Family Trip to Death Valley

Yosemite is sold out, so let’s go to Death Valley…
What’s in Death Valley?
I dunno, pretty rocks?
That’s cool, I’m into pretty rocks.

Ok, so I’m taking liberties with our conversation, but that’s kind of how I remember it going when we decided to schedule our family trip to Death Valley. The story goes that Death Valley received its name from a “family” trip gone bad. Actually it was a group of pioneers in the ‘49er era that were traveling through the Valley to the gold mines, when they got lost in the Valley and found themselves with out food or water trying to sustain themselves against the inhospitable climate. Not all the travelers made it out the Valley alive and it is rumored as the Valley became small behind them, one of the men whispered “goodbye death valley” and the name stuck.

Death Valley is still hot and the food is still quite lacking (don’t get me started….), in July of 1913, the temperature tipped the charts at a cool 134 degrees Fahrenheit. So when I told people I was going to Death Valley, I got a very confused “WHY?” However, despite the heat and the food, Death Valley really is quite a beautiful place; the topography is not only gorgeous, but also very interesting. Each morning, we were up before the sun and were able to see much of the Valley before the masses littered the landscape and our pictures. The first morning, we started out with a sunrise view of Zabriskie Point. So if you are a history buff (if not just skim through the pretty pictures, it’s kewl, I do it too), other than its heat and natural beauty, Death Valley’s other claim to fame is its Borax mines. Borax is a naturally occurring element that is used in laundry detergents, production of fiberglass and borosilicate glass. The element Boron also has “powerful abilities to stengthen, toughen and make fire-resistant glasses, metals, wood, and fibers It is used in appoximately three hundred high-tech products.” In the early 1900’s Christian B. Zabriskie was an instrumental figure in the mining and distribution of Borax. Zabriskie’s Point honors the man who dedicated much of his life to Death Vally. I’m not exactly a morning person and my pre-dawn coffee hadn’t quite started to kick in as the sun began to kiss the mountains at Zabriskie’s when all questions of why people visit Death Valley were erased.

From Zabriskie’s we took the short drive to Dante’s View (many of the sites in Death Valley have some sort of death or devil connection, it’s a bit ominous, but not really). At Dante’s View a short hike to the farther peak gives you a fantastic view of the Badwater Salt Flats. Yep, that’s salt down there, not snow or water, but more on that in a minute…

After feeling returned to our fingers from being outside at Dante’s view (and they said Death Valley was supposed to be hot!) we headed down the road to get an up close view of the Badwater Basin . Badwater really is an incredible site to see. The snow-like salt flats stretch to the horizon and at -282 feet below sea level, Badwater hosts the lowest elevation in North America.


Golden Canyon was next. Pulling to the side of the road you see blood red peaks, against the crests of “golden mountains.” I had never done a canyon hike before and I have to say it was quite enjoyable. Being sandwiched between two great walls of rocks made me feel so small. Plus you couldn’t see what was beyond each turn, so it was kind of like opening a little present for your eyes each time you rounded the corner. Golden Canyon is an easy hike of less than 3 miles round trip. At the end of the Golden Canyon trail you find the Red Cathedral, more strikingly red rocks set against a gorgeous blue sky… Ya the photographer in me was totally geeking out at this point…

Mom trekking through the canyon

One of the things that impressed me about Death Valley was its accessibility. I have a number of friends where accessibility is an issue; however, with clean bathrooms, parking lots near many of the key sites and wheelchair accessible paths, the park services have made it possible for most anyone to view the sites. “Artist’s Drive” is a particular example of something you are able to see without expending too much energy (which is particularly nice after waking up at say 4am and hiking around for half a day). The 9-mile loop of Artist’s Drive is a nicely paved road that takes you through a series of mountains that literally look painted. The pinnacle of Artist’s Drive opens up to a rest stop and view of “Artist’s Palette.” We were oohing and ahhing the whole drive, but when our eyes rested on Artist’s Palette all three of us fell quite. Artist’s Palette is simply beautiful. “On the face of the Black Mountains, Artist’s Palette is noted for having various colors of rock. These colors are caused by the oxidation of different metals (red, pink and yellow is from iron salts, green is from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and manganese produces the purple).”

brother titled this one a bunch of old crows.... they were really sweet ladies, but I love the title!

Our last site of the day took us to Harmony Borax Works. A hub of the Borax processing industries from way back in the 1800’s.

Day 2 started with a hike along the Death Valley Sand Dunes… ‘Cause there’s nothing more that I love, than exercise at 6 something in the morning (please note the hint of sarcasm)… I admit, few things will get me up pre-dawn, but this was pretty cool. You kind of had the feel of trekking through the Sahara’s, without the expensive plane ticket. For more information on how the sand dunes were formed click here


Just one more peak mom would say… just one more peak… Brother would say… “Mom you realize the further out we go out, the further it is to get back?” At one point daughter (that’s me) was ready to take a breather and make sand angeles… Sand Angeles in Death Valley, darn it, next time!!

Most of the rest of the day was spent at Scotty’s Castle. Built in the same era as Hurst’s Castle, unlike Hurst’s Castle, Scotty’s castle was not built for show. Actually there are a lot of fun stories around Scotty’s Castle and you should really read about some of them here. But the cliff notes version is that Scotty’s Castle was really the Death Valley Ranch, built by Albert and Bessy Johnson to be their private “getaway.” Well somehow word got out that there was a castle being built in the middle of the dessert and all of a sudden hundreds of people started showing up at their door! Being the kind soles that they were, rather than turn the hordes of excited visitors away, the Johnsons decided to allow their friend Walter “Scotty” Scott play host and give the people the entertainment that they were craving. Hailing from the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Scotty was not only a conman, but also an entertainer at heart. The story of the construction of the “castle,” was that it was funded and built atop Scotty’s gold mine. To complete the experience of the story, the workers in the basement of the ranch would make noises to make visitors feel like they were indeed sitting atop a working gold mine.

All in all, I have to say Death Valley was a great destination for the adventurous family trip. Three nights (or 3 Knights haha, mom’s pun of our last names and I love it) was the perfect amount of time in Death Valley. Just long enough to see many of the key sites, but not so long that you run the chance of starving. So, if you decide to make the trip out to Death Valley, pack lots of film (ya I know who uses film any more) and lots of snacks… or prepare to live on trail mix!

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