You have to drag yourself out of bed early, and wait in the pre-dawn cold for the sun to chase away the darkness, but sunrise at Zabriskie Point is a defining Death Valley experience. Watching the skies and landscape transform as the sun slowly rises is magical. The sky becomes pink, distant mountains turn a vivid red, and the rock formations of Zabriskie Point become yellow and golden.
Zabriskie Point is only a short distance from Furnace Creek, where we’d spent a strange night in the company of a motorbike gang. When we arrived at the viewing area there were already quite a few people gathered for the spectacle – mainly people with camera tripods – mutely observing the wondrous rock formations and the valley beyond. You could feel the anticipation in the air.
As the sun made its way over the ridge of the mountains behind us, the world was transformed and a couple of dozen camera shutters clicked away rhythmically. The colour and texture of the rocks were dramatically illuminated in a way that only the sun can conjure. As the sun rose, the temperature started to head upwards as well. Time to head to our next destination, Dante’s View.
Sitting on a natural terrace at around 5,500 feet in altitude, on the ridge of the Black Mountains, Dante’s View offers vistas that are spectacular. The panorama across Badwater Basin is breathtaking, the white salt flats that stretch across the valley floor sparkle brightly in the intense early morning sun. The shape of salt formations in the valley look like giant pieces of art, a sort of salty Nazca Lines.
You’d normally have to work hard to get a view like this, trekking and climbing in the pre-dawn to reach the summit before sunrise. Happily, this being California, there’s a paved road, a parking area and even picnic tables. We watched as the sun illuminated more of the mountains and, as more and more visitors arrived, we headed all the way down to Badwater Basin.
A -282 feet (-85.5 metres) Badwater Basin is the lowest place in North America, and the contrast between it and the surrounding mountains is a dramatic one. Walking out into the middle of the salt flat is an incredible experience, like being in a gigantic white ampitheatre in the middle of the mountains. Most of the white stuff is sodium chloride, better known as table salt, but there are other minerals as well.
They say that Badwater gets its name from a traveller who tried to water his mule here. The mule refused to drink and the name Badwater was born. This gives a clue to how all this salt arrived in the valley. Occasionally this vast dried up lake is flooded in salt rich waters, when it evaporates a salt crust is formed. It was near here that the world’s hottest ever temperature was recorded in 1913, a whopping 134 °F or 56.7 °C.
A short 10 minute drive from Badwater, along a dirt road, was our final destination of our time in Death Valley, a Natural Rock Bridge. We parked the car and immediately were confronted with a truly alarmist warning sign. It only take 15 minutes to walk to the bridge, but apparently even this was likely to put our lives at risk without a gallon of water each.
After reading the sign, I was more concerned about the snakes and deadly spiders which would pounce on you from their hiding spot under stones. We decided we’d risk the stroll with only a half litre of now warm water. The arch is a larger than it looks, but the whole thing is a bit underwhelming. Worth a 15 minute walk in the sun? Just about.
Finally, our Death Valley adventure at an end, we headed towards Nevada and the bright lights of Las Vegas. The contrast between the natural beauty of Death Valley and the trashy man-made neon of Vegas is, in my experience, unrivalled anywhere on earth. The transition is a strange one, but after the heat and the dust of Death Valley we were owed a night of fake opulence.