Rhyolite is a ghost town. Driven by the hot desert winds, we watched balls of tumbleweed roll around its ruined houses before coming to rest on the spikes of the Joshua trees, the only inhabitants of the empty streets. Joshua trees are fascinating members of the yucca family and are a protected species. They grow everywhere in the desert regions of the southwest of the USA. Rhyolite is on the border between Nevada and California, close to the eastern entrance to Death Valley National Park.
The old town is a creepy place and had a short but turbulent history beginning in 1905 when thousands of fortune-seekers flocked to the area, tempted by stories of lucrative gold strikes. By 1907, the town’s population had swelled to 5,000 and boasted an infrastructure that included electric light, mains water, a school and even an opera house. However, Rhyolite declined almost as rapidly as it rose. The richest ore was soon exhausted and mines began to close in 1911. Redundant miners moved away and by 1920 the population was close to zero! Its history wasn’t quite finished however, as its ruins became a tourist attraction and a perfect natural setting for Western motion pictures.
A hundred years later, Rhyolite still has a magnetic power and we relished the opportunity to stroll amongst its crumbling buildings, imagining what life was like there in the early 20th century.
The main highway continues through the Funeral Mountains and into the National Park near Hell’s Gate, where we had our first view of Death Valley itself. The Sierra Nevada Mountains reared up far away to the west and the floor of the valley (which is mainly made up of salt) was a brilliant white, as if bleached by the searing sun.
In 1849, a group of migrating pioneers looked at the same view before stumbling down into the valley’s shimmering heat to take a shortcut to the Californian goldfields. This proved to be a disastrous mistake. The pioneers split into smaller groups and many perished crossing the parched salt flats and shifting sands. Some escaped into the cool of the Panamint Mountains on the opposite side and it is said that one member of a surviving group looked back and muttered a heartfelt “Goodbye, Death Valley”. This extraordinary place had just been given its name!
Unlike the early pioneers, modern day visitors can use the tarmac road that drops down to the valley floor. There were plenty of warning signs about high temperatures, the need to carry copious quantities of water and the dangers of leaving your vehicle. It was July and by the time we had reached our hotel at aptly titled Furnace Creek, we were 55m below sea level in a shade temperature of 47 degrees Centigrade. Apparently, this was a typical summer’s day, but well short of Death Valley’s record of 57 degrees, measured in 1913. As the average annual rainfall at Furnace Creek is just 4cms, we now knew exactly why this unique location deep in California’s mountains is known as America’s hottest, driest and lowest National Park!Death Valley is undeniably desert, but it is a very exciting desert! There’s plenty to see and we began our exploration at the Harmony Borax Works, one of the many old borax mines. It was an eerie place with old disused mining equipment and steam traction engines quietly rusting under the hot sun. Borax, the “white gold of the desert”, has been mined profitably in the valley since 1883. Then, large teams of up to 20 mules used to drag carts of the valuable mineral out of the valley to the nearest railhead to be taken for further processing. The soft white crystals of borax are still used in detergents, cosmetics, enamel glazes, as a fire retardant and as an anti-fungal agent.
The picturesque Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are north of the Harmony Works and Furnace Creek. Because of the intense heat, we decided to view the dunes’ graceful curves directly from the road rather than suffering a sweaty hike through blisteringly hot soft sand to see them close up. Although the prevailing winds shift the dunes about, the sand is trapped by the surrounding mountains and is prevented from being blown away. The Mesquite area was one of many shooting locations in Death Valley used by George Lucas in his Star Wars’ films.
During the afternoon we drove to the Badwater salt flat, which is one of the most visited points in the Park as it is 86m below sea level – the lowest point in the USA. The massive expanse of white is made up of almost pure table salt. The area floods after rainstorms but the resultant lake rapidly re-deposits its sparkling crystals of sodium chloride as the water evaporates.
The ancient rock layers in the valley comprise a nearly complete geological record of the Earth’s past, but the record has been jumbled out of sequence due to the land rising followed by erosion over millions of years. Boulders, soil and debris are slowly being deposited in the mouths of the canyons and the valley floor.
In order to best appreciate the wonderful geology, we spent the evening motoring around the Artists Drive, known for its many rock colours caused by oxidation of different metals, and then up the mountain to Zabriskie Point. This viewpoint is famous for its panorama of eroded rocks that are best seen at sunset. We lingered on the mountainside until after nightfall as the park is a popular location for stargazing and has one of the darkest skies in the USA. There was no moon, so we were treated to a breathtaking view of the Milky Way.
As we were leaving the valley the following day, on the same route through the Panamint Mountains as the early pioneers, we stopped to look back over the parched rugged landscape and whispered our own very fond “Goodbye” to Death Valley. We left with affectionate memories of an immense and wild land that man has never been able to tame. One can only hope that future generations do not interfere with the valley’s fragile ecosystems and have sufficient vision to ensure its matchless beauty remains fully protected and preserved.