Updated: Apr 23
We covered a lot of ground on our first day in Death Valley. Our second day would not disappoint either. While we had perfect weather (hot but sunny) on Day 1, we had mostly cloudy skies and lots of wind on Day 2.
We woke up early again in Stovepipe Wells, California, and set out to find breakfast at The Ranch at Death Valley in Furnace Creek. When we rolled up, it was quite the sight to behold. Strange, to say the least, to suddenly see dozens of palm trees and sprawling mission/adobe-style buildings divided by paved streets and concrete curbs right in the middle of Death Valley, which is basically never-ending rocky terrain and desolate, desert landscapes.
The Ranch also has The Borax Museum, which was closed, but we did wander around the outdoor displays.
The breakfast ended up being a buffet, which is fine, but the food wasn't that great. We made do and got back on the road, heading a short distance on the highway to unique and picturesque Zabriskie Point.
These "otherworldy," undulating badlands were created by a mix of "violent action of water and earthquakes." From the interpretive sign on site:
"Three to five million years ago – before the deepest part of Death Valley had formed – shimmering lakes filled a long, mountain-rimmed valley here. Fine silt and volcanic ash washed into the lake, settling to the bottom, ultimately creating the thick deposit of clay, sandstone, and siltstone that make up the Furnace Creek Formation. These once-level layers are being tilted by seismic activity and pressure that is folding the ancient valley's floor. As the layers uplifted and were exposed, periodic rainstorms cause powerful gullywashers that erode the soft rocks into the chaotic yet strangely beautiful landscape we see today."
A little about the extraordinary color variations: The dark layer was caused by lava that oozed out onto the ancient lakebed. According to the sign, "hot water followed the lava, bringing minerals such as borax, gypsum, and calcite with it."
The taller rock outcropping on the far right is called Manly Beacon, named after William L. Manly to commemorate his efforts to guide a group of 49ers (migrant pioneers headed to the California goldfields) out of danger during an 1849 crossing of Death Valley. Additionally, this site was once an ancient Lake Manly.
After we left Zabriskie Point, we couldn't get enough of the amazingly unique colors of this rocky, mountainous landscape, so we decided to continue taking it in by turning off the highway and onto the dirt Twenty Mule Team Road through Twenty Mule Canyon.
We finished out the dirt road through Twenty Mule Canyon and rejoined the highway to head about 30 minutes to Dante's View that offers a magnificent panoramic view of Death Valley from over 5,000 feet above the valley floor.
When we opened the Jeep doors to get out, we were nearly knocked over by the wind. I put on my extra layer, put my hood up, and got out to walk around. Another group of tourists were exiting their car at the same time. I overheard one of them say, "Nobody warned me I'd need my winter coat up here," as he was shivering and jamming his hands into his shorts pockets. It's interesting in Death Valley because in March, it can be sweltering a 90º F down in the desert valley and then 45º F and really windy up in the mountains. You really have to be prepared for anything.
From this vantage point at Dante's View, you can simultaneously see the Badwater Basin salt flats at 282 feet below sea level – the lowest point in North America – and the highest point in Death Valley, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet above sea level. It's hard to fathom, but when looking at Telescope Peak from Dante's View, you are looking across a 110-mile stretch of the valley.
We did not stay here too long, because it was incredibly windy, which made it difficult to enjoy being outside in it. So, we got back in the Jeep and double-backed to our next destination: Badwater Basin – getting an up-close-and-personal view of what we were seeing from high above at Dante's View.
It starts with the salt flats. And on this day, the wind down here was just as unrelenting as the wind up at Dante's View.
Somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago, this basin was the site of a 30-foot-deep lake that evaporated and left behind a one- to five-foot layer of salt in its wake. When it has water in it during winter, the briny pond is four times saltier than the ocean.
After you walk quite a ways, you get to what looks like a frozen sea of chocolate milk or some kind of iced coffee drink that I don't know the name of.
And then when you turn around and realize how far you've actually walked away from the parking lot, you might notice a tiny rectangular sign fixed halfway up the mountainside.
