Mar 16, 2016

A Saunter Through Death Valley

This President's day on February 15, 2016, we hit the road and headed south-east to the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America with a dark name - Death Valley National Park in the state of Nevada.

This national park is unlike anything I've seen before. A vast remote landscape with many different terrains thrown together, all close to each other. After a hike through the red rock canyon, if you feel like rolling in the sand, you are only minutes away from the towering sand dunes. As you climb up and down the dunes and then feel like getting into a crater, a 40 minute drive will land you at the mouth of a reasonably big volcanic crater. The terrain choices at your disposal are varied - Snow peaked mountains, a perennial waterfall, sand dunes, volcanic crater, large areas of salt flats and canyons all within small distances made our visit to this park quite interesting.

The drive from San Francisco Bay Area to Death Valley isn't a short one. We broke up our 8 hour onward journey into two halves with a night's stop at Bakersfield. This gave us a much needed night's rest and recharge for the second leg of our journey the next morning. It was close to noon when we made it to the valley.

Winter is probably one of the best times to visit a baking desert like Death Valley. This place is considered one of the hottest on the planet and temperatures soar up to 50C/120F during summer times, rendering a visit here during summer an exercise in fighting the sun, dehydration and shelter-seeking. During our own visit during the February winter, we found the land pretty warm. I personally would certainly not want to experience the wrath of mother nature during summer here.

Here's a brief trip report of our Death Valley itinerary.

Day 1
As we entered the park, we hit a hiking trail right away. This trail is called the Mosaic Canyon trail, a narrow pathway winding through smooth mosaic canyon walls. The drive on the unpaved dirt road to this trailhead is quite a hassle for people with humble cars like Toyota Corolla, such as me. We hiked the trail for a while, watched the sunset and then got back before it was too dark.

At the Mosaic Canyon Narrows.
We then drove back and checked into the Stovepipe Wells motel. This is one of the more affordable motels that is right within the national park. It is really commendable that such an equipped accommodation has been established in the middle of a barren, dry, middle-of-nowhere desert. We settled into our new home for the next 2 days, freshened up and eagerly awaited the National park Service's night sky program.

Death Valley is renowned for its night sky. Being way out and away from any urban settlement and its associated light pollution, Death Valley ranks high in the list of places with the darkest night skies. With this knowledge, we were very hopeful about getting to witness the Universe put up a grand spectacle up in the heavens. Mother Nature, however, works on her own terms and had no interest in entertaining us. The skies were partly cloudy, marring the view. It still was reasonably scenic, compared to the few handful stars that we get to see in the skies above our apartments, with the street lights glaring down angrily at us.

At the scheduled time, me and my wife, and a bunch of other visitors gathered at the Mesquite Sand Dunes parking lot. A vast terrain of sand dunes lay ahead of us. The park ranger, a lady named Diane, came along and took us out into the sand dunes. After walking a bit into the dunes and away from the park roads, we all settled down on the sand, gearing up for a night of Astronomical education. The skies had cleared up reasonably, much to our delight, putting up a magnificent display of stars, planets and constellations. Unfortunately, the gaseous band of Milky Way was nowhere to be seen.

Akshata at the Mesquite Sand Dunes.
The ranger talk, while informative to an extent, was a slight let-down for me. I was expecting a technical talk, with topics revolving around Astronomy. The talk however centered around folk stories and legends on how the stars and planets came to be, the mythological background on the names of constellations. Despite that, I did learn some interesting, although trivial, facts such as how to locate the North star, the brightest star in the sky, the red-giant that is set to explode into a supernova - Betelgeuse. The experience on a whole was definitely memorable - being out in the desert under a sky full of stars, far away from the sounds, smell and lights of our city life.

Day 2
On our second day, we visited the park Visitor Center, watched a movie on the natural history of the park and took off to drive down to Badwater Basin. This is an immense expanse of salt flats, known to be 282 feet below sea level, making this the lowest point in North America. We walked down the salt flats, leaving the crowds behind as we went out on the flats for about a mile. On the soaring cliffs behind you, there is a marker for where the sea level is, giving you a perspective on how far below sea level you are.

Akshata at Badwater Basin.
The fact that made our visit to the Badwater Basin unforgettable was that it was Valentine's day - Not many couples will have the bragging rights to claim that they spent their Valentine's day at the lowest point below sea level within an entire continent. :)

At the Badwater Basin.
On our way back, we stopped at other points of interest, Artist's Palette being the main attraction. This is a collection of hills with colors so varied, that the name is very apt. We paid our dues here with a small hike through these hills. This was followed by another hike through the Golden Canyon trail. My wife had had her share of physical activities for the day and chose to sit back and relax in the car, while I went into the Canyon trail alone. The sun had just about set and twilight was dawning upon us. The trail was surprisingly deserted, with hardly any human form to be seen. I hiked blissfully in the Canyon for a couple miles, the trail all to myself. I could have gone on further but with daylight rapidly fading and dusk growing upon me, along with the desolate Canyon's deafening silence with only the haunting sounds of howling wind, a growing sensation of isolation and insecurity made my steps less sure-footed. I continued on for a little longer and then turned back as the fear of the dark Canyon walls drawing closer and closer upon me could no longer be contained. As I got back to my car, my wife waiting for me inside the car told me that she had begun to contemplate calling for help since there were no signs of my returning.

Wildflower Blooms in the Valley.
The varied colors of the Artist's Palette.

Day 3 - Journey Into and Back From Hell
We checked out of our motel and drove to Ubehebe crater - A huge volcanic crater caused by the explosive venting of underground steam. I had only intended to take a little hike around the rim of the crater. As I got to the mouth of the crater, I saw a small group of people all the way down in the crater. The trigger-happy reckless adventurer within me was instantly woken up and I decided on going down into the crater much against my wife's wishes. We started climbing down. My wife came down a few steps and then stopped, rested for a while and then walked back up. I continued further down. The path down was laden with little gravel stones giving me a good foothold such that I essentially ran down into the base of the crater. My descent was all fun and games, with my old faithful friend, Mr. Gravity, very much by my side.

At the rim of the Ubehebe crater.
Once down, I fooled around in the base of the crater, very proud and smug about how easily I hiked down a volcano crater while most other touristy types just play it safe staying put at view points, take pictures and leave. I waved at my wife who was high above at the crater's rim. She waved back. Reveling in my sense of accomplishment, I started my journey back up the crater. The world seemed alright for a while as I walked up. The steps that seemed easy and light at the beginning of my ascent back very quickly turned heavy. Breathing gradually turned into a struggle. It was time for a rest-stop. I sat down on the sloping walls of the crater, rested a bit and then resumed my climb back up. Five steps later, I found myself sitting down again. Things were beginning to go south. I rested another few minutes, pulled myself back up and took another few steps. My thighs burned like crazy and the breathing had turned into wheezing. I wasn't even half way up. My wife was watching this event unfold from the safety of the viewpoint. I waved a thumbs up at her signalling that I was OK. She waved at me indicating that I sit down and rest some more.

I'm a mere pixel down at the crater's base.
Pretty soon, I was scrambling up on all fours, using my hands and legs both to aid my fight against the ruthless pull of Gravity. I was collapsing down with fatigue with every 8-10 steps, with self-doubt about whether I'll be able to make it up top surging in my mind. As I scrambled on a little more, I also began feeling that I might pass out. I have passed out a couple times in the past when my physical exertion went past my limits - once when I had joined a Karate class and the instructor pushed me past my fitness levels. Had I passed out inside the crater, I would have been in real trouble. The worst did not happen, fortunately.

After countless repetitions of scrambling on all four limbs, and resting in between every ten steps, I finally limped out of the crater in one piece and dropped down at the rim. I had totally overrated my fitness levels and Nature had put me in my place. My wife replenished my Gatorade supply that I chugged down as I looked down into the little hole of Hell that I had just barely made out of.

As I rehydrated myself and the fatigue subsided, we got into our car and began our long eight hour journey back home. Death Valley indeed was a very unique place, and I was delighted with this National park, while having had my share of scary moments as well. This landscape is the closest one can get to experience what it feels like to be on the face of another planet, because the distinct barren terrain makes it hard to believe that we are still on planet Earth.

Death Valley fades in the background as we bid goodbye.