Travel

Death Valley in winter: Perhaps the only sane time to visit

Rusty old cars still dot the landscape of Leadville, a ghost town in Tutus Canyon in Death Valley National Park.
Rusty old cars still dot the landscape of Leadville, a ghost town in Tutus Canyon in Death Valley National Park. Los Angeles Times

High noon at Badwater basin, and here I am wearing a light fleece coat and cursing it because, well, it’s not my high-end, breathable Gore-Tex rain jacket, hanging uselessly back home in the hallway closet.

Yes, it’s raining in Death Valley. This never happens. Oh, all right, they do get a tiny measure of precipitation here in this famously parched desert that spans 5,270 square miles — a whopping 1.9 inches a year. Mostly, whatever falls from the sky is slurped right up by the thirsty soil, making nary a significant puddle, yet, coming in winter like this abbreviated shower, helps the always-iffy prospects for a hearty spring wildflower bloom into being.

But let’s not get carried away with this meteorological anomaly: no torrential downpour, no Old Testament gully gusher, only enough to make drivers turn the wipers to “intermittent.”

For those who’ve visited here only at the height of summer — or heck, even as early as April — this late January drizzle is such a stark contrast to the kiln that usually is the valley floor, where triple-digit readings are the norm by lunchtime. You’d never think you’d actually need to use a furnace at the Furnace Creek Resort, but the woman in front of me at check-in asked about central heating on this (brrr) 61-degree day, forecast to drop to an even more bone-chilling 47 overnight.

“Isn’t this amazing?” said Linda Slater, Death Valley’s chief interpretive ranger.

She hustled over to the information desk at the Furnace Creek visitors center and looked up this season’s rainfall total: 0.16 inches.

“It seems like a lot out there today, though, huh?” she said. “We did have some rain in the beginning of December, but nothing more until (today).”

For the record, in that 24-hour period, the official weather station at Furnace Creek registered 0.26 inches of rainfall; it was the talk of the visitors center.

There are two ways to look at a Death Valley rainy day: either the proverbial rain bucket’s half-full, or half-empty.

Thinking positively, the landscape takes on a brooding, almost vulnerable presence, far removed from the fiery malevolence of summer. Up at Artist’s Palette, looming above Badwater basin, the rough volcanic rock and multi-hued mineral deposits are so slick they look as if someone just slathered on a fresh glossy coat. Below, in the salt-encrusted basin, you can see the drops make dark brown dots in the granular surface before fading, like time-lapse photography, in front of your eyes, and you wonder if the briny earth there remembers that 4,000 years ago — a mere geologic eye blink, after all — that it was a lake.

Thinking negatively, you feel the same letdown you might experience when you get to see a handsome actor in person and find his skin is pockmarked by acne scars and discover he’s wearing lifts in his shoes.

The landscape is not the vivid eye candy you expected to see — in fact, what you did see when Googling “Artist’s Palette” before the trip. In the overcast and sprinkles, all seems slightly washed out, the usually reddish serrated hillsides almost a sickly pastel, the greens and yellow tinge of the deep fissures reduced to varying shades of beige. Nary a glimmer, either, of Badwater’s celebrated brilliant winter sunset, the Panamint Mountains in the distance hiding behind thick cloud cover.

Death Valley’s visitors on this day seemed a little befuddled but entirely undeterred. Cameras still clicked mightily, no one bemoaning the lack of vivacity in the images before posting to Snapchat. Sturdy hiking poles went right on plunging into the slightly sticky silt and clay on the popular Golden Canyon Trail heading to Red Cathedral. Twelve miles up Dante’s View, 5,000 feet above the basin, people still gamely got out of their cars and gazed down on the view, however obscured.

I mean, what else can you do? You can’t Photoshop nature, can you?

A large subset of Death Valley visitors have a perfectly pleasant time visiting here in winter, the so-called off-peak season. While March and August are reportedly the most popular months among the park’s 1 million annual visitors — the first because of spring break and the second because some off-hinged folks crave intense heat (“Especially the Germans,” said Linda Slater, Death Valley’s chief interpretive ranger) — some make it a point to visit in December, January and February, before the thermometer and tourists rise precipitously.

“Of course, I’ve always known it gets hot here,” said Chris Fitzpatrick, a tourist from Wisconsin, quite comfortable in a cardigan sweater on the observation deck at Badwater. “My husband, Bob, was laughing because he said the name, Death Valley, doesn’t really draw you here. This is a good time to come.”

“I’ve been here in May before,” Ali Barnes, her friend, interjected. “That’s definitely the latest I’d come. It was over 100 then, yeah.”

“That is a little scary,” Fitzpatrick added. “There was a story, wasn’t there, recently about a lady who went through here in summer with their kid, and she didn’t have water along and, you know what happened. Oh, it was terrible.”

