Thunder Mountain Trail, Red Canyon, UT


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"Death Valley, the largest national park in the contiguous United States at nearly  
3.4 million acres, is bound on the west by the towering 11,049-foot Telescope Peak and on
the east by the 5,475-foot Dante's View. This fabled park features spectacular desert scenery,
unusual wildlife, and a rich human history. Also something for the record books: The
Badwater salt pan, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in N. America."
~ Oh, Ranger! 2015 printed guidebook to the park

Obviously, in one day we couldn't drive to and from China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and cover 3.4 million acres of terrain in Death Valley National Park . . . but we sure did hit the highlights!

Badwater Basin. Dante's View. Artist's Drive. Devil's Golf Course. Mesquite Flat. Furnace Creek. Stovepipe Wells. Emigrant. Towne Pass. Panamint Springs.

And more! I also did hikes at Natural Bridge, Golden Canyon, and Mosaic Canyon and walked out to several overlooks.

Jim looks out over Badwater Basin from Dante's Overlook, a difference of ~5,757 feet elevation.

Some of these names are familiar to ultra-distance runners who have either run or have read about the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile foot race -- run in July, no less -- from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the entire Western Hemisphere, to Whitney Portal at 8,000+ feet elevation.

Some of the runners continue up to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 states at 14,497 feet elevation, and back down to the Portal for a grand total of 157 miles.

Now you know why the event is conducted in July. It may be hot in the basin but at least there's a fighting chance that most of the snow will be melted on Whitney.

Colorful slopes and wildflowers in the Black Mountains along Badwater Road

Other spots will be familiar to folks who have visited or read about Death Valley previously. If you've been there, you probably won't ever forget them.

Some of the names and images from our visit today will be seared in our memories forever -- the expansive view of Death Valley from Dante's View, e.g., the jagged crystalline salt pinnacles at the Devil's Golf course that look like a coral reef run amuck, or the multicolored palette of mineral-rich hues in the rocks and canyons along Artist's Drive.

Above and below:  Turquoise and shades of green stand in contrast
to metallic colors of gray, black, white, brown, tan, and gold.

I use the word "sear" in the previous paragraph with some amusement, because on this last day of March it was already hot enough for us at the lower, very exposed elevations that we were grateful for a bit of shade on canyon trails and air conditioning in our car.

In contrast, it was rather chilly in the wind on Dante's Point at 5,475 feet elevation.

Since we seek out moderate temperatures year-round in our RV travels around the continent, we sure wouldn't want to be here in July when it can get up to the 120s F. or even 130s in Badwater Basin. Rangers encourage people to visit the park in the cooler months to avoid actually dying in Death Valley, and even then to carry plenty of water with them on hikes.


Curiosity, mainly, because we'd never been there in person. We enjoy adding to our list of units in the national park system, although we're not likely to visit all 400+ of them in our lifetime.

We were also intrigued with this park in particular because of the contrasts between high and low, the vast expanses of desert, the variety of eco-systems, the stark images we've seen of the dry salt bed in the basin -- and wondering why in the heck so many runners would want to do either the Badwater ultra or the same route on their own!

We know quite a few people who've run the official event or their own version of it, sometimes going out and back once (a "double" = either 135 or 157 miles x 2) or twice (a "quad" = multiply those distances by 4).

Why would anyone want to do that??

Relatively flat road through Badwater Basin at elevations below sea level

Jim and I used to run 50 to 100 miles or more on scenic mountainous dirt trails, or even around short loops for 24 or 48 hours at a time, but we were never interested in this event for any number of reasons -- it's paved, too damn hot, too long, too boring, too expensive, you have to have several people crew you, etc.

But we were interested in seeing where these folks run -- and now that we've seen most of the course, we're doggone impressed with their efforts!

The route is more scenic than I expected and also more difficult because of at least two passes the runners must negotiate in the second half of the race. Towne Pass (4,856 feet) would be tough to run or even drive with a large RV because you're starting near sea level on either side.

Part way up Towne Pass

Then running/walking up the Mt. Whitney Portal Road to 8,000+ feet elevation to the finish line after so many miles, let alone continuing on to the summit, isn't a picnic either.

Mountainous terrain doesn't scare Jim and me. In fact, that's the only appealing part of the Badwater event for us -- going up the trail on Mt. Whitney. It was mostly all that hot desert terrain and hard pavement that prevented us from ever running this event when we were still able to run ultras.


Here's a map of our route from China Lake/Ridgecrest (near the red Google Map teardrop) to Death Valley NP via CA 178 and Panamint Valley Road, east into the park on the main route (CA 190), out and back on Badwater Road (we turned around a couple miles beyond the boardwalk to the basin), out and back to Dante's View, then home via CA 190 through Panamint Springs, the vista point above Rainbow Canyon, over to the town of Olancha, and back to the Navy base on US 395 and CA 178:

Whew! That was 390 miles of driving and sight-seeing in about 12 hours, including my three short hikes totaling 2 miles.

(We had the dogs with us and Jim opted to stay in the car with them while I hiked. Dogs can't hike on trails in most national parks and it was too warm for them at the lower elevations anyway.)

CA 178 north through the Searles and Panament Valleys to Panamint Springs was less than ideal (two miles of rough gravel break, worse than any we've driven over in Alaska!) but the paved parts were smooth and there was minimal traffic on it this morning.

Mountains on either side of CA 178 all the way to Panamint Springs

We were glad we weren't hauling the Cameo through this rough gravel break.

We drove east and south on CA 190 through the park, noting the location of a couple places we wanted to see on the way back out.



Going down the east side from Towne Pass


Here's a map section from the park website that I'll use on each of the three pages of this entry to show the location of places we visited.

The yellow highlighting = the roads we were on. The red dot on this first map indicates the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, our usual first stop in any national park:

The visitor center has two areas with parking spots under roofs; we parked there so the dogs didn't roast while we were inside. We got a park brochure, looked at the exhibits, and confirmed what places we wanted to see/hike.

We already had the large visitor guide (like a newspaper) and had done research online so we pretty much knew what we wanted to see and do before we got there. Our limitation was primarily time.



Clear skies + far from any lights = a great place to see stars at night

Gold (L) and Borax (R) are two of the minerals mined in this area; borax is used
in a wide range of products from laundry detergents to electronic touchpads.

A ranger at the visitor center indicated the park was pretty full today (wildflower season + perfect spring weather) but we didn't have much of a problem parking anywhere we stopped.

The roads in the park were fairly smooth. However, there are virtually no shoulders for running or cycling. Although we took my bike so Jim could ride it from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin this morning, he didn't cycle because of all the traffic and narrow roadways.


We drove south on Badwater Road first, passing some colorful hills on the east side of the nice paved road; they are part of the Black Mountains in the Amargosa Range:


We stopped at the Golden Canyon Trail, where I walked in only 1/2 mile and back out. Its location is shown on the map section above at the *gold* dot I added near the number 8.

You can hike farther back than that to the Red Cathedral rock formations shown in the picture on the sign below, or do a loop that is 4+ miles long.

I was able to see the red columns in the distance before turning around:

Although many of the walls in the canyon are a pretty golden color that glows in the sun, other colors can be seen in some of the rocks, too:




We also saw that same variety of pretty pastel colors along nearby Artist's Drive, too. (Scenes from that loop on the next page . . .)


Coming back out to the parking area:


View across Death Valley toward the Panamint Range

Jim stayed in the car with the dogs. There was a good breeze at all of our stops so he didn't get too hot in the car while I did several short hikes at various places in the park.

I encouraged him to go on any of the hikes either before or after me while I watched the dogs but he declined except to walk out to see the views from Dante's Overlook, Mesquite Dunes overlook, and other sights near some parking areas where we stopped briefly.


Next we headed down to the Badwater Basin viewing area, marked #3 at the lower right on the map section above. The Black Mountains were on our left and we could see the vast white salt pan in the distance for ten miles or more:

There is a large parking area on the right and a long boardwalk that leads visitors toward the salt pan.

Because of the heat and the dogs in our car, we parked just long enough to read some of the interpretive panels and take photos from the upper and lower viewing areas:


I was surprised to see a bit of water on either side of the observation area; bet it's salty!

Badwater Basin is 258 feet below sea level, the lowest place in the U.S. and the seventh-lowest place on earth. The very lowest is the Dead Sea at 1,360 feet below sea level.

Visitors can walk across any or all of the five miles across the basin if they want. It doesn't look like it's that far but that's what one of the NPS signs says:

Above and below:  Several dozen people were out on the salt pan
while we were there; we could see some who were out quite far.

From this lowest point in the park you can look west across the basin to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet.

I was surprised there wasn't more snow on top:


We drove a couple miles south past the observation area so we could get closer to the salt pan:

Badwater Road continues south for another 55 miles or so, curving east in the southern end of the park and ending at CA 127 near Shoshone, CA.

Continued on the next page:  Natural Bridge Trail, Devil's Golf Course, and colorful Artist's Palette Loop

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2016 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil