It’s the Cool Season in Death Valley

Hottest, driest, lowest: Those three words are repeated often by rangers to describe Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California and Nevada borders and is the largest national park outside of Alaska. At 3.4 million acres, it is known for its blast-furnace summers, when temperatures have climbed as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It’s just the die-hards here then,” said a park shopkeeper, bagging my souvenir T-shirt on a trip to the park in January. “You get exfoliated by blowing sand.”

But less severe seasons allow visitors to appreciate the beauty of Death Valley, from snow-capped peaks that loom over salt flats to winding canyons with polished rock walls and volcanic hills splashed with pastel patches of minerals.

Angling to avoid extremes, I chose January from the park weather chart, when chilly 40-degree nights warm to perfect-for-hiking highs of 67. Most visitors prefer the warmer months of March and April, when park popularity peaks, with highs ranging from 82 to 90 degrees and lows running from 55 to 62. Summer is slowest, when peak temperatures hit 110 degrees and higher.

If talk in Death Valley often concerns the weather, it’s because climactic conditions are crucial to understanding the place. Though its landscape exposes ancient elements of change through eons of geologic uplift and erosion, it’s still shaped by day-to-day conditions. Last year’s flash floods have closed many roads in the north of the park, though the southern half, where most of its icons are — including salt flats, sand dunes and striated badlands — remains open.

On average, fewer than two inches of rain fall here annually, stimulating wildflower blooms in the lower elevations from mid-February to mid-April. Recent rains, including January’s storms, have fans wondering whether this will be a “superbloom” season of mass flowering.

“We expect this year will probably be better than average,” said Abby Wines, the public affairs officer for the park. The last superbloom, she explained, was in 2016, when flowers were blooming by Jan. 1, which was not the case this year. “It’s a rare enough event that there isn’t an exact recipe,” she said.

Van life in the desert

For all its extremes, Death Valley is not middle-of-nowhere remote but, rather, a mere two hours’ drive from Las Vegas.

The ultimate in artificial, Las Vegas is an odd base from which to launch a foray into nature. But not only is Sin City on the edge of many parks, including Spirit Mountain in Nevada and Mojave National Preserve in California, it’s also a convenient place to get a rental car or, in our case, a camper van.

Among the many ways to stay in Death Valley — including hotels such as the palm-ringed Inn at Death Valley (rooms from $409 in winter), tents and R.V.s — my adventurous friend Anne Marie and I triangulated among the three with a small camper van from Native Campervans ($102 a day with a three-day minimum and an ample 300 miles included).

The retrofitted Ram ProMaster City — dubbed Sir Vancelot on the passenger door — featured a bed behind the front seats that was elevated above storage bays for food, collapsible chairs, a folding table and luggage. The back doors swung open to reveal a kitchenette, with cabinets that pulled out to create a work surface with a butane camp stove, a cooler and a water jug.

Stocked with bedding, cookware, plates and utensils, vans make it easy to camp without investing in all that gear. And unlike a large R.V., we could drive it daily from our site at Furnace Creek Campground ($22 a night) to explore the park.

Driving the van between geologic wonders meant having our home, including our kitchen, with us wherever we went. Though we parked for the night at the campsite, with a picnic table and a fire ring, we quickly fell into the habit of backing up to a scenic vista at breakfast and lunch, pulling out our camp chairs and picnicking from the pantry supplies at hand.

Thriving in ‘hell on Earth’

Death Valley, it turns out, has a little Las Vegas-style hype in its history. The ancestral homelands of the Timbisha Shoshone, the area got its name from a squad of late-to-the-gold-rush miners, eager to cross the Sierra Nevada before the winter of 1849, who took a purported shortcut south, winding up in the valley. It took them months to get out, and one man died. Leaving, the migrants purportedly gave the region its eerie name with their farewell: “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

More than 30 years later, borax, a salt ubiquitous in industrial and household applications, like detergents, was discovered in the valley. This created a brief, five-year mining boom, which was busted in part by its discovery in more easily accessible places.

Owners of the mining operation “eventually decided that instead of exporting borax, they were going to import tourists,” said Annie Belgam, a park ranger offering an interpretive talk at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. “They started to advertise this place as hell on Earth.”

Indeed, many of the major landmarks in the park — like Desolation Canyon and Dantes View — sound grim. But Ms. Belgam painted a picture of the park as a vital ecosystem, home to thriving bighorn sheep; kangaroo rats, which can survive without drinking water; and pupfish, endemic to saline waterways.

The heat, stoked in a treeless desert where rising warm air is trapped by surrounding mountains and recirculates like a convection oven, seemed like a distant legend to our wool-hatted and thermal-clad crowd.

After the talk, we walked out to the nearly 200-square-mile salt basin paved in white polygonal tiles that stretches toward the Panamint Range, the park’s 11,000-foot western wall, and dragged our fingers along the valley floor to taste the salt that remained after an ancient lake evaporated.

Canyons and dunes

Much of the Park Service advice for visiting Death Valley relates not just to avoiding the highest temperatures of midday — which is less important in winter — but also to taking advantage of the light at its warmest tones at sunrise and sunset.

On our first morning, we rose before dawn, made a French press carafe of coffee and drove the camper van 20 miles north to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast dune field named for the mesquite trees that put down deep roots.

In darkness, it seemed spooky to wander over the dim dunes with just our headlamps to light the way in the trail-less expanse. Soon, early light revealed a vast and inviting sea of sand and swales undulating toward the Grapevine Mountains on the horizon.

Every time we managed to summit a dune, following a sand ridge perfectly planed by the wind and sinking with each step, another beckoned us ahead. Rather than human footprints, we found the trails of nocturnal kit foxes and coyotes and claw prints in dried clay patches that revealed an ancient lake bed as sunrise spread over the sand.

Many established hiking trails follow canyons that channel deep into the rocky wilderness. The marble walls of Noonday dolomite and the naturally cemented stones of Mosaic Canyon flanked the two-mile path through a flood-scoured chasm to a series of dry falls. On the return, a downhill section of slick rock created a natural slide, polished in part by the passage of hikers.

Cloudbursts and constellations

The atmospheric river that brought so much rain and destruction to much of California in January reached Death Valley during our stay, producing about 24 hours of clouds and intermittent rain. We took the flash flood warnings seriously and scampered out of canyons at the first drops.

But the moisture elicited the exotic char-and-herbal scent of creosote bushes common in the park. It also made the striated rocks more colorful on scenic drives, including the nine-mile route past Artists Palette, where volcanic mineral deposits drench the hills in violet, pink, yellow and green patches. So arresting were the badlands surrounding the 2.5-mile Twenty Mule Team Canyon drive that it took us 20 minutes to complete.

We took refuge during the worst of the rain in the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, which was filled with exhibits on park history and ecology. When it stopped, we drove 25 miles north to the village of Stovepipe Wells and saw how easily rain changes Death Valley. Puddles pooled on roadsides, unabsorbed by the compact earth. Water that had surged across the blacktop deposited significant sandbars.

Though the storm had passed and the sky was nearly cloudless, a ranger advised us against hiking in the canyons for a few hours until all the water had made its way down.

The nation’s driest national park is also a mecca for stargazers. That evening, after the sun set dramatically to the crowd’s delight at Zabriskie Point — a scenic overlook surrounded by lava-striped badlands — stars and planets appeared within a half-hour, led by Mars and Jupiter, followed soon by the constellation Orion and a gauzy Milky Way.

From our chairs at the campsite, we gazed up, passing a phone with a stargazing app on it back and forth to map the sky, warming ourselves by the campfire in the 50-degree evening, and talking, of course, about the weather.

Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.

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