Death Valley & Joshua Tree National Parks
When most people think about National Parks, they often think granite mountains, sweeping vistas, deep canyons, and tall lush pine trees. You wouldn't generally think hot desert climate, sand, barren flat landscapes to be appealing enough as a National Park. But it is in Death Valley. And despite the scary "Death" in the first part of that name, it's actually quite a diverse and colorful place.
We visited Death Valley over a slightly extended weekend in May, and on a whim decided to drive down to Joshua Tree as well. Starting from Las Vegas, it's a 2.5-hours drive to Death Valley, then a 3-hours drive to Joshua Tree, and another 3-hours drive back to Vegas.
It's also the National Park's centennial celebration this year, ever since Yellowstone was established as a Federally controlled land for the purpose of preserving and protecting a part of America's nature.
Why this matters? Because, it reminds us that these parks were meant to preserve delicate portions of America, to educate us, and to leave a legacy for future generations to come. Not just another mountain conquered, another add to your selfie collections, or to add to your 'portfolio' of photos. And with the recent news and outrage over seemingly narcissistic behaviors in Yellowstone and other parks, I think it's important to remind ourselves why we like them in the first place and how they’re inevitably interconnected to people.
Death Valley didn’t start as a National Park or a place where people visit for leisure. It was a mining operations, Borax specifically. The same Borax company that Stephen Mather, the “Father” of the Parks Systems, had made his fortune before becoming the National Park Service director and strongest advocate. But as mining fades and tourism blooms, the park becomes more accessible, roads built, lodges and restaurants put in place. All in an effort to draw people in, like at Zabriskie point, a very nice winding walkway leads up to an open viewing area where you can see the vast ridges shaped by erosion. No hiking shoes needed.
And just like most other parks, there are a lot of accessible points of interest like this. Like the Mesquite Sand Dunes, where you can park right next to where the dunes start and walk half a mile to one of the high points.
And these are great for visitors, you don’t have to be a mountaineer or hike for miles to see the variety of landscapes in the park. But you have to remember that it’s a privilege--not a right--to be able to see these amazing places.
There are places which you have to really work for it to see. Like the incredible Racetrack Playa and sailing stones. It took us almost 2 hours in a rented Wrangler (with big fat all-terrain tires) to go through 27 miles of sharp gravel roads to reach. We got there just after sunset, and as twilight covers the area. We were the only people on the playa, (with just another photographer a couple miles up on the other end). And it was just unbelievable how quiet, silent, and desolate it was.
But even here, we can still see footprints from other people who had gone up to the sailing stones while the delicate soil was wet from rain. And these prints will stay here for a while since rain rarely touch this place.
We settled in for the night in the jeep, and popped open the front roof panel to see the stars and moon. I managed to get a shot of the moon as it creeps behind the mountain. I felt lucky that we were the only one who saw this moon, under this sky, in this place.
We woke up at sunrise to see the stones in more light, trying to be very careful while we walk across the playa, and trying to place our tripods as delicately as possible to not leave a mark. The temperature comes up very quickly here during the day.
On our way out, I saw a few more trucks driving in on the dirt road. I’ve heard some people have advocated for making entry to this place by lottery-only. It’d be difficult for most people like us who only come for a short visit, but may be necessary so that this truly unique place stays the way it is for the future. The more responsible we are, the less necessary requirements like that are needed.
But some parks are more interactive than others. In Joshua Tree, bouldering and climbing is very popular. We didn’t know what to expect when we drove into the park, but was very surprised to see the big boulders strewn across the side of the road, with the Joshua trees filling in the spaces in between them.
Even the campgrounds are tucked in between boulders, and you can scramble up your own personal stone to get a sweeping view of the park.
We caught the sunset at Key’s point, overlooking Coachella Valley (the music festival takes the name from the valley, not the other way around as I found out, and no I didn’t see Tupac’s 3D ghost).
Staying after dark also gives us another chance to see the stars in an obscenely clear sky. So however you enjoy your park, no matter if you’re the only person there, please remember that this park isn’t yours and yours alone to enjoy. The trees, animals, rocks, mountains were here before we did and we’re just temporary visitors. The rangers and staff that works in the parks (even those who clean the toilets after you) are not here to be millionaires, but they’re here because they love this park just as much if not more than you and I, so be respectful.
And don’t forget to put down your camera, selfie sticks, and smartphones… and just enjoy the scene… you might not get to see that exact view again.