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Visit to Death Valley filled with extreme lows, highs

One way to beat the January blues is taking a day trip to nearby Death Valley National Park. From Boulder City you can be at the hub of the park, Furnace Creek, in less than three hours. The visitor center there is a good place to start any visit. You can pick up maps, learn the latest road conditions, and get in-depth information on the places you might want to visit.

One of the best day trips, and the one I use to thrill first-time visitors to the park, is a driving excursion south on Badwater Road. I start by driving the 17 miles or so from the visitor center to Badwater Basin. This is the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet below sea level, and just about everyone seems to enjoy visiting here.

Perhaps the enjoyment lies in the anticipation of later telling friends they did it. But the scenery is pretty spectacular. Badwater Basin is an immense dry lake, its floor flat as the proverbial pancake, and you can see many a mile across it.

From the parking area you can walk out on the salt flat for about one-half mile on a nice flat surface. Looking west you will see the Panamint mountains, including their highest summit, Telescope Peak, 11,049 feet above sea level. This is one of the few places you might ever see such disparity in elevation within one vista.

On your return toward Furnace Creek there are many places to visit. The first you’ll come to is Natural Bridge Canyon, via a turnoff 3.8 miles north of your Badwater stop. You won’t need four-wheel-drive on this side trip, but good off-road tires and high clearance are recommended. Drive up the gravel road for about 1.5 miles to the trail head. From there it is an easy one-half-mile hike to the natural bridge. If you’re feeling spry. you can extend your hike another one-half-mile to a dryfall.

Back on Badwater Road, continue north about four more miles and take a right onto Artists Drive. One-way and 9 miles long, this loop threads its way through some of the most colorful scenery in Death Valley, made up of multihued volcanic and sedimentary rocks.

Your final stop along the Badwater Road might be Golden Canyon, located about 3 miles north after exiting Artists Drive. From the parking area it is an easy 2-mile round-trip hike through the golden badlands, with an elevation gain of about 300 feet.

This canyon has lots of geologic interest such as the prominent formation of Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral’s steep yet vibrant cliffs. Your understanding and enjoyment will be enhanced if you pick up the park’s free interpretive guide. It’s wise to do it at the visitor center at the start of the day, in case the supply at the trail head runs out.

Never enter any of Death Valley’s canyons when rain threatens, as flash flooding can occur suddenly.

If you still have time, on your way out of the park along California Highway 190, take a side trip 12 miles up a paved road to Dante’s View. The viewpoint is more than 5,000 feet above Badwater Basin so dress warmly. It could be as much as 25 degrees cooler there.

Many people feel this is the best view in the park, which is saying a mouthful. On a clear day you can see both Furnace Creek and Badwater, as well as many other points of interest laid out at your feet as if on a map table. No vehicles with trailers more than 25 feet are allowed, but there is a drop-off parking area for trailers before the final climb to Dante’s View.

Most likely after this day trip you’ll be eager to return and see other areas of the park. On your next visit, think about staying for a night or two to explore. There is lodging in the park at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Lodging information for Furnace Creek can be found at 760-786-2345, www.furnacecreekresort.com/, and for Stovepipe Wells at 760-786-2387, www.escapetodeathvalley.com/.

There are a variety of campgrounds at different elevations in the park. Good choices for winter, in the Furnace Creek area, include the Texas Spring Campground at sea level, and Furnace Creek Campground at an elevation of -196 feet. The former is first come, first served; the latter takes reservations through 877-444-6777, or www.recreation.gov.

The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is open daily in winter from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. This time of year rangers give presentations about the natural and cultural history of the park. For the program calendar or for general park information on Death Valley, call 760-786-3200 or visit www.nps.gov/deva/.

Many of Deborah Wall’s columns have been compiled in the book “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States.” She is also the author of “Great Hikes, a Cerca Country Guide” and a co-author of the newly released book “Access For All, Seeing the Southwest With Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

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