There is no sign for Darwin Falls on the highway—you have to make the turnoff before you'll see a sign. This is because the Park Service hides signs for certain attractions. I think this is a good idea. But no one wants to miss Darwin Falls, which features an 18-foot (5 meters) plunge into a shallow pool surrounded by maidenhair fern, impossibly green under beige sun-scorched cliffs. The mist from the falls cools the air to, I'd say, ten degrees lower than the open desert, and there is watercress at the pool. The water itself feels cool.
Even in February, with temperatures in the low 70s—and low 60s near the pool—it is tempting to take a quick dip in the water, but this is the drinking supply for a nearby resort, and swimming is highly impolite. Also, in the post-9/11 world, messing with someone's water supply is not a good idea: The ill-mannered swimmer could be charged with terrorism.
From the falls, I drove several thousand feet up into the mountains on Highway 190, making for the Saline Valley turnoff. The pass took me to a forest of Joshua trees. They are widely spaced plants, and they often grow with four and five and even six arms, their branches festooned with green, bayonet-like leaves, reaching to the sun. Legend has it that Mormon pioneers saw in them a resemblance to the biblical Joshua raising his arms to heaven or brandishing his spear.
After the sun had set on the trees of Lee Flat, the western sky had that bruised, purple look of things to come, and I set up a tent and laid out a sleeping bag.
Dawn. And yes, as hoped, it was snowing lightly on the Joshua trees. I wandered about in the forest, as wet snow accumulated on the green of the growing leaves, on the autumnal brown of the dead vegetation nearest the trunks of the trees. Joshua trees are signature plants of the Mojave Desert, and the concept of desert flora in the snow contained within it a quiet thrill. I was alone, and I owned this view. And just as I began feeling especially blessed, the rising sun turned the snow into a cold, bitter rain. No matter: I'd had my half hour of beatitude.
At Telescope Peak trailhead, 8,133 feet up (2,479 meters), I prepared myself for the nearly 3,000-foot (910 meters) climb to the summit. Happily, I was stopped by snow almost immediately. From that point, I plunged down various roads, making my way north to the Eureka Dunes, which are up to 700 feet high (210 meters). They make groaning sounds as rounded sand grains slide down their steep slopes, playing them as a musical instrument.
Later, I hiked many of the canyons—one of the great pleasures of trekking Death Valley. Sinuous, shady walls make for cool walking in Fall Canyon, where rocks were laid down in light and dark layers. In places, these layers arched like an angry cat and eventually fell over on themselves, so that the striations looped over and under even as they rose into another peak that likewise collapsed. It is plain to see: The bandings, like the rocks in the Racetrack, have definitely moved. At this spot, on a looming canyon wall, geology itself appeared to be in a state of agitated frustration. This wall of naked rock, exposed for all to see, seemed to be blushing crimson in the light of the setting sun.