Death Valley is known for its spectacular views, and one unforgettable signature view is the valley floor itself which stretches nearly 140 miles from North to South. From high points such as Telescope Peak, Wildrose Peak, Aguereberry Point and Dante’s View and ridge in the Black Mountains there is nothing quite like seeing Death Valley from above.
Curiously, with so many popular hikes in the mountains and hills above Death Valley, there are no established adventure routes to hike through the base of the valley itself. Of course, one can park at Badwater or Devil’s Golf Course, but these are pretty much park and view locations.
That said, some of the greatest hidden adventures with stunning views all around are to be had on the floor of Death Valley. Colorful mountain ranges tower above to the East and West, and the views up and down the valley are unique, with the advancing sun transforming the valley floor and surrounding mountains literally every few minutes throughout the day, and the night sky is unmatched with its brilliance.
The difference between walking the floor of Death Valley and viewing it from the mountains above is similar to the difference between viewing an object with the naked eye and viewing that same object through a microscope where an entire unseen world suddenly appears. This world includes areas of brilliant white salt creating a multitude of patterns in the light gray and brownish sand. Some of the patterns form weird geometric shapes perfectly outlined by small ridges of white salty borates. And there are large surface areas with mounds of sand and salt pushing upward from the ground due to the expansive force of evaporation. Mesquite branches are scattered about like drift wood on a sandy beach, but different in that the highly corrosive salts, many times saltier than the ocean, are gradually dissolving them into powder.
The floor of Death Valley was once a huge lake, Lake Manly, named for William L. Manly, who led a stranded group of Forty-niners out of Death Valley during the California gold rush in the mid-1800s. The ancient Lake Manly was once populated by birds, horses, mastodons and camels along with the carnivores that fed on these species. Native Americans populated the valley historically living on fish from Lake Manly and the surrounding abundant plant and animal life.
However, with the passage of geological time the surrounding mountains rose upward and the valley floor sank creating a rain shadow. Clouds dropped their moisture on the West side of the series of mountain ranges to the West of Death Valley until there was scarce moisture left for Death Valley itself which receives an average rainfall of only 2.2 inches. Compare this to California’s seemingly dry San Joaquin Valley which receives 16.3 inches annually. Okay, I’m originally from Portland Oregon which receives 43 inches rainfall annually, so most other places on the planet are dry in comparison!
Over time, Death Valley floor gradually became one of the lowest, hottest and driest places on earth. Lake Manly slowly evaporated leaving the salt flats at the base of Death Valley. There is, unbelievably, a river that flows through Death Valley — The Amargosa River. It’s brilliantly blue in contrast to the surrounding white salt flats.
Occasionally, a memory of Lake Manly returns to the floor of Death Valley in times when enough moisture manages to make it over the surrounding mountains. It takes a wet Spring, Winter or Fall to create enough moisture for a shallow lake to re-appear in Death Valley. On this occasion, the day after Christmas, I noticed such a lake in Death Valley a few miles North of Furnace Creek Ranch. I had to stop and explore, making it nearly to the middle of the valley, to the shore of the lake. At the edge of the salt flats there was surprisingly lush vegetation including salt grass and pickle weed, but where the salt flat began the thin border of vegetation suddenly ended. It was no gradual thinning out of vegetation, but a stark demarcation line at the salt flat.
The surface of the valley floor became more and more soggy this day, sinking down with each step until at the shore of the lake it became impassible. Still, there is nothing quite like standing in the very middle of Death Valley on the shore of a lake or stream surrounded by salt flats stretching as far as the eye can see and mountain ranges that look as impressive and beautiful from below as the valley itself looks from above!
By the way, in years where there is enough water for a lake on the floor of Death Valley, there may be a super bloom in the Spring…Death Valley carpeted by wildflowers! No promises, just a prediction.
From Las Vegas take Hwy 95 North to Beatty, Nevada. At Beatty Nevada take Hwy 394 (Daylight Pass Road) toward Death Valley National Park. As you descend Daylight Pass toward Death Valley, take the left fork in the road toward Furnace Creek. At the base of that road turn left toward Furnace Creek and watch for the wettest area on the floor of Death Valley (within about 5 miles). This area may appear dry in the Summer except for a small stream flowing through the base of Death Valley. However, after a heavy rain fall in late Fall through early Spring, a lake will appear.