California’s Death Valley and Mojave Deserts

Death Valley National Park in Zabriskie Point, California

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Death Valley and Mojave Desert” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

South and east of the Sierra lie vast California deserts, rich with wildflowers such as poppies in the spring. More tenacious plants, such as beavertail cactus, flower even in the heat of summer. The the desert often presents itself as a shimmering mirage. An Indian word for a part of these deserts, Tomesha, meaning “ground afire,” becomes an accurate description in summer. The high Mojave and low Death Valley deserts cover a huge acreage and include valuable mineral deposits, such as borax. In these deserts you can find historic ghost towns and towering sand dunes. Dramatic rock formations form from the incessant, erosive power of water and wind.

Joy of the Spring

The biggest surprise for many first-time visitors to the desert, especially in spring after the winter rains, is the subtle beauty. An abundant variety of life thrives in what is usually an arid environment. The spring landscape can be a palette of poppies, coreopsis, or goldfields. Appealing wildflowers stretching like a living carpet from underfoot to the horizon.

When viewing either of these desert areas, but especially Death Valley, the long and dispassionate view of the geologist comes to the fore. Geologists speak with confidence of sweeping eons that defy the imagination. Death Valley was formed millions of years ago by the folding and faulting pressures of the earth’s crust. These forces uplifted the surrounding mountains.

Geologic forces also dropped the area between the mountains to far below sea level. Erosive action, especially of water, gradually wore down the mountains and filled the valleys. Parts still remain dramatically below sea level. Lakes developed in the basins and periodically froze during ice ages. Layers of sediment and salt provide clues for geological detectives who reconstruct these scenarios.

Getting to the Death Valley and Mojave Deserts

From the west you reach Death Valley National Park via Highway 136 from Lone Pine or Highway 178 from the Highway 395 cutoff at Red Mountain. From Las Vegas, Death Valley is north on Highway 95 and then west on 373 to Death Valley Junction. Las Vegas has the closest commercial airport destination to Death Valley, some 120 miles away.

The Mojave Desert is close to Los Angeles, just north of the metropolis, with Lancaster at its center. Drive north from Los Angeles on Interstate 5, then east on Highway 138, or take Highway 14 east to Palmdale and north to Lancaster. All of the Los Angeles basin airports put you within four hours of the Mojave Desert.

Death Valley and Mojave Desert History 

The Visitor Center at Furnace Creek is the appropriate orientation start for the history and main attractions of Death Valley. Evening programs discuss the natural features and human story.

Because the desert environment was so hostile, early California Indians populated the area only in sparse numbers. They clustered near known waterholes or migrated through the area during the rainy winter season. In the Mojave, they followed the herds of antelope on which they fed. Some 200 petroglyph sites and scattered artifacts remain in Death Valley, but without imported water survival was difficult. Hardy gatherers and hunters left evidence here that extends back some 9,000 years. However, the human residents have always been trespassers in a harsh environment rather than comfortable dwellers in a land of milk and honey.

An exception, if we expand our time frame backwards, is a fascinating site of anthropological interest near Barstow in the Mojave Desert. The site is called the Calico Early Man Archaeological Site, operated by the late Dr. Louis Leakey and his well-financed foundation since 1963. The site is 15 miles east of Barstow on Highway 15 and Minneola Road. Leakey and his co-workers unearthed some 12,000 stone tools here that date back about 200,000 years, making this the oldest site for man-made artifacts in the western hemisphere. The presence of tools in this arid area forcefully reminds a traveler of the changing weather patterns that affect plant, animal, and human habitation over long time spans. Tours of the site can be arranged through the Bureau of Land Management office in Barstow.

Death Valley in America’s Westward Expansion

During the westward expansion period in United States history, Death Valley was the scene of many heroic efforts, such as those of the Manly expedition. In 1849 William Manly was one of the first pioneers to succeed in traversing this unknown wilderness without dying of thirst. Stories of the Jayhawkers Trail from the Great Salt Lake in 1848 and the Darwin French Party Trail in 1860 are absorbing tales of human endurance in the midst of natural adversity.

The interpretive center at Death Valley does an excellent job of using voices to recreate the poignant diaries and letters of survivors. Their tintype visages suggest the restrictiveness of life in the elemental conditions of mid-19th century California. In those days one could not count on finding a fast food emporium around the next bend to assuage hunger or thirst.

