The largest National Park in the lower forty eight states, the hottest and driest place in the country, the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Death Valley is all of this and infinitely more, it has unique species evolved to suit it’s extreme desert environment, golden mountains line it’s horizon, and gargantuan sand dunes fill the valleys. Above all though, Death Valley is dangerous. Previously claiming an average of three fatalities annually, in recent years it’s gotten as high as sixteen. Though the heat isn’t the primary cause for death in the valley (it’s actually single car accidents), it still definitely plays a factor. Anyone who attempts hiking in the valley will immediately understand how dangerous it really is, and how quickly the heat can destroy you.
That being said, like all of them, Death Valley is a National Park for a reason. It’s an amazing place, with some incredible scenery. The best times to come are fall and spring, the winter is better for hiking, but there can be snow on the mountains. Hiking is incredibly risky in the summer, when temperatures can get above one hundred and thirty degrees. Luckily, there are a good number of view points and vistas situated a ways off the road as you drive through the park. Each offers spectacular canyon landscapes, and roadside pull offs help you capture the rest. The first thing you’ll come to if you’re driving in from Vegas is Dante’s View, a lookout about thirteen miles down a side road with some mind blowing scenery. Overlooking the Badwater Basin from six thousand feet, the jagged peaks of the Amargosa mountain range rise up all around you as you climb fifteen degree grades up into the sky. At the peak, you can look down into the basin, almost three hundred feet below sea level, with the Panamint mountains towering behind it. A fifteen minute hike up a dirt path behind the parking lot will take you up the summit of the mountain to a death defying overlook which juts out into the canyon. After climbing the ledge of the peak, less than a foot of loose gravel away from a six thousand foot drop, you’ll come to a thin strip of land bridge which leads fifty feet out to a jagged crown of dirty brown rock. The view is amazing, well worth the short hike up, however be warned; you’ll no doubt see the signs warning of this phenomenon, but the area is infested with thousands of bees. Enough of them to be classified as a “hazard” by the local variety of road sign.
Continuing on, you’ll pass the Golden Canyon, and some of the painted hills. The rock takes on a unique hue, metallic and reflective, it gleams golden bronze in the blistering sun. Mountains of shining gold jut out of the ground just off the road, the majority of their formidable size hidden underground, like a low floating iceberg. Further down the mountains begin to split into bands of brilliant color. Deep reds and bright oranges, yellow and turquoise, shades of blue and purple, as confusing as it is majestic. It’s like someone used the valley as a pallet, indecisively laying down swathes of color, trying to decide which would best suit the canyons. Stovepipe formations start to crop up, like lonely hoodoos they stick to the walls, cylindrical stacks of stone painted a sickly green, almost resembling patinated copper. Off in the distance the rolling sands of the valley’s many dunes can be seen lighting up on the horizon. Their glossy faces picking up the sun, throwing it back across the canyons and glinting a golden yellow.
There’s tons to see out in Death Valley just from the road, but if you really want to experience it, hiking is a must. That being said, it’s incredibly dangerous, and even if you don’t die, the heat can still incur brain damage and other maladies that are basically just terrible. They recommend each person bring at least a gallon of water, and that’s if you’re not hiking. The other thing to keep in mind is that the physical exertion will also rob your body of electrolytes, which you need to keep balanced with the amount of water you’re drinking. This isn’t usually a problem if you’re not hiking, but if you are, that imbalance can get bad quick if water is all you have. The amount you need to drink just to stay cool is way over the norm, and you’ll end up in bad shape unless you bring something to replenish electrolytes too, Gatorade should do the trick.
Moving on we arrived at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and it was almost one hundred and twenty degrees out. Andrew didn’t think he could make the hike due to the unreal conditions, so at this point I struck out alone into the dunes. Intending to conquer the peak of the dunes, which was about one and three quarter miles out from the road, I geared up with two full canteens and set out towards my goal. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my entire life. After walking for about five minutes I made it to the first dune, and upon crossing it, realized exactly how large the desert I was facing really was. The dune sloped gently down for at least a hundred feet, and by the time I reached the bottom the outside world had disappeared completely. All I could see was sand, in every direction. No matter which way I looked I was surrounded by dunes, lifeless and desolate, they stretched off into the distance for miles, the road lost far behind me. Where it not for the mountains just off the horizon, I might as well have been in the Sahara.
