s/y Nine of Cups
Death Valley National Park, California
May 2012
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Death Valley is the largest national
park in the contiguous 48 states,
comprised of nearly 3.4 million
acres of desert wilderness.
The lowest point in the US is Badwater  Basin in Death Valley at an altitude of  -282' below sea
level. It's also the hottest place with ground temp 40% higher than surrounding
air temps in summer.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest place in the
USA. In 1913, Furnace Creek recorded a
temperature of 134°F, the second highest
temperature ever recorded in the world. Rainfall
averages less than 2 inches per year.
In 1849, a group of gold rush
pioneers entered the valley thinking
it was a shortcut to the gold fields
of California. After barely surviving
the trek across the desert, they
named this area "Death Valley".
Death Valley was declared a
national monument in 1933, but did
not become a national park until
Just outside of Beatty, Nevada is Death Valley's largest ghost town, Rhyolite. We decided to visit and since
we were all alone, it really was a bit "ghostly". Established in 1905 after prospectors discovered gold, the town
once had a population estimated ~10,000. By 1920, after several financial crises, the population had decreased
to 14. There's not much roaming around to be done as the US Parks Service has cordoned off many of the
buildings which are dilapidated...not to mention several signs with rattlesnake warnings. We did wander around
in the lonesome, parched cemetery. Off the side of the road nearby, were several large sculptures just kind of
sitting out in the desert. They are part of the
Goldwell Open-Air Museum and were quite off the wall.
Prospector Walter Scott aka “Death Valley Scotty”, claimed this elaborate Spanish Colonial Revival style
villa located in the Grapevine Mountains of northern Death Valley was built with the gold from his fictitious
mine. In actuality, it was built in 1922 by his millionaire friends, the Johnsons.  The villa is now part of the
national park and maintained by the park service. Scotty was buried on the property at the top of the hill
overlooking his castle.
The Ubehebe Crater was formed just a few
thousand years ago by a massive volcanic
explosion which left this 600 foot deep crater.
After discovery of borax deposits in 1881,   
"large-scale" borax mining in Death Valley
began. The Harmony operation became famous
through the use, from 1883 to 1889, of large
Twenty-mule teams and double wagons which
hauled borax the long overland route to the
closest railroad in Mojave, California.
So what is borax anyway?
Borax, also known as sodium borate,
sodium tetraborate, or disodium
tetraborate, is an important boron
compound, a mineral, and a salt of boric
acid. It is usually a white powder
consisting of soft colorless crystals that
dissolve easily in water.

Borax has a wide variety of uses. It is a
component of many detergents,
cosmetics, and enamel glazes. It is also
used to make buffer solutions in
biochemistry, as a fire retardant, as an
anti-fungal compound for fiberglass, as a
flux in metallurgy, neutron-capture
shields for radioactive sources, a
texturing agent in cooking, and as a
precursor for other boron compounds.
  ...from Wikipedia
Death Valley Days
One of the longest-running Western
series, originating on radio in the 1930s,
DVD revolved around western stories
and legends based, and filmed, in and
around Death Valley, CA . One of the
hosts, actor Ronald Reagan, left his role
to become Governor (then President).
The continuing sponsor was "20 Mule
Team" Borax, a product mined in Death
When seen from Dante's View nearly a mile
above it,  Badwater Basin in the valley floor
below looks expansive and breathtaking. The
temperature difference was about 50°F and a
welcome respite.
Entering Death Valley National Park
Surviving in Extremes
The Park Service issues lots of
warnings and reminders about
taking survival in Death Valley
  • Drink lots of water to
    avoid dehydration
  • Realize the signs of
    dehydration (dizziness,
    nausea, headaches) and
    get out of the sun if you
    experience them.
  • Don't hike at low
    elevations when it's hot...
    ground temps are  
    significantly higher than
    air temps.
  • Watch out for dangerous
    critters. The desert is
    shared by rattlesnakes,
    scorpions and black
    widow spiders.
  • Watch out for old mining
    shafts and tunnels.
  • Whenever there is rain,
    watch out for flash floods
    which occur without
  • Make sure your vehicle
    is in good working order.
  • Leave only footprints;
    take only photos.
Artist's Drive is a scenic loop through a deep
canyon cut into the Black Mountains. Above,
the Artist's Palette is especially beautiful and is
noted for having various colors of rock caused
by the oxidation of different metals within it.
Red, pink and yellow is from iron salts, green is
from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and
manganese produces the purple.
Clumps of arrowweed at a distance  in the
Devil's Cornfield really do resemble corn
shocks tied up for harvesting.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes rise nearly a 100'
from the Mesquite Flat. Ripples and ridges
are accented in the sun and shadows.
Sidewinder rattlesnakes also like the area
around the dunes.
Iin the early 1800's, a small
number of burros escaped or
were turned loose by
prospectors. The burros
adapted to the desert
conditions quickly and their
numbers soared to over
3000... not good for the native
bighorn sheep who compete in
the same scant grazing area.
Parks Service has reduced the
burro population significantly.
Despite the extreme temperatures and arid
conditions, beautiful things thrive like the
desert thorn apple datura above. Beautiful,
but a deadly member of the nightshade family.
Though our timing was off, we are thrilled to have
spent time in Death Valley. We visited at the very
end of the season when the temps were rising and
hiking was not prudent. We suspect that if we
visited a month or two earlier, it would have been
cooler and more hospitable. We missed the
desert in bloom and in a 2-wheel drive vehicle we
were limited as to which roads we could traverse.
That said, well worth the time and effort to get
there and highly recommended.

Next we'll head to
Sequoia and King's Canyon
National Parks with a few stops along the
way...like the Trona Pinnacles, for instance.
Come with us...we appreciate your company.
More National Parks and Monuments?

More American Odyssey trip?

Roadside Americana?

Birds of North America?

Wildflowers of North America?
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