Re: Good article from NY Times

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Posted by Article Here on March 10, 2003 at 23:49:30:

In Reply to: Good article from NY Times posted by manny on March 10, 2003 at 10:01:27:

AS I headed east toward Death Valley National Park on California Highway 190, the autumn afternoon was quickly fading to dusk. There were miles of nearly empty road and more than three million acres of wilderness ahead, including the lowest dry land in the Western Hemisphere, mountaintop pine forests and every kind of badland, canyon and gulch imaginable.

I was hoping to make it before dark to Wildrose campground in the Panamint Mountains above the valley, but I began to catch glimpses of the sunset in my rearview mirror. I drove the last miles of the Emigrant Canyon Road in the dark. It felt like riding a roller coaster through tunnels, as I twisted through narrower and narrower gaps in the hills.

When I arrived at Wildrose, there were about a half-dozen groups settled into campsites, cooking dinner and sitting by their fires. I chose a site, unpacked my camp stove and put together a hybrid pizza/quesadilla/grilled cheese sandwich from the contents of my cooler. After dinner, I spread out my ground cloth and bedroll and settled in for an evening under the open sky. At 4,100 feet, the night was already chilly, so I put on a warm hat and lay back to enjoy the stars. By 7 p.m. the campground was nearly silent. Looking up at the stars, I felt wonderfully small.

This was what I had come for. I had been to Death Valley briefly once before, on a whirlwind trip through the mountains and the desert with my father and brother. The memory of that visit 15 years ago remained vivid. Death Valley is not a subtle place; the effects of the forces of nature are glaringly obvious in the tortured landscape, where rocks have been lifted and eroded, twisted and metamorphosed, then left naked. And yet, in the midst of this climate of extremes (and despite decades of full-scale mining operations in the area), birds and rodents and reptiles and insects live together in intricate, delicately balanced communities. Death Valley even boasts its own species of fish and snail. Over the next two days I planned to explore the mountains, canyons and flats of the park, reveling in the silence, the solitude and the vistas.

The next morning I awoke with the first rays of the sun, packed up and headed past the end of the pavement to the Wildrose charcoal kilns and the trailhead for the 4.2 -mile hiking trail to the summit of Wildrose Peak. The 25-foot tall, beehive-shaped kilns were built in the mid-1870's to supply charcoal to the silver and lead smelters of the Modock Mine, 25 miles west in the Argus Range. It's hard to imagine what this place looked like then, with the kilns smoldering away with 42 cords of wood inside and all the pinyons in the surrounding mountains chopped down. You can still see hundred-year old stumps along the trail, but the woods seem to have recovered.

As I began walking, I discovered that my fingers were cracked and bleeding from the cold, parched air. The first stretch of the trail was still in shade. There were no birds, and the only sound I could hear when I stopped was my heart pounding. When I reached the top of the first ridge and crossed into the sun, I could smell the fragrance of the pines and junipers, and I began to see birds feasting on pine nuts. I could hear them, too, as they chattered.

At 9,064 feet, Wildrose Peak is the second highest mountain in the park. (You need a high-clearance vehicle to negotiate the rough road to the trail head for 11,049-foot Telescope Peak nearby.) As I continued along the ridge, I got my first glimpse into the depths of Death Valley. Between the branches of gnarled pinyon pines and junipers were the glaring white playas, or dry salt lake beds at Badwater and the Devil's Golf Course, and the mountains of the Amaragosa Range on the opposite side of the Valley. Below, the mountains were carved into canyons and crumbled into alluvial fans, slopes of boulders and gravel washed down from the heights by flash floods.

At the summit, the view was wide open. More than 60 miles to the west were the snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, including Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. To the east, I could see down nearly 10,000 vertical feet.

On the way down I passed seven hikers within the space of 10 minutes, then didn't see another soul until I got to the parking lot.

Driving out of the mountains to the visitor center at Furnace Creek in the valley, I had just time for a quick spin down Artist's Drive. The scenic nine-mile road loops through the foothills of the Amaragosa Range about six miles south of the visitor center on the Badwater Road. The lengthening rays of the afternoon sun brought out the pinks and mauves, the greens and yellows and reds of the rock, but I didn't linger. Fall or spring visits avoid the searing temperatures of summer and the snowed-in mountains of winter, but they don't leave much time between dawn and dusk. I wanted to get to Badwater to see the sun set behind the mountain I'd climbed that morning.

