America’s most inhospitable environment is a surreal geologic wonderland comprised of expansive salt flats, color-stained rocks and weathered badlands. In Death Valley, you will meet singing sand, desert fish and a golf course from hell.


Half a league onward…Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
— The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Why would anyone ever venture into somewhere with the moniker Death Valley? The landscape is desolate, animals (seemingly) scarce, and long stretches of empty roads dot the seemingly infinite landscape. The most daunting aspect of the area is the oppressive summer heat. The world record for atmospheric temperature was recorded here in 1913 at a scorching 134 degrees Fahrenheit (F). If you think that has to be an aberration, think again. The hottest month on record here was July 2018, with a smoldering average of 108 degrees F. 21 days that month reached, or exceeded, 120 degrees. Suffice to say that you do not want to enter Death Valley in the summer months. But that does not mean you should never venture there at all.

Many of Death Valley’s most popular sites for those in a rush are located along State Route 190, the Park’s main, and often empty, road.

Many of Death Valley’s most popular sites for those in a rush are located along State Route 190, the Park’s main, and often empty, road.

Death Valley is a land of extremes, spanning a range of habitats and ecosystems that support some of the hardiest life on earth. In only this park, you can see soaring, snow-capped peaks rise above barren, alien salt flats and windswept sand dunes. Rugged badlands and chemically-stained rocks give this brutal landscape an otherworldly beauty. Even incredible fish live here! Death Valley may be brutal, but it is well worth a visit, as its nearly 1 million visitors a year can attest. Just bring a lot of water and make sure the fuel tank is topped off.

6:30 AM

I head out to Death Valley from Los Angeles on the first day of February, 2020. Death Valley National Park, which received that distinction in 1994, is about 4 hours northeast of Los Angeles, straddling the California-Nevada border deep in the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in America. After slowly slithering through Los Angeles’s never ending “rush hour”, the road opens up around Palmdale. As the cars around me begin to fall behind and out of view, the landscape empties as mountains rise on the sides of the increasingly bumpy and dusty road. After traversing a mountain pass, I descend, and descend, into Panamint Valley, southwest of the Park. I am one of the only cars on this lonely stretch of road as I fly past the lonely sign denoting that you are entering a National Park. You would have no way of knowing otherwise.

11:00 AM

Even though it is not crucial, I top off the tank at a gas station in the tiny town of Panamint Springs, nuzzled just inside of the Park’s border. Death Valley, the largest national park outside of Alaska at a sprawling 3.4 million acres, is no place to be with a dwindling fuel tank. I pick up a map and head into the heart of the park towards the two larger visitor centers at Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek (aptly named because this is where the ungodly 134 degrees was recorded). Along the way the highway descends again. Through the windshield, however, you can see the highway climb vertically into the Panamint Mountains as I drive towards Stovepipe Wells Village.

11:45 AM

After paying the visitor’s fee and refilling the water bottles, I leave Stovepipe Wells for the Mesquite Dunes. Nothing signifies a desert like towering sand dunes. Some of the dunes here rise a hundred feet high, making them some of the tallest dunes in the Park and by far the most accessible. If you make it to the Eureka Dunes, the park’s largest clump of dunes, keep your ears open for eerie bass notes in the air. This is due to a haunting phenomenon known as singing sand. Although we picture seas of sand when we imagine deserts, under one percent of Death Valley is actually covered with sand dunes.

The constantly shifting sand dunes are covered in ripples etched in the silky sand by wind (especially when I was there, when wind speeds were over 20 miles per hour in some parts of the park). Many people visit around sunrise and sunset to take pictures of the dunes as they’re bathed by the sun’s most vulnerable rays, and some even partake in hikes after the dark when only the moon can guide you over the dunes. Signs in the parking lot warn late visitors to be careful of sidewinder rattlesnakes who emerge from the dunes after dark. These venomous snakes, named for their efficient style of desert locomotion, often sit motionless, with just their eyes and devil-like horns poking above the sand.

The sidewinder is part of one of the many ecosystems that exist in Death Valley, the hottest and driest place on the continent. Elsewhere in the park, isolated wetlands and springs offer an often fleeting view of what this area used to look like thousands of years ago. 15,000 years ago, this hellish “wasteland” would have been submerged by lakes. Hundreds of millions of years ago, it would have been buried beneath glaciers.

The few areas that have managed to stay wet as Death Valley dried out support some of the most hardy species of fish on the planet, collectively known as pupfish. Large swaths of dry desert lie between these tiny bodies of water, which has led to the development of nine different species of pupfish in Death Valley National Park alone. As Darwin discovered thanks to the existence of unique tortoises and finch species on the different Galapagos Islands, isolation kick starts evolution. Isolation here has created unique species like the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish, which lives in an underwater cave where water temperatures rise above 90 degrees. Despite efforts to preserve the Devil’s Hole pupfish, these tiny, shimmering blue fish (only around 35 mm long as adults) are picky breeders, only reproducing on a shallow shelf in Devil’s Hole before the cave drops another 500 feet into the earth. This phenomenon effectively takes captive breeding out of the equation.

Despite the macabre name, Death Valley is also home to a whole host of other sturdy organisms that not only survive but thrive here. The desert bighorn sheep that scale the Park’s mountain slopes can survive days without water. Taking it one step further, kangaroo rats can survive their whole lives without a drop of water, obtaining the minimal amount of moisture they need from their vegetarian diet. The desert tortoise spends up to 3/4 of its year in its burrow to avoid the Park’s searing heat. Similarly, many species, like bobcats, are nocturnal, avoiding the heat at all costs.

Reptiles, like this desert banded gecko, are some of the most successful creatures inhabiting Death Valley. Like the desert tortoise and banded gecko, many burrow into the ground to avoid the most extreme temperatures. Picture taken at the Phoenix Z…

Reptiles, like this desert banded gecko, are some of the most successful creatures inhabiting Death Valley. Like the desert tortoise and banded gecko, many burrow into the ground to avoid the most extreme temperatures. Picture taken at the Phoenix Zoo.

12:30 PM

The beginning of a trail that enters into the badlands at Zabriskie Point.

The beginning of a trail that enters into the badlands at Zabriskie Point.

After stopping at Furnace Creek to grab a sandwich and some post cards at the visitor’s center, I make my way to Zabriskie Point, one of the most picturesque sites in the entire park. These badlands are composed of sediments from a dried-up ancient lake where camels and mastodons once trudged along the shore. These canyons are the masterpiece of millions of years of erosion, which makes the rocks appear to be covered by a wrinkled blanket. The weathered rocks that form these badlands range in colors from dull gold to mustard yellow to a rich, coffee brown, which indicates that lava once seeped through here from nearby volcanoes some 3-5 million years ago.

A view of Manly Beacon, the point jutting above the rest of the weathered badlands, from the top of Zabriskie Point.

A view of Manly Beacon, the point jutting above the rest of the weathered badlands, from the top of Zabriskie Point.

This location, named after a manager of an early 20th century borax mining company, is best viewed at sunset or sunrise, when the richly-textured rocks glow orange and red. The iconic area has also been pictured on the cover to U2’s critically-acclaimed Joshua Tree album and was the setting for a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus as a stand-in for ancient Egypt. As I get back into my car and pull out of the parking lot, Bruce Springsteen’s Badlands serendipitously blares through the radio as I snake back towards the main road, moving past millions of years of time trapped in weathered rocks.

A panoramic view of the badlands taken on my phone at Zabriskie Point.

1:15 PM

After arriving back on State Route 190, my car begins a continual descent towards the bottom of North America. But first I need to visit Artist’s Drive, a scenic drive cutting through a rainbow of rock. Slowly winding through nine miles of eroded cliffs and canyons, the splash of color jumps right out at you and beckons you to pull the car over for a closer look. While Zabriskie’s point exploded with earth tones, Artist’s Palette, the drive’s most famous spot, is a collection of rocks that form a kaleidoscope of bright colors. The colors, which range from mint green to a bright, chalky pink, are the result of the oxidation of chemicals (losing an electron according to high school chemistry) in the ground here. The oxidation of iron, for example, creates red and pink-hued rocks while oxidizing manganese produces the soft purples. This entire formation of colorful rocks was created by a particularly violent volcanic eruption millions of years ago that left enormous amounts of dried lava behind. Millions of years of chemical weathering and the occasional downpour of rain made these colors pop. If you get an eerie sense that you’ve seen Artist’s Drive (and its vivid landscape) before, it may be because the area was featured in the first Star Wars film, 1977’s iconic A New Hope.

