Take a tour around some of the most popular attractions in Death Valley's first podcast. We'll explore the views and history through some of the most visited and famous sights like Dante's View, Badwater, and Zabriskie Point. Join Ranger Alexandra and Ranger Mike on this whirlwind tour and learn something new about Death Valley National Park!
Correction: After speaking with a talented Yosemite Ranger, we have realized we misspoke. The original "Firefall" was from Glacier Point. Read about that here.
Ranger John Bergen stands at Badwater in 1935
Credit: NPS/George A. Grant
Credit: NPS/Alexandra Rothermel
Death Valley: A Tour
Buckle up and take a ride through some of Death Valley's most popular attractions with Ranger Mike and Ranger Alexandra. We'll discuss what you'd see at Dante's View, Badwater, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Devils Golf Course, and Natural Bridge, and how things have changed in history.
Transcript for Death Valley National Park’s Death Valley: A Tour Podcast.
Ranger Alexandra (female voice): Hello and welcome to Death Valley’s first podcast, I’m Ranger Alexandra. Ranger Mike (male voice): and I’m Ranger Mike. Today we will be taking a look at some of the most popular attractions in the park and how our relationship with them has changed over time. This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.
Ranger Alexandra: No! Ranger Mike: Just some of the most popular and most beautiful sights in the park.
Ranger Alexandra: I mean, we get a lot of people coming into the Visitor Center and saying, “what’s the most scenic point, or what are the most scenic points?” and this is a National Park, so everything’s scenic. And it’s the best National Park, isn’t it? Ranger Mike: And these are the best spots in the best National Park, so it’s the best.
Ranger Alexandra: Yes, well done! So basically we’re going to take you on a little bit of a tour here through the park, but first, I want to ask Mike, what’s your favorite place in Death Valley? Ranger Mike: My favorite place in Death Valley has got to be the Eureka Dunes. Specifically on the top of the tallest dunes. They’re 700 foot tall mountains of sand, and it’s one of the easiest places in the park to get a true solitude experience, and to just kinda be at one with the desert.
Ranger Alexandra: And what’s so special about these dunes? Ranger Mike: Well, they’re the tallest dunes in the park, and when they dry out a little bit, they make farting sounds, we call it the singing dunes, but let’s be real (laughter), they kinda sound like they’re farting.
Ranger Alexandra: I thought it was supposed to be a whistle? Ranger Mike: Whistle, fart, what’s the difference?
Ranger Alexandra: (laughter) Ranger Mike: They also have several endemic species, meaning plants and animals that only live in this one specific valley and nowhere else in the world, so it’s a pretty amazing place.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, the Primrose is pretty cool. Yeah, but, we’re going to take you around the park, show you the sights. You might be driving to them right now, you might be driving from somewhere else, you might be in the comfort of your own home, but we’re gonna take you on this whirlwind tour, and we are going to start at Dante’s View. So Mike, what would we see going to Dante’s View? Ranger Mike: Well, on the way up to Dante’s the first thing you might notice is a mine. It is right outside of the park boundary and its something that catches a lot of people’s eye, but it’s not really my area of expertise, so maybe you could tell us just a little bit about that?
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, a lot of people ask what those buildings on the hillside are, there’s a bunch of tin roofed buildings and that’s Ryan, which was a camp for the Lila C mine, it was an old Borax mine and it ran through the 20’s and it kind of failed in the early part of the century, and there’s a new mine in front of it called the Billie Mine, but we’re going to talk about that later. Ranger Mike: Oh. Okay. So, going beyond that what you’re going to be doing is winding beyond that into Greenwater Valley, and then slowly climbing the Black Mountains, and, really narrow road, you can’t go up there with a vehicle longer than 25 feet and once you start going up there you’ll realize why. But when you finally get to the top, you’re rewarded with, in my opinion, the best view in the park, that you can drive to.
Ranger Alexandra: For sure.
Ranger Mike: Another kind of interesting thing is that it highlights that some of these mountain ranges, especially the Blacks, are asymmetrical. You drive up a really shallow slope but when you get to the top and look down, it’s a sheer drop off, going a vertical mile down to the valley floor, about as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Ranger Alexandra: Yes. And we get a lot of people asking “why can’t I drive from Badwater to Devils- er, sorry Dante’s View?” And what do you say to people?
Ranger Mike: Well, you might need wings…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah! Ranger Mike: but there’s no way to…
Ranger Alexandra: Why don’t you just go there and find out, why you can’t… it’s a drop. What else is neat?
Ranger Mike: Well, uh, if you’re into hiking you can go up there and hike along a trail that runs north and south of the viewpoint, and you’re rewarded with a fantastic view, you can see the entire Death Valley from the south to the Owlshead mountains all the way to the north, and see a lot of the points that we’re actually going to be talking about today…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, you can!
Ranger Mike: …from a bird’s eye perspective.
Ranger Alexandra: And, what uh, what’s so… what’s a famous thing that happened?
