For many visitors to Death Valley National Park the quintessential Death Valley experience is to walk out on the salt flats at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. On the first day of a fantastic wildflower trip to the park I made a point to have this experience, too – though, of course there is no vegetation on the salt flats.
The Badwater Basin visitor area is on Badwater Road about 17 miles south of its junction with CA-190 near Furnace Wells. The parking area is well-marked, and the path out to the salt flats begins on a short boardwalk across a section of a sensitive ecosystem before continuing out toward the edge of the salt flat proper. As you leave the parking area to descend a few steps to the boardwalk and walkway there is a prominent sign reminding you of the elevation.
I walked out about a mile before turning around to return. More ambitious hikers who can arrange a car shuttle can continue for 5 miles or so until reaching the West Side Road. On the GPS track the orange dot at the right (east) denotes the parking area. Of course, the only elevation gain was the steps at the end of the walk.
The walkway begins with a short stretch on boardwalk before following a well-defined hard-packed salt pathway. The main salt flat is about 5 miles wide and 40 miles long, covering nearly 200 square miles.
In the boardwalk area there is a year-round pool, Badwater Pool. The pool’s water is supplied by a large underground aquifer fed by the valley floor’s watershed drainage area of some 9,000 square miles. The water emerges to the ground surface along a fault line that runs parallel to the Amargosa Mountains. The water is highly saline. When an early land surveyor could not coax his mule to drink from the pool, it was dubbed “bad water” and the name has endured. A very rare type of snail, the Badwater Snail, lives in this and a few other pools on the valley floor.
The well-defined path leading from the end of the boardwalk to the edge of the main salt flat ends once the salt flat area has been reached. I continued walking for another 1/2 mile or so, simply to get a small experience of this unusual expanse.
The salt crystals themselves are quite interesting to view up close. Note the long, delicate tendrils.
Looking to the north or south, the flats seem to extend a very long way. This is a view looking north.
Once you are out on the salt flat, even with the sun and surrounding mountains to give a sense of direction it is easy to get disoriented. I have no particular recollection of curving to the left, for example, but my GPS track is quite clear.
Looking back generally toward the parking area there is a beautiful view, illuminated in the afternoon sun, of the Amargosa Mountains. I think the highest area on the skyline is Dante’s Peak and nearby Dante’s View, where I planned to go the next morning. Dante’s Peak has an elevation of about 5700 feet and is only about 2.5 miles from the Badwater Basin parking area.
At the lower right of the picture there is a portion of an alluvial fan, one of many around the rim of Death Valley. Here is a view focused on the fan itself. The fans formed over time at the base of canyons running down the mountains, where flash-flood-driven streams have carried dirt and stones over millennia. Many canyon hikes in Death Valley begin with a drive and/or walk up an alluvial fan to access the canyon itself.
Seeing the mountains all around the valley – as well as the starkness of the salt flats themselves – was a clear reminder of the extreme heat that is ever-present during the summer months. The mountains very effectively trap air and recirculate it locally, making it even hotter. In the summer, daytime high temperatures often reach 120 degrees F, with a record of 134 degrees F set in July 1913. Overnight lows may remain in triple digits. And these are air temperatures: the ground itself is even hotter! On this mid-February afternoon the temperature was in the low 70’s: comfortable, but I made sure to use sunscreen and I wore lightweight long pants and shirt for sun protection.
As I returned to the parking area I initially headed perpendicular to the mountains but eventually realized that I was not on my outbound path. On the one hand I was glad that I was not leaving visible or permanent footprints on the salt flat surface. On the other hand I was also glad that my GPS breadcrumb track could help me navigate back to my previous path.
As I reached what I will call the salt path (the first 0.5 mile or so), another view toward the Dante’s View area shows the scale of the landscape with fellow visitors as the measuring device. The picture on the left also shows the location of perhaps the most creative Sea Level sign in the entire park, shown with a small red oval. When I got closer I took a close-up picture of the sign itself.
This was a very enjoyable short walk to have one of the iconic Death Valley experiences. Fortunately the temperature was comfortable. I had one more visit in my plan for the day: a short hike to Natural Bridge. It was already 4pm and there was little time to lose before what turned out to be a 5pm sunset.