Badwater is well named. A few puddles at the lowest end of the valley are all that remains of a lake that was over 600 feet deep a million or so years ago. The concentration of minerals in the water smells foul, but the water looks lovely. I walked out on the salt flats around the water to the lowest piece of dry land in the Western Hemisphere - 282 feet below sea level. Shards of salt shattered like broken glass at my feet. As the sky turned from blue to purple with a few lonely pink clouds, the mountains - including "my" Wildrose - faded to silhouettes.

When the light show was over, I drove back toward Furnace Creek to the Texas Spring campground, where I found a site and set up camp. At first Texas Spring, in the more popular area of the park, seemed a little less rustic than Wildrose, what with all the R.V.'s and the flush toilets. However, after I saw a scorpion scuttling along the baseboard in the restroom, I decided it was rustic enough.

The next morning, planning to hike the six-mile loop up Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point, I set out early; even in November, temperatures in Death Valley can climb into the 80's by noon. I reached the start of the trail after a 10-minute drive. A leaflet available at the trailhead describes the natural history of the canyon, and guides you up the trail toward the cliffs known as the Red Cathedral.

At the foot of the cliffs, the canyon narrowed and I had to squeeze between and under a few rocks and scramble up a few steep sections to keep going. When I got to the top of a little dry wash, I could see all the way back out the canyon to the valley and the mountains beyond. Even though there were plenty of footprints in the gravel, with no one else in sight it was easy to pretend I had discovered this spectacular view.

I backtracked down the canyon to the trail to Zabriskie Point, which runs along the tops of the ridges. On either side, I could see colored bands of rock - yellow and beige and white, with occasional patches of green and red -- signifying the presence of different minerals, and as I walked on, the trail passed the mouths of abandoned mines carved into the hillsides. The overlook at Zabriskie Point (named for a Borax mining executive), had a stunning view of the badlands I'd just walked out of.

After a few minutes admiring the panorama, I scrambled down a ridge to Gower Gulch and the last leg of a loop back to the Golden Canyon trailhead. I hadn't seen any shady picnic tables, so I decided to cook myself a pasta lunch in the shade of my car. I found a good spot at the Mesquite Dunes, just outside of Stovepipe Wells Village on Highway 190, and parked at the dune overlook.

There's a little bit of sand just about everywhere in Death Valley, but only a few places where enough has piled up to form dunes. After lunch I strolled out into the Mesquite Dunes, past mesquite and creosote bushes, past the tracks of birds and lizards and rodents.

After a snack at the general store in Stovepipe Wells I headed back up 190, out of the valley. I wanted to see a forest of Joshua trees at Lee Flat described in the visitors guide. Turning off 190 onto the Saline Valley road, I bumped and jostled my way over potholes and onto a gravel road.

A Joshua tree is a great big yucca, and I thought the handful of six-footers there were as good as it was going to get, but Death Valley had one more surprise for me. When I reached the flat, there were hundreds of Joshua trees, and some of these weird, twisted, spiky-leaved sentinels of the high desert, flanking the rutted road, were more than 20 feet tall.

I thought about unrolling my bedroll and making camp there, but then I noticed that the ground was riddled with holes. I never found out whether they were rodent or snake dens; I decided that I had had enough raw clarity and solitude, and was ready to return to civilization.

Visitor Information

Getting There

Death Valley National Park, more than 3.3 million acres in California and Nevada, is about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas and 275 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The main road through the park is California Route 190.

There is a $10 per vehicle entrance fee to the park, good for seven days. Many of the sites are a short walk from well-paved roads, but there are also many that can be reached only by four-wheel drive vehicles or hiking. has information about hiking and driving tours.

Lodging and Supplies

For information about camping and lodging, call (760) 786-3200, or visit Lodging choices include a handful of motels and one luxurious resort, the Furnace Creek Inn. Wildrose campground is free. It is open year round. There are primitive toilets, and each site has a picnic table and fireplace. Drinking water is available April to November. Texas Spring campground is $12 a night. It is open October to April. There are flush toilets and drinking water, and showers are available nearby for a fee. Showers are also available for a fee at the Panamint Springs Resort; (775) 482-7680.

Some supplies and food are available (prices are high and selection is limited) at the general stores at the Stovepipe Wells Village, (760) 786-2387, and the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, (760) 786-2345;


If you travel into the back country, make sure someone knows your plans and complete a back-country registration with park rangers.

Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world in the summer; the average high in July, the hottest month, is 115 degrees and the low is 88 . Visitors are encouraged always to carry plenty of water, even in their cars in case of a breakdown. In winter the highs average in the mid-60's or low 70's, but the higher elevations can be snowy and icy.

JAKE MILLER writes about science, history and the outdoors.

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