Death Valley is the largest US national park outside of Alaska. A group of 24 students made use of one weekend as fully as possible and explored only a small fraction of its dramatic landscapes shaped by ancient lake-bed (Death Valley was a giant lake in the Pleistocene era) and present-day desert.
We arrived in Death Valley on a Friday evening and set up camp in the Furnace Creek campground. In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast thanks to a fellow hiker’s foresight to pre-cook a tremendous quantity of pancakes that only needed re-heating on the camp stoves. After breakfast, we visited Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation of dry land in North America. A sign 200 feet up the cliff side marks sea level. We hiked a short distance out into salt flats as bright as a snowfield, admired the geology, and almost instantly began a game of frisbee. A theme of the camping trip was that no hiking break is too short for bringing out the frisbee.
After Badwater Basin, we drove to Golden canyon and hiked to a rock formation called the Red Cathedral. After a picnic there, we split into three groups by pace to allow shorter and longer options for the rest of the hike. We re-convened at the cars and drove to Artist’s Palette to watch the setting sunlight intensify the bright blues, purples, and greens of the lakebed minerals deposited in the hillside there.
Back at camp, hot chili and a campfire kept us warm. A large group rose early the next morning to drive 45 minutes to watch the sunrise from Dante’s View, with plans to make breakfast at the lookout. As daylight crept across the valley below us, we could point out many of the places we had explored the day before. The higher perspective revealed just how tiny the area we had visited was within the enormous ancient lake in an even more enormous desert.
The bitingly cold wind nixed the plan to cook breakfast up there, so we returned to Furnace Creek to make breakfast and pack up camp. Only a few people grumbled that the promise of hot oatmeal at the top had been used to trick them into waking up for a beautiful sunrise. Mesquite Dunes was our last stop on our way out of the park, and we drove back to Pasadena after hiking up sand dunes, running down sand dunes and, of course, tossing more frisbees.