Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The colors of Death Valley

Call me crazy, but I just love the colors in Death Valley National Park. Yes, it's the driest and lowest spot on the continent. And I know, most people think of the desert park as a vast, beige wasteland. Not me. I know Death Valley's true colors, but you have to catch them at the right time. 

On a visit last winter, I found the park awash in color. In the early morning, I tramp through Golden Canyon with a group of friends, and the morning light turns the sandstone into walls of sparkles. It's an easy 1-mile hike, except for the loose footing on a few sharp ridges (luckily, our guide had advised us to wear good boots). The air is crisp and cool and the light is absolutely brilliant. We turn a corner to see dramatic shadows knifing into Red Cathedral—and the amateur photographers in the group snap away. 

I learn there's a lot that's green in this desert—so to speak. First, there's the Furnace Creek Golf Course; it's eco-friendly and has recently been designated an Audubon sanctuary for wildlife (it uses totally reclaimed water). And this year, the U.S. tourism industry's largest solar photovoltaic system is finished and it really shines. Built by concessioner Xanterra, the massive one-megawatt system can help to reduce the pollution equivalent of 5,100 cars.

After a leisurely lunch, we drive south of Furnace Creek to pull off at Artist's Palette in the late afternoon. Splashes of mineral deposits are scattered through a maze of small canyons here, and I wander away to explore one after another. The minerals seem to blaze in the low afternoon sunlight: teal, mustard, and bands of scarlet. It's quite the visual cocktail.

Our thirsts awakened, we end the day back at the Furnace Creek Inn. Perched on the terrace with fruity drinks (the kind that come with little umbrellas) in hand, we catch one of the most amazing sights of the day: a fiery sun slipping behind palms trees and distant mountains. Again, out come the cameras.

I'm happy (sort of) to rise at O dark:30, leave my comfy bed at the Furnace Creek Inn, and beat it over to Zabriskie Point just to watch the sun's first rays catch the tip of Manley Beacon, painting the pointy peak in hues of ocher, orange, and sunny yellow. Even I can't resist having my picture taken beside this amazing view.

So who wants to shiver under grey skies this winter? Shed that heavy fleece hoodie and head for sunny Death Valley National Park for camping, hiking, golf, or lolling at a luxury resort. It'll bring color to your cheeks—and your whole winter.

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