Our first day exploring death valley was a low point of our American journey; -282 feet below sea level to be exact; as low as you can go in the western hemisphere without going below ground. The spot holding the record is Badwater Basin, named after a very salty ground water pool found there.
Badwater Basin is also the most obvious place to wander out on to the salt flats in the valley, the largest in North America. That is exactly what Trail and I did. You start out at a parking lot with a tall cliff rising to the west where a sign indicates sea level high above. The Badwater pool is just below which is protected by a boardwalk so that the minute animals that inhabit it are not disturbed. From the board walk a well trod swath of salt and earth extends out into a vast plane of whiteness marred only by the silhouettes of fellow travelers.
The vast white draws you out along the well worn path with the promise of pristine white salt as far as the eye can see. Once a few minutes out you can set out in nearly any direction to find your own little portion of salty solitude. Once there you will find it’s never quite as pure white as it looks, there are patches of brown earth here and there which