The journey to the central dune was amazing, the feeling of being lost in the desert, the grandeur of the shifting sand, it’s the stuff adventure is made of. Part of the reason I came out here at all was for this, some real high desert adventure, to be completely enveloped in the most intense landscapes North America has to offer, and boy did I get what I came for. No other hikers had dared attempt it, I was totally alone in the desert, and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Sweatier than I’ve ever been, I walked across the seemingly endless dunes with a solemn determination to reach my mark. The heat didn’t even seem so bad, I was lost in a sea of gold, guided by glimpses of sandy peaks towering hundreds of feet into the blue sky above me. The sand bunched up beneath my feet, each step disturbing it’s gleaming tranquil surface. The occasional shrub dotted the landscape, all of them about one strong gust away from becoming a tumbleweed, their dried husks clinging desperately to the boiling dunes. Finally, I made it to the central dune and began my ascent.
(It looks way smaller than it really isn’t. That’s about 200 feet.)
It was grueling. The sand is much lighter and looser than any dunes I’ve encountered before. Each step up creates a miniature sand slide, a few feet of the wall falling away beneath you as you disturb it from its restful tanning session. It’s like trying to climb a treadmill made of jello at more than sixty degrees of incline. The sand falls down over your feet, burying them in the side of the slope with each movement, holding them hostage with tremendous pressure. I was already exhausted halfway up, but the sand was at least three hundred degrees, if you stopped for more than a few seconds it would literally start to burn your skin. As I neared the top it got so steep I was forced to crawl the last fifty feet, burning my forearms as I went. Finally I made it to the peak, exhausted and overheating, I looked out onto the desert below, at the rolling sand and glistening valleys. Hiking along the ridge of the dune, I might as well have been leading a team of camels, the heat beating down on me as I deleriously snapped as many photos as I could, my hands still shaking from the climb. It was now that I realized the danger I was truly in. My core temperature had risen from the strenuous climb up, but now I couldn’t cool back down, and was essentially stuck in overdrive as I prepared for the journey back.
As I stepped back off the ridge I felt the ground give way beneath me, as my downward momentum triggered a massive sand slide which sent me gliding casually down the entire face of the dune. Reaching the bottom, I oriented myself, bracing for the journey ahead. At this point I still had an entire canteen left, but no matter how much I drank I couldn’t cool down, I could feel my body getting weaker as I trudged through the sand, following my foot prints back towards the relative safety of the road. It was on this, the return journey that I understood why so many die attempting to do just this, why I was the only hiker for miles around. About halfway back I started to feel chills, a sign of pending heat stroke, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a mistake in attempting the hike. Realizing the danger I would be in if I didn’t find a way to cool down, I took a risk and poured half of the remaining canteen over my head, a move that might have saved my life, as it allowed me to shed some of the heat I’d built up during the climb. Even so, it got harder and harder to keep going, near the halfway point I could feel my extremities going numb, the chill in my arms and legs was constant, and I could sense nausea coming on as well. There was a single thought in my mind at that point, making it back. Though the beauty of the desert was far from lost on me, whatever innocence it may have had was long gone. Death Valley seemed an ever more appropriate monicker as I climbed through the dunes, drenched in sweat and reveling in the sense of the adventure. Perhaps it was delerium, but even though I never stopped focusing on making it back in one semi-hydrated piece, I couldn’t help but enjoy even this, the return trip. I’ve never been so close to collapsing in my entire life, never had to push myself so hard just to move, but the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of being alone in such a spectacular environment, it’s one of the greatest adventures I’ve ever been on.
As is obvious, I made it back in one piece, safe, sound, and coated in really sweaty sand. Even though I played it safe, took plenty of water, made sure to stay in sightline of the road when possible, and paced myself accordingly, I still got lucky. Had I spent much more time out there, you could be reading a very different story right now. Under no circumstances should you underestimate Death Valley, the heat is no joke, and hiking in the dead of summer is incredibly risky. Make sure you take tons of water, protein, and something to replenish electrolytes. Make sure someone knows where you are and when you plan to be there. Know your route and your limits before even thinking about tackling these hikes, and be cautious what you take. Heavy gear can weigh you down and make any hike that much more strenuous, and out in the valley ten minutes can be the difference between life and death. Just recently a French couple died attempting to hike in the desert, they underestimated the heat and paid the ultimate price for it. This isn’t meant to dissuade you though, only to serve as a cautionary advisement. Death Valley is still a National Park, and it’s acquired such a prestigious designation for very good reasons. It’s a spectacular place, with gorgeous canyons of gold, miles of rippling dunes, brilliantly painted mountains, and unbelievable salt flats. It’s one of the most raw places I’ve ever encountered, it’s pure and savage, the perfect place for a real adventure.