**Please note- this trip took place in late February before Covid-19 created a national emergency in the United States**
Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. And as you might know, the hottest. It had a recorded temperature of 134 degrees in July 1913. 134 degrees!
Death Valley was on our list of parks to visit a few years ago, but a heat wave rolled through the park with temperatures peaking in the low 100s. At that time, we called an audible and explored some local superblooms that were blossoming around Southern California. This time around, we were going for a specific purpose – Death Valley was hosting its annual Dark Sky Festival. The park coordinated three days of activities with guest presentations and tours from NASA, SETI, the International Dark Sky Association, and some other groups to talk about Mars, light pollution, extreme climates, volcanoes, and how NASA uses Death Valley for a variety of testing scenarios.
Most of the programming was taking place near Furnace Creek Visitor Center. We were able to secure one of the last campsites at Furnace Creek in late September and it was perfect. It was tucked under some trees to provide shade for our tents as well as a place for us to hang our new ENO hammock. It was a two-minute walk to the visitors center. Furnace Creek is also 180 feet below sea level, which was really interesting to put in perspective when you could look up at mountains that were over 9,000 feet tall with snow on their peaks.
We also had the Shumaker family join us for this trip. All of our kids get along real well (and so do the parents) so it’s a great friendship. Fun fact about camping with the Shumakers – it ALWAYS rains when we go camping. Death Valley gets less than 2 inches of rain per year and somehow it managed to rain on the 4 days we were in the park. This did lead to some pleasant surprises and unique experiences in the desert though.
In terms of programming around the Dark Sky Festival, we were hoping to attend some night photography workshops, but clouds rolled in each night. The programs we did attend were great. The first was geared toward the kids. It was hosted by NASA and we built a Mars lander with some typical arts and crafts supplies. We had to brainstorm ideas and test the lander from 1, 2, and 3 meters. Our lander wasn’t as successful as we thought, but it was a fun little project. In fact, Quincy wants to try it again at home.
Our next program was the Star Wars tour through Golden Canyon. Believe it or not, a lot of people like Star Wars. A lot. (Side note from Mary: Sean had never seen a Star Wars movie until we were married. That was appalling to me, but I fixed it.) The hike had about 150 people and was really insightful as to how George Lucas filmed in the park and used creative camerawork. The tour was led by a jedi master and full of great information, but a bit too slow and chatty for our kids who wanted to hike, climb, and explore. So we hung around for a bit and left halfway through.
The visitors center also had an information fair throughout the weekend to explore and learn about the various partners.
Besides the programming, we made sure to explore some other places on our own. We took a hike to Mosaic Canyon and scrambled our way about a mile in, but had to turn around once it got too tight with the girls in the kids carrier. We also made sure to visit Badwater Basin for a sunset photo shoot, Artists Palette for some wandering, and Zabriskie Point.
With every trip, we like for each person to share their most memorable moment, so here is the quintessence according to…
Sean: the Mesquite Sand Dunes were awesome. We visited them twice and both times were unique. The first time was on Friday after the hike to Mosaic Canyon. As we wrapped up the hike at Mosaic, we saw F-16 or F-18 fighter jets flying maneuvers. There were four jets “doing laps” around the area. We went over to Mesquite Sand Dunes and had lunch while the jets flew directly at us, banked hard to the right and kept looping around. The next time we went on Saturday afternoon was after a rain storm and the dunes were damp. As the kids ran and explored, Nic spotted a rainbow in the distance. I mean…a rainbow….in the middle of the desert…..
Mary: Artist’s Palette. The colors of this place were unreal. The photos can’t do it justice. We were able to drive through twice and each time the colors looked different – time of day, clouds, etc all make this place look uniquely special each time you see it. Around every turn of the trails was a new perspective and color combination that was striking. I hope you get a chance to see it for yourself someday.
Quincy: making a Mars lander during the workshop led by NASA. She liked the balloons, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and other crafts we got to use. In fact, she’s asked if we can do one at home.
Leona: “The Salt Place!”, aka Badwater Basin. As the lowest place in North America, at 280 feet below sea level, Leona found a lovely place to run around and taste the salt deposits left after water evaporates.
- We had perfect temperatures. Highs ranging from 75-80 and lows from 45-50. A big difference from our planned trip two years ago.
- Great camp neighbors. Two couples from Salt Lake were next to us one night and invited us to their campfire after the girls went to sleep. The other neighbors had three daughters that we think were around 2, 9, and 12 years old. They invited our kids into their games and showed them some new games as well.
- Fantastic campsite- Furnace Creek is a great basecamp to explore Death Valley. If you get a site with some trees, it is even better.
- Crowds. Yes, crowds. It was great seeing so many people want to explore the park around such a unique event.
- Not packing rain gear. Luckily it mostly rained at night, but we learned that we will always pack our rain gear for every trip moving forward.
- Wet wood – I bought some wood locally to burn in our small firepit in our yard and decided to bring some along for this trip. The guy selling it told me it was “seasoned” or dried out and ready to burn. Well, he was wrong. There was still a ton of moisture in the wood and we had to chop it into smaller pieces to get it to burn. Lesson learned.