Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 28, 2016

Dire Beauty: Death Valley

One of a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service.

Its name alone is a hallmark of extremes: the hottest, driest place in North America, destination of more than a million visitors each year eager to experience its sere, serene vastness.


Death Valley is, indeed, vast: the largest U.S. National Park in the “lower 48” states, 5,270 square miles of widely varying terrain extending from one of the lowest points on earth to towering, snow-capped Telescope Peak (11,049 ft.).


The desert environment also includes salt flats, canyons, badlands and sand dunes.


In popular culture, literature and endless onscreen treatments, Death Valley serves as a metaphor for a place inhospitable to human life. One place name in the valley has widespread recognition thanks to the title of a Michelangelo Antonioni film: Zabriskie Point:


Despite its dramatic name, Death Valley teems with life, spanning multiple vegetation zones that are home to scores of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians. Depending on the amount of winter rain, the place can literally burst into a profusion of desert wildflowers in early Spring, blanketing the desert with fields of color. Still, the overwhelming impression is of an almost indescribably severe environment.


More than 90% of Death Valley is protected wilderness, home to kit fox, bighorn sheep, cougar, mule deer and many other species. You experienced travelers already know you’re not likely to spot any as you drive or hike through the desert at midday. To fully experience it, you’ll need to be out early in the day or into the evening, get out of the car and hike.

Located on the California-Nevada border, Death Valley is eminently reachable, which is why so many people go there. More accessible than other extreme environments like the Atacama, Namib or Gobi deserts, it’s less than a day’s drive from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas, and there are accommodations in the park and relatively nearby, including campgrounds. It’s also relatively close to other iconic natural attractions, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, to name only the big ones.

There are numerous hiking opportunities, including the ones listed here on the NPS site. Planning your hikes for morning or evening is highly recommended. Yes, I understand, you want the bragging rights to say you hiked in Death Valley when it was 123 degrees. If you’ve never done it before, study up in advance and weigh that prospect with extreme prejudice before trying it.

Do plan to get out and hike, but use extreme caution and gauge your own conditioning and weather conditions carefully. Those signs and the warnings from park rangers to wear sun protection, monitor your exposure and especially to carry water must not — must not — be disregarded. Summer temperatures commonly reach 120 degrees F (49 C), and the highest air temperature ever recorded on the surface of the earth was in Death Valley in 1913: 134F (56.7C). Being heedless can and does result in severe injury or death for a number of visitors. For that reason, visiting in the Spring and Fall are recommended.

Given its scale, vehicle touring helps cover the territory in order to see the variety of scenery, rock formations, dunes and vegetation in endless array. You can drive up to see the the best panorama of Death Valley from 5,000 feet above the valley floor at Dante’s View:


A loop road, Artist’s Drive, is a good way to see the colors and textures of the cliffs and rocks (especially early and late in the day when light is lower).



Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View and Artist’s Drive are only a few of the highlights of one area of the park, Furnace Creek. See the NPS site HERE for a list of the principal park areas and the attractions in each one.

Another part of the park in the Furnace Creek area has perhaps the most evocative and notorious moniker: Badwater.


Technically a lake, 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is usually an expanse of salt flats, searingly hot and blindingly bright in the sun. Don’t plan a long hike on the flats under the summer sun, because the surface can melt your shoes and burn your feet. If you’re there during a winter rainy period, you may see water collecting there in a wide, shallow lake.

Death Valley is stunningly beautiful, compelling: an irresistibly appealing wilderness of endless variety. I’ve traveled in and written about a number of the desert environments of the American West. Each has its own character and, to the observant and thoughtful traveler yields insight into the majesty and force of the earth around us. Death Valley is an microcosm containing multiple worlds of rock, sand, salt, water, wind, earth and sky, and bears careful examination and a receptive eye.

Planning your visit with the help of the NPS site and others is important, so that you can select what you want to see and allow time to fully appreciate it as much as possible. A single day is not really enough. Park accommodations do get busy, so plan to reserve your spot in advance if you can.

And go. By all means. I’m going back.

Have you been to Death Valley? Leave a comment with your personal “Must see/must dos.”

© Brad Nixon 2016. All photos © Willard Nixon 2016, used by kind permission.

For more articles about U.S. National Parks, click on the listing in “Categories” in the right-hand column. Many more to go.




  1. Thanks for sharing what would certainly be an inspiration to artists. Haven’t been there, until now, thanks to you.


  2. Great photos! Cheers to the talented photographer.

    Liked by 1 person

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