Ranger Mike: Famous thing that happened at Dante’s View? Well if you’re a Star Wars fan then it’s a must see, because in Episode IV when Luke and Obi-Wan are getting ready to make the trek to Mos Eisley Spaceport, they’re looking down from the mountains, and Obi-Wan says something to the effect of ‘You’ve never seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy’ – well, they are at Dante’s View looking at Furnace Creek.
Ranger Alexandra: (laughter) That’s where we live.
Ranger Mike: (laughter) Yeah, that’s where we live.
Ranger Alexandra: So, that’s all great, but, Dante’s View was not supposed to be ‘the main view’ for the park.
Ranger Mike: I did not know that. What was supposed to be the main view for the park?
Ranger Alexandra: Well… let me tell you. In the mid 20’s Death Valley started to boom with visitors, and they started to recognize a need, the people who were kind of running the place at the point – so Death Valley wasn’t a National- even a National Monument then. So it became a National Monument in 1933 and a lot of the people who were bringing in these tourists were the Borax companies. And the Railroads. And they would bring in the tourists and they realized they want a view of Death Valley like you described. So, in 1926 a couple of Beatty, NV businessmen decided that Chloride Cliff was gonna be the place. Have you been to Chloride?
Ranger Mike: I have not, but am I right in remembering that’s close to some gold mines?
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah. Uh, Rhyolite is kind of on one side of it, closer to Beatty. Chloride Cliff itself is a gold mining area, and then below it is Keane Wonder Mine. So I mean there’s- a ton of stuff, and there’s really cool canyons around it, like Monarch, it’s one of my favorite places to hike. I’ve seen a bunch of Bighorn Sheep there. It’s actually really cool.
Ranger Mike: Oh, cool.
Ranger Alexandra: You should – have you been there?
Ranger Mike: I haven’t, no.
Ranger Alexandra: You should go. You gotta go. Monarch’s awesome. So, they decided that Chloride Cliff was gonna be the view for Death Valley, and it’s gorgeous, I mean you can see a lot of things, you can drive right up to it too, but you gotta have four-wheel-drive, today. Back then, though, they called it “The Rim of Hell”. They even got the then governor, guess what his name is? Get this, its Scrugham.
Ranger Mike: Mr. Scrugham?
Ranger Alexandra: Scrugham, the Governor of Nevada. He graded a nice, big dirt road so tour busses could go there. And they’re not like, tour busses today. Imagine these 1920s jalopys like, bumpin over the…
Ranger Mike: Bouncin’ around…
Ranger Alexandra: Bumpin over the road all the way to get there, so they were ready, all set up. Chloride Cliffs was gonna be this famous view… and then the Union Pacific Railroad guys, they were going to run tours to THE RIM OF HELL. They went south, and a couple hours south of Beatty is a place, Shoshone, California. They went through Shoshone and they asked this guy-- get this, his name-- Charlie Brown.
Ranger Mike: Charlie Brown, mmm.
Ranger Alexandra: And most things are still named after him in Shoshone. So there’s the gas station, it’s the Charlie Brown gas station,
Ranger Mike: Charlie Brown gas station.
Ranger Alexandra: So he mentioned that he didn’t really like scenery, Charlie Brown didn’t, and there was one place though, in the Black Mountains that “made him stop and look”. So these Union Pacific guys went up to his suggested area, and sure enough, they stopped, and they looked. You could squeak
out a really nice view of the Sierra too on a good day…
Ranger Mike: And this is Dante’s View? Today?
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah! I don’t think we talked about that, you can see the lowest and highest spots in the contiguous United States from that one, fell swoop. So that’s like, a really big drop, but I don’t know if you can see Whitney…
Ranger Mike: There’s at least a couple mountains poking out in the distance…
Ranger Alexandra: I mean like, Williams, maybe? So, They called it Dante’s View in the tradition of giving this place hellish names, like Devils Cornfield… Ranger Mike: Coffin Canyon…
Ranger Alexandra: Hell’s Gate…
Ranger Mike: The Funeral Mountains…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, so a bunch of stuff like that. And, I thought it was a neat aside about naming places, in 1936 Colonel John R White, he was then the superintendent in ’36. He was the first superintendent of Death Valley but he was also the superintendent of Sequoia, at the time. He submitted a list of names for places in Death Valley named chiefly by men from the 1891 expedition. So there was this natural expedition in 1891 and they collected a lot of data about Death Valley and they named most of these places with, you know, Anglo names. It was edited, the list of names, by the next superintendent, which was TR Goodwin – he’s my favorite superintendent – I really like our superintendent now, but uh, (laughter), and out naturalist, the first Ranger/Naturalist here, Donald Curry, and even more people came after that. One of the original men from the 1891 expedition remarked that he “didn’t think anywhere else in the world was so carefully named.”
Ranger Mike: I can see that.
Ranger Alexandra: Or, so hellishly. I mean, we are Death Valley. So back when Dante’s View opened it supposedly had a glass observatory? And that was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company.
