Men’s Travel Silver Winner: Into the Valley of Life

by Chris Epting

Venturing into a valley with a badass name for a father-son camping trip, Dad wonders if it’s time to change the misleading moniker of America’s largest national park.

I almost think that it’s time to rename Death Valley. Yes, know the moniker has all that great foreboding mystique. Yes, the name itself is probably what draws many of the visitors in the first place. After all, when you tell people you’re going to “Death Valley” it’s a statement; a marker that says you’re interested in exploring the edge.

But despite the fact that the name was inspired by the many who sought to cross the barren bowl on their way to the gold fields of California, only one death was recorded during the famed ’49 rush.

And besides, though not obvious at first, Death Valley teems with life of all sorts. Much of it is stealthy and subtle, but it is there, impressive and often surreal and unforgettable.

The Largest Continental Park
First, some facts: Death Valley is the largest national park unit outside of Alaska. It encompasses more than 3 million acres of wilderness area, is surrounded by high mountains, and contains the lowest point in North America. Death Valley also includes Scotty’s Castle, the elaborate oasis home of millionaire Albert Johnson (named for the huckster & cowboy prospector who talked his way onto the property). Scattered across the salt-baked miles are remnants of gold and borax mining, mysterious sand dunes, otherworldly mountain scapes, and other natural oddities. It was proclaimed a national park on February 11, 1933 and designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1984.

All that said, facts don’t really matter much in Death Valley. As I was reminded recently on a several-day camping trip with my son, the ancient charm of the place is irrational and logic-defying. The extremes are exhilarating and exhausting.

And the life there is to die for.

Escape from L.A.
Escaping the city, in this case Los Angeles, for Death Valley sets up a wonderful balance. After all, I’m not sure there’s any place on earth that juxtaposes one of the world’s most populated places with the vast loneliness of a Deathly Valley in under a four-hour drive

But soon after leaving that tangled, complex metropolis, you arrive. And even though “Death Valley” as a name may be somewhat misleading, there is something visceral one feels when passing that first welcome sign. This is an environment that can sneak up on you, can stun you and have its way with you, even in late spring, when we were there.

Arriving to set up camp at Furnace Creek, as we did, you realize at once that even if you’ve visited many deserts, Death Valley is different. Maybe it’s the reputation, the faded vintage postcards of 1930s road trips, or just the sheer celebrity that the name conjures up. Whatever it is, Death Valley is an instant badge of honor, a bragging right for the rest of your life.

And it first it will seem dead. The pickleweed, saltgrass and the creosote bushes that populate the alluvial fan around most of the valley are drab and common. But as soon as night falls, while the smoke twirls skyward from your campfire, and you hear the high-pitched coyote calls out on the salt pan, Death Valley hints that it is full of life.

Desert Creatures and Pupfish
There are many places to explore in Death Valley; many places that do not reveal much of the stubborn, evolved life forms that tend to live more in the shadows. You’ll certainly see plenty of ravens soaring around the fan-shaped mountains of Golden Canyon. Zebra-tailed lizards will be darting about near the breathtaking lookout know as Zabriskie Point. And jackrabbits will be scooting in and out of the brush around Scotty’s Castle.

Raptors will soar throughout Ubehebe Crater and Chuckwallas will squeeze in between the seemingly endless crusty salt formations that stud the “Devil’s Golf Course.”

You expect those things in the desert. But fish?

Thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene era, there were large lakes (including Lake Manly) in Death Valley. As the bodies of water dried up, small streams and pools managed to survive. The pupfish (named for the way they frolic in the water) were trapped in these shrinking pools, selected by evolution to survive and eventually becoming the species we know today.

There are a number of types of pupfish in Death Valley, each stranger and more rare than the next. These species include:

– The Saratoga pupfish, located at the south end of Death Valley.
– The highly endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish, found 37 miles east of Furnace Creek, in western Nevada.
– The Cottonball Marsh pupfish, found in Cottonball Marsh on the west side of central Death Valley.
– The famed Salt Creek pupfish, located in Salt Creek in the central part of Death Valley.

Easily visible for just a few months each year, the inch-long fish can survive in water temperatures that exceed 112 degrees F. In fact, the tiny fish are so adapted to warm water that they must burrow into the mud and become dormant when the shallow stream becomes cold in the winter. Another hurdle these fish face is high salinity. Pupfish can actually live in water that’s up to three times saltier than ocean water.

Watching the pupfish in the crystal-clear pools along a boardwalk is a thrilling bit of business; a real-time evolutionary study. They represent life at its finest—in a place where we typically do not associate life at it finest.

Badwater Basin
Similar charms also exist at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. The spring-fed pool of supp-briny “bad water” located near the road before the vast white expanse of salt-covered ground is home to the Badwater snail, a minute marsh snail that also has adapted to the harsh environs.

And adaptation is everything in Death Valley. The plants adapt, the animals adapt, and we adapt for our visits, hauling our water and food and measuring our paces as we search for solitude in the lonely, shimmering heat.

Flowers in the desert
Death Valley, after even a short rain season, presents colorful life if you know where to look. Desert Dandelion, Brittlebush, Princesplume, Desert Paintbrush, Fremont Phacelia, Mojave Aster, Indigo Bush and Desert Globemallow are treats for the eye, and the spirit. Explosions of color carpet various parts of the valley; artfully reminding us that life is where you look for it.

And then you sometimes get the unexpected moment that forever erases any sense of fear or intimidation in Death Valley. For us, it was a tired-looking coyote that approached us as we meandered back from looking at wildflowers. Studying us from just several feet away, she (I think it was a she) seemed bashful, curious, suspicious, and bashful again, all in the span of about 15 seconds. For several minutes she kept us company. Eyeing us. Licking her chops. Then she wandered off into the salt pan, in search perhaps of food, water, or a cool place to rest.

Death Valley, for me, is a life-affirming place. We escape there to remove ourselves from the life we know, and in turn we encounter life we want to know. The wild, the threatened, the rare and obscure, all thrown together in a pocket of parched, lonely planet bliss that bares a scary name.

But it’s not a scary place at all. It’s holy and naturally sacred, a testament to those that can survive the scorching brutality.

“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well,” said de Saint-Exupery. This is true. But when it comes to Death Valley, the well may not even be hidden. It is the life before you; it is the pulse in the warm wind, in the sand and in the billions of stars overhead as you lay down to sleep.

I wish they’d rename Death Valley.


A pop culture history aficionado, Chris has a lifelong penchant for documenting the exact sites where things both great and small occurred. As an author, Epting has found that unearthing and chronicling “hidden” locations offers him a challenge. What began as an inquisitive hobby soon developed into the writing and photographing of 18 books based on his discoveries, including James Dean Died Here: The Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks, Elvis Presley Passed Here: Even More Locations of America’s Pop Culture Landmarks, Roadside Baseball, The Ruby Slippers, Madonna’s Bra, and Einstein’s Brain: The Locations of America?s Pop Culture Artifacts and Led Zeppelin Crashed Here.

Chris is a frequent featured guest on numerous radio and television programs such as National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” “The Savvy Traveler,” “Access Hollywood” and FOX TV’s the “Best Damn Sports Show Period,” plus international programs in Australia, Japan and the U.K.

He has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways, Travel + Leisure and Preservation magazine.

Chris lives in Huntington Beach, CA with his wife and their two children.

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