As a former runner, Death Valley for me is always associated with the extreme Badwater ultramarathon. Billed as the toughest footrace on earth, the race begins at the Badwater basin, the lowest point in North America at 280 feet below sea level. Oh yeah, it’s in JULY in freakin’ DEATH VALLEY. Daytime temperatures at that time of year average 110 degrees F! If that’s not bad enough, the race covers a whopping 135 miles, ending at Mt Whitney in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The course goes over 3 mountain ranges in the process, ascending a cumulative 14,600 feet.
I’ve long been fascinated by endurance events, especially extreme one like this. I’ve read several books on the topic, and a personal acquaintance of mine (Bob Becker) completed a Badwater Double a few years ago. That’s the even more insane unofficial “round trip” event whereby one completes the official event, climbs to the highest point in the continental US atop Mt Whitney (14,505 feet), and hoofs it back to the Badwater basin starting point! That’s a round trip distance of 292 miles! And did I mention that he was the oldest person to have done so at the time at age 70? Just incredible.
After reading about the various way points and locations within Death Valley National Park, it was exciting to me to actually see them in person. Places with names like Badwater, and Stovepipe Wells, and the Devil’s Golf Course. I was interested to see just how remote they are. Because of its location in one of the driest places on earth, I did not realize that there was actual water at Badwater. Hydraulic pressure from the surrounding mountains forces mineral-laden water to the surface at this lowest spot. Evaporation creates large salt flats, but there are always puddles, even in the extreme heat. The mules of early explorers refused to drink the “bad” water, hence the name.
One of the advantages of having a 4-wheel drive truck is the ability to take some of the “off highway” roads. By driving just outside the Park we were able to pick up the one-way, 26 mile long Titus Canyon Road. The road took us through the desert flat, up and over Red Pass. The scenery was spectacular, and the road was only scary in a few places! (A high clearance vehicle was definitely required at times) Coming out of the pass, we encountered Leadville ghost town with its closed mine and few defunct structures. Before reaching the Death Valley floor, the road snaked through Titus Canyon. The walls of the canyon seemed just wide enough for our vehicle in places, and towered above us. We had hiked through slot canyons before, but driving through one was a completely different experience! The entire drive took several hours, but it was entirely worth it.
Death Valley …. another Passport stamp and another National Park checked off our list!