Happy to get out of the wind, again, we got back in the Jeep and headed to our next destination: Natural Bridge.
Another short hike, we went around 1.6 miles roundtrip to make our way to the "natural bridge," which was pretty cool. The red rock walls surrounding you along both sides of the trail seemed massive and imposing.
It's amazing what the power of water can do to rocks.
A little ways after you pass through the natural bridge, there's a sizable rock pile in the middle of the trail. At this point, my husband traversed the rock pile and continued on the main trail, while I climbed up a lesser-used trail along the left side of the main trail that basically took me straight up. This trail was a little sketchy with lots of steep sections of "ball-bearing" rocks to navigate, all while keeping your distance from abrupt drop-off to your right.
I climbed about as far as I wanted to go, shouted down to my husband far below, and then turned around and was rewarded with this amazing view of Telescope Peak.
I slowly and carefully made my way back down the steep, loose-rock terrain, hoping I would avoid any injuries. No amount of good-grip outsoles would save you from slipping on this trail. When I reached the bottom, I crossed paths with a man and his wife who were making their way up the main trail. The man said to me incredulously, "I just watched you mountain-goat your way down that trail," as he gestured toward my alternate route. It just made me laugh that he used "mountain goat" as a verb to describe what he just witnessed.
Back in the Jeep we went. Next up: Devil's Golf Course.
Again, SUPER windy. The salt crusts covering this flat were rugged and hard, almost like weathered concrete or a coral reef, and because this gnarly "terrain" is incredibly uneven and inconsistent, when you're trying to walk around on it, facing powerful wind gusts, you can easily get knocked over. This nearly happened to me, but luckily, I caught myself and avoided falling over. One of the signs at the edge of the "golf course" even warns that the jagged terrain can cause serious injury. I hadn't read it until after the fact.
From the strange and unforgiving landscape of the Devil's Golf Course to the beautiful "psychedelic" and colorful swirls in the Artist's Drive and Artist's Palette, we were more or less going from one extreme to the other with our next destination.
When we parked and then walked up to the first overlook of Artist's Palette, I thought the wind was going to blow me off the edge. It was so strong, I could barely stand still in one place and get any steady photos. Everyone up there was laughing at how strong the wind was and a few people had to chase their hats across the overlook.
We returned to the Jeep and continued on to the real Artist's Palette, where it happened to be slightly less windy. The colors are caused by the oxidizing of different metals on the volcanic rock.
As we continued on the 9-mile, one-way road known as Artist's Drive, it was especially fun to wind through the narrow, colorful canyon, spotting different shades of green, rose, yellow, purple, and red as we went. It seemed like we were passing through a surreal land.
From Artist's Drive, we headed back up north and then southwest for the 1.5-hour drive to Darwin Falls. Yes, we even found a waterfall in Death Valley. It wasn't all that big or impressive as far as waterfalls go, but any kind of waterfall (or any water, really) in the middle of Death Valley is nothing short of miraculous. And hiking there was a memorable experience because the closer we got to the falls, the more lush, green, and wet the environment became. Out of nowhere. It was quite unbelievable compared to the desert scape of the rest of Death Valley.
The dusty dirt road from the highway to the Darwin Falls trailhead was pretty rough and bumpy, but that's pretty much what we'd become accustomed to throughout most of Death Valley. We parked at the trailhead and started the 1-mile hike to the falls. It was hot and we were sure to keep our eyes (and ears) open for rattlesnakes here. Thank goodness we didn't see any. The first 1/4 of the trail was very dry and dusty, dirt-covered with small rocks. After that, the landscape changed from desert to a little bit jungly with thick trees, some kind of reed or snake grass, and a muddy trail.
About 3/4 of the way to the falls, we saw two other hikers coming towards us. Upon closer look, it seemed like an adult son out on a hike with his mother. We greeted them as we walked past and a few seconds later, the mother shouted back to us, "When you get to the big rocks, you can either take the trail on the right, or use the rope on the left to climb directly over. It's only about 10 feet of rope, so it's doable."
Uh, what? We had no idea what we were getting into, but we assumed we'd just figure it out when we got there.
