Saturday, July 5, 2014

Best trails for seeing Death Valley’s wonders

The Racetrack. Photo courtesy
of Death Valley NPS.
Among the best ways to see Death Valley National Park’s top sights is via a day hike. Just four short trails will allow you to enjoy each of the park’s highlights – rocks whose mysterious movements can’t be explained, incredible views of the Milky Way, the lowest point in North America, and romantic sand dunes.

Racetrack Death Valley’s moving rocks
In a remote section of Death Valley across a playa known as the Racetrack, large rocks continue to move, leaving tracks in the clay. No one has ever seen them move, but one far-out theory suggest aliens use telekinesis to race the hefty boulders. Though there’s no designated trail, but about two miles south of the Grandstand parking area you can walk a half-mile (1-mile round trip) toward the playa’s southeast corner to see the rocks and the paths they’ve meandered. A high-clearance vehicle is needed to reach the parking area.

Milky Way at night
At Emigrant Campground, you’ll want to look up to see where the alleged aliens come. Death Valley boasts some of the darkest skies in the Lower 48 – so dark that light from the Milky Way actually will cast a shadow of you. The campground is off of Calif. Hwy. 190; take an undesignated footpath west to the dry run. Visit during a new moon for the darkest skies.

Lowest point in North America
After taking in the farthest reaches of space, look earthward to the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level and can be accessed in a mile-long round trip hike. Take Badwater Road south of Hwy. 190 for 16.7 miles to the parking area; a boardwalk heads into the salt flats, where there is no defined trail.

Sand dunes
Sand dunes actually are rare in Death Valley, but the few that do exist are awe-inspiring. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is particularly easy to reach and boasts crescent, linear and star-shaped dunes. To reach Mesquite Flat, take Hwy. 190 three miles east of Stove Pipe Wells to the parking area. There is no formal trail, but you can follow the ridgelines to the highest dune, which soars 100 feet up.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.