FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — The perception of Death Valley is that it’s hot and desolate.
The hot part is right, at least in the summer, when Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest places on earth. Even in spring, it’s about as hot as many other places are come August, with April and May temperatures ranging from the 70s to just over 100.
As for desolation — yes, the landscape is stark. This is a desert, after all. But there’s also a certain beauty to it, a mosaic of colors from the salt flats and sand dunes to the striations of craggy peaks. In years with rare wet winters, stunning wildflowers bloom in spring and early summer (and this year is shaping up to have some good displays, says the park’s website.)
Located about two hours west of Las Vegas along the California-Nevada state line, Death Valley is unique. Part of the Mojave Desert, it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level at the salt flats of Badwater.
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The valley was formed by parallel fault lines along the mountain ranges on opposite sides of the valley pulling away from each other, creating a trough effect. Shifting fault lines over eons have created a geological theme park of sorts, filled with picturesque canyons, sand dunes, multicolored mountains that rise up to 11,000 feet above the valley and dramatic vistas.
“Something people aren’t aware of are the mountains that surround here,” said Alan van Valkenburg, a park ranger. “One of the comments we get most from visitors is that they were surprised how rugged it was here, how beautiful it was here when they were expecting it to be flat and boring.”
The hub of Death Valley is Furnace Creek, where the visitor’s center is located, along with the two properties of Furnace Creek Resort — an upscale Inn and family-oriented Ranch — several restaurants, a grocery store and a golf course.
Perhaps the most popular drive in the park is the 17 miles from Furnace Creek to Badwater, a salt flat that marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. To get a sense of how low the spot is, look up at the mountains to the south where a sign shows sea level.
Zabriske Point is the iconic viewpoint in the park — the one where all the sunrise photos are taken — overlooking strangely-eroded and multicolored badlands. Dante’s View is a 45-minute drive, but well worth it, offering perhaps the best view of Death Valley from 5,000 feet.
OK, the heat.
There’s a reason why it’s called Death Valley — people have died in its searing heat — and why places around the park have names like Furnace Creek, Badwater, Dante’s View, the Devil’s Golf Course.
Summertime temperatures in Death Valley routinely climb above 120 degrees. Earth’s hottest temperature ever was recorded here, a whopping 134 degrees in 1913. If you visit from May to October, expect to be hot.
“It really can be miserable in the summer,” van Valkenburg said. “But the rest of the year it’s actually quite nice.”