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.

Death Valley travel

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.

Death Valley bush

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?

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