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Field Notes
Cahill Field Notes
Photograph courtesy Michael Melford
Tim Cahill
Interview by Paul Heltzel
If you had to recommend one spot to see in Death Valley, what would it be?

To start my trip, I'd get someplace high and try to orient myself. Dante's View, 5,475 feet (1,669 meters) up in the Black Mountains, is quite accessible: a stunning view that encompasses both the lowest place in the contiguous United States—Badwater at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level—and the highest, Mount Whitney, at 14,494 feet (4,410 meters) less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Telescope Peak rises to 11,049 feet (3,368 meters), just across the valley floor.

It is best to arrive in the very early in the morning. The view is to the west, so the rising sun colors the rock and salt and snow.

Is there any place most people would be wise to avoid while traveling to Death Valley alone?

People would be well advised not to try to cross the valley on foot during the summer. Ground temperatures can exceed 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius).

Any other vital details you can impart for a newcomer?

Death Valley is our largest national park outside of Alaska, and a car is a necessity. You won't see it all on one visit or several. Pick up a map and make a plan.

The park is not at its best at high noon when the crushing sun seems to level the landscape. Try to sightsee or hike very early in the morning or in the later afternoon, when land that seems desolate and bleak at noon takes on an eerie beauty. The most pleasant months for visiting, and especially for walking, are October through March. Summer temperatures rise to 120 degrees (49 degrees Celsius), and strenuous hikes are potentially lethal.

You write about rocks on the move at the playa called the Racetrack. What's the most unusual rock movement you're aware of?

Anyone who goes to the Racetrack will find his or her own favorite track and rock. I liked one grouping of smaller stones that seemed to all start together, as if in competition with another. The tracks were straight and side by side, but soon enough they began to diverge and curl about aimlessly, like three-year-old children racing at a picnic.

You mention a sense of vertigo on the playa there, why do you think that occurs?

I think vertigo sometimes occurs because we are not used to walking on a perfectly flat surface for a matter of miles. Something in my inner ear tells me this is not right, that, outside, ground is uneven, and I must watch my step and compensate for minor elevation changes. It is rather like getting off a ship after a long voyage: Your legs continue to respond to the rocking of a boat that you are no longer aboard.

Can you describe what it feels like to be at the lowest point in North America?

You will be with a bunch of other visitors, many of whom I imagine, are checking Badwater off their list: "I've stood at the lowest point." I like to walk west, out into the vast salt flat. It seems right to be alone, with only your thoughts for company. Across the valley Telescope Peak looms above. This is a time I put down the camera, stand still for a time and take a measure of myself.

Do you suggest any reading that might help a visitor appreciate the geology of Death Valley?

Very accessible but not "dumbed down" is An Introduction to the Geology of Death Valley, by Michael Collier. One I found particularly useful in writing the article was Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley, by Robert P. Sharp and Allen F. Glazner. I also like two good hiking guides: Best Easy Day Hikes: Death Valley by Bill Cunningham and Polly Burke. The experienced desert hiker must have Michel Digonnet's Hiking Death Valley: A Guide to Its Natural Wonders and Mining Past. This is the most informative and complete guide to walking in Death Valley, but, as Digonnet notes in an introductory caution, some hikes suggested are "potentially very dangerous."