Morning came much quicker than anticipated – I had expected to benefit from the East to West time change for much longer. This day’s journey began in Bakersfield (after an unsuccessful camping attempt in Sequoia National Park the previous day, described here). The plan was to continue on to Death Valley National Park, and spend the night camping before continuing on to Las Vegas. While the route could have easily been covered in four and a half hours, several rather enjoyable pit stops stretched the day’s drive into an all-day event, ending with a lovely sunset in the desert.
The drive from Bakersfield began without a hitch, with me behind the wheel. After the first few hours of driving, my impulsive adventure nature took over and led to our first detour. The sight of vivid, red canyons stood out against the desert landscape, and the appearance of signs for Red Rock Canyon State Park proved too great a temptation. We weren’t surprised to find the visitor center closed, but we were able to gather all the information desired from outside of the building. The rock formations were impressive, and we would have been remiss to pass up the opportunity to climb up a few.
According to the park website, the Kawaiisu Indians once inhabited the area. This group of Native Americans is known for their petroglyphs throughout the El Paso mountain range, with the western edge of the range forming part of the Native American trade route for thousands of years. The colorful rock formations served as a landmark on the route in the early 1870s, and was used by the survivors of the famous Death Valley trek around 1850.
The park offers camping and equestrian use in addition to the miles of trails available for hiking. A trail map can be found online, here, and outlines over a dozen options ranging from easy to strenuous. For those passing through in the summer, the scenic drive provides an excellent alternative to the desert hiking. While we only adventured out on part of the scenic drive and blazed our own short path due to time restraints, I would have loved to explore the park further. We spent the majority of time around the Red Rock Overlook, located near the entrance of the park and only a few miles of Highway 14. Despite driving extensively through the desert over the next few days, these remained the most colorful formations in the desert landscape and were a pleasure to climb and explore.
After a failed attempt of tracking down fresh beef jerky, as we exited Highway 395 we suddenly found ourselves in absolute desert wilderness. While before we had frequently encountered small shops, towns, and numerous signs, suddenly we were driving miles without seeing so much as another car. The abrupt change led me to pull over to the side of the road, and shenanigans pursued on the barren road. While I don’t normally advise doing flips and handstands in the middle of the road, the mountains in the background and lack of civilization for miles upon miles presented a rare opportunity.
Besides the allure of being silly out on the road in the middle of the desert, a vast expansion of what appeared to be snow caught my eye. While logically, of course, it was impossible that it really was newly laid snow a few miles off the highway, it wasn’t until our limited smart phone capabilities pulled up information about salt flats that I was sure that hallucinations hadn’t set in. While I was quite tempted to try and find a way to reach this point of interest, it was fairly obvious that the area began more than a few miles off the highway and would consume a greater portion of the day than we could afford.
Luckily, however, we came across another salt flat about an hour outside of Death Valley that seemed to be a great deal closer to the highway. At this point, our cell phone service had improved and allowed us to gather more information about salt flats and their formation.
Natural salt flats, or salt pans, form where bodies of water previously existed (even if only temporary, for example after a heavy desert rain). If the rate of water evaporation were not greater than the rate of water precipitation, the area would be a lake or pond. In the desert, water unable to drain into the ground remains at the surface and is rapidly evaporated due to the heat, leaving behind any dissolved minerals. Over time, the salt and minerals form a shining white layer that reflects the sun’s rays and can be seen from a great distance.
Death Valley National Park features its own salt flat, Badwater Basin, which spans nearly 200 square miles. According to the park website, three things are required for the formation of salt flats: (1) a source of salts, (2) an enclosed nature of the basin, and (3) arid climate.
In the case of Badwater Basin, Death Valley’s drainage system leads to the enclosed basin area. Thus, the water from an area of 9,000 square miles accumulates in the basin after rain. Rain in distant peaks will flood downwards to the basin, dissolving minerals from the rocks along the way. The water comes to rest at the lowest elevation, the basin, and is later evaporated to concentrate and deposit the collected minerals.
Sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt, forms the majority of the layered minerals. Some others include calcite, gypsum, and borax. Although salt flats provide an environment too harsh for the survival of most plants and animals, the flats themselves can be quite fragile and overlay patches of mud.
I was determined to reach the salt flats and get a closer look and, after attempting to find the closest point of access from the road, set off across the desert terrain. While I wouldn’t have guessed it to be farther than half mile away, one mile turned in to another and in the end I would be hard pressed to give an accurate estimate of the distance. Things really do look closer when the land is as flat as the desert! Arianne joined me in my quest, and we took advantage of the opportunity to get in a nice run. Something about running across the desert in pursuit of reaching an empty lake, crusted over with salt remnants, proved to be very freeing. Over an hour in to my mission, I finally reached the crusted ground and several patches of the shiny white deposits. Happy to have accomplished Bucket List #93: Walk across a salt flat, I snapped several photos before heading back to the car – now too far from sight to spot.
Bucket List #93: Walk across a salt flat
Once we reached the car, the majority of the day had passed and we entered a race to reach Death Valley and set up camp before dark. A few more pit stops were impossible to avoid – including the official entrance to the park and one particularly stunning overlook – but I wouldn’t have expected any less. Standing at the ridge of a dramatic fall into the valley felt a bit ominous upon the arrival of several black birds. Ever since I was a child and witnessed several crows feasting upon a nest of baby birds, I’ve associated black birds with all the danger and evil that black magic brings to mind. In this case, however, they provided an unexpected photographic opportunity which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The remaining drive to reach the park passed quickly, although it was well past five by the time we approached Stovepipe Wells Village. (The park map of Death Valley found here can be helpful for reference and planning). A kiosk was available for payment of the Vehicle Entrance fee ($10.00 for a seven-day vehicle pass), but unfortunately was not working. Without any other options, we were forced to continue driving an extra half hour to reach the Furnace Creek area although camping options were available near Stovepipe Wells Village. (We passed several attractions on the way that we returned to the next day, such as the Mesquite sand dunes.)
After quickly claiming a campsite at Furnace Creek campgrounds, paying the camping fee ($18 or $12 depending on the time of year), and depositing some of our equipment, we hurried off to find a suitable location to watch the sunset. Quickly retracing some of our journey in the car, we came across another small salt flat and decided to explore it under the setting sun. Although I would have preferred to have had more time to scout out a spot and find that picture-perfect location, our adventure-filled day didn’t leave much time for photography preparation.
As the sun neared the horizon, its rays appeared deep red and orange against the opposing peaks and lit up the tips of the mountains. All the fabulous photographs that I’ve seen of sunsets in California state parks such as Yellowstone proved to be even more spectacular than I would have expected. Getting the opportunity to explore another salt flat up close was rather enjoyable as well, and this time patches of vegetation poked through the salt. Once again, the salt crust over the desert ground reminded me of a layer of snow. Sunset in Death Valley, and the next mornings sunrise, were two of my favorite moments of the entire California trip.
The day ended with our return to the campsite, and an absolutely delicious dinner of chicken and peppers. Despite a number of hilarious oversights in our packing, such as utensils for the grill or even cutlery, the meal proved to be one of the best dining experiences in my memory. I don’t know if it was our appetite or if the cheese-covered chicken and sweet, grilled peppers were simply that good, but by the time we lay down in awe of the stars, I was a very happy camper. I have never seen such a display of stars, and even spotted half a dozen shooting stars in the course of fifteen minutes. I can’t wait to return one day to the desert, if for no other reason than the crystal clear view of the night sky.