We just had a fabulous five day-four night trip to Death Valley. Man, was it hot! Even for Death Valley, it was hot—high 90s in March!
The biggest struggle for us was getting in everything we wanted to do…first thing in the morning. By 11:30, it was blazing. But, we carried on, drinking tons of water, slurping electrolytes, slathering sun screen, and hiding beneath big hats. Oh, and a dip in the Furnace Creek Resort each afternoon helped.
Here are some of our favorite things to see, do, and learn in Death Valley.
Maybe we just needed some time in the air-conditioned car, but we all loved the Artists Drive. Getting into the multi-colored hills was amazing—minerals in turquoise, purple, orange, yellow, brown, and more, make up the hills. We got out at Artists Palette and wandered around, climbing the small hills, finding caves, and wandering the washes. The kids also love the HUGE dips in the road that feel like a roller coaster.
Our favorite thing about Ubehebe Crater is saying the word “Ubehebe” over and over. Our second favorite things was walking around the edge of the steam volcano crater and looking into the bottom and at the orange sherbet-colored walls. Our third favorite thing was the amazing number of flowers on the inside of the crater. Our fourth favorite thing (or was it first?) was that it is about 15 degrees cooler up there. Our fifth favorite thing was hiking to the bottom of the crater—just Anders and I. It’s a slog on the way back up, plan on sliding back down each of the 500 feet you step up. And don’t do it in sandals—that was my downfall—I was piercing my feet with sharp rocks with every step. Still worth it.
If you walk the 1.5-mile loop, you’ll also see Little Hebe Crater. Little Hebe is my new nickname for Finn.
Pupfish at Salt Creek
This is an easy boardwalk “trail” that you can do even on a hot afternoon. The boys thought the pupfish were “so cute.” I think it’s amazing they can live in such high salinity and at temperatures ranging from almost freezing to 100 degrees. Tough pups!
Some species of pupfish are thought to be extinct, some are threatened, but the Salt Creek pupfish are doing ok for now. Check them out while you can.
Even if you just walk the first 0.5 mile or so of this trail, it’s well worth it. The canyon walls are gorgeous, and the rhyolite forms short canyons or narrows, and there are lotso of rocks to climb over. If you like to scramble and play, this hike is for you. We walked up to a pile of boulders that block the trail (which you can climb over on the left). We were told the boulders are two miles up, but they seem closer. The first part of the trail gets pretty crowded, so be prepared.
Our boys are Star Wars nuts. Imagine their delight when we ran into Ranger Taylor Jordan in Mosaic Canyon and he told then four locations in Death Valley were used to film scenes in Star Wars. Apparently George Lucas ran out of money or time, and when he had to re-shoot some scenes of Tatooine, he didn’t go back to Tunisia; he went to the Death Valley sand dunes.
Local kids dressed as Jawas and carried a droid up a hill. There are all sorts of fun stories.
If you are really into it, here’s a self-guided tour to where the Star Wars scenes were filmed. Costumes not required.
If you aren’t a Star Wars fan, check out all these other movies filmed in Death Valley.
You have to stop at Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America (until the Salton Sea dries up). Take a photo at the sign, walk out a little bit, then get back in you car and drive a couple miles down the road. Between mile markers 19 and 30, you can pull over and walk out onto the salt flats without the inhabitants of all the tour buses at Badwater Basin. Around mile marker 20, the salt flats get really close to the road. Be sure to taste the salt while you are there!
I wanted to bring a sled for the sand dunes, but didn’t have room in the car. I was glad I didn’t shove them in, because when I watched other people with sleds, it didn’t seem to be going so well. They’d get half way down and then just stop. You need something slipperier to slide down the dunes.
However, it’s pretty fun to climb up them and run down. And it’s really hot. We found lizard and bird tracks in the sand. If we had stayed longer (we had a bathroom emergency ☺ we would have dug into the sand to see how cool it is below the surface.
We always join in the Junior Ranger programs when we are in national park. It’s a great way to learn about the place and get to know it better. Death Valley is in the inaugural year of a “Hike Death Valley” program. Popular hikes in the park are given a point rating and if you get four points you get a sticker. I found completing the challenge was just the motivation Little Hebe needed to keep walking.
Furnace Creek Resort Pool
An afternoon dip in the pool is what kept us going late in the day. The pool is spring fed and just the right temperature. We timed it so we’d get to the pool about 4:00 pm and by the time we were back at our campsite, it was in the shade. No more sweating!
Get a $5 pass at the Furnace Creek Resort registration desk. There are also showers in the pool dressing rooms, if you are into that sort of thing.
And as long as you are in the area, you might as well get ice cream at the general store.
This is a lovely walk through a canyon into bluff-colored badlands. We hiked the two-mile (round trip) to Red Cathedral. Toward the end of the trail, the canyon gets tiny and you get to climb through and over rocks. There are interpretive brochures, but the container was empty when we got there. We made something up for each of the interpretive spots. I think it was even better than what the Park Service has planned.