Ranger Mike: Interesting.
Ranger Alexandra: I have no idea where that would have been?
Ranger Mike: I don’t know, but I’m envisioning like a boardwalk going out like over the Grand Canyon --
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, like the Skywalk! Where you get to like – I imagine like 1920s people I can’t – yeah. I have no idea where that would have been, maybe where the parking lot is right now?
Ranger Mike: Well, it didn’t do well ‘cause its not there anymore!
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, that’s true. Probably just broke. Like, one windstorm. (laughter) Yeah, there was another point below it as well, and it was called “Poison Point”.
Ranger Mike: Poison Point?
Ranger Alexandra: ASK ME WHY ITS CALLED POISON POINT.
Ranger Mike: Why it is called Poison Point?!
Ranger Alexandra: “because one drop’ll kill ya”
Ranger Mike: Oh, my god.
Ranger Alexandra: I know, right? That’s what they said. I didn’t make that up.
Ranger Mike: (laughter)
Ranger Alexandra: So, now we’re good with Dante’s View, we’re going to roll back down from Dante’s View, this is what you might do, as a visitor, so this might be what you’re doing right now, if you only spent that much time at Dante’s go back, seriously, it’s great. But we’re going to roll on over, the next thing you’re gonna see if you’re rolling on Highway 190 towards Furnace Creek is 20 Mule Team Canyon. And what do you know about 20 Mule Team?
Ranger Mike: 20 Mule Team is one of those drives that at this current moment you can do it with any type of sedan, but conditions can change if the rains fall, so it can really, really mess up conditions of 20 Mule Team, so make sure you check conditions before you go down there with a Prius. But, it’s a really really beautiful drive going through the Badlands of the park. Alex, do you know why they call them Badlands?
Ranger Alexandra: Actually, I don’t.
Ranger Mike: Because they’re so bad, you can hardly do anything with them. Hardly anything grows there, you can’t you know, feed your cows or anything on the no grass that grows there…
Ranger Alexandra: the ‘no grass’. (laughter) I mean you’re right, there’s nothin’…
Ranger Mike: They’re so bad, its just mud. Old lakebeds, actually, they’re about 7 million years old, lakebed deposits that you drive through.
Ranger Alexandra: 7 million? I actually didn’t know exactly how old they were.
Ranger Mike: Well, like 5-7 million, it’s hard to guess. Or know, I rather, when it gets that far back, but yeah, its really easily eroded stuff, and you drive through a couple washes where the water has actually sculpted out the badlands.
Ranger Alexandra: So I really don’t know a ton of history about 20 Mule Team, like when they opened it to the public or anything like that, but they’d been doing a bunch of Borax mining in that area and they were actually mining into the hills, adits, like actually mine-mining, unlike the surface mining they did for most borax things. But actually somewhere in that area there was an old borax building, which is possibly the one they moved to Furnace Creek, you know, the one they use for the Borax Museum? That was moved from around 20 Mule Team way back when, and I think its supposedly the oldest building, I mean, not counting Native American stuff, but the oldest Anglo building in the park. I have an old guide book that I’m going to read from periodically, its hilarious, but it says, 20 mule team canyon “the low hills resemble a herd of elephants”.
Ranger Mike: Sure.
Ranger Alexandra: Nope. Not to me.
Ranger Mike: No?
Ranger Alexandra: It’s like Dante’s when they say the mountain ranges supposedly look like caterpillars, I don’t see that either.
Ranger Mike: Well, maybe they saw something you didn’t.
Ranger Alexandra: Old people’s descriptions… (laughter) So we’re going to continue rolling down the highway, kind of northish, kind of westish… to Zabriskie Point.
Ranger Mike: I think people have the most trouble saying Zabriskie…
Ranger Alexandra: ZabriNskie?
Ranger Mike: Yeah, yeah, ZabriNskie, out of any place in the park…
Ranger Alexandra: Nobody adds an E to the end, its always an I at the end.
Ranger Mike: But we recently re-did Zabriskie Point. It was failing, the concrete and asphalt we put up there.
Ranger Alexandra: it was like the rim, of the stones that were stacked up, that just was crumbling…
Ranger Mike: Now its in great shape, and it’s technically ADA Accessible, although it’s very steep, so be careful if you’re bringing a wheelchair up there, or you’re going to push someone up there. It’s a very short walk, up to a spectacular view point that looks down on the Badlands and over the Golden Canyon area.
Ranger Alexandra: And over the mud hills that you were just describing, the herd of elephants. You’re looking down at them. Anything else?
Ranger Mike: Not really, for Zabriskie Point, it’s really an easy, accessible, viewpoint that should be on anybody’s list that wants to see the park.
