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Death Valley Warmed Over

Time spent in California's Death Valley can be a life-enhancing experience.

Never mind the park’s name, the desolate surroundings, or the fact that it holds the record for the continent’s hottest temperature (134°F on June 10, 1913). Just filing a backcountry permit at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek headquarters can be its own mildly intimidating rite of passage.

“I’m not sure where [the permits] are,” the ranger at the desk confessed. “Uh, there haven’t been too many people needing them. Most folks here stay pretty close to their cars.”

But persistence paid off, and I soon learned this truth: Head into the park with a reliable vehicle, good maps, plenty of water, and lots of respect for the forbidding Mojave Desert, and you’ll experience a wild landscape most visitors don’t get to see. Death Valley includes more than 3 million acres of lonely mountain ranges, salt flats, sand dunes, desiccated lakebeds, and ancient canyons autographed with the odd petroglyph. It contains the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere, a snowy peak topping 11,000 feet, and boundless desert hiking possibilities—temperature permitting.

A hike to put at the top of your list is the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop in the Panamint Range, near Stovepipe Wells. Don’t go anywhere near this 26-mile, three-canyon route after April or before October, when temperatures are dangerously high. But in winter, you’ll have your own vast, temperate planet. Crumbling brown peaks, jagged chasms, and sheer cliffsides spiked with horizontal-growing cacti accompany you through this utterly deserted, natural trail.

Most of the route is easy to follow, but I had to get out the topos to cross from Cottonwood to Marble Canyon via Deadhorse Canyon. Highlights of the journey include the narrow slots of Marble Canyon, the wildflower- and tree-lined springs of Cottonwood Creek (where you can refill water stores and spot bighorn sheep), and the sepia-tone landscape fading to a silent black under blinding stars.

Death Valley’s biggest commodity remains its immeasurable silence and stillness. Just knowing there’s a place in the world this huge, quiet, and uninhabited is a life-affirming experience.

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