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Backpacker Magazine – May 2011

Going to Extremes

Can you ever really have too much of a good thing? Once you've seen the biggest tree, largest glacier, and deepest canyon, nothing else compares.

by: Ted Alvarez

Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Mt. Washington's Nelson Crag Trail (Jerry and Marcy Monkman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
Emerald Lake in the Weminuche (Tad Bowman)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)
White Fringed Phacelia in the Smokies (Paul Rezendes)

Hottest / Driest / Lowest / Most Stars
Death Valley NP, CA

Meet the extreme champ. This singular moonscape of crumbling peaks, white dunes, and desolate salt flats holds North American records for the highest temperature, driest climate, and lowest elevation. It’s also the largest national park in the Lower 48, and, in terms of bragging rights, no backcountry has starrier night skies. Our advice: Skip the record-setting heat (in July, eyeball-melting temps of 120°F are common) and visit fall through spring.

Tank up at Furnace Creek and start at the Badwater Basin trailhead. In a wet year, Badwater gets 1.5 inches of rain. To reach the precise lowest spot in the Lower 48—282 feet below sea level—plug “11S 515682E 4010795N” into your GPS and head onto the flats; you’ll bottom out in about 2.5 miles. Crossing the bleached sand and undulating, crumbling salt pan feels almost like traversing a glacier. “It’s rugged—you have to pick your line and adjust as necessary,” says Death Valley Wilderness Coordinator Charlie Callagan, who recommends budgeting at least a half day for the hike. The payoff? “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t go more than a half mile,” says Callagan, “so you get this vast openness ringed by mountains all to yourself—it’s like being on another planet.”

For stargazing, Callagan recommends the remote northwest end of the park, where light pollution is virtually nil. The best viewing is in the three-mile-long, two-mile-wide dry lakebed called Racetrack Playa. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle to navigate the 26 miles from Ubehebe Crater to the Grandstand parking area. Pitch a tent in the nearby primitive campsite, and stretch your legs on a six-mile round-trip, 1,800-foot climb of Ubehebe Peak (start on an old miner’s trail at the west end of the parking lot). From the summit, look for striated tracks of “sailing stones”—rocks pushed across the playa by high winds—and wander in the maze of hexagonal salt cracks that score the 1,000-foot-thick sea of dried mud. Then descend for the big show: On moonless evenings, the central band of the Milky Way shines like stop-action fireworks.

Do it
Furnace Creek is 60 miles from Pahrump, NV. Map Trails Illustrated Death Valley ($12, Guidebook Hiking Death Valley National Park, by Bill & Polly Cunningham ($13, Contact Trip data

*Death Valley reigns supreme as America’s driest place over the last century, but it might lose the title due to climate change. Death valley has received increasing rain each year during the last decade. Meanwhile, Calexico, California, on the edge of the Salton Sea, has become drier. Calexico could take the title from Badwater by the end of the century.

→ Highest national park campsite: Rocky Mountain’s 12,760-foot Boulder Field:

→ Largest national forest in Lower 48: Humboldt-Toiyabe covers 6.3-millionacres in CA/NV:

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Reader Rating: -


Tammy Vanden Heuvel
Jun 30, 2011

I just was at Black Canyon in May 2011 and hiked to the bottom. The only animals I saw were the birds, squirrels and pikas. But there were posted signs around that the park was having an issue with a problem bear.

Don't let the predators scare you off - this is an absolutely gorgeous park. Take time and the right gear and hike to the bottom.


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