Death Valley holds what the National Parks Service claims is the hottest reliably recorded air temperature in history – 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913. That’s getting up there. The human body can stand about ten minutes in temps above 140 before suffering hyperthermia. So your odds weren’t good if you were wandering around the valley that day.
My wife Eddi and I drove into Death Valley on the anniversary of that record-setting event. It was a brisk 110 degrees in Las Vegas that morning and a local DJ was encouraging listeners to step outside and get a taste of what hell is going to feel like. He should probably have included driving out to Death Valley, where it was approaching 120 degrees and topped off at around 125 that day.
Experiencing 120+ degree weather is a tourist attraction in and of itself. Add to that the spectacular scenery of the Amargosa and Panamint Ranges that surround Death Valley, and you’ve got yourself the makings for a not bad road trip. The drive to Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas is only about 2 hours, and no one says you have to take in the sights and temperature outside the comforts of you air conditioned car.
But we likely weren’t going to get this chance again, at least not in this lifetime. And while I’ve seen lots of spectacular scenery in my life, I’ve spent less time in a kiln. So after entering Death Valley National Park, we swung by Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in North America, and did a walkabout. The official elevation of Badwater is 262 feet or 86 meters below sea level. If it were anywhere near the 855 meters that the sign appeared to read, it would be the lowest spot anywhere on earth by a long shot, and inching pretty close to the dark side. Regardless of where we were relative to the Evil One, it was hot at Badwater, baking hot.
Despite its inhospitable climate, there is actually plenty of life in Death valley. Resourceful plants and animals have somehow managed to make a home of the place. People have had less success and settlements are sparse. However, the “death” in the valley name is apparently less associated with human casualties than with the livestock early valley travelers killed while waiting to be rescued.
But if the heat hasn’t killed, it has limited human intrusion, which helps with the visitor experience. We pretty much had the valley to ourselves, or shared the sites with only a handful of others. This is no Yosemite – visitors come, bake, and then hightail it out of there.
We were no exception. After taking in the heat and some of the spectacular scenery, including the appropriately name Devil’s Golf Course, we headed for higher and cooler ground. Our final destination, Aguereberry Point, is 6433 feet above sea level and provides what is arguably the best view of Death Valley. For good or bad it is accessible only by a dusty road strewn with rocks and filled with potholes – pretty much the road from hell. Don’t expect company.
If and when you finally arrive, the view is practically biblical. You can almost sense Lucifer peering over your shoulder offering you it all, if you’ll only bow down and worship him. I didn’t have much time to consider Satan’s request, and didn’t really need to bother. Eddi was already giving me hell for hanging around a 6,000 foot cliff after sunset, not to mention driving down a bumpy road on an empty tank hundreds of miles from nowhere with no cell phone service. It was time to return to the land of the living.
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