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A Visit to Death Valley: Unlike Any Other Place on Earth

Shifting sands make Death Valley dunes look different throughout the day


All photos courtesy of Judy Schweitzer, from our family album, unless otherwise indicated.

Death Valley is a composite of oddities and anomalies that covers an area of about 3,000 square miles of otherworldly views and scenery that may make you feel as though you’ve left Mother Earth and landed on another planet. I first discovered this strange, but beautiful place a few years back when a friend asked me to go there with her. “Death Valley?” I said, ” It sounds dreadful, what could possibly be of interest there?”

After a little coaxing, curiosity finally overcame my reluctance. To my surprise the place is a treat for the eyes and rest for the soul. If you’re looking for a different place to vacation, you can’t do better than Death Valley. Located in Eastern California in the Mojave Desert, near the border of Nevada and California, the valley features the lowest, driest and hottest locations in North America. Badwater is the lowest elevation at 282 feet below sea level, and the highest reliably recorded temperature in the Western hemisphere stands at 134 degrees at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913. The best time to go is in Autumn, when the temperatures are more pleasing to the human body.

During the Pleistocene era, Death Valley had many inland seas, and when the area began to turn to desert, the water evaporated, leaving behind an abundance of common salt and borax. both of which were mined from 1883 to 1907. This is where the famous “20-Mule Team Borax” was created, because it took a team of 20 mules to haul all the wagons loaded with the heavy material from the mine to the railway. The men and the mules worked in unbearably trying conditions, but they brought much needed minerals to the world.

All photos on this page, with the exception of Videos and Amazon products are courtesy of Judy Schweitzer from our family album.

The Devil’s Golf Course

Devils-golfcourseYou may have heard of The Devil’s Golf Course. It’s a phenomenon that was named in 1934 when a National Park Guide Book stated that “only the Devil could play golf” on its surface. The texture is rough, bumpy and eerily alien due to large Halite salt crystal formations. When the original Lake Manly receded, minerals that were dissolved in the lake’s water were left behind in Badwater Basin. Natural weathering sculpts the salt into complicated forms. From exploratory holes drilled in 1934, it was thought that the salt and gravel beds extend to a depth of more than 1,000 feet, but later studies have said it’s closer to 9,000 feet. It would be a “devil” of a place to golf, that’s for sure!

Death Valley’s “Devil’s Race Track”
Also known as “moving rocks.”

Rocks that move themselves? Impossible! Oh, but they DO!

Rocks that move? How is that possible? In Death Valley many of the things we consider normal are suspended. The things we believe can’t happen do, and the things we believe can happen, don’t. The Devil’s Race Track, so called because the rocks move of their own volition, is one of those. There are two main theories as to what causes the rocks to move; winds of over 90 miles per hour with just enough rain to make
the clay slippery or an alternate theory of ice being frozen on the surface, which allows the rocks to move with the wind. If the rocks are rough bottomed they leave a straight striated trail, if they are smooth they wander. Sometimes a stone will turn over exposing another edge to the ground, leaving a much different track than before. The race track contains no vegetation and there are no human or animal intervention tracks noted here. Just another oddity in the strange Death Valley world.

Death Valley Sand Dunes

No, it’s not a painting. It’s an actual photo of shape-shifting Death Valley Sand Dunes.

As shown here and at the beginning of this story, Death Valley Sand Dunes look like a painting. The dunes only occupy about one-percent of the Mojave Desert and they are ever moving and changing their shape. For dunes to exist there must be sand, prevailing winds and a place for the sand to gather. The canyons and washes, as they erode, provide lots of sand. The wind seems to blow continually, but there are only a few areas where the sand can collect at geographical features such as mountains. The sand dunes are named in Death Valley; Mesquite Flat Dunes, Eureka Dunes, Saline Valley Dunes, Panamint Dunes, Ibex Dunes. Because of the fragile ecosystem, the recreational activities permitted on these dunes vary from no vehicles to no snowboards. Check with the National Park Service office as to the rules of the particular dunes you are visiting.

Awesome Views and Vistas

Dantes-viewThis photo is a view of the valley floor from a precipice known as Dante’s View, where we are looking down from a vantage point of over 5,000 feet. There was sun and cloud at the same time, and the valley below is magnificent. This was a breathtaking sight and we stood for a long time in silence, just taking it in.

Visiting Scotty’s Castle

Scotty’s Castle is a two-story Mission and Spanish Colonial Revival style villa located in the Grapevine Mountains of northern Death Valley. It is not really a castle, and did not belong to “Scotty” for whom it was named. Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson invested in a gold mine belonging to Walter Scott, in the Death Valley area. In order to oversee the operation and live in comfort, Johnson built the villa, which eventually became the Johnsons winter home. Construction began in 1922 and cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million. Martin de Dubovay was the architect, Mat Roy Thompson was the engineer and head of construction and Charles Alexander MacNeilledge was the designer.

Walter Scott, also known as Death Valley Scotty, and Johnson became good friends. When the Johnsons died without any heirs, Scotty took over the castle, and convinced everyone he had built the castle with money from his secret mines in the area. It’s beautifully done in the middle of the driest, hottest place on earth, and Scotty’s Castle is now open for tours every day all year. Check with the National Park Service as to times of the tours.

My late sister Becky on the right, me on the left, in front of Scotty’s Castle

The photo shown here is of my late sister and I on a vacation together to Death Valley several years ago. We were photographed in front of Scotty’s Castle. As you can see, the castle and most of the valley is wheelchair or scooter friendly, so there is no reason for someone who is disabled not to visit this awesome part of our country.

This is the Ubehebe Crater….c’mon you can say it! It’s pronounced pronounced YOO-bee-HEE-bee!

Ubehebe Crater, half a mile wide, and 500 to 777 feet deep, located at the north tip of Cottonwood Mountains.

Death Valley is home to the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans. They are also known as Panamint Shoshone or Timbisha Shoshone. For over a thousand years, the Timbisha tribe of Native Americans have inhabited Death Valley. The Timbisha call the valley, tumpisa, which means “rock paint,” for the red ochre paint that is made from a type of clay found in the valley.

The Most Important Thing:

When you go to Death Valley, remember to take plenty of drinking water. The climate is very dry for most of the year and you will dehydrate very quickly. A canteen meant for hiking in a normal climate will not be enough! Take a cooler filled with bottles of water, because you will need them. When you hike, be sure you have plenty of water with you, and don’t go too far away from your vehicle and get lost.

If You Go:

There is lodging at Furnace Creek Inn or at Furnace Creek Ranch and others combined in this link.
If you prefer to camp, there are 9 campgrounds in the Valley. but each campground makes its own reservations. Make them in far in advance of your time to be there, the earlier the better.

For more information on Death Valley and its sights and interests, you might like some of these books.