Dunes and Blooms
On a recent trip, I set up camp at Mesquite Spring, near the rim of Death Valley Wash. Trees and colorful shrubs poked up between the sites, which looked out onto multicolored mountains. There weren't many wildflowers yetit was still too early in the year. But the temperature had dropped to a comfortable camping level, perfect for a day in the dunes.
I poked my head out of my sleeping bag first thing in morning, and a cool wind swept across my face. At the edge of the campsite, desert poppies arched their stems toward the sun, which crept its way into the shadowy ridges of the surrounding mountains. After a hot breakfast, I bundled up in a jacket and wool hat to prepare for a day of walking around a landscape that, three months later, would be too hot to explore outside of an air-conditioned car.
Even when the buds aren't bursting, spring is the season to explore Death Valley. Mild weather means you can access every corner of this massive desert park, which is big enough to swallow small countries whole. Though you can choose from terrain that ranges from high mountain passes to low desert springs, nothing says Death Valley like the dunes. Broad expanses of rippling sand stretch out into oblivion. It's a classic desert landscape.
To get to the dunes, I drove toward Stovepipe Wells Village and turned at the Sand Dunes sign three miles before the Highway 190 turnoff. Near the end of the three-and-half-mile dirt road, I parked in the far lot. On this end, the dunes rise higher and dip deeper than they do on the other side. This is where I like to start my scramble.
Since the dunes have no trails, determining a route is a spontaneous endeavor. I carry a compass when I'm here, and sometimes I remember to use it. More often I count on landmarks to guide me (and I carry plenty of water, just in case).
This time I started by pointing myself southwest and walking toward the dark, jagged ridges of the Panamint Range. Directly south stood Telescope Peak, the park's highest point (I was standing just below sea level at one of the park's lowest points). The dunes rise and fall for several miles in this directionI knew I'd run out of willpower long before I'd run out of sand.
From the tops of the sandy hills I scanned the distant red cliffs with angular bases that jutted out like wrinkled elbows. Along the dunes' edges, tangles of green and brown milkweed shivered in the wind. I sat down on a high spot and watched them until I was ready to turn around and let the flat-topped buttes of the Amargosa Range lead me all the way back to the car.
Back at Mesquite Spring, I burned some coals in the campsite grill and ate dinner by a roaring fire. Thickening clouds obscured what would have been some world-class stargazing. Just as I stepped into my tent, raindrops started to fall. In the morning, there would be wildflowers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication