Is Death Valley just a large, empty, barren desert? I thought so for years, avoiding visiting this national park in preference of others (Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone). But no! No no no! Death Valley National Park is full of people from everywhere: Japan, Russia, India. It’s full of people from the U.S., including Californians (easy weekend trip from the LA area), and most importantly, it’s full of incredibly vast, empty, sky-swept spaces. What looks like a whole lot of nothing is actually filled with moving rocks, small mammals, reptiles, clouds, sand dunes, and mountains. And heat. Because in Death Valley, heat is an alive, tangible, fungible thing. An oppressive presence which you not only feel, but must reckon with and respect. At night, the Death Valley sky is glowing with stars, and during especially rainy years, a sea of wildflowers covers the valley floor in what is known as a Superbloom.
I have a lot of German friends and family, many who have wanted to go to Death Valley. So have other Germans I’ve met. What is the fascination with this Valley of Death? I think partly the U.S. is associated with western films, and the Death Valley landscape seems to epitomize the barren wastelands of these movies, and represents the ultimate American West. Death Valley is also a place of extremes: elevation (low), heat (high, but cold at night), dryness (extreme, but flash flooding can occur), something not found in this combination in many other places. It holds a fascination that many of the other national parks just do not stir, not just for Germans, but for people from all over the globe.
Due to our limited time in Death Valley, my husband and I mostly drove to the major sites (map here). One of the highlights was driving around the Hell’s Gate area, admiring the wildflowers. Though the peak of the Superbloom had passed (the sweet yellow flowers blanketing the dusty ground had started to fade), wildflowers still abounded in whites, yellows, purples and pinks. Coming from a green, lush environment, you probably would not find the growth spectacular, but that’s the thing about Death Valley, it’s almost as if you have to slow your speed and understanding, to be-wonder the natural environment on a microlevel. Plants that only bloom every few (or more years) are special indeed.
Another highlight was hiking in Desolation Canyon. The upside of arriving later in the day, other than the slight subsiding of the heat (it had reached 96 F / 35 C that day – in March!), was that human traffic in the canyon was limited to a few stragglers. Not only were the various rock formations fantastic, but what I really can’t forget was the silence. I’m not sure I’ve heard silence like that. It. Was. Complete. Not a slight wind, a leaf stirring, any animal croaking – not a thing. I can’t remember when I’ve heard silence that deep.
We didn’t overnight directly in the park, but next time I would absolutely camp. And if you can, visit in spring or winter. I can’t even image trudging through here in summer’s heat. Death Valley is also big for off-roading. I imagine this takes you to some really remote, still places, places where you can contemplate the stark beauty of Death Valley.