We didn’t get to see or do everything we wanted to on this trip, but we made a good effort! And we have a list of things for next time.
I’m following paw prints in the snow as big as my late Malamute’s fuzzy feet. I think about Rigby all the time even though he died two years ago. It’s a little weird. While I am kind of sad, I am mostly wistful. It doesn’t take a psychology 101 class to know that it’s not so much the dog I miss, although he was the greatest dog that ever lived; it’s the experiences I had with him I miss. It’s what he meant to me.
Rigby meant long hikes in the summer and equally long cross-country ski tours in winter. He meant getting outside every day, even when I didn’t want to, and I miss him most when I am on the trail.
The paw prints lead through crusty, white snow contrasted with black tree trunks burned in a fire a couple years ago. They cross a log bridge under gray clouds and head up a small hill. I stick to the packed-down trail and posthole up to my knees as soon as I wander off-trail.
Despite missing my dog, I am really happy. I am almost always really happy when I am moving forward in the woods. I feel like the best version of myself. My mind is clear, my heart is pumping, everything around me is beautiful.
People often say they want to get “out there” when talking about the woods. And I say it too. But I think we all mean that we want to get “in there.” We want to get into the woods, into the mountains, rivers, streams, and brooks. We want to get into the trees, into quiet and solitude, and into our own selves a little bit more.
It's not so much about getting away, it's about about being where you are without all the noise and clutter. It’s about being home.
As I reach a spring locally known as the Fountain of Youth, my own personal sunbeam breaks through the clouds and turns the snow to glitter. The plants in the creek are the most vibrant green. It’s almost cliché.
There’s a log across the stream here and I walk above the gurgling water, still bathed in warm light. I briefly think of the people I wish could experience this with me, but know being alone makes it different, and possibly more special.
There have been several articles in the last few years about how time in nature makes people happier, smarter, better looking. Nature walks combat stress while boosting mental well-being. All work-at-home, homeschooling, moms of two high-energy (yet very sensitive) boys need nature walks. All humans need nature walks.
One of the latest studies, published in the journal Ecopsychology found:
"Group walks in nature were associated with significantly lower depression, perceived stress, and negative affect, as well as enhanced positive affect and mental well-being, both before and after controlling for covariates. There were no group differences on social support. In addition, nature-based group walks appear to mitigate the effects of stressful life events on perceived stress and negative affect while synergizing with physical activity to improve positive affect and mental well-being."
There’s a reason I feel so good tromping around outside. There’s rationality for missing the adorable dog that got me hiking or skiing several days a week. I didn’t need an explanation for craving time slipping up icy trails, weaving in and out of trees, or listening to chickadees thrill in the middle of winter, but it’s interesting to know that science says I should go hiking.
Sidenote: Why haven’t I heard of Ecopyschology before? I need a subscription!
Henry is cranking out these hot springs videos! And they are awesome.
If you started singing "Everything is Awesome," then you and I are connected at a cellular level.
We spent a few days at Elkhorn over New Years. There was skiing, sledding, soaking, eating, and laying around. I wrote about it for this cool new website called The Last Best Plates. If you know that Montana is "The Last Best Place," you'll get how clever that site name is.
Between the video and the story, there isn't much more for me to say. So, here are some pictures.
If you love Montana and want to read stories inspired by Big Sky Country, check out this anthology:
The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology
From our 2012 visit: little kids, four dogs, and a pregnant woman (not me!).
The calendar says January, but the outside temps feel more like May. We've had windows open during the day and sometimes leave the house without a jacket. It's kind of nice, but I miss winter.
Fortunately, we just need to get a little higher to find snow and ice.
After an icy drive up to the Pine Creek campground, we met Erica and her three kiddos for a mid-day, mid-week walk to the falls. Think of it as homeschool recess.
The trail was icy much of the way (shakes fist at warm weather), but there was snow all around and no one seemed to mind the slipping and sliding. The kids slid down snow-covered rocks, stepped on slippery rocks in the creek, broke icicles off the waterfall, threw snowballs, and soaked their snowpants. There was fallen tree walking, frozen waterfall slides, and all that outdoor, unstructured play we always say we want for our kids.
This was the first time we've really hung out with Erica and kids, and it was great. All the kids instantly got along and it's so nice for me to get to know a like-minded, homeschooling, outdoor gal.
It was well worth the sketchy drive up and down the hill.
Pine Creek Falls in All Seasons
One of the advantages of marrying a filmmaker is that I get all the videos I could ever want. The advantage of marrying a tall filmmaker is that I never have to reach the top cupboards again. But, I digress...
Henry set up a Youtube channel for me and is working on a series of hot springs flicks. The first one is live.
We'd love it if you would watch, click through and "like," and maybe even subscribe to the channel.
Thank you! And look for an Elkhorn Hot Springs video next.