Four days in Death Valley National Park

Although Death Valley National Park is only a six-hour drive from Flagstaff I have never visited the park. That finally changed the first week of January when we made a four-day visit. We left Flagstaff well before sunrise so that we could arrive in the park around noon time and then spend the afternoon visiting sites and hiking.

One of our first stops was the well-known Zabriskie Point. Many photographs have been taken here—as well as a movie by the same name—and these images should look familiar as a result. From there we went to the visitors center to get some ideas for the afternoon. We ended up on Artists Drive—known for its multicolored rocks.

Zabriskie Point.
Zabriskie Point.

 

Artist's Drive.
Artist’s Drive.

 

The highlight of the day was a late afternoon and early evening visit to Badwater Basin—a salt flat that contains the lowest elevation in North America (282 feet below sea level). The salt flats are noted for the hexagonal salt crust that forms after rains and standing water evaporate. We arrived as the sun was setting and began with the warm colors of sunset and transformed into the cool colors of early evening. Wonderful!

Sunset colors at Badwater Basin.
Sunset colors at Badwater Basin.

 

Twilight colors at Badwater Basin.
Twilight colors at Badwater Basin.

 

Delicate salt crystals, Badwater Basin.
Delicate salt crystals, Badwater Basin.

 

The next day started with a sunrise photo session on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Well, not quite sunrise—we were a few minutes late! The morning light was quite nice on the dunes but what I really wanted was sand without footprints. A bit of searching turned up this nice bit of pristine sand.

 

Morning light at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Morning light at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

 

Panorama of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Panorama of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

We followed that with an afternoon hike up Fall Canyon (near the better known Titus Canyon). Fall Canyon is accessible by foot traffic only and has more of a backcountry feel than its neighbor. The canyon reaches a pour-over that can be passed with a bit of climbing and scrambling. This leads to a narrow, serpentine, water-polished section of the canyon that is truly magnificent. Hikers that turn back at the pour-over are missing a great section—perhaps even the best section—of the canyon.

Massive walls and slots of Fall Canyon.
Massive walls and slots of Fall Canyon.

 

Narrow slots of Fall Canyon.
Narrow slots of Fall Canyon.

 

We returned to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes after dark to stargaze and create star trail photographs of the night sky with the dunes lighted by the crescent moon.

Star trails over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Star trails over Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

 

Another morning, another visit to the sand dunes and this time we were there well before sunrise. The temperature was probably around 40 degrees—which was fine as long as there was no breeze. There was a breeze. The sunrise colors on the dunes were spectacular and we were rewarded with these delicately sculpted dunes with beautiful interplay between light and shadow.

Delicately sculpted dunes at sunrise.
Delicately sculpted dunes at sunrise.

 

Morning light at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
Morning light at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

 

After a quick lunch we went to Mosaic Canyon. This is a slot canyon best known for its smooth and polished marble. After a short hike through the marble narrows the canyon appeared to be blocked by rockfall but a bypass was possible to one side—and onwards we went finding another section of narrows.

Polished marble of Mosaic Canyon.
Polished marble of Mosaic Canyon.

 

The second narrows in Mosaic Canyon.
The second narrows section in Mosaic Canyon.

We paid a visit to the Furnace Creek Ranger Station to get some information and came away with some great hiking ideas. So, late in the afternoon we headed to Salt Creek. This is a running—albeit salty—creek through the desert. We were astonished at the marvelous riparian zone and wetlands formed by this creek. We finished the hike with very nice sunset colors over the peaks and reflected in the waters.

Salt Creek—water in Death Valley.
Salt Creek—water in Death Valley.

 

Sunset along the Salt Creek Trail.
Sunset along the Salt Creek Trail.

Our last hike was in the lightly visited Sidewinder Canyon. The attraction here is the many small side canyons that are exceptionally narrow and deep with little light penetrating downwards. Flashlights are useful here.

Narrow side canyon in Sidewinder Canyon.
Narrow side canyon in Sidewinder Canyon.

 

Salt flats in the south end of the valley.
Salt flats in the south end of the valley.

And, then, it was time to drive home. We very much enjoyed the days of hiking in pleasant weather in the middle of winter. I would like to return—soon—and visit many of the other wonderful locations in Death Valley National Park.

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