We entered the park from the southwest, quickly climbing to about 4,000 feet. The sunlight shone crisp and bright across the sand and scrubby brush, shimmering in hues of brown, red, orange, and tan. The road began to descend toward Stovepipe Wells Village, one of the main ranger stations and visitor centers. We wound our way through sweeping panoramas of desert holly and stoic Joshua trees framed by distant summits. The occasional lizard scurried across the sand in a flash of pale green.
We soon reached the desert floor, passing the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes shimmering like a mirage in the distance. Our first destination was Scotty's Castle, a weird time capsule from the early 20th century. Set in the rugged north end of the park, it was built in 1922 at the behest of Death Valley Scotty, an eccentric gold miner.
After perusing the old jalopies and Spanish colonial architecture, we drove south, stopping to explore Fall Canyon. This is an excellent hike for those looking for something relatively undemanding. The trail, a wide gravel path, begins at the mouth of the canyon. You can walk as far as you wish, although most stop at a rock wall that requires some skill to climb. It's a remarkable experience to view the striated walls closing in around you as an occasional tumble of dust poofs off the cliff's edge far above. And when you're out of sight and earshot of other hikers, the silence is majestic.
The next day, after camping at Mesquite Spring in the northern end of the park, we continued south past Technicolor ranges of yellow wildflowers infusing the sun-baked landscape with a startling vitality. Several painters and photographers were ensconced along the road, attempting to capture the beauty laid out before them. Inspired by this creative spirit, we took a detour off the main road to Artist's Palette, a location noted for its brightly colored rock formations.
We pulled over to enjoy our last stop of the day before heading back to civilization. An urge to fill my senses with this miraculous landscape overtook me, so I ran up a gently sloping sandy shelf for a better view. Panting, I stopped and turned around. The barrens spread out before me as far as I could see, dotted everywhere with flecks of color proving that, despite its name, life thrives in Death Valley.