Sure enough, a short distance later, we came to the big rocks and there was the rope on the left. We shrugged. When in Rome. So I grabbed hold of the rope and walked my way up and over the boulder, and my husband followed using the same technique.
After that, the trail got wetter and muddier, and we had to jump across a few small streams and another big rock crossing until we reached the falls.
We came across a few different groups of hikers on this short trek, but one couple in particular was at the falls when we arrived. They had two children with as well – my best guess is a 9-year-old boy and a 2.5-year old girl with fierce independence. We watched them try to take a group selfie in front of the falls, so I offered to take it for them. They thanked me and I assumed the photographer position.
Me: "Ok... 1...2....3...... cheesy cat!"
They laughed. I told them that my 3-year-old niece always says that when we pose for pictures. They told me that their saying was "cheese and pirates!" We all chuckled at that. They offered to take our photo at the falls, as well.
I noticed the boy was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt and the mom was wearing a Milwaukee Brewers shirt. I asked them if they were from Wisconsin. They said, "Yes. Milwaukee area." I laughed and told them about my hometown, and the husband nodded with affirmation and explained that was always their rest stop on the way to Minnesota. Small world.
They started making their way back to the trailhead and, shortly thereafter, we did as well. When we reached the "rope rock," we caught up with them again.
We watched the dad helping the little girl back down the rock using the rope. She was adamant that she could do it herself. She did not want help from anyone. Dad was patiently coaching her and encouraging her down the face of the rock. We assured him we were not in a hurry and were more than willing to wait it out so that she could get down slowly, "all by herself." They made it down safely and we followed close behind.
When we came to a small pond, an older couple was stopped and crouched down looking at something in the water and pointing. They had spotted some frogs! So we stopped to check them out as well. Frogs! In Death Valley!
We also pointed the frogs out to the family from Milwaukee. As we advanced down the trail, the mom and son were together and had made it quite a ways ahead of us, so my husband and I continued chatting with the dad who was stopping every few feet to address the rocks in his daughter's shoes that she boisterously announced (read: demanded) needed to be removed each time. Realizing this was going to be a futile effort while hiking on a rocky trail, he offered to give her a piggy-back ride several times, but each time was met with her indignant refusal, in favor of doing it herself. Watching this unfold from behind was exponentially amusing to me. Perhaps, I have a special place in my heart for fiercely independent little blonde girls.
We successfully made it back to the Jeep and traveled a short distance on the highway to our final Death Valley destination: Father Crowley's Vista overlooking Rainbow Canyon, also known as "Star Wars Canyon."
This view is looking back at Hwy 190, which is what we drove to get to Father Crowley's Vista.
Father Crowley's Vista is a popular and well-known viewing spot for military fighter jet test flights (you can enjoy a video of test flights in Star Wars Canyon here). These occurrences are largely unpredictable, but die-hards are known to bring chairs and camp out waiting for the opportunity to witness this amazing feat.
The Jeep overlooking Panamint Valley at the Father Crowley Vista.
A note about Star Wars and Death Valley: Neither my husband nor I are big Star Wars fans, but it's pretty cool that numerous scenes were filmed on location in Death Valley, most notably the depiction of the mythical planet Tatooine in the original trilogy. Death Valley destinations where Star Wars scenes were filmed include Golden Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Desolation Canyon entrance, Artist's Drive and Artist's Palette, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, and Dante's View. Because we don't know the movies, we weren't looking for familiar scenes throughout our trip, but it's fun to know about them.
After leaving the vista point, we were on route to Lone Pine, California, our final overnight motel stay before heading up Hwy 395 back to Lake Tahoe on Sunday. We enjoyed the majestic Sierra Nevada mountain views in front of us, including Mt. Whitney, during the 45-minute drive to Lone Pine.
When we arrived in Lone Pine, we were famished, so we stopped for dinner at Mt. Whitney Restaurant, and then checked into the Dow Villa motel for the night.
On our final day, we visited Alabama Hills and Manzanar on our way back up Hwy 395. (Final blog post coming soon!)