Death Valley National Park: Hiding in a Mountain Valley

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Hidden Valley

After breaking camp in Panamint Valley, Andrew, Sean, and I drove to Death Valley proper, over a pass through the Cottonwood Mountains of the Panamint Range. It was 3pm on February 25 by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells in the shadow of Tucki Mountain. We’d been in Death Valley National Park for twenty-four hours already, but had yet to check-in, as it were, and inquire about backcountry camping or register as visitors.

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Amargosa Range and Death Valley

We passed the campground, which, situated on the desert floor, sort of looked like an RV parking lot with tents. Seeing it, we were very glad to be camping in the backcountry. Already, the solitude it afforded had infected us and made us glad.

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Death Valley National Park: To the Spring of Sweet Water in the Desert

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On Thursday, February 23, Sean and I began our Death Valley National Park adventure by boarding a flight from Chicago O’Hare to San Diego. It had been a long week for me, with a major meeting that I had literally staged ending some three hours before our flight, and getting away to the desert to clear my head was just profoundly inviting.

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Death Valley National Park: Planning

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The northern end of Panamint Valley from the Panamint Dunes, with Lake Hill (center) surrounded by the Cottonwood Mountains (left), the Panamint Range topped by 11,043-foot Telescope Peak (center left), the Slate Range (center right), and the Argus Range (right)

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.

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Biscayne National Park, Part Two: Afternoon

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White Ibises

All eight of us had spent the morning of November 19, 2016 kayaking in Biscayne Bay and in the mangrove estuaries along its mainland shores. Now it was time for a picnic lunch at Convoy Point. Our time at Biscayne National Park, having only just begun, was also drawing short. And that meant that our whole Florida Keys adventure would soon be concluding.

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Miami

Looking north from Convoy Point, Miami rose from the ocean like Atlantis.

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Biscayne National Park, Part One: Morning

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Fiddler Crab

Biscayne National Park was established in 1980 and protects almost 173,000 acres of the northernmost Florida Keys, coastal Florida south of Miami, and the expanse of Biscayne Bay. It is in good company with Dry Tortugas, Glacier Bay, American Samoa, and Channel Islands as a National Park whose primary function is to protect nautical resources and habitat. Biscayne Bay was originally proposed for protection in the 1940s as part of Everglades National Park, but it was ultimately eliminated from that Park’s boundaries. The mainland areas and keys of Biscayne Bay remained largely undeveloped until the 1960s when proposals emerged to extend the hyper-development of Miami Beach to the Biscayne keys. A proposal to dredge the bay to create a deep-sea port on the mainland activated intense grassroots opposition. In 1968, that opposition led to the establishment by Congress of Biscayne National Monument, which was expanded and upgraded in 1980 to National Park status.

For several years before our visit on November 19, 2016, Biscayne National Park had lacked an official concessionaire. For decades, official partners had offered glass-bottomed boat tours and other activities for exploring the Park. By last November, limited tours were again being offered, but not on a day that made sense for our trip. Lacking a private boat, let alone one in Florida, we focused our day at Biscayne on kayaking.

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