No matter where you live in the United States, you can find a National Park Service site in your home state, whether it be a battlefield, historic site, or national trail. But California takes the prize for being home to more National Park Service sites than any other state in America. The variety is impressive, too….from the shores of Channel Islands National Park, to cool and wet Redwoods National & State Parks, to the desert land of Joshua Tree National Park, and back to the world famous Yosemite and Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks.
As we approach winter, my sights are on a park that may not be the first park that comes to mind when you think of California, but it is one that makes a great winter escape for those of us in colder regions:
Death Valley National Park.
Snowcapped peaks meet salty basins filled with winter wildflowers. Sky and land stretch on an on with an immensity and solitude that is rare. Hottest, driest, lowest…so many extremes can be found in this harsh but beautiful park.
The hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States was here at Furnace Creek in July 1913 when the mercury hit 134 degrees F. The soaring temperatures land this park another prize for “driest place in North America”. Badwater Basin – the heart of the valley – sits 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point in North America, and must see destination while you’re there.
Be sure to also check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – miles of sandy dunes over 100 feet high that the kids will love – and the Borax Works historic site, home of the original 20 Mule Borax Team. And if you’re ready to hit the trail, you’ve picked a great time of year for that! Hiking season in Death Valley runs from October to April.
Here are a few family friendly trails to get you started:
Golden Canyon – This easy 2 mile roundtrip hike can be made longer by hiking further to destinations such as Gower Gulch, Red Cathedral, or Zabriskie Point.
Mosaic Canyon – A short walk from the trailhead leads you to a narrow canyon with walls of marble. you can continue hiking for another 1-1/2 to 2 miles before the way is blocked by a dry waterfall.
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail – This accessible short boardwalk is a small oasis in the valley, and in late winter you might even catch site of some pupfish in the creek.
Mesquite Flat High Dune – Summit the highest sand dune on this 2 mile hike!
Natural Bridge – This 1.5 mile hike leads to the parks’ largest natural rock span.
If you love a hiking challenge, then be sure to check out the Death Valley Challenge – a program in which you earn points for completing specific hikes and earn a decal. The list of hikes and the decals change yearly, making it a great guide for hitting a wide variety of trails over multiple visits.
However you approach Death Valley, you won’t regret that you did (especially in February!). To start planning your trip, head to www.nps.gov/deva.