The lowest point in North America is a surreal landscape of vast salt flats.
Named for the pool of water near the boardwalk area, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. The salt flats here cover nearly 200 square miles (518 square km), and are composed mostly of sodium chloride (table salt), along with calcite, gypsum, and borax.
Although Badwater Pool reportedly earned its name because the mule of an early surveyor refused to drink from it, the water is not truly “bad,” just highly salty. Despite this high salinity, many organisms not only survive, but thrive here. The pool is home to an endemic snail, and its rim is dotted with salt tolerant plants, including pickleweed.
Badwater Basin was once the site of the large inland Lake Manly- named for one of the original ‘49ers. The lake had no outlet, leading to the accumulation of sediment and salt over time. When the lake eventually evaporated, concentrated salt deposits were left behind. Today, fascinating geometric salt polygons form on the flats as groundwater rises up through these deposits and evaporates.
The pool and boardwalk are easily accessible from the parking lot off Badwater Road, but the best views of the salt polygons require an easy 1.5-2 mile (2.4-3.2 km) roundtrip walk out onto the salt flats. Before you leave, be sure to look up on the cliffs of the Black Mountains to the east; here you will see a sign high above, indicating sea level. Also take a moment to pick out Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range to the west; at 11,049 ft (3,368 m), this peak is over two miles (3.2 km) above you. Nowhere else in America can you see such a dramatic vertical relief over such a close distance.