Ranger Alexandra: And I don’t have a ton of history on it, either, but it was named for Christian B. Zabriskie, a borax guy, and it was paved sometime in the 20s, and you could actually drive up to it, I know that at least up to ’39 you could drive up to it, but today we only let people drive up there, its such a small parking lot, there is no way we could let people drive up there, and you’ll see that full a lot of times of the year. Its really just not practical anymore.
Ranger Mike: Something that a lot of people that go to Zabriskie Point miss is that we have diverted the flow of water down to the -- if you’re looking at the viewpoint on the left side there’s a canyon that’s been cut down, what? Like 70 feet?
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, that’s Gower Gulch. It goes into Gower.
Ranger Mike: Mhmm. It goes into Gower. So we can talk about that when we get to Golden Canyon, but it’s just something interesting you can go to look for on your own.
Ranger Alexandra: And Golden Canyon is the next place we’re gonna go! So, you come towards the Furnace Creek area, don’t go to Furnace Creek, turn left on Badwater Road and the first thing that you’re gonna hit – well don’t hit it, please don’t hit it-- is Golden Canyon. So, what are we doing at Golden Canyon, Mike?
Ranger Mike: We’re hiking at Golden Canyon. It’s a great trail system, if you want to do a 4-ish mile loop, you can make that happen, Pro tip from Ranger Mike, if you’re gonna do the loop, when you start, go to the trail at the base of the alluvial fan at the mountains and start that way, it gives you, in my opinion, better views, easier to stay on track, and you won’t run into very many people at the beginning of your hike.
Ranger Alexandra: So you’re saying go to Gower Gulch first? Yeah, so take a right instead of going into Golden Canyon. And that’s what most people do. They just truck right on into Golden Canyon. Now, is that the same age as the Badlands formation?
Ranger Mike: Yeah. It’s the same stuff.
Ranger Alexandra: Neat. And, there’s ripple marks up in there, from the ancient, like, sea… puddles.
Ranger Mike: There’s some. If you have a keen eye, you can look on the right side of the canyon wall and actually feel some of this stuff. And this is a, really one of my favorite things in Death Valley, in Golden Canyon there are many side canyons off the main wash and you have freedom here to basically go and explore at your own leisure, be careful, noting, though, that you have to come down the things that you go up and its really easy to go up things not realizing that and multiple, multiple people get stuck in places.
Ranger Alexandra: Yep, that’s probably one of the biggest things for our Search and Rescues is that people who are what we call ‘cliffed out’, where you get to a point where you don’t feel like you can come back down. So be careful, but if you stay on the trail it’s not going to be any sort of problem.
Ranger Mike: Another feature of Golden Canyon is once you get about half a mile in you can start to see the Red Cathedral area which is this beautiful red conglomerate rock that’s cemented together really well that’s about the same age as those lakebed sediments, a little bit younger, a real really good contrast between the red and the whiteish yellow lakebed sediments is a really good photo opportunity.
Ranger Alexandra: And that’s only like 1.25 miles up, so its only like a 2.5 mile there and back, so it’s a really easy kinda quick hike that people can do if they don’t have a lot of time. Is that what you’ve got?
Ranger Mike: That’s all I’ve got.
Ranger Alexandra: Well I’m glad you mentioned Red Cathedral, cause that’s one of the first things I’ve got on here. I don’t know when people started calling it Red Cathedral, because you used to be able to drive up Golden Canyon a couple of miles, or about a mile, to “a pillared amphitheater”. So I think they’re talking about driving all the way up to Red Cathedral there, but they just didn’t call it that at the time. So it was dirt in 1939, I’m sure that it was something that the borax companies did, in the the 20’s probably, they paved it then sometime probably between the 50s-70s, at some point kind of directed the runoff like we were taking about from Gower Gulch, which is the other side of that 4 mile loop. Some of that then ends up coming into the Golden Canyon area. So they have this paved road, and this really small canyon, and what do you think kept happening to it?
Ranger Mike: It was destroyed by a flood.
Ranger Alexandra: Over and over and over again. So it would get wiped out, and then they’d pave it, and it would get wiped out, and they’d pave it again, so you can see that actually in the first couple miles of Golden Canyon there’s just asphalt randomly, in certain places, especially the first quarter mile, you have to climb over the asphalt, so it got frustrating for them.
Ranger Mike: That sort of sounds like what’s happening with Artists Drive right now.
Ranger Alexandra: Sort of! But not in every area. So they stopped paving it in the mid-70s, but you can still see some pavement in there. But Artists Drive is the next place we’re gonna go!
Ranger Mike: Wonderful!
Ranger Alexandra: We’re gonna motor on down south and go to Artists Drive.
Ranger Mike: Artists Drive is a crowd pleaser for sure.
Ranger Alexandra: A crowd pleaser! (laughter) It’s true.
Ranger Mike: Yeah, well, everybody wants to go to Artists Drive and its just this beautiful, one way, curvy road, it goes by the foot of the Black Mountains, and what you get to see there is how water has cut deep in to this geologic formation, revealing the valley’s volatile volcanic past. And it really shows the interaction between volcanism and water and has produced one of the most striking visuals in the park.