Above: Artist’s Palette (first two images) glimmers in the afternoon light, but the rest of Artist’s Drive is not to be overlooked.

2:15 PM

After winding through the rest of Artist’s Drive on the heels of a strategic bathroom break, I again hit the open road destined for Badwater Basin, the lowest point on the continent. The sun was beginning to sink in the sky as I pushed down the lonely road, the wind sweeping dust across the paved highway. But before I descended to rock bottom, an intriguing sign caught my attention. It denoted that the next turn would lead to Devil’s Golf Course. It’s not surprising that Death Valley, as its name suggests, has several grimly-named locations within its boundaries. Hell’s Gate. Desolation Canyon. Dante’s View. But none of these piqued my interest like the Devil’s Golf Course. And it delivered.

Only the Devil would unwind by playing golf here.

Only the Devil would unwind by playing golf here.

Jagged rocks, smothered with crystallized salt, stretch as far as the eye can see. It is said that these rocks are so sharp (and extremely hot most of the year) that only the devil would tee off here. But it is no stretch to imagine that even his cloven hooves being cut up on these razor-like rocks. When the temperature rises, this golf course is filled with subtle sounds of metallic cracking as the salt crystals expand and contract.

3:00 PM

A sign at Badwater Basin denoting the location’s extreme altitude.

Just down the road from the most forbidding golf course in the world is Badwater Basin, one of the most popular sites in the park. Less than 85 miles from the highest point in the continental United States, Badwater Basin is submerged some 282 feet below sea level! The land here is covered in a think blanket of salt, almost 60 inches thick at some points.

Where is all of this salt from? The Badwater Basin salt flat is comprised of salt from an area as large as New Hampshire that trickles down from mountains, carrying minerals with it and eventually landing at the continent’s lowest point. As a result, Badwater Basin is often temporarily covered in water. Near the road is (usually) a small pool of incredibly salty water that gave this area its name when a prospector’s mule refused to drink it. But on the adjacent salt flats, the water never lasts for long. Once it evaporates (the area has the highest rate of evaporation in the country), only the salt is left. Strikingly, the salt flat is covered by hexagonal, honeycomb-shapes, the result of constantly expanding and retracting salt crystals. These shapes only add to the area’s alien feel.

The walkable path extends into the snow-like salt flat for what seems like miles. The salt stretches even further to where it meets the base of the surrounding mountains. As is usually the case, walking too far off the path could result in breaking through the salt (which is only a couple inches thick at some points) into mud below it. Not an ideal way to end a day in Death Valley.

This desolate area was bequeathed with its unwelcoming name by a group of pioneers unfortunate enough to be stranded in this hostile environment in 1849. Although only one of them perished here, another triumphantly exclaimed as they escaped across the surrounding mountains, “Goodbye, Death Valley!” The name stuck. Walking back toward my car after the sun dropped below Badwater Basin’s mountainous backdrop, leaving the salt flat an eerie dark blue, the quietness of this landscape made any comparison to a valley of the dead conceivable.

The Badwater Basin salt flat painted by the rosy-hued rays of light at sunset.

The Badwater Basin salt flat painted by the rosy-hued rays of light at sunset.


After stopping at Furnace Creek to fuel up, I hit the road in the dying light of dusk. With a full water bottle and a full lineup of podcasts loaded up, I began the arduous journey back to Los Angeles. Before I can pass the Mesquite dunes, the night has already swallowed up the park. Blackness engulfs everything save the area right in front of my headlights. Occasionally, headlights pop up miles in front or behind me as I exit the park. Every so often, I looked up at the most exquisite canvas of stars I have ever seen.

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
— When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman