I just returned from a recent trip to Death Valley, a place I usually visit twice a year. The typical reaction of friends who haven’t been to Death Valley is: Why would I want to travel to such a desolate and hot area that has nothing but sand dunes and rocks?
I don’t disagree; it certainly has those elements, but it’s also a place of great beauty, diversity and contrasts.
Death Valley is an extraordinary place of extremes that includes the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level, and the place where the highest temperature on record, 134 degrees, was recorded on July 10, 1913. Rainfall averages a little over 2 inches a year and the warmest months of triple-digit temperatures are May to September. December is usually the coldest month of the year with an average temperature of 65 degrees. During my recent stay in late November, the temperature was between 70 and the low 80s.
It’s a place to experience wildness and a place to hike into an expanse of 3.4 million acres of colorful rock formations, sand dunes, and strange and unusual landscapes. The light that enters Death Valley creates a medium for exciting photography where land and sky seem to come together in a way that creates dramatic images.
While in Death Valley, I usually stay in an area called Stove Pipe Wells, one of the three areas within Death Valley that has lodging and services; the other two are Furnace Creek and Panamint Springs. It’s a short distance from Stove Pipe Wells to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which is one of my favorite areas for hiking and photography. The sand dunes continuously change shape and form as the light and shadow move along the dunes at sunrise and sunset. As you hike along the sand dunes in the early morning, you occasionally come across the tracks of coyotes, sidewinders and lizards that are active during the night hours but are not usually seen during the day.
In addition to the Mesquite Sand Dunes, I spent time during my trip retracing some familiar areas as well as venturing into unfamiliar locations outside the boundaries of the park. The areas I visited this time included Dante’s View, the Devil’s Golf Course, Ash Meadows, the ghost town of Rhyolite, and the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction.
One area that provides a spectacular view of Death Valley is Dante’s View, south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Rising more than 5,000 feet above the valley, Dante’s View looks down into the surreal landscape of vast salt flats on the valley floor. As the sun rises, the patterns of the salt formations continuously change and shift with the changing light.
Not far from Dante’s View is the Devil’s Golf Course, an area of immense rock salt formations eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. Minerals and sediments left over from Ice Age lakes and carried by rare floods are deposited on the valley floor and when the water evaporates, these formations emerge.
The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge just outside the eastern boundary of the park is an area of 23,000 acres of spring-fed wetlands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The water that feeds the springs is transported from more than 100 miles away by a vast natural underground aquifer system. Because this is such a unique environment, it is considered as a Wetlands of International Importance.
The ghost town of Rhyolite, just outside the northeast boundary of the park, grew quickly during the gold rush of the early 1900s and had a population of nearly 10,000 at its peak. After the gold rush ended, it began to decline. And by 1920, Rhyolite’s population had disappeared. Today, you can still walk among the ruins of this once-thriving town in the desert.
The highlight of my trip was attending a musical performance at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, a remote area just southeast of the park. The opera house was an abandoned Pacific Coast Borax building that a 43-year-old ballet dancer from New York City, Marta Becket, saw and decided to develop into an opera house in 1967. She gave up her life as an artist in New York and spent seven years renovating and painting murals that evoke the Renaissance period on every inch of the interior of the building.
Initially, Becket would perform her ballet to an empty building except for the audience that she painted on the walls. Eventually, she was featured in Life Magazine and National Geographic, and was the subject of a documentary film that was nominated for an Academy Award. She gained a following and continued to perform until she broke her hip last February at age 88.
I was fortunate to be in the area on a Sunday afternoon and found out that I could attend a performance later that afternoon of a jazz singer and piano player. There were only three of us in the audience, but the performance was outstanding and we were surrounded by the murals of extraordinary beauty.
It seemed so strange to be sitting there in that remote place of Renaissance art listening to the music of Gershwin and Bernstein; but that is an example of the unusual experience one can find sometimes when traveling on roads less traveled, and Death Valley is one of those roads.