Ranger Alexandra: Specifically you’re talking about Artists Palette…
Ranger Mike: Artists Palette, yes, you’ve got greens, pinks, purples, and yellows, brown, black layers, and a lot of people don’t know this, but you can hike up in those areas. So walking up in the canyons, there’s a few that if you’re a rock climber you’d love to go scrambling around near the dips, and even if you’re just a casual photographer or someone who likes to just enjoy the park, it’s a wonderful place to go.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, so do you know what the different minerals are, that are making all those colors?
Ranger Mike: There’s a lot irons, iron oxide -- rust, it’s the number one thing that changes the color of rocks in the park.
Ranger Alexandra: It’s red.
Ranger Mike: And its red. It’s the same thing that makes your blood red, and Mars red, and these rocks red, its these iron oxide rusts. And there’s also titanium oxides, and manganese oxides, and other volcanic type of rocks, that have interacted, chemically worn, some of the times, other times, its just a bunch of ash that got dumped in water and over a couple million years it has changed colors.
Ranger Alexandra: So what’s that green? Is it copper?
Ranger Mike: It’s not copper, no. It’s a mix of a couple things, you have some schists, and also some of that titanium oxide that can turn it green.
Ranger Alexandra: Oh, neat. But that’s what we get, a lot of people ask “is that copper?” Its not, actually.
Ranger Mike: And we used to think it was. Until we actually started to learn about the formation.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, and we don’t have a ton of copper in the park, there is a copper mine. Ubehebe? No? Ubehebe is a lead mine. There is a copper mine somewhere.
Ranger Mike: In Copper Canyon.
Ranger Alexandra: Really?
Ranger Mike: Yeah. There’s an old copper mine up there that’s where it gets its name.
Ranger Alexandra: I did not put that together (laughter). How did I not put that together? Well, I believe you! So yeah, you’re right, Artists Drive is a crowd pleaser. But the colors are probably what most people focus on today and we call it Artists Drive, and the main attraction is Artists Palette, but there’s a bunch of other cool volcanic stuff that you’ve alluded to going on in there, and the interactions of volcanics and water, and not just how they turn things colors, but also how they form different rocks and stuff, cause there’s pillow lava in there. Where the lava was actually running down and hit water and formed by cooling quickly by hitting water. So there’s really neat volcanic stuff going on there. So they used to call it Volcanic Drive.
Ranger Mike: That makes a lot of sense.
Ranger Alexandra: Yes. Because there’s a bunch of volcanic stuff going on in there. And it was originally created in 1936. So Death Valley became a National Monument in 1933, as we mentioned, and this was created a couple years later as they were doing that, I can’t imagine it was paved…
Ranger Mike: And when you say it was created you mean, the road was put in…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah. So they must have graded the road up in there, picked the area, and started telling people to go up there. Like, go up there, go look at this stuff, but they called it Volcanic Drive. And Artists Palette was not called Artists Palette either, it was called Kaleidoscope View.
Ranger Mike: That’s pretty interesting. Not to be confused with Kaleidoscope Canyon…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, but that’s not that well known, I would say, but especially back then it probably wasn’t a thing. So they say Kaleidoscope View/ Artists Palette “the cliff for which the spot is named is green, rose, and tan, and looks as if a child used it as a palette.” Not an artist…
Ranger Mike: A child.
Ranger Alexandra: But someone with their hands all over stuff. Just like… (pounds on desk, laughter). So yeah, that was Artists Drive and eventually, I don’t know when we changed the names, but they got changed. And that kind of happens with a few of the things in here as we go along. So, we got Artists Drive down, we’re done with that loop, and we’re gonna head south down to a hike. We’re gonna go on a little hike here…
Ranger Mike: at Natural Bridge!
Ranger Alexandra: Yes. Now I’ve got to find my notes… but we’re at Natural Bridge. What are we gonna see at Natural Bridge?
Ranger Mike: The first thing you’re gonna notice is you’re going off pavement, and this is another one of those drives like 20 Mule Team…
Ranger Alexandra: I hate this road.
Ranger Mike: That uh… I wouldn’t go that far but it can be rough! It can be decent, check the road conditions before you go. It’s a really great way to ruin a drive up to a really fascinating canyon. Pretty short, no kind of tricky footing spots, so if you’re the type of person who wants to do a hike in the park but you have any kind of mobility limitations or anything like that this would be a really great opportunity for you to go and see some really great geologic features. When you go up in there before you enter the canyon on the south part of the drive is one of the best places to the turtleback formations.
Ranger Alexandra: What’s a turtleback?
Ranger Mike: What’s a turtleback? It’s a – you can think of it like the mountains are a whale breaching water and being pulled and extruded out of the ground and, it’s kind of hard to visualize if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So I recommend getting a couple pictures to help point you to the right direction, but it is one of the best places to see this geologic phenomenon.
Ranger Alexandra: I hope you’re pulling out your phone and Googling it right now.
Ranger Mike: Oh yeah! But you won’t have internet there…
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, or in most of our park.
Ranger Mike: …or in most of our park. In Natural Bridge it’s one of those very low effort, high reward type of canyons where you can go in and in less than half a mile see a pretty beautiful arch going over the canyon. You can go underneath, and see it from the backside as well.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, so altogether the hike is like a mile, mile and a quarter, no more than a mile and a half for sure, so it’s a pretty easy one for most people to do. That’s also a crowd pleaser.
Ranger Mike: Yeah. Definitely.
Ranger Alexandra: And, we didn’t know about it for a while, well, I guess we knew about it, then didn’t know about it for a while, because I got the Monument report from December of 1934 – so we used to do these monthly Monument reports, and I’ve got another one for our next attraction too, but this is what it says: “During the month of December the most notable event in the Monument was the re-discovery of a very fine natural bridge in a canyon of the Funeral Range, about three miles north of Bad Water. It was Bad Water, like 2 words. “This bridge, while known by the old timers, had been apparently forgotten until Geologist Levi Noble located it last winter.” And Levi Noble was one of our rangers, but he was specifically a geologist. “It was again visited by a party from the Borax Company and the Automobile Club of Southern California, which advertised it to such an extent that it became necessary in the interest of safety to grade a primitive road to the site, it was very heavily visited during the month.”
Ranger Mike: That’s kind of funny to think about people driving up there without a primitive road.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, were they walking the whole way?
Ranger Mike: They must have.
Ranger Alexandra: Cause that’s like, miles.
Ranger Mike: I feel like that road today is pretty primitive
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, you guys have it easy, but back then… so it’s really interesting going through these monument reports too, I found a bunch of really, really neat stuff from back at that time. So..
Ranger Mike: …but I think it’s worth noting too, that they were aware of the canyon, and then it was sort of lost.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah how do you lose that?
Ranger Mike: That kinda tells me that maybe today there are things today, that used to be very popular that people were going to see on a regular basis and now because our rangers typically don’t stay here, for you know, 50 years, we’ve kind of forgotten about some of that institutional knowledge.
Ranger Alexandra: That’s a good point. And we just lost a ranger – he retired, he didn’t die – but he and his partner were here for over 20 years. I mean, just such institutional knowledge that we just – is gone, unfortunately. Luckily he still like to have a hand in things every once in a while. So if I have a real big question, then… thanks Alan! So now we’re back on onto Natural Bridge road and we’re going to keep heading south and the next thing that we’re going to see is Devils Golf Course. What’s so cool about Devils Golf Course?
Ranger Mike: So there’s one large geologic feature in the park and it’s the salt pan, which is in this valley, one of the largest salt pans on Earth. From its southern extent near the Ashford Mill area it runs about 40 miles north to the Salt Creek hills…
Ranger Alexandra: That’s a lot of salt.
Ranger Mike: Roughly in the middle of that is Badwater Basin and the Devils Golf Course area. They’re both a part of the same geologic feature but they’re both worth going to separately because the Devils Golf Course area is not seasonally flooded. When we do have a large flood, typically the water doesn’t fill that area, and so the salt is allowed to grow, kind of unchecked, and it can get quite large…
Ranger Alexandra: Wantonly grow!
Ranger Mike: The rain will sharpen it and polish it into spires that can cut leather. So it’s one of the most rugged terrains on Earth. You can go there, I don’t recommend walking very far, but…
Ranger Alexandra: Or if you do, make sure you have good balance! You just fall and you tear everything up.
Ranger Mike: And get salt in your wounds, so don’t do that.
Ranger Alexandra: Isn’t that good, though, isn’t that antiseptic?
Ranger Mike: I don’t know. It’s not for me. Not for everybody. But didn’t they used to do some fun activities out there?
Ranger Alexandra: Oh, they did. Let me tell you about this monthly report from November of 1934, so the month before the one that we just read. “The dynamiting of the Salt Pools, an annual Death Valley event, was carried out on the last day of the month to the great interest of a number of holiday visitors.” Like, who was doing this before the Park Service... like, the park was doing this. That’s crazy for us to think about in this time. That you go out and you’re like, dynamiting pieces of the park for like, people’s enjoyment.
Ranger Mike: And today you can’t even set off a smoke bomb.
Ranger Alexandra: No! (laughter) No! Or like, a firework. Which are, you know, in some instances, very safe. Don’t do it! But they were doing this kind of stuff all over the Park Service at this time. We were feeding bears – that’s a terrible idea. They would set up lunch counters for bears, they would put all the trash out so that bears would come to get it. In Yosemite they used to light a fire and then kick it down Yosemite Falls, and that was the original fire fall, now it’s just like a sliver of light that falls on it. But they used to do crazy stuff, like, I mean, I don’t know what it – I don’t know what people were doing.
Ranger Mike: Like dynamiting the salt flats.
Ranger Alexandra: Like dynamiting the salt flat! So basically, there are these big pools of water that will form as I – I think as parts of Devils Golf Course collapse in on itself water, kind of just below a lot of it, the water table is very close to the surface here, and it’ll create this area that will then start to evaporate and kinda create this really beautiful white rim to this just, deeply blue water, so it’s really, really pretty. They wanted to keep those open because they wanted big attractions for people to walk just a short distance on this stuff to go see. And we actually, when I started working here in 2010 had a really, pretty big one that we called ‘Hole in One’. Did you ever get to see ‘Hole in One’?
Ranger Mike: I didn’t, no.
Ranger Alexandra: So it closed up just slowly as I’ve been here, and we used to take people out to it and that sort of thing. The water was super salty, it was really gorgeous, but I went out there, maybe 2 years ago, or maybe when you first got here, and it’s just been closed. It evaporated and covered itself over. So that’s why they used to dynamite them, to keep them open, so that people could go out to see them. So, in 1948 I found a publication, it said in 1948 they called it Pluto’s Salt Pools? And it was there, at Devils Golf Course. That area was first published in 1910, it was probably named by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and, like I said, we used to call ours ‘Hole in One’ cause it was Devils Golf Course, and we call it Devils Golf Course cause like we said it is one of the most, like, rough areas “that only the devil could play o such rough links”.
Ranger Mike: Also, did you know that there are golf ball looking formations that form there?
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah! And then there’s like little – little perfect holes that look like could…
Ranger Mike: So if you walk out there and you see what looks like an egg or a golf ball go, up, be very gentle, but you can tap it and those are hollow, and they form on top of the salt. It’s a really interesting place, I highly going to Devils Golf Course.
Ranger Alexandra: I like Devils Golf Course a lot. So, we’re going to quit Devils Golf Course though, and we’re going to Badwater!
Ranger Mike: Get back in our car, go down that gravel road, get back on pavement…
Ranger Alexandra: head south a little bit…
Ranger Mike: …and end up at a different part of the salt pan. Probably the – would you say it’s the most iconic part of the park?
Ranger Alexandra: I mean, it’s the lowest place in North America.
Ranger Mike: The lowest place, at, how far?
Ranger Alexandra: 282 below sea level.
Ranger Mike: Yes.
Ranger Alexandra: Eventually.
Ranger Mike: Eventually. So, this is a place where, when the rains fall, so, Death Valley itself is a basin, so it’s like a giant bathtub with the plug in it, and like my college bathtub, rings form around the outside. And these are not scum, they are salt and things like that, but every time a big rain comes in like the flood in October of 2015, water will infiltrate Badwater Basin, and the salt will kinda get absorbed into the water, and as it evaporates it recrystallizes or basically repaves all of this surface. So it’s one of the fastest changing parts of the park. And it’s also a part of the park where you are free to walk out and explore, and if you really feel like it you can lick the ground.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, I do that all the time. I have visitors do it, people love it.
Ranger Mike: Lickin’ the ground.
Ranger Alexandra: Lick it. I mena, it’s not just salt that’s down there, right? There’s borax and gypsum, but the biggest thing is sodium chloride – salt.
Ranger Mike: And mud so just like you don’t eat the yellow snow, do not eat the brown salt.
Ranger Alexandra: I mean you can, but you’re just eating dirt. Uh, it’s salty dirt, but that… so Badwater, I combed through a bunch of really old tour guides and or you know, old books and things like that, the one that I love from 1939 said that it was 279.6 feet below sea level. And in 1948 they were advertising it as 280 below, and I don’t know if that’s just cause they were rounding up. Oh, and in the 1948 publication they said that “some call it the bottom of America”. And I just like the bottom of America (laughter). But we sat and kind of thought about it, cause they say its 279 below sea level, then and it kind of eventually becomes 282? And we debated and sat and talked about this with a bunch of people, like, why the rigmarole of all this different elevation. Did they remeasure it , and if so, when? Did the instruments just get better so we got like a better measurement on how far below it was? But, we think that maybe they just found the actual lowest spot, which is way out on the salt flat in some random area, and now that we just kind of advertise it as this whole area is 282 feet below. Right at the boardwalk you might be sitting at like 279 …ish…
Ranger Mike: But we’re talking about inches over an area of square miles.
Ranger Alexandra: Like 40 square miles.
Ranger Mike: So essentially it’s super flat.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, It’s not like you’re going to notice, but, just know, when you’re standing at that sign that says 282 feet below, you might not be the lowest person in America, there might be someone out on the salt flat that’s just a little bit lower than you. Especially if you’re standing on that boardwalk, you’re elevated like almost a foot there. And why is the boardwalk important, right there at Badwater?
Ranger Mike: The boardwalk is important because a lot of these areas are very sensitive. While we encourage people to explore on their own, there are a couple of areas in the park that you’re not allowed to tread, such as the permanent pool in Badwater. And the reason it’s important to protect these places is that there’s animals and plants that use them, some of these animals and plants live nowhere else on Earth. An example of that would be the Badwater Snail.
