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In all the hullabaloo of Earth Day, I didn’t get a chance to talk about an awesome trip I took at the beginning of the month. Our new boss gave us a few extra days off before Easter and it was the perfect time of year for a trip to the desert.
When I was in elementary school, I was entranced by the idea of two national parks: Petrified Forest and Death Valley. For a kid growing up in Ohio where everything is either green or covered in snow, dry, desolate places captured my imagination. I was sadly disappointed when I visited Petrified Forest in my mid-twenties. My 10-year-old mind had imagined it to be a full-on forest, just made of stone. Instead, I was treated to a desert with some rocky looking things lying around. I haven’t been back since, so I in no way hold to that opinion. I hated Joshua Tree the first time I went, too (going in July will do that to you). Death Valley was a much more fulfilling experience.
So, first thing we should all know is that a scene or two in Star Wars was filmed in good old Death Valley. Remember Mos Eisley?
That’s Dante’s View – my first view of the valley.
There’s other canyons that we visited that feature in Star Wars as well, but I won’t get into that too far. If you’re into it, my boyfriend talks about it in his podcast. The Death Valley part starts at about 1 hour and 13 minutes. If you just want to see the Star Wars comparison shots, skip ahead to 1 hour and 22 minutes.
What surprised me most about Death Valley was its diversity. I was expecting long stretches of scrub brush and dirt broken up by the occasional cattle skulls and cacti. Unlike the Petrified Forest, my dashed exceptions were welcome. Among the gems of the park were an array of canyons with names like Golden, Mosaic, Desolation, and… Titus.
The aptly named Mosaic Canyon was my favorite. The walls are worn smooth from rushing water, revealing layers of rock compacted together, looking quite like a mosaic. There were even a few chuckwallas enjoying the shade from the canyon walls.
Death Valley is known for being “Hottest, Driest, Lowest” and rightly so. Even at the end of March, when it was still snowing in Ohio, temperatures were in the mid-nineties. The park doesn’t recommend visiting between April and October since temperatures rise even higher. In fact, the highest temperature on the planet was recorded in Furnace Creek – 134°.
Death Valley is also the lowest place in the United States. When you drive down to Badwater (or, if you’re adventurous, rent a bike), you’re descending to 282 feet below sea level.
Despite the heat, the landscape looks arctic. Although the stretch of white crystals is convincing enough to pass for snow, it’s actually salt leftover from evaporated water.
Back at elevation (of just about sea level), another area of the park leads you straight into the Sahara.
The only dunes I’d seen before this were the ones in North Carolina and at Pismo Beach. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were something entirely different. They just appear amongst the typical desert scrub, like someone just swept all the loose sand into one place.
If you want to stay in Death Valley and don’t have a camper, I’d suggest taking our route. We stayed up at Mesquite Springs campground. While it’s a bit out of the way (you’ll have to drive about 40 minutes or so to get into the Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek areas of the park), it’s also at 1800 feet, making it about 20° cooler than the valley floor. When you’re enjoying the pleasantly warm rather than unbearably hot evenings, the drive feels worth it. Besides, we got to share our campsite with some very enthusiastic bats.
As Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, it’s impossible to see everything in a few days. A lot of the park is only accessible by off-road vehicles. The dunes we saw were about 100 ft tall. If you have an off-road vehicle, you can see dunes that rise 700 ft, making them the tallest in California. Next visit will definitely involve some of the sites that are farther afoot.