The extremes of Death Valley National Park are what tend to define it. Ask anyone about the place and you’re likely to hear first all about the heat, and the below-sea-level elevations. Heck, that might be all you’ll hear about. Maybe they’ll add that DV is a vast desert where nothing lives because it’s too rocky, too dry, too hot, and too, well… Dead.
Not so fast, friends! Death Valley is so much more than its stereotypes! Are those things listed above true? Well, yes, they are. But, if this place is anything it’s not at all dead, and also it’s an exceptionally diverse place filled with alluring magic. Death Valley offers visitors a striking contrast that unravels itself in a vast wilderness encompassing mountains, dunes, salt flats, playas, and badlands. There allure here in its variety, in its color, and in its natural history. The landscape photography opportunities are only bound by imagination and the amount of gas in your car’s tank. Each can be filled.
Death Valley is a place you might think you know, but perhaps you’ve missed on a bit of its magic. It is certainly a place that any adventure seeker should one day visit if they haven’t yet. Let’s take a look at the five top magical things that you might not know about a place called Death.
This park is enormous! In fact, Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48, registering over three-million acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of backcountry roads. For a place that might seem one-dimensional by the uninitiated, it actually contains an incredible variety of terrain, historic sites, plants and animals, water, and even snow-covered peaks that reach the heavens at over 10,000 feet!
Wait, isn’t Death Valley known for its elevation, but in the other direction? Yes! The Park does mark the lowest point in North America. The elevation at Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level! It is a surreal landscape featuring a thick layer of salt covering the valley floor like a blanket of snow. It’s extra cool because not all that far off in the distance stands Telescope Peak, the Park’s highest point, at 11,049 feet. But, back to Badwater Basin and all that salt. Where did all this salt come from? Well, the rocks of course! Rain and minerals dissolved from rocks drain to this lower elevation and can form ephemeral lakes. As the water evaporates, minerals concentrate until only the salts remain. Now, multiply rain events such as just described above by thousands of years and the result is this incredibly unreal environment that is difficult to understand, yet beautiful and unlike any other.
Wildflowers bloom here (it’s true!), and they bring colorful life to a place called ‘Death.’ The Park is notable for its rare and spectacular wildflower displays called Super Blooms, yet even when the conditions don’t come together ‘just-right,’ as they must for a ‘Super Bloom,’ flowers are never totally absent. But, when conditions are just right, the hills and valleys explode into a carpet of gold, purple, pink, or white flowers. These fantastic ‘Super Blooms’ are fleeting, but attract visitors and pollinators like butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees in large numbers.
If you listen closely, the sands will sing to you. Sand dunes are only a small portion of the Park, but they are excellent and can be some of the more memorable locations for visitors. Stand at the very top of a spot such as Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and you can experience one of the strangest phenomena of the desert: singing sand. How much magic is at Death Valley, and why is it so darn alluring? And how exactly does the sand sing? Well, when the sand slides down the steep faces of high dunes, it creates a sound almost like the bass note of a pipe organ. Scientists don’t offer a reason for this, but it’s hypothesized that it’s caused by the friction between sand grains.
Just to the north of Badwater Basin is found a place with a unique landscape, and perhaps an even more unique name. The ‘Devils Golf Course’ received its name because it was said that “only the devil could play golf” on its surface. What this spot offers, however, is a colorful landscape worn by wind and rain into beautiful jagged spires. These sculpted salt formations form a rugged terrain that is simultaneously delicate and dramatic. But it’s more than just aesthetics here. Much like our singing sand dunes, this location offers audible gifts, too. If you listen carefully here, you can hear the tiny pops of billions of tiny salt crystals expanding and contracting in the heat.
Bonus nugget!! We said we’d showcase the 5 top things you might not know at Death Valley. We just went through those five items, yet there is one more that is just too neat to not mention, so you’ve maybe heard of a baker’s dozen? Here’s our version! One more cool fact about Death Valley!
The landscape at Death Valley is rocky, that is an understatement at best. But, some of those rocks actually move on their own! Yeah, you heard that right. Rocks moving on their own (Next thing you know dogs and cats will be living together! – wait, they already do?) The super remote ‘Racetrack Playa’ is where this incredible magic happens. Here hundreds of rocks are scattered across the bottom of this dry lakebed, some weighing as much as 700lbs. It wasn’t until 2014 when researchers discovered a rare combination of events that come together that move some of these rocks. Some have moved up to 1500 feet! So, what is the recipe? When the playa floods and cold winter nights freeze the water into a thin layer of ice that then breaks into large floating panels as night turns into day, winds drive the rocks forward across the slippery surface, which leave trails in the soft mud below. This continues to be one of Death Valley’s most enduring magical mysteries.
Backcountry Journeys loves Death Valley, and our trip has so much to offer landscape photographers allured to this haunting and unique place. From towering sand dunes to groves of Joshua Trees, we will visit together iconic locations like the aforementioned Badwater Basin, Mesquite Sand Dunes, as well as Artist’s Palette, and Zabriskie Point. Hidden gems, that our guides have discovered after years of visiting the park, include vast playas with mud cracks, unique salt basins, mountain overlooks, and more!
Our trip dates are planned and aligned with the phenology of the park. So, if there is a wildflower bloom event we will be there to capture it, and the February dates get us to the Park when temperatures and visitor numbers are at their most tolerable.
Death Valley: Land of Extremes
2022 Available Dates:
Feb 21st to 26th, 2022 – 4 Spots Available
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Managing Your Photo Library
with Russell Graves
Thursday, December 9th, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time