Without a tripod, I wasn’t able to capture any photos of the night sky after our travels the day before through Red Rock Canyon State Park and across salt flats, but beneath the stars, out in the middle of the desert, I slept quite soundly. It was difficult getting up the next morning before the sunrise, and as difficult as it was to force myself awake, I had to remind myself of how few times I’d be afforded the same opportunity. Indeed, it proved to be the most fabulous sunrise I’ve had the privilege to see since my travels in the Galapagos.
From the Texas Spring campsite area, I hoped in the car to find a bit more wilderness. Without a real plan and only half an hour til the sun would break over the horizon, I drove a bit North until I found a patch that featured both mountains and sand dunes. After parking the car by the side of the road, I scrambled up sun dune after sun dune seeking the best shots. Of course, halfway through my photography mission my battery died. I have several backups, but of course that required a quick back track to the car. Note to self – spare batteries are useless if you don’t keep them close! Similar to the sunset the day before, the sun near the horizon light up the mountains in bright red coloring and provided a magnificent contrast to the still dark valley.
While I had no reason to complain about the spot that I had chosen to watch the spectacular sunrise, several other locations are supposed to be fantastic. Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, and the sand dunes are a few of the most popular places for watching the sunrise.
Death Valley National Park received its name from a group of lost pioneers in the mid nineteenth century. Although traveling in the winter, and only one of the expedition died, the foreboding desert landscape caused the name to stick. Many travelers attempting the trip in the summer, however, did die of heat and thirst. Many ‘boomtowns’ arose as prospectors sought out gold and silver, leaving behind ghost towns when miners moved on. (Find other FAQs on the Death Valley National Park website.)
The desert basin that comprises Death Valley is the lowest, hottest, and driest place in the entire United States! Most websites advise visitors to limit their trips to the months October to April to avoid the dangerous hiking temperatures. Even at the end of February the sun was brutal and great care had to be taken not to let ourselves become too dehydrated. The map below traces our route, in green, starting at Furnace Creek, heading down to the Golden Canyon trail, through Artist’s Drive, back up to the Mesquite Flat sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, up to Titus Canyon, and finally to Scotty’s Castle.
Although reading through the provided park pamphlet several times over breakfast, we had a difficult time planning out our activities for the day before we headed to Las Vegas. I would strongly suggest visitors to plan out their stay ahead of time and so some background research online before the trip – whether it be the confusing nature of the pamphlet (it’s very difficult to locate the location of trails on the map) or that there are just too many options without definite highlights, it was much more challenging than I expected to determine which route to take and which trails to attempt. Check out a list of the different hiking trails with brief descriptions or some of the park’s highlights.
I did my best to take advantage of the little service I did have on my phone, and we decided upon the short 1 mile Golden Canyon Interpretative Trail and the longer Titus Canyon Narrows trail. The Golden Canyon trail, only one mile one way, is located near the well-known Badwater salt flats and provides an easy trail through impressive, colorful canyons. A particularly bright red portion, called the Red Cathedral, can be additionally reached by following the trail an extra quarter mile. This extra sight is more than worth the time and energy, with the yellow and orange slopes giving away to the looming deep red oxidized rocks. This coloring results from weathering, which oxidizes the iron in the rock.
According to this site, the yellow rock formations consist mostly of siltstone and mudstone from the Furnace Creek formation. The red cathedral belongs to the Funeral formation that are remnants from the dry climate of the Pilocene period, roughly 2.5 to 5.3 million years ago. The alluvial fan was cemented into fanglomerate and its color derived over time.
The trail was surprisingly easy, we even passed a number of tour groups and elderly individuals strolling along the canyon, admiring the towering cliffs. Probably due to my habit of frequently stopping to capture photos, it took us the better part of two hours to reach the Red Cathedral and return. Most guides suggest leaving one to three hours to complete the trail.
Next up on the agenda was the one way car route called Artist’s Drive. It’s about nine miles long, and consists of a narrow drive through sharp peaks. The popular stretch called the Artist’s Palette is located about seven miles in to the drive. It’s best to visit in the late afternoon light so that the colors really come alive, but it was still a treat under the afternoon sun. The majority of the hills are formed by sedimentary and volcanic rock, but the portion called Artist’s Palette features colors ranging from purple to green. It was difficult to capture the view in pictures during the drive, and is undoubtedly an experience better seen in person. Since the loop is one way, it’s best to visit while driving north from Badwater.
