I’m standing in the middle of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin and searching for salt. Of course, this is ridiculous; there’s salt all around me, as our guide patiently explains. But what I’m looking for is a dream-like image that’s hovered at the edges of my memory since I was last there at the age of eight: an enormous wash of crystalized salt so bright it made me wince, winking away to the horizon.
Ignoring the uneven ground and lack of signage, I pace from the center in a wheel, working my way outwards towards the whiter patches that beckon tantalizingly in all directions. And then over a rise, I’m on it – a hardpan crust of rimed salt, crystals crunching under my feet, stretching to the far edges of the valley. I imagine a pioneer wagon lurching its way across this blinding, thirsty landscape and it’s as cruel and unsettling as it was to the child who never forgot it.
The rest of Death Valley, like Badwater, remains much as I remember it. For good reason; the sheer inhospitable-ness of this landscape has resisted taming since those first trapped wagon trains earned the valley its name a century and a half ago. Fast forward to today and the narrow roads that bisect the valley are as lonely, the canyons as rugged, the pool at Furnace Creek as vivid blue as they were when my family camped here in the 1960s.
And though visitor numbers climb each year, you wouldn’t know it – thanks to the searing heat of summer and the bitter winds of winter, most tourists keep to a simple driving loop and leave the side canyons and high peaks to the adventurous few.
Mosaic Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Gold Canyon
Picture a giant hurling his paintbox at a cliff and you’ll have some idea what to expect at Mosaic Canyon.
The red and ochre hills are splashed with greens, blues, and even a patch of lilac so unlikely you think they must be artificial.
But they’re not – just a hint at the mineral richness that’s drawn cash-hungry explorers to pull borax, silver, gold and copper from these hills.
Rising to a guide’s dare, we make the heart-pounding climb up Dante’s Ridge, where a viewpoint gives us an almost 360-degree view down towards Zabriskie Point on one side and Gower Gulch on the other.
Coveting a Glimpse of Copper Canyon
That’s when the ranger tells us about Copper Canyon, a section of Death Valley closed to visitors since the 1940s to protect the treasure trove of fossils there. Nowadays access is restricted to three annual ranger-led tours, each limited to 15 people chosen by lottery. Those 45 privileged souls will have a chance to explore The Barnyard, a massive and aptly named uplift preserving a farm’s worth of footprints from mastodons, two-toed camels, big cats, and various prehistoric birds all long gone from today’s animal kingdom.
This winter’s tours, to be held on November 28th, January 17th, and February 14th, will be open to sign ups a month in advance of each tour. I’ll be one of the many hoping for a spot.