Ranger Alexandra: And what about those shells that I see in Badwater. Are those the Badwater snail?
Ranger Mike: Negative. No, the Badwater snail is about the size of a pinhead, and it’s nocturnal. So we overlooked it for decades. No one knew it existed until we got down in there and look at night at this pool.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah, and they’re, I mean, they’re microscopic, they’re super cool, and they live on the salt crusts. That’s their entire habitat, and the reason we keep people away from that pool and on the boardwalk is because if you’re trampling that salt crust and right around the edge of the pool, you’re trampling their entire habitat, in the world. They’re endemic to Death Valley, and they’re endemic to our salt flats and then also to another spring that we have in the park. So you could be – I mean, foot fall is like thousands of snails. So it’s a pretty big deal.
Ranger Mike: But when you get away from there you can walk out onto the salt flats and you know, if you get a ways out, like a quarter of a mile, you can look over your shoulder and look up at the very first point that we talked about, Dante’s View. And when you’re standing there looking up at Dante’s View, you’re also standing on about 9,000 feet of debris.
Ranger Alexandra: That’s a lot of debris.
Ranger Mike: So to put it in perspective, that’s about twice as deep as Dante’s is tell.
Ranger Alexandra: That’s a good way of putting it. And that’s all just stuff that’s washed down from the mountains. All that salt, and all that stuff for millions of years…
Ranger Mike: Salt, and gypsum, and calcite, and mud, and we can look at that and learn a little bit about how the climate has changed in Death Valley.
Ranger Alexandra: Yeah. So Badwater is probably, maybe our most famous spot. And now you have concluded the tour, specifically of our main sites. But there is a few things that I wanted to talk about, I just wanted to shout out to this 1939 tour guide that I found, the little – it’s a book, and we used to have it at Scotty’s Castle, and I found it, it’s got Edward Weston’s photographs in it, and also George A. Grant, who was the first photographer for the National Park Service, but they have some really great advice. And I want to read it to you. “In case of breakdown [of your car], sit quietly in the car until a ranger passes, or until night lessens the heat, when it will be safer to walk for help… if the distance [to help] is too great, it is better to wait until the next day for a ranger patrol or other traveler.”
Ranger Mike: Great (laughter).
Ranger Alexandra: It should be noted though, that they admit that there is 300 miles of road in Death Valley, and at that time, there’s like a thousand today, and at the time they had less than a dozen rangers taking care of 300 miles of roads. So I’ve got to wonder, do you think there might be still some people sitting quietly in their car waiting for help?
Ranger Mike: (laughter) Probably!
Ranger Alexandra: Like, I’m imagining that these people are still like – they’re like 90 years old and they’re like, “They’ll come. They’ll come. Sweetheart, they’ll come.”
Ranger Mike: (laughter) “We’ve been living off of chuckwallas and mesquite this whole time. We’ll make it!”
Ranger Alexandra: The other thing that they say too, that’s just interesting that’s a huge change the park has gone through is that it says, “some roads end where prospectors and miners live. They are pleasant men…” and then they kind of ask you to kind of respect private property and people’s mines and things like that, because when we created this as a National Monument in 1933 we still allowed mining. Until the 70s, and that was a big point of contention in making this a National Park. So we went from a really interesting shift in the 1970’s that mining was the focus of this park to in the 1990s when it became a National Park, we also made this place the largest wilderness outside of Alaska. 91% of our park is wilderness, like 3 million acres, and that is one of those things that old-timer ranger, he’ll kill me for calling him an old timer, but Alan was saying that he worked here before it was a park and it was more of a cultural park, it was a cultural monument, and then it became a park and we kind of shifted our idea of this place and it kind of became a wilderness park. So that was a really interesting perspective in the way that we use it today.
Ranger Mike: And on the topic of wilderness, I think it’s worth mentioning that while you’re driving down some of these roads going to these main attractions you might see a couple hundred people at Badwater, don’t forget that this is kind of a harsh and unforgiving place, especially if you’re here when it’s hot outside. You need to make sure that you bring plenty of water and supplies in case of a breakdown. People do die, and we joke about it, it is a serious matter if something happens to you, so just be prepared to be here and you should have a good time.
Ranger Alexandra: Bring water, drink water. You hopefully will be a visitor to us, maybe you’re a visitor right now. Maybe you’ve already been a visitor, but thanks for choosing Death Valley as your National Park. And thanks for listening to us on our first podcast. If you have any suggestions for us go ahead and let us know, if you need any information about the park you can visit our website at nps.gov/deva and you can get tons of information on how to plan a visit or anything like that, it’s got ways to contact us too, email or by phone as well if you have very specific questions. And you may talk to me, or Mike, on the phone. Who knows!
Ranger Mike: And we’ll see you on the trail.
Ranger Alexandra: Have a good one guys!