Badwater Basin in Death Valley is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on North America and among the lowest on the planet. The basin is covered in a crust of salt, ninety-five percent of which is table salt (sodium chloride). With nowhere lower to go, the Amargosa River ends its one-hundred eighty-five-mile journey here. Runoff from the eastern side of the Panamint Range and the western side of the Amargosa Range also ends up here. Once, Death Valley was filled by Lake Manley, eighty miles long and six-hundred feet deep. But the lake slowly dried up after the last Ice Age, leaving a bed of salt replenished by salts and minerals carried by water trapped here before evaporating.
Sean, Andrew, and I arrived at Badwater Basin in the early afternoon of February 27 as we continued north through Death Valley.
Climbing out of the Jeep, one of the first things we noticed was a huge sign up on the cliffs above the parking lot. It indicated the elevation of sea level, almost three hundred feet above us.
In many ways, this was Death Valley’s version of Yosemite’s Tunnel View, by far the most populated point we’d encountered in the Park. A steady stream of sightseers set out from the parking lot onto a short board walk and then out across the mud and salt flats.
We joined them.
The boardwalk protected hyper-salinated Badwater Spring, adjacent to the parking area and the fantastic miniature formations of mud and salt that surrounded it.
Beyond the boardwalk, a hard-packed trail of mud and salt led across the mud flats to the salt flats. On this Monday afternoon, all the tourists obeyed the signage and stayed on the boardwalk or on the path.
The most surprising part was how soggy it was. All the water from the recent rains was still evaporating, and the mud flats were water-logged.
Also striking was that the clouds covering the southern portion of Death Valley ended almost directly over Badwater Basin, so our views north were bright while our views south were muted.
Gradually, the ground became more salt than mud, which is when things got magical.
We found ourselves walking on crusts of salt separated by shallow standing water.
And the crusts were a mass of individual salt crystals.
To three native Michiganders, it felt and looked for all the world as if we were walking on ice. All three of us began to walk more carefully as if it were slippery. The sensation that it was ice was just that powerful.
In the distance, Telescope Peak rose, the highest point in the Panamints and in the National Park. Telescope Peak rises to 11,043 feet. Combined with the negative elevation of Badwater Basin, we were gazing at a vertical rise of 11,325 feet. This vertical rise rivals Mount Everest at 12,000 feet. Yes, at 29,029 feet above sea level, Everest is the highest mountain on earth, but it rises from a base already at 17,000 feet. Yet the vertical rise of Denali still dwarfs them both with its 18,000-foot rise from the tundra near the McKinley River to its 20,310 feet above sea level height.
Why here? Why is this the lowest spot in all of North America? After all, the Amargosa Valley to the east is 2,600 feet above sea level and the Panamint Valley to the west is at 2,000 feet. Partly it is the stretching of the Great Basin itself. Earth’s crust is simply thinner between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Part of it is also the size of the mountains on either side. Part of it also is the youth of the landscape, both in terms of the creation of these ranges and also the relatively recent evaporation of Lake Manley. And another part of it is that the valley is slowly sinking beneath the Amargosa Range. The only reason the landscape is flat in the valley is because of sediment. The bedrock below is severely tilted toward the east. In a sense, the bedrock of the Panamints extends in a steep slope until it disappears beneath the bedrock of the Amargosas.
Not only is this the lowest place on the continent, but it’s still sinking.
(It really looks like slush on a sunny winter day, doesn’t it?)
Video: Brandon Hayes and Sean M. Santos
The three of us walked far out on the salt flats until we felt like we had a bit of space from other people. The intense solitude of the past several days…particularly compared with our everyday lives spent in the downtowns of major American cities…had affected us, and we were sort of taking none too kindly to other people.
And of course we all touched the salt and the water. What a shock, although so obvious, that the water was warm! But the impression of ice made our brains expect the water to be cold. Our warm fingers tasted intensely of salt afterward.
Only a couple weeks later, some idiots drove a van out across the mud flats and onto the salt flats, where it inevitably got stuck. Ultimately it had to be towed out with heavy machinery, leaving an ugly scar across the landscape.
Not having had a shower for days, Sean almost absentmindedly ran his wet fingers through his hair, transforming himself into a silver fox.
Back at the Jeep, a woman in the parking lot said something to Andrew, and he just dismissed her. Later we all three talked about how unprepared we’d been for the relative crowd at Badwater Basin.
We’d spent an hour at Badwater Basin. It was now a bit after 2pm. The day was moving faster than we’d expected and we were quickly triaging possible canyon hikes as we continued north. The problem with visiting desert Parks in the winter was the shortened hours of sunlight.
Well, that and the fact that we could have just kept on exploring the Park for three weeks at the pace we were going without exhausting what we wanted to do. We were all falling hard for Death Valley National Park.
Twenty minutes up the road we reached the parking area and short trail to Natural Bridge. Although exploring the canyon would have been a two-mile out-and-back, we decided (like most other tourists) just to go have a look at the bridge, less than half a mile from the parking lot. We had other adventures waiting for us.
The trail was an easy, broad path up the wash from the parking area. My photos (sort of astonishingly) give the impression that we were alone rather than surrounded by people. But we were surrounded. Or at least it felt like it…comparatively.
There it is. Like a hole punched in chocolate icing.
After Room Canyon that morning, our reaction was…muted.
The best part of the stroll to Natural Bridge was the view of Death Valley below us on the way back to the Jeep.
We climbed back into the Jeep and continued north. We were now in the vicinity of Artists Drive, where the Amargosa mountains appeared streaked and splashed with vibrant paint. The drive, one of the most famous to-dos in Death Valley National Park, was closed for repairs. So we just contemplated the colorful hills as we drove past.
As we approached Furnace Creek, we got cell service again and learned that Moonlight had won best picture…awkwardly…the night before.
We skipped Desolation Canyon and we skipped Golden Gulch. We breezed through Furnace Creek and continued on. We were racing the daylight for adventures now. Mosaic Canyon in the flank of Tucki Mountain above Stovepipe Wells was our destination.