Extremely Beautiful – Death Valley National Park, California

To say that California’s Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes is to enter yourself in the Understatement of the Century contest.

Death Valley National Park is the hottest park in the nation. On July 10, 1913 a temperature of 134 °F (56.7 °C) was measured at Furnace Creek Inn, the highest temperature ever recorded in North America. Daily summer temperatures of 120 °F (49 °C) or greater are common. On the other hand, the mercury can dip well below freezing at night in the winter.

Death Valley National Park is also the driest park in the US. In some years the bottom of the valley, at Badwater Basin, is teased with 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rain. Some years it registers no rain at all. Badwater Basin, at 282 feet (-86 meters) below sea level, is also the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and the lowest point in North America. Nearby Telescope Peak, by contrast, is the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 meters) above sea level.

There’s even an area where the rocks move on their own.

Death Valley National Park is also the largest National Park in the lower 48 states. Part of the Mojave and Colorado deserts UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the sprawling park is sandwiched between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Nevada border and contains valleys, canyons, sand dunes, salt flats, playas (dry lakes) and mountains.

In our continuing celebration of National Park Week 2012 (April 21-29), when admission to every National Park, National Monument and National Historic Site in the country is free, we present the extremely beautiful Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley National Park sign

Entering Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley panorama from Dantes View

This sunrise panorama of Death Valley National Park was taken from Dantes View. The Badlands Basin salt flats, the lowest point in North America, is seen 5,757 feet (1,755 meters) below. Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park at 11,049 feet (3,368 m), lies directly across the valley.

Death Valley 200 feet below sea level sign

Much of the valley bottom in Death Valley National Park lies below sea level.

Road to Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

The road snakes its way to Badwater Basin salt flats, seen in the distance, which is the lowest point in North America.

Lowest point, Badwater Basin Death Valley

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.

Badwater Basin salt flats, Death Valley National Park

The surreal landscape of Badwater Basin salt flats in Death Valley National Park in California.

Badwater Basin Death Valley National Park

Karen at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America. The point we’ve highlighted on the rock wall is 282 feet up and marks sea level. The spot doesn’t look that high up in this photo, but that’s because the top of the mountain directly above it is 7,857 feet high, or 8,139 feet (2,481 meters) above sea level. Land of extremes, indeed.

Badwater Basin Death Valley 282 feet below sea level

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park in California.

View from Zabriskie Point Death Valley National Park

Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park in California.

Formations in 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley

Formations in the fabulously-named 20 Mule Team Canyon in California’s Death Valley National Park.

Titus Canyon Road Death Valley

Titus Canyon Road is a one-way 4×4 road that drops more than 5,000 feet from outside the park near the art-filled ghost town of Rhyolite into Death Valley through this slot canyon. We got a flat tire at the beginning of this road.

Borax was mined in Death Valley in the 19th century at the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek. It was very difficult to get the valuable commodity out to market so Frank M. “Borax” Smith created a 20 Mule Team to transport the product. This is what remains of his wagons.

Death Valley Ranch or Scotty's Castle Death Valley

Death Valley Ranch, aka Scotty’s Castle, was once a private home. Now it’s an unexpected sign of human habitation in this harsh environment. 

Mosaic Canyon slot canyon

Karen hiking through Mosaic Canyon slot canyon in Death Valley National Park.

Road through Death Valley

A ribbon of road through Death Valley National Park in California.

Death Valley road

Paved, but still gorgeously desolate in Death Valley National Park.

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National Park Week Inspiration

If you ask us, it ought to be National Park Year but, for now, we’re happy to be celebrating the annual National Park Week (April 21-29, 2012) put on by the National Park Foundation, the official charity of the National Parks (see the story we did about park funding for National Geographic Traveler to learn more about why our national parks need an official charity).

The locations included in the United States National Park System represent some of the most spectacular and largest (87 million acres) tracts of protected land on the planet. During National Park Week (April 21-29) entry to all 397 national parks, monuments and historic sites across the United States (and Puerto Rico) is totally free. So, there goes that excuse.

The first two years of our Trans-Americas Journey were spent in the United States where we  visited 123 National Parks, National Monuments and National Historic Sites. The photo montage, below, includes shots taken as we entered 68 of them.

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US National Parks signs

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Photo of the Day: Mount McKinley, Denali National Park Alaska

Mount McKinley is also known as Denali, an Athabascan Indian word that means “The High One.” And it is. McKinley is the tallest peak in North America at 20,320 feet (6,194 meters). The mountain is most often photographed from within Denali National Park but we got this shot of McKinley from the south side after finding a locals-only vantage point on a remarkably clear day.

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Like what you see? Eric has started putting his very best photos of our very best Trans-Americas Journey adventures (including this one) up for sale on our new online photo store. Choose the photos you want then pick the size and have them professionally printed on traditional photo paper, canvas, thinwrap or even metal. Finished prints are delivered to your door.

If you see a shot on our website or blog that you want but you can’t find it on our online store just let us know and we’ll get you a print of the exact shot you want.

