A week in Death Valley National Park, 2011

Page 1: Biking to Badwater Basin
Page 2: Furnace Creek and Dante's View
Page 3: Mosaic Canyon and biking to Mesquite Springs
Page 4: Scotty's Castle and Mesquite Sand Dunes

Friday, March 11, 2011

Death Valley National Park is a vast park, and the largest national park in the contiguous 48 states. I've often read that it's a great place for bicycling, but Kathy and I chose not to visit until this year, when Daniel would be in kindergarten. Now that our travel plans are constrained by his academic year, Death Valley is a perfect place to visit during Daniel's spring break in March. We will spend the next 7 days here exploring the desert and mountains.

We drove 980 miles to come here from our house in Fort Collins, but we broke the drive into 2 days and spent last night with some friends in Grand Junction, Colorado. This afternoon when we arrived at the park's Furnace Creek campground it felt like we had driven into summer. This valley is the lowest, hottest, driest place in North America, and our campsite (190 feet below sea level) was comfortably warm at sunset. Tomorrow the high temperature will be in the upper 80's°F at camp, and cooler in the surrounding mountains.

It's impossible to see everything in a park this big in just one week, so for this trip we'll stay close to the paved roads, biking through dramatic desert landscapes and hiking the trails that are short enough for our children, ages 5 and 3, to complete.

Our friends' children, Matthew and Daniel, eat breakfast with our Daniel in Grand Junction.

The Funeral Mountains in Death Valley National Park.

Kathy changes into sandals after the long drive to our campground at Furnace Creek.

Saturday, March 12

Distance: 39.4 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Average speed: 10.8 mph
Maximum speed: 28.9 mph

My plan for today's bike ride seemed easy enough when I thought of it. We wanted to bike south from our campground to Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America. On the way there and back we would hike a short trail in Golden Canyon and ride a scenic one-way loop called Artist's Drive. Since the valley leading to Badwater Basin is very flat, I thought the ride would be easy.

Although the valley is flat, we found that the road is slightly east of the valley bottom and rolls over many hills. It was challenging to ride while towing two children. Golden Canyon is a colorful dry canyon a mile long, and the kids were excited to hike when we arrived late in the morning. Daniel pretended to be a geologist and inspected the rock walls from time to time. About two-thirds of the way up the canyon, Daniel showed his fickle nature when he suddenly didn't want to hike anymore. He said he was too tired, too hot, and that he wanted us to drive home today - even though at breakfast this morning he'd said we should stay in Death Valley for 100 days. We pushed him to keep hiking, but eventually he was screaming, crying and lying down on the ground - and this is a boy who walked an 8-mile hike last summer. We stopped in the shade to eat lunch and calm him down, but then the worst event of our day happened. When Kathy was standing up to grab something from my backpack, she accidentally stepped on Daniel's finger with her hiking boot, tearing his fingernail halfway off. He screamed even more, and we felt awful.

Kathy bandaged his finger as best she could, and Daniel calmed down after a while. When we started hiking back down the canyon his attitude changed again, and now he told us how much he loved hiking. The kids got excited when we saw some lizards, and Daniel ran up to another hiker to say, "We saw a lizard!"
"You did?" asked the hiker. "You must be having a pretty good day. Are you?"
"Yes, I am," Daniel answered with a smile - and Kathy and I smiled a little bit too, knowing how bad things had been less than an hour ago.

Riding south on Badwater Road, with the Paramint Range in the background.

Dry, dry land along Badwater Road.

Kathy and Daniel hike up Golden Canyon.

Daniel pretends to be a geologist by scraping the sandstone with another rock - his "geologist tool."

Red Cathedral, near the end of Golden Canyon.

Looking back toward Death Valley from Red Cathedral.

Kathy tries to console Daniel after bandaging his finger.

Daniel and Maggie were excited to see this lizard along our trail.

The rest of our ride to Badwater Basin was fun, with continuous views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain we saw, is more than 11,000 feet higher than the valley floor. A few clouds kept the temperature down in the 80's°F, which isn't bad for the hottest spot in North America. Down in the basin we hiked out on the salt flat and let the children play for a while.

On our way back we tried to bike the 9-mile Artist's Drive loop road, but we didn't succeed. I don't know the grade of the road, but it was very steep and our tired legs could barely handle it. We reached the first overlook just before sunset, so Maggie and I ran to the top to look around and take pictures (Daniel was asleep in the trailer.) Since it was starting to get dark, we biked downhill the way we had come and took the main road back to camp. We turned our bike light on for safety, but we saw the landscape around us by the light of the moon.

We're exhausted now, but overall we had a good day, with Daniel's fingernail being a major exception. That was terrible, but we're hopeful that it won't become infected, and we're proud that Daniel saw past his troubles and enjoyed the rest of his day.

Walking out to Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America.

Exploring the basin's salt flat.

Death Valley's short spring bloom was just getting started during our visit. In some years the spring bloom is abundant, and in other years there is no bloom at all.

Michael and Maggie at an overlook along Artist's Drive.


Page 1: Biking to Badwater Basin
Page 2: Furnace Creek and Dante's View
Page 3: Mosaic Canyon and biking to Mesquite Springs
Page 4: Scotty's Castle and Mesquite Sand Dunes