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.
Expedition Planner: Death Valley National Park, CA
DRIVE TIME: Death Valley is in eastern California, about 5 hours (280 miles) northeast of Los Angeles and 2 hours (125 miles) west of Las Vegas.
THE WAY: From Las Vegas, take US 95 north for 90 miles to Lathrop Wells, and head south on
NV 373/CA 127 for 25 miles to the park junction at CA 190. In southern California, take US 15 north to Baker and drive north on CA 127. Proceed 80 miles to CA 190 and head west to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Continue 24 miles on CA 190 to the Stovepipe Wells ranger station and the 12-mile access road to the Marble Canyon trailhead (four-wheel-drive required for access road).
TRAILS: The park's few maintained trails are mostly designed for short dayhikes. Longer treks, like the Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop, combine cross-country hiking with unmarked use trails and four-wheel-drive roads. If you aren't confident about your navigational skills, do an out-and-back hike up Cottonwood Canyon (where water is available).
DAYHIKE: For the best 1-day adventure, hike up Marble Canyon's narrow ravine and turn around at Deadhorse Canyon (10 miles round-trip). Bring your own drinking water.
ELEVATION: Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the park (and Western Hemisphere) at 282 feet below sea level. Telescope Peak's 11,049-foot summit is the high point.
CAN'T MISS: Stargazing in an empty Marble Canyon amphitheater.
CROWD CONTROL: Most visitors don't stray far from the park roads, leaving miles of expansive desert backcountry empty.
GUIDES:The Explorer's Guide to Death Valley, by T. Scott Bryan (University Press of Colorado, 720-406-8849; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $22.50). USGS topos East of Sand Flat, Cottonwood Canyon, and Harris Hill.
WALK SOFTLY: The desert is vulnerable and the trails are few. Reduce impact by avoiding fragile soil crusts, vegetation, and animal burrows. Consider traveling only in small groups.
CONTACT: Death Valley National Park, (760) 786-2331; www.nps.gov/deva.