The Railroad and the Antelope

The initial intrusion of the white man into the Mojave Desert includes a poignant story about the difficulty of some wildlife when adapting to change. Pronghorn antelope were numerous in the Mojave Desert, as the name Antelope Valley suggests. However, the skittish animals were so fearful of railroad tracks laid in 1869 that they starved to death in one year. Antelope were too timid to cross the tracks to their seasonal foraging grounds.

The Mojave figures prominently today in our consciousness because space shuttles touch down here at Edwards Air Force Base on the long desert runways. These dry lake beds are dependably free of rainstorms. The Mojave Desert, with a focus on the towns of Mojave and Lancaster, became a high-tech oasis due to space and military needs.

Death Valley and Mojave Deserts’ Main Attractions 

Death Valley’s notable attractions are the stark landscape and the diversity of life forms that thrive here in spite of temperature extremes and the precarious amount of moisture. Always a place of extremes, Death Valley can be beastly hot and severely cold. Though the two spots that are 282-feet below sea level get initial attention, there is also 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., at 14,494 feet, is not far away, in the southern Sierra.

In Death Valley you can take ranger-guided outings to the small springs where a remarkable fish, the pupfish, manages to survive in shallow, warm, and saline water. The isolated location of these fish is a remarkable story of adaptation.

In the northern part of Death Valley visit Scotty’s Castle, the house associated with Death Valley Scotty, a desert character. Scotty entertained the Chicago millionaire who bankrolled the property. Walter Scott was this desert entertainer’s real name. His millionaire friend, Albert M. Johnson, sank some two million uninflated dollars into this 1920s 25-room Spanish-Moorish extravaganza. As a result, Scotty and Johnson became part of the local folklore. Nearby, you can gaze into the Ubehebe Crater, where volcanic eruption left a lasting cinder imprint on the desert.

Major sand dunes lie just east of Stovepipe Wells, one of the main lodging and dining sites in Death Valley. The sand dunes are especially lovely as the light changes throughout the day, with the long shadows of early morning and just before sunset as the most glorious times.

Death Valley vs The Mojave

All of the canyons and mountains of Death Valley, as the light changes, take on the hues and forms that only a desert kaleidoscope can provide. The light of Death Valley reflects the changing sun pattern. By contrast, the light and glory of the Mojave resides more in the landscape itself, as if inherent. The Mojave relies more on its vegetation, such as the poppies and coreopsis of spring, to lure a traveler.

Throughout Death Valley, the absence of man’s marks on the landscape is a notable part of the traveler’s experience. In few places can one gaze at the horizon and suspect that no man has ever dared to venture into this moonscape. Aside from a few old mines, ghost towns, and charcoal kilns, the human story here is abbreviated. Death Valley can also surprise the visitor. For example, though the area gets only two inches of annual rainfall, the rain can come in summer thunderstorms that send cascades of water hurtling down the canyons. Summer flash floods can be a matter of consequence to campers or hikers not yet initiated to the unforgiving forces of the desert.

Beauty of Zabriskie Point

South from Furnace Creek are the scenic drives that show you how water and wind have carved away at the colored rock. Zabriskie Point overlook is one of the more stunning settings. Weathered rock patterns unfold before you in a trompe l’oeil effect that makes judging the distance deceptive.

The lowest point in the United States lies south of Furnace Creek. A sign shows clearly when you are 282 feet below sea level. Names here sometimes have a fanciful aura, such as Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, and Artist’s Drive, but they risk trivializing the landscape.

As you explore Death Valley, it is interesting to note that over a thousand species of plants are found here, with some 21 existing nowhere else. Ask a ranger to acquaint you with some plants native only to the area, such as Panamint Daisy, Death Valley sage, and Death Valley sandpaper plant.

Prepare Your Car for a Desert Trip

Be sure you have plenty of gas, a car in good mechanical condition, a day’s supply of water, and your wits about you as you travel through this region, even in winter. Avoid traveling here in the heat of summer unless you can’t possibly arrange another time for a visit. In 1913 the summer temperature hit a record 134 degrees. The average summer high temperatures in July are around 116 degrees. It is common in summer for the night temperatures to dip only to 100 degrees. Under such circumstances, air-conditioning in a car and lodging passes beyond luxury to become, in fact, a survival necessity.

Faced with such intense heat, life was indeed tough for the 20-mule-team borax wagons that hauled the mineral out of here. Borax found use as a cleansing agent, with the trade name Boraxo becoming a household word. Ronald Reagan, the TV announcer for the 1950s Boraxo-sponsored Death Valley Days, found himself propelled on to higher pursuits.