“But I wasn’t expecting rain,” Barnes said. “It’s something different. I’ve been here five times. First time it’s rained. … When we’ve come out in winter before, the angle of the sunlight, because it’s such a low angle, is so much more dramatic than the one time I was here in May. Then, it was hot and little miserable. (In May) you had this real tall, direct sunlight. No thanks. The low angle of the winter sun makes the rocks shimmer, the definition pops out.”

The winter visitor does, indeed, have some advantages without having to endure sweat-lodge conditions. Hiking is not limited to mornings. Mid-afternoon saw the parking area near the popular Mosaic Canyon Trail, hard by Stovepipe Wells Village, packed, as was an area dotted with shutterbugs nearby searching for “good light” while training their lenses on the Mesquite Dunes. People looped around the volcanic crater at Ubehebe without feeling the hot breath of phantom eruptions.

You don’t have to weigh yourself down with provisions like a survivalist, either, though rangers still recommend bringing plenty of water and maybe some electrolytes, even in cooler weather. Your car’s radiator will thank you, as well. It’s easier to get a reservation at either the Furnace Creek Inn or Ranch, or accommodations at Stovepipe Wells Village or Panamint Springs but, alas, you’ll still pay felonious prices for food (a three-topping pizza for $31; a chicken Caesar salad for $19) and gas ($3.47 a gallon).

It’s true that fewer people may visit in winter, but there seems to be more action. Maybe the extreme heat just encourages sloth, making even the 400-yard trek from your room at the Furnace Creek Ranch to the on-site Borax Museum an act of Olympian toil and testament to personal bravery. Not so in milder days. I passed several groups of cyclists whirring like a swarm of bees down Highway 190 and along Badwater Road. More than a few runners were chugging along the soft shoulder, too, without having to wear heat-resistant suits. The horses rented out at the Furnace Creek Corral appeared energized, not enervated.

“I think this is the only time in 2015 it’s going to rain right here right now,” said David Walker, of White Plains, Maryland, strolling the basin with his wife, Karin. “We came for the day from (Las) Vegas and we knew it was going to be rainy all day there so figured it’d be nice here. But I’m OK with it.”

The late January rain also augurs a fertile, if still too brief, wildflower season. “The flower season here starts earlier than (at) other desert parks,” Slater said. “If it gets real hot in March, then the flowers wilt and droop. That’s happened before. It all depends on the weather, of course. If it stays reasonably cool in March, then the flower season will last. Remember, (the flowers) move up in elevation. If you were to go to Telescope Peak (11,049 feet) or Mahogany Flats (8,133 feet) in the summer, you’ll still see the flowers up there.

The only reason flowers can take root and sprout in such a harsh milieu is that they are annuals, meaning they bloom for one growing season, the seeds using the modicum of rainfall to flourish briefly before bowing down. They come in yellow, pink, red and pale blue to purple, everything from the woolly daisy to gravel ghosts to Mojave aster. Death Valley veterans still talk about the so-called “Super Bloom” of 2005, when above-normal rain brought out scores of photographers, not to mention droves of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Last winter? Meh. Not so much.

Photographers have more than just flowers to focus on. There are those sublime winter sunsets (weather permitting) and a variety of critters hanging out at different elevations. Snails and cottonball pupfish struggle to survive on the salt flats, snakes and kangaroo rats around the sand dunes and valley floor, desert tortoise, fringe-toed lizards and bobcats at high elevations. Tour vans from outfits with names such as Aperture Academy pull over seemingly every few miles for shutterbugs to capture the sublime color contrast between landscape and blooms.

No matter the season, you have to go searching for many desert creatures (though doesn’t it always seem rattlesnakes will seek you out?), but they can be found if you’re willing to stray from the familiar, i.e., paved, path. Slater and others recommend lesser-known trail offshoots for those seeking a wilder, as well as a quieter, nature experience.

“The thing about Death Valley,” she said, “is that it’s so big that, if you want to get away from crowds, you can get away. I’ve been here on a Presidents Day weekend, and it’s been very busy. But I can find another canyon to walk in where I won’t see a soul. I did one recently.

“If you go to the west side of Titus Canyon (northeast, in the Grapevine Mountains, on the way to Scotty’s Castle), there’s a trailhead for Fall Canyon. Lots of folks hike there. But I went into the next one over and there was nobody there. Maybe it’s not as pretty as Fall Canyon, but it was very peaceful.”

Today, though, it’s quiet — so quiet that you can hear the rain, faint yet steady, plink against the salty, crusty Badwater soil.

Going to Death Valley

Park information: www.nps.gov/deva, www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit

LODGING IN THE PARK

Furnace Creek Ranch: www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/the-ranch-at-furnace-creek

Furnace Creek Inn: www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/the-inn-at-furnace-creek

Furnace Creek Resort RV Park and Campground: www.furnacecreekresort.com/lodging/fiddlers-campground-and-rv-park

Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel: www.deathvalleyhotels.com

Panamint Springs Resort: www.panamintsprings.com

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