This would prove to be our busiest and most exciting day of the trip. We got up at 6:20am, and painstakingly made chocolate-chip pancakes one at a time in our tiny pot from an add-water-only mix. They were surprisingly tasty.
Liberal usage of deodorant kept us from knocking each other out :).
Flowers and Flats
Our first planned destination was the salt flats at the bottom of the valley, but we stopped along the way to check out the amazing wildflowers. The flats themselves were pretty amazing: blindingly white, and, well, remarkably flat and salty. Badwater, at the bottom of it all, is the most bizarre. It’s the lowest and hottest point in the U.S. (and hence a big tourist draw), and yet it encompasses a huge lake, fed underground by springs from the surrounding mountains. Of course, this wouldn’t be Death Valley if it were just any old lake: it’s unbelievably salty and unfit for just about all life, save some surface-skimming insects and one species of snail. You’ve gotta feel bad for the explorers who thought they had found salvation in this hellish place in the form of an inviting, placid lake, only to find out that even their mules wouldn’t touch the water. We tried the water and it tasted great, by the way, as salty things generally do when you’ve been out in the sun; just don’t expect it to quench your thirst.
Devil’s Golf Course
A mile north of Badwater is an equally bizarre salt-influenced terrain. It had the interesting property of looking totally different depending on how close you were. Up close, the salt ridges almost look like mountain ranges, and even closer the beauty and complexity of the salt formations is apparent, but if you step back, together they’re unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Golden Canyon is like Titus from the day before, except generally more colorful and interesting. It’s one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley. At the end is the Red Cathedral, a huge sheer rock face. Surprisingly few of the hikers we met along the way made it all the way to the Cathedral, even thought the hike is only about 1.5 miles each way. We found this a disappointing illuminator of the average American tourist. On the hike up I got to do some amateur bouldering; check out the first picture for an animation of one little attempt (it may take a bit for the images to load). We ended up running back down this one too, but this time I let Naveen take off his shirt instead ;).
Salt Creek is another beautifully cruel trick, as salty as the sea. It’s also host to the entire population of the endangered Salt Creek pupfish, the only fish that was able to handle the creek’s gradual transition from freshwater to salt. It was pretty sobering to see the whole population of a species in one location. If the creek dries up or gets damaged, these little guys are goners for all time.
Keane Wonder Mine
The sun was already beginning its afternoon descent, and we still wanted to check out the sand dunes, but we decided to try hiking up to the Keane Mine first. It was an amazingly steep hike; the elevation change was something like 1500 feet in a mile. To get a sense of this, check out the huge wood structures supporting the ore tramway in the first picture, when we were about a fifth of the way up the trail, and try to find them in the second picture. They’re not the ones left of center, which were much higher up; they’re the miniscule ones to the right of center, just above the tiny parking lot. We ended up having to turn back with only .2 miles to go before the top, because our camping situation that night was tenuous enough that we couldn’t risk setting out after nightfall, but we did get a glimpse of a mine entrance and some spectacular views of the valley. We didn’t go into the mine. As our guidebook said, “All mine tunnels and shafts are extremely dangerous — cave-ins, poisonous gas, rattlesnakes and abandoned explosives constitute only the most obvious threats — and should not be entered.” I was convinced.
The Sand Dunes
Our last stop of the day was at the sand dunes in the center of the valley. I have no idea why they formed (and didn’t spread), but there they are, occupying several acres and surrounded by a mostly barren dirt landscape. The sand was incredibly fine, and going barefoot and sinking my toes in felt great… probably one of the most pleasant experiences of the trip. Some of the patterns in the sand were mesmerizing, and we also saw several animal tracks. On our way back, there was this curious scene of a large number of photographers snapping shots of two Asian models. I wonder what it was for.
We wanted to change things up for our last night in the valley, and since we were planning on doing some mountain hiking the next day, we drove up to an altitude of about 5500 feet, and hiked over to a meadow-esque area between two of the biggest peaks in Death Valley, Telescope (11000+ ft) and Wildrose (9000+). It was noticeably chillier up there, and at night I think the temperature dipped well below 40. During the hike we noticed several strange single-track trails through the brush, and couldn’t figure out what had caused them. This mystery would be solved the next morning. We made our last meal of mac and cheese (and canned pineapple chunks), and were in our sleeping bags by 9pm.