Death Valley National Park in Zabriskie Point, California
Death Valley National Park in Zabriskie Point, California

The most popular times to visit Death Valley are winter and spring vacation periods. At these times lodging reservations are an absolute requirement. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Presidential birthdays, and Easter are times of maximum visitor use. Interest in Death Valley has grown steadily since 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt declared the area a National Monument.

California Poppy Preserve

When in the Mojave Desert, be sure to stop by the interpretive center at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Natural Reserve, a park located west of Lancaster near Fairmont. The park honors the California state flower, the poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which appears here in profusions that stun the imagination. The drive from Fairmont to Lancaster takes you through the great flower area.

In the Mojave, make Lancaster your headquarters. The Chamber of Commerce can inform you of the best flowering dates for a given year. Dates vary between March and May, depending on seasonal rain patterns and the coolness or warmth of the winter. Mid-April is usually the peak time.

Saddleback Butte

The second major flowering area is east of Lancaster, near Saddleback Butte State Park. This is also a good place to camp in the desert. The park has an interpretive center with photographic records of the area’s flowers and reptiles, including many snakes and lizards. Ranger-led walks interpret the life-cycle of the numerous Joshua trees here.

The great naturalist, John Muir, often said that he could walk for a hundred miles through California in the spring and crush a cluster of wildflowers with each step. Today the Mojave Desert around Lancaster is one of the few remaining places where this sentiment accurately reflects reality.

Also within the Mojave, you can tour the Tropico Gold Mine and Mill, which includes a museum to gold mining and a 900-foot shaft. You can descend the shaft. The mine is northeast of Lancaster. Another area attraction is the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, which explains the history of California and Southwest Indians.

Nearby Trips from the Death Valley and Mojave Deserts 

These deserts are in themselves sufficiently vast regions to explore, but there are also intriguing side trips from each area.

North from Death Valley along Highway 395 and east from Bishop are special trees that lend credence to the notion that California is a land of superlatives. Some California superlatives reflect an undue inflation of vocabulary, but other notions about the Golden State are irrevocably and immutably founded on fact, and this is one. The trees in question are the bristlecone pines, high in the White Mountains, at elevations of 13,000 feet, making them accessible only in summer.

These trees are the oldest living things on the earth. They have been core-dated at almost 5,000 years old. To sit meditatively in front of a bristlecone pine and contemplate that it was young when Socrates was old is a moving experience.

Trees are indeed one of California’s claims to superlatives. The most massive living thing on the earth is the California inland redwood tree, with the largest example (General Sherman Tree) located in Sequoia National Park. This park is in the southern Sierras not far from Death Valley or the Mojave Deserts. The coastal species of redwood is the tallest living thing on the earth, with the champion specimen located at Redwood National Park in northwest California along the coast.

Solar Electrical Generation

When in the Mojave Desert between the Lancaster wildflower area and Death Valley, take an interesting side trip to Barstow. There you can see one of the first ambitious solar electrical installation in the U.S. The unit is Solar One and is 10-1/2 miles east via Interstate 40. Huge mirrors, all computer controlled, flash the sunlight at a tower of water, causing the water to boil. Created steam runs a turbine and provides electricity.

Other types of electrical generation, such as from nuclear or coal, have the same simple purpose. Heat water to form steam that will turn a turbine and create electricity. Fortunately, the dependable sun of the desert makes solar electricity a viable option here. Exhibits and a film at the site explain the nuances of energy production. Solar electrical output began here in April 1982.

Calico Ghost Town

Near Barstow you can also visit a noted silver-mining ghost town named Calico. The word refers to the colored hills that surrounded the mine. Calico, 11 miles northeast of Barstow on Interstate 15, boomed as a silver town 1881-1896. The Maggie Mine produced $13 million in silver. Eventually the mine became unprofitable after the price of silver dropped. However, today you can take a mine tour, peruse the museum, and watch a performance at the Playhouse Museum. Then you can board the refurbished Calico-Odessa train for a short ride. Now operated by San Bernardino County as Calico County Park, the mining town celebrates with a Ghost Town festival in May and Calico Days in October.

As a major highway junction in the desert, Barstow supports a Barstow Way Station Visitor Center (831 Barstow Road). The Visitor Center includes exhibits of the desert environment and information on recreational possibilities. Moreover, if you are traveling through at a time of summer storms, be sure to stop here for information on flash floods that sometimes wash out the roads.

More on Death Valley

For more detail on Death Valley, see my article https://www.fostertravel.com/rv-travel-through-death-valley-national-park/.