Thanksgiving in Death Valley

Having a few days off for Thanksgiving, I decided to go camping in Death Valley with Geetesh. I flew into San Diego, drove up to Los Angeles for a day in Geetesh’s very nice, new Mini, and returned from LA to drive out Thanksgiving day to Death Valley. Over the 6 hour drive the scenery steadily changed, and by the time we entered Death Valley, the green was gone, and the rocks almost pulsed with color: ochers, browns, yellows, and everything in between.

We started off by hiking across the basin of Death Valley, just as the sun was setting. The basin is perfectly flat, 129 feet below sea level, and covered in flaky, crusty fleur de sel (salt). What should have been an easy hike slowed to a plod as the salt gave way to ashen, oozing mud. After a couple bad steps, salty sticky mud covered my feet and sandals, and we turned back before we were up to our knees. Scraping off as much as we could, we drove around, found a gas station, hosed our feet for 10 minutes, and began again, this time driving around the mud/salt basin, and starting on the other side, hiking along a 4×4 track before setting up camp completely in the dark.

We woke up to an amazing view, with the basin, glimmering in the sunlight below us, and rising mountains ahead. The ground was truly baked from the summer sun–rocks were blackened on top as if from a fire, but no vegetation existed, leaving me to guess that the sun alone darkened the rocks (flipping them exposed a red underbelly). As we hiked along, steadily gaining altitude, the black and red rocks gave way to sandy soil, scrub vegetation, and finally thick scrub, with the occasional goat scat underfoot.

We had picked Hanaupah Canyon partly on a Park Ranger’s advice, and partly out of chance. We were getting worried about a water source as we hiked up. We knew we had enough to hike right back down, but didn’t want to cut our trip short. I was amazed when I suddenly heard the sound of gushing water. We walked to the source of the sound, to find an active stream that literally disappeared in the sand of the desert. We followed it up, and while I made Miso soup (we were exhausted and hungry) Geetesh scouted for a flat spot for camp.

The views that night and morning were also amazing, and we spend the next day wandering about, poking in abandoned mines (gold was unprofitably mined here years ago), and discovering water-hewn canyons called narrows. Death Valley is full of breathtaking narrows, many of which are only an hour or less walk from the road if you are driving through. More pictures of the mountains and narrows.

We hiked back the fourth day, and drove around the touristy bits of Death Valley like Artists Canyon, sufficiently smelly and tired, and enjoyed the scenery before driving back to San Diego.

A couple people thought I was nuts or foolhardy, spending four days in Death Valley, but what surprised me was the most common cause of death in said valley of death. Heat stroke? Dehydration? Heart attack? None of these. Single car accidents kill more people than anything else in Death Valley, and Geetesh and I sadly saw one. A car had lost control, skidded into the desert, and began flipping end over end. We only saw the after-math, a car so damaged its silhouette was no longer recognizable as anything familiar, and an ambulance driving away from the scene at a slow speed.

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