At almost 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest National Park outside of Alaska and the fifth largest National Park overall. It encompasses entire mountain ranges and arid valleys at the western edge of the Great Basin, where the Mojave Desert transitions into the higher, colder Great Basin Desert. The Great Basin, hemmed in on the west by the Sierra Nevada, on the east by the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, and on the south by the Colorado Plateau, is defined by the inability of any of its streams or rivers to reach the sea. They all flow from mountains or springs to valleys where they vanish, just as the Amargosa River flows south through Nevada, makes a wide, northerly turn, and ends in the salt flats of Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California.
For all its justifiably famous desert, Death Valley National Park is a landscape of staggering topographical relief. From Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest point in North America, it is less than twenty miles as the raven flies to Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet the highest point in the Panamint Range and in the Park. The Panamints and their companion ranges in the Park, including the Black Mountains and Grapevine Mountains of the Amargosa Range, are some of the 160 north-south trending ranges, which, along with the ninety valleys in between, comprise the Basin and Range Province.
The rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, the wind that sweeps off the slopes, the dry air that rises with each succeeding range and then is pushed into each valley by the wind, and the low elevation of Death Valley makes it the hottest and driest place in North America. The average temperature in July is 116 degrees. The record high is 134 degrees.
Death Valley National Monument was established in February 1933 by President Herbert Hoover, less than a month before leaving office. Hoover had been encouraged to protect the landscape by Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, who had long appreciated the landscape of Death Valley from his time as president and promoter of a borax mining company there. The National Monument was first run by the superintendent and staff of Sequoia National Park before ultimately being granted a staff of its own. Over the following sixty years, administration of the National Monument would be hindered by inholdings and mining claims, a shortage of staff, and an inferiority perception around desert landscapes at NPS nationally. In those decades, tourism slowly but steadily increased as the public came to place greater value on the desert. Those decades also saw the Park Service try (sometimes earnestly and sometimes begrudgingly) to figure out a solution for the Timbisha Shoshone who lived within the Park boundaries.
In 1994, the California Desert Protection Act expanded the monument by 1.3 million acres, upgraded it to National Park status, and established over 90% of the Park as federally designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act. This same legislation established Mojave National Preserve and expanded and upgraded Joshua Tree National Park.
For years, my cousin Andrew, Sean, and I had been talking about going together to Death Valley National Park. Before Sean’s and my wedding in 2015, and before Andrew’s most recent deployment with the Navy, we had talked about our flying to San Diego, where Andrew is stationed, and driving up to Death Valley for a camping trip. Finally, with all of us together in suburban Detroit for Christmas 2016, we said, “Let’s do it!” Sean and I had completed our goal of calibrating the National Parks we’d visited to each other, and we didn’t have a clear path forward for the next set of Parks or for which Parks we’d visit in 2017. Death Valley with Andrew felt like a perfect launching point for the next chapter of our odyssey.
On Christmas Day, hanging out at Aunt Karen’s, Sean, Andrew, and I came up with the broad parameters of the trip. We chose late February, expanding to either side of the last weekend of the month. Sean and I would fly to San Diego in the evening of Thursday, February 23. On Friday, February 24, the three of us would drive up to Death Valley National Park and camp until Tuesday, February 28. On Wednesday, March 1, Sean and I would fly home to Chicago.
We made no campground reservations for this trip, opting instead to take advantage of Andrew’s Jeep and its ability to carry us into the backcountry where we were allowed to camp virtually anywhere. Otherwise, we had no itinerary save a loose list of things we absolutely wanted to see: Racetrack Playa and Badwater Basin chief among them. By the time Sean and I boarded our flight, I’d tagged some sixty possible hikes and adventures in the hiking guide, but our time in the Park would be completely unscheduled.