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Photo of the Day: Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation, Arizona

Tsé bighánílíní. That’s the Navajo name for Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Indian Reservation outside Page, Arizona. The phrase means “the place where water runs through rocks” which is appropriate since this photogenic slot canyon was formed by water and continues to flood during seasonal rains. Clear skies and sun greeted us during our visit to this amazing natural formation allowing Eric to capture this dramatic shaft of light.

Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation, Arizona

 

Like what you see? Eric has started putting his very best photos of our very best Trans-Americas Journey adventures (including this one) up for sale on our new online photo store. Choose the photos you want then pick the size and have them professionally printed on traditional photo paper, canvas, thinwrap or even metal. Finished prints are delivered to your door.

If you see a shot on our website or blog that you want but you can’t find it on our online store just let us know and we’ll get you a print of the exact shot you want.

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The Majestic, Mighty, Magical Ceiba

We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this magestic, mighty and possibly magical tree.

Giant Ceiba at Tikal, Guatemala

This stately example of a ceiba tree greets visitors to the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Ceiba Tree

A mature ceiba tree.

 

A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.

All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where  they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.

 

The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.

Young Ceiba tree spikes

A young ceiba tree--it loses these spikes as it matures.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.

Cieba El Mirador National Park

Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.

 

 

Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.

Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200' or more.

Ceiba tree at  Hacienda Uayamon, Mexico

This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.

The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestial realm in which we live and the underworld (Xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.

Rainforest canopy observation platform built high up in a ceiba at Belize Lodge Excursions

A small observation platform suspended 100' up a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp lodge (operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions) provides one of the best bird watching and rainforest observation points in all of Belize.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.

Giant ceiba tree in Costa Rica

This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica's Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.

Ceiba tree painted on a school in Belize

A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.

Bathroom built around Ceiba tree at Hacienda San Jose, Mexico

A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.

Cotton tree (Ceiba) Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize

Cotton Tree Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize borrows another common name for the ceiba which produces pods that are full of a cotton-like fluff.

 

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Presidents’ Day and Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Black Hills, South Dakota

Presidents’ Day got us thinking about our time at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. We’ll get to the giant stone heads lurking there in the Black Hills of South Dakota in a minute. But first, some fast facts that make Presidents’ Day make sense. Sort of.

It all started with the Father of our Country, George Washington. Eager to commemorate the birthday of the first President of the United States, a federal holiday was created in 1885. It was called Washington’s Birthday and it took place on the President’s actual birthday which is February 22. In 1971, as part of a nationwide drive to create more long weekend holidays in order to boost travel and commerce, Presidents’ Day was proposed.

Mount Rushmore - Washington & Lincoln

Happy Birthday Mr. Presidents! Washington and Lincoln give us their stony stares from Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Initially March 4 (the first inauguration date) was suggested as the date for Presidents’ Day, but the long-weekenders won out and Presidents’ Day was set as the third Monday in February. It now commonly commemorates both Washington’s birthday and President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which is February 12  and was never a federal holiday.

Ironically, the third Monday in February always falls between February 15 and 21 which means Presidents’ Day will never, ever fall on the actual birth date of either President Washington or President Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore from nearby Custer State Park

One of the most peaceful views of Mount Rushmore is from nearby Custer State Park.

An even more powerful ode to US Presidents is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota where the faces of four Presidents were sculpted into stone by Danish-American Gutzon Gorglum. Odd fact: Gorglum’s son (who completed the project after his father’s death) was named Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial from the highway

The massive Mount Rushmore carvings can be seen from miles away. 

The project was started in 1927 as a way to boost local tourism (build it and they will come). Mount Rushmore was named a National Memorial and made part of the National Park Service in 1933–a year before the first 60 foot (18 meter) high Presidential Giant Head was finished. President George Washington was first and his image was completed and dedicated on July 4, 1934.

Alley of the Flags, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Entering the Mount Rushmore National Memorial via the Alley of the Flags which is lined with flags from every US state.

Thomas Jefferson’s face was dedicated in 1936 and the face of Abraham Lincoln was dedicated in 1937. For a brief moment, Susan B. Anthony was going to be the fourth face depicted on Mount Rushmore but Teddy Roosevelt won out. The whole project was finished by 1941 at a total cost of US$989,992.32. More than 400 workers chipped and blasted away at the project. Incredibly, no one died.

Inspecting Theodore Roosevelt - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Maintenance workers updating Teddy Roosevelt’s eyeglass prescription?

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt & Abraham Lincoln - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln memorialized forever at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Before being named Mount Rushmore (after Charles E. Rushmore a lawyer and explorer who led an expedition to the area in 1885), the mountain was known to the area’s Native Americans who believed it was sacred. Many still do and the nearby massive stone carving at the Crazy Horse Memorial is considered, by some, to be a kind of protest or counterpoint to Mount Rushmore.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt & Abraham Lincoln - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln memorialized forever at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

The annual Fourth of July fireworks display over Mount Rushmore is epic and we were lucky enough to be there for it as part of our Trans-Americas Journey. Be aware that the event is sometimes cancelled due to drought, so check before you book a July 4 visit.

Fireworks - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Fourth of July fireworks over Mount Rushmore.

Fireworks - Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Fourth of July fireworks over Mount Rushmore.

 

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