATH VALLEY — Here’s a cool subject to ponder after coming off a four-day heat wave of 100-degree plus temperatures throughout the 209 — hiking in Death Valley in mid-July.
Just so you don’t think I’m certifiable, I did it just once. It was a night hike with my nephew in 2015.
And before I did that, I had made more than two dozen trips to the national park initially for endless road bicycling but then primarily to hike slot canyons, peaks, and cross-country treks.
It is safe to say it is a place I normally visit typically in late November when the day time highs flirt with the upper 80s but the overnight lows in the elevations between 6,000 feet I like to hike plunge to the low 40s. You haven’t enjoyed wind chill factor until you’ve hiked across a barren wind-swept mountain ridge with a light blanket of snow with not a tree within 20 miles to slow the wind down.
Our destination that night was Panamint Sand Dunes.
The summit of the tallest dune at 2,700 feet is a one-way four-mile cross-country hike from the end of a nine-mile primitive washboard dirt road with plenty of protruding rocks and gullies cutting across it.
We stayed in a motel room in Stovepipe Wells on the edge of Death Valley proper. When we left at 1:30 a.m. for the hour and 15 minute drive to where we would start to hike the temperature was 98 degrees. Checking later, the mercury ended up dropping to 92 degrees just before daybreak in Death Valley. But since we were in a part of the national park that was at the 2,000 foot level in Panamint Valley, when we reached the tallest sand dune that had a prominence of 400 feet it was barely past 85 degrees at 6:30 a.m.
Rest assured hiking under starry skies with no moon and the temperature in the mid-80s without even a slight hint of a breeze is surreal. What was borderline brutal was heading back to my Escape after the sun came up and started to coax the temperatures past the century mark. I gingerly drove back to the main highway acutely aware that if something went wrong we’d be in the middle of nowhere until nightfall on a road that sees maybe three vehicles in the winter max on a given day and rarely any on a summer day.
The rule is to stay put in make shift shade by your vehicle in the day if something happens in the summer. We had tons of water in the Escape and could easily make a hike at night to Highway 190 if we had to and either flag down someone or hike another four miles to the nearest “oasis” in Panamint Springs. It’s where a 32 ounce bottle of Gatorade sells for $4 and gas at times is almost $7 a gallon. But given where the next place is to buy you’re thrilled to be able to pay that amount.
We made it back to the room in time to clean up, pack up, and check out to head to Lone Pine where the next day would find us hiking up to Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet after passing through snow flurries at 11,000 feet. It was also another night hike so we could cover the 22.5 mile round trip that has an elevation gain of 6,656 feet. When we left Whitney Portal at 2 a.m. at 8,374 feet it was 44 degrees — 54 degrees cooler than 24 hours earlier when we set off for the sand dunes.
It was 48 degrees when we summited Mt. Whitney. The high on the day when we left Death Valley for Lone Pine it was 114 degrees.
By Death Valley standards for the summer that is borderline mild.
Since a lot of people are obsessed with Death Valley and its temperatures to the point Europeans, Asians, as well as Americans make August the third biggest month for Death Valley visitors so they can brag they’ve visited the hottest place on earth, a quick rundown might be in order.
The official reading is taken in a shaded, vented box four feet off the ground in Furnace Creek. The elevation of Furnace Creek is 190 feet below sea level.
The world’s highest record ground temperature ever recorded was on July 15, 1972 when it reached 201 degrees at Furnace Creek. It is important to keep in mind the ground temperature can run between 30 and 60 degrees hotter than the air temperature on many days in Death Valley. A park ranger estimated on our return hike from the sand dunes we were probably walking on ground that was easily 120 degrees. It wasn’t hotter as we were hiking in Panamint Valley portion of Death Valley that has a 1,926-foot elevation and not Death Valley proper that plunges down to 282 feet below sea level near Badwater.
To show you how brutal Death Valley ground temperatures can get light tennis-style shoes have been known to “melt” a bit after 15 minutes of walking cross-country mid-day on the valley floor during in the summer. During the 1980s, a retired Army colonel supported by an RV ran the length of Death Valley in the summer on paved main roads including a state highway and reportedly went through more than 50 pairs of running shoes.
The highest recorded temperature on earth — 134 degrees — was recorded at Furnace Creek by a weather station four feet off the ground on July 10, 1917. At one point a 136 degree temperature recorded on Sept. 13, 1922 in El Azizia in Libya was the highest until scientists ruled it invalid a few years back.
The summer of 1917 had 52 days when the temperature hit at least 120 degrees including 43 days in a row.
For the sheer hell of it — pun intended — there were 154 consecutive days of 100 degree plus heat in the summer of 2001.
Death Valley can also be bitterly cold when winter rolls around. The lowest valley floor temperature ever recorded was 15 degrees on Jan. 8, 1913.
There are easily places in the four mountain ranges in Death Valley that get colder including Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range at 11,043 feet. I’ve hiked in snow six times in Death Valley from mountain ridges at 5,000 feet where I came across fresh mountain lion tracks to the top of Telescope Peak.
To give you an idea of how interesting Death Valley is in terms of weather, it was given its name by prospectors during 1849 when people heading to the gold country of California cut through the area in December — the second coldest month when the high averages 65 degrees.
Rest assured many of the other names given to geographic features — Furnace Creek, Dante’s View and Hell’s Gate — were bestowed by prospectors working Death Valley year round.
It does rain in Death Valley even with it being in one of the most severe rain shadows in the Americas.
The valley proper receives 2.36 inches in an average year.
The wettest month on record was January 1995 when 2.59 inches of rain fell.
Rain is dangerous stuff in Death Valley National Park thanks to what seem to be endless slot canyons and massive alluvial fans where rocks and bone dry soil soaks in little moisture when Mother Nature lets loose.
Flash floods have moved restrooms on concrete pads near the Death Valley Badlands hundreds of feet.
If there is any chance of rain in the forecast you stay out of slot canyons. Besides being narrow and with steep walls, many have magnificent “dry falls” soaring as high as 60 plus feet that need to be bypassed when hiking. One look at how water has carved out dry falls makes you understand the powerful and destructive force that Mother Nature dropping a quarter of an inch of rain can unleash.
Keeping that in mind no rain fell in Death Valley in the years of 1929 or 1953.
The driest stretch on record was 0.64 inches of rain over a 40-month period in 1931 to 1934.
As for visiting Death Valley in the summer, I did it just the once for a night hike.
I typically go in November or December with the latest being March.
Going in summer — unless you stick to hiking in the higher elevations where the big issue is sun exposure although there are lightly forested areas — is nuts.
You can’t really do or see much of anything unless it is after sunrise or you only go to spots that you can reach in an air conditioned vehicle.
And even doing that can be treacherous.
About a decade or so ago a ranger shared a story of an elderly French tourist that was staying at Furnace Creek in early August. They took an air conditioned bus to the Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes that are accessible right off Highway 190. He got off the bus in 100 degree mid-morning heat, spent 30 minutes or so walking around the dunes, got back on the air conditioned bus and died of a heart attack.
The ranger didn’t know whether heat triggered the fatal attack but if you get off a 75-degree bus, walk around on ground that could easily be 125 degrees, and then get back on a 75-degree bus, that 50 degree swing can be a strain.
That aside a lot of people go to Death Valley in August and do just fine although they are extremely limited in what they can take in.
To get an idea of what that is like the average high in Death Valley in August is 115 degrees and the average low is 86 degrees. I may like it hot but even people who are borderline certifiable know that there is a point where too much heat just isn’t cool.
But if you can’t resist, Death Valley awaits.