It’s widely known that Death Valley, in California, is the third most popular vacation spot in the world (the first two being Disneyland and Paris, in that order). What’s not always appreciated is how much misinformation there is about this tourist mecca, such as the first sentence of this very post. Read on for answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Death Valley, based on my recent vacation there.
Q. What is the WiFi password at Death Valley?
A. This is, by far, the most frequently asked question. The answer is, there generally isn’t one. Certain businesses in Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek have WiFi, but most of the time you’ll be driving around enjoying nature, and you won’t even have cell phone coverage. This is a great place to get away from the Internet, if you think your kids can handle it. Don’t forget your old-school road atlas, if you normally depend on GPS.
Q. How many people died in Death Valley, to give it its name?
A. One. This was in 1849, when some miners got stuck there. Probably more people have died since. I think I remember hearing about somebody trying to smuggle a corpse through there but was caught, due to the corpse stinking in the heat. Actually, now that I think about it, that was something that happened on Amtrak.
Q. Is Death Valley really the hottest place on Earth?
A. Yes! For awhile it was thought that El Azizia, Libya had that honor, but in 2012, according to this article, it was determined that “the observer [there] broke a more reliable instrument and used a complicated and less reliable type of thermometer.” Details are hazy but I think the observer used a rectal thermometer. (You’re supposed to subtract a couple degrees with those.) In any event, when we visited recently, the temperature was pretty much perfect.
Q. Is Death Valley really the driest place on Earth?
A. No, it’s not even in the top ten. The driest place is in Antarctica, and the driest non-polar place is the Atacama Desert in Chile. But Death Valley is the driest place in North America, which is all anybody actually cares about. The rainiest month in Death Valley is March, when they get about a third of an inch of rain (roughly the same amount the Bay Area has been getting every day this year, I think).
Q. Would the below catastrophe ever happen in Death Valley?
A. You mean this?
No, never. I snapped the above photo in Berkeley’s Tilden Park recently. I managed to abandon the bike before it [would have] tipped me over (or I’d have probably drowned in the mud). If you’re sick of wet weather, Death Valley is a great vacation spot.
Q. Is Death Valley really the lowest place on Earth?
A. No, but its lowest point, Badwater Basin, is the lowest place in the western hemisphere.
Look at the cordoned-off area just behind us in that photo. That’s a salt pan, which is basically salt shaped by wind into these sharp, sharp formations that are between 1,000 and 9,000 feet deep. The largest salt pan in Death Valley is called the Devil’s Golf Course, and while I agree it would be terrible to golf there, it would be even worse to mountain bike on it. Imagine if you crashed!
Q. Is Death Valley too hot to be an enjoyable vacation spot?
A. If you enjoy sitting in an air-conditioned RV, you could visit Death Valley at any time of year and enjoy yourself. That said, it’s hard to imagine wanting to hike when it’s 136 degrees out. One of the trailheads we saw had a sign warning not to go there after 10 a.m. (One of my surly teenagers tried to use this to get out of the hike. Nice try ... it was only about 85 degrees that day.)
Q. That bit about the rectal thermometer? You have that exactly backwards. What gives?
A. Yeah, I know. Try not to over-think it.
Q. I have a print of that iconic Ansel Adams photo of Death Valley sand dunes. Are the dunes as impressive in person?
A. Definitely! In fact, as good a photographer as Adams was, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the Death Valley dunes just by looking at the photos. At least, that’s what I have been telling myself, so I can feel better about these more humble shots:
Q. What is a haboob?
A. A haboob is a violent sandstorm. I don’t know if the winds we experienced in Death Valley count, but anyway it’s fun to say “haboob.” Right after our hike in the dunes the wind picked up and we wondered if it would strip the paint off our car. As usual, the following photos don’t do it justice.
That’s the Devil’s Golf Course in the background of the second photo, by the way.
Q. Was Mad Max – Fury Road filmed in Death Valley?
A. No, it wasn’t, but we wondered the same thing. There’s a deep canyon we hiked through to see this natural arch, which looked like where the movie took place. I can just imagine where they crashed the truck to block the pursuers. In fact, this area was so reminiscent of the film, one of my kids sprayed silver paint all over her mouth and yelled, “I am awaited in Valhalla!” (Full disclosure: my kids haven’t actually seen the movie.)
Q. Are the flowers as amazing as everybody says?
A. I think most of the year you won’t see much. April there is known to be amazing, and maybe it was ... but it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. Since it’s been such a wet winter and our timing seemed perfect, I somehow had visions of being totally surrounded by flowers, like in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (you know, “cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head,” etc.) but it’s not like that. You mostly see sand and rocks. But if you stop and look a little closer, there are all kinds of flowering things. Look at this little dude popping up out of the stones and gravel.
And you wanna see a cactus in full bloom? Feast your eyes on this!
This is a pretty weird plant, arguably in bloom as well:
These flowers aren’t that colorful but just look at the dead-looking plant that has produced them:
What the hell is this thing? (That’s not a FAQ ... I’m asking you.)
This flowering plant is notable not just for growing straight out of gravel, but for being so damn small it’s like, why even bother?
I’m not sure what counts as a flower but these little puffballs are just darling.
Q. I’m not a giant flower fan. What else is worth looking at?
A. There are lots of cool rocks. Quartz, amethyst, and so forth, and also some big varicolored boulders. Volcanic minerals (including hematite and chlorite), rich in iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium (but oddly no copper) provide a lot of color. Check it:
The mountains are pretty, especially in the evening:
You’ll also get to see Joshua trees. Gobs of them, forests even, and burnt ones.
Q. Is there good stargazing?
A. I guess for really good stargazing you’d need a new moon. Our visit happened to coincide with a full moon. That said, we were able to take a nice night walk before the moon rose and saw more stars than usual. There still seemed to be a fair bit of light pollution … maybe that was the unrisen moon? Who knows. (What am I, an astronomer?!)
Q. Is Death Valley a good place for Beck’sting?
A. Heck, anyplace that allows beer is good for Beck’sting! If you camp, you’ll just need to replenish the ice in your cooler regularly. Also, you’ll have to settle for delayed Beck’sts since you won’t have cellular connectivity. Here’s one of my Beck’sts from the trip.
Q. Is there good wildlife viewing in Death Valley?
A. I’ll start with the bad news: we didn’t see any road runners. That was a big letdown because the so-called resort where we stayed (canvas tent on a concrete slab) had a road runner as their logo.
That said, we did see some pretty groovy creatures. I’ll start with the sphinx moth, which has such a giant body, and such lightning fast wings, that at first we thought they were hummingbirds. To realize they were giant insects gave us an uncanny feeling. Unfortunately, they fly way too briskly and erratically for me to photograph … believe me, I tried. Click here for some great photos etc.
Then there were these birds that made an incredible screeching one morning. Part of the point here is the amazing zoom on my camera, which proves that non-phone pocket cameras are not yet obsolete.
So what are those black birds with the yellow heads? Why, they’re yellow-headed blackbirds! The ones with no yellow are either females or regular blackbirds (what am I, an ornithologist?!), and I think the dark brown one is a juvenile.
Okay, on to something more exciting. This coyote was just moseying along near the road. We weren’t as close as it looks (again, the long zoom helped out), but we couldn’t get over how tame he seemed.
At first it was exciting to get such a good look, but then it was kind of sad. This creature was probably the coyote equivalent of a panhandler.
Okay, now on to the most exciting wildlife of all. I’m talking about creatures less than two inches long from tip to tail. These are the famous pupfish of Death Valley. We were lucky to get to see them, because in the hotter months (most of the year, I think) they dig themselves under the mud so they don’t become a giant species-wide fish fry. I know someone who spent a month in Death Valley and never got to see the pupfish.
The great thing about these fish is that they only live a year, and much of that is underground, so during their active phase they really don’t have time for anything but fighting and sex. Here are a couple of schematics that capture the entirety of the pupfish non-subterranean existence.
Unfortunately for the pupfish, the sex isn’t exactly amazing. The male kind of sidles up to the female, and they wriggle along together while he spews his seed everywhere. My older daughter Alexa (who is at least as knowledgeable as the Amazon Echo, particularly where science is concerned) estimates that the shallow streams of Death Valley where these pupfish congregate is at least 20% sperm. Paternity must be really difficult to establish.
Given the apparent lack of seduction, can we consider this rampant intercourse consensual? My kids wondered about that, since at times it appeared the female was attempting to get away. It’s hard to tell, though, because these fish are in such a damn hurry all the time, they never sit still anyway. My wife concluded that it’s probably consensual given their short lifespan. “It’s not like the female has time to pursue a Ph.D.,” she declared.
Here is my best snapshot of this endangered species.
And here, in living color, are videos of the two primary pupfish activities:
Q. Any tips about the best route to and from Death Valley?
A. Assuming you’re a Californian (because nobody really lives in Nevada, right?), the prettiest route to Death Valley would be through Yosemite. But wait, not so fast! If you’re visiting Death Valley in the spring, before it becomes a fricking oven, the roads through Yosemite probably won’t be open. I think they’re usually closed until May or June. (Who wants to drive in snow during spring break anyway? Not me—I learned that lesson the hard way.)
So, if you’re going in the spring, you’ll need to head south to go around the Sierra Nevada mountains, and cut over at Bakersfield (slogan: “Nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit”). Now, if you’re navigating via GPS, Google Maps will direct you down Highway 58 thru Mojave and then have you take Highway 14 north. This is not very scenic, and sends you through the little Searles Valley community of Trona, which Wikipedia says is “known for its isolation and desolation.” The main employer is a chemical plant processing soda ash. The Los Angeles Times describes Trona as “blight on an industrial scale.” Its singular claim to fame is that it has the only high school football field made entirely of dirt. Sure, you’re through Trona in under ten minutes, but it’s pretty harrowing. The houses are all falling to ruin, the majority having been abandoned. My kids begged my wife and me to take a different route going home. Ever the provocateur, I said, "Actually, I’m hoping they’ll have cheap gas there.” My wife flatly refused: “We are not stopping in Trona.”
As we learned on the trip home, there’s a much better route that only adds about 20 minutes to your drive. Here’s how we did our return trip (and you could obviously reverse this for the trip out):
- Head west on Highway 190, with a jackknife turn at the dried-up Owens Lake (worth looking at in and of itself)
- Make a left on Highway 395 and head south a right fur piece
- Head west on Highway 178, which will take you over Walker Pass and past Isabella Lake—neither of them all that scenic, but a pretty nice drive
- There’s a very good diner, Nelda’s, in the little town of Lake Isabella
- The stretch of Highway 178 to Bakersfield winds through a gorgeous gorge, which justifies the extra 20 minutes of driving all by itself
Q. Is there Internet connectivity in Trona?
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