After enjoying Artist’s Drive, we continued north towards Stovepipe Wells Village. I had noticed a great stretch of sand dunes during the drive in to the park the day before, and since time restraints had prevented a detour at the time, we opted to backtrack slightly. Devil’s Cornfield is another popular attraction near Stovepipe Wells, with the name referring to a species of arroweed whose roots are exposed upon the nearby sand dunes being blown away. This produces a form that resembles a cornfield. While we opted not to stop, photos of Devil’s Cornfield can be found on this site.
When we arrived at the sand dunes, we found out that they were a part of the Mesquite Sand Dunes. These dunes are the best well-known and easiest to visit in Death Valley, located just near Stovepipe Wells. The dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star-shaped. Some of the other sand dunes in the park include the Eureka, Saline Valley, Panamint, and Ibex Dunes. More information about these can be found here, within the park website.
Since it was the middle of the day, it only took a few minutes of adventuring out on the dunes to feel the heat. Nonetheless, I was determined to complete Bucket List #259: Play in the desert sand. To this end, I proceeded to make snow angels in the warm sand. Even though it was only the end of February, the heat was a bit intense to allow for a substantial hike, and we returned to the car before too long. I, of course, did take the time to snap a few dozen photos and collect some of the desert sand for later souvenirs.
As we traveled onward to the Titus Canyon trail, I played with a couple of the souvenirs I had picked up from the Furnace Creek gift shop, including a small magnifying lens and a wooden ornament. I had purchased the ‘adventure tool’, which included the magnifying glass, for three year old Christian, but I got quite a bit of fun out of it during the trip. I found it really hard to focus correctly with only one hand (as the other held up the magnifying glass) and it took many tries for only a handful of pictures. In the end, it was easier to move the magnifying glass to find focus than try to focus on the magnifying glass itself.
As for the California ornament, I tried using its form against the landscape as we drove. The views of the desert and nearby cliffs hardly need extra tidbits to enhance the experience, but several hours of driving can lead anyone to experiment. Along with my attempts at being creative, I took a nap along the drive north.
The Titus Canyon trail is located about three miles off of Scotty’s Castle Road, where the trail begins as the road turns from two way to one way in the opposite direction. There is a parking lot located at this point. Titus Canyon Road is not paved, but the trip can be made at a slow pace by most vehicles. The full twelve mile driving trip through Titus Canyon can be approached from Highway 374 and is described in more depth by Curtis Von Fange. This route has the advantage of passing through the ghost town of Leadfield. Somehow we failed to see signs for the trail itself, and walked along the one way road for a number of miles. While perhaps not the scenic route described in the park brochure, we managed to have a number of laughs along the way.
We walked roughly three miles on the road before retracing our steps to the car. The hike took longer than planned, so we hurried on to our next destination, Scotty’s Castle, without any detours in between. We unfortunately arrived too late to take the fifty minute official tour (see the tour schedule for more details), but could still wander around the grounds and enjoy the architecture.
“Hidden in the green oasis of Grapevine Canyon in far northern Death Valley, the Death Valley Ranch, or Scotty’s Castle as it is more commonly known, is a window into the life and times of the Roaring 20′s and Depression 30′s. It was and is an engineer’s dream home, a wealthy matron’s vacation home and a man-of-mystery’s hideout and getaway. Walter Scott, Death Valley Scotty, convinced everyone that he had built the castle with money from his rich secret mines in the area. Albert Mussey Johnson actually built the house as a vacation getaway for himself and his wife Bessie. Scotty was the mystery, the cowboy, and the entertainer, but he was also a friend. Albert was the brains and the money. Two men as different as night and day, from different worlds and with different visions - who shared a dream.” (Death Valley Park website)
The building itself was lovely, and includes a swimming pool area, the Chimes Tower once tasked with storing the necessary hot water, the main house, and many examples of Spanish architecture.
Following our wanderings around Scotty’s Castle, we continued on to Las Vegas. Arriving after nightfall, it was really neat driving through the pitch black desert into a city bursting with lights.
Read about the previous day’s adventure in Red Rock Canyon State Park and Death Valley, find more entries from the entire California trip or check out photos from my completed Bucket List. Plus, plenty of other adventures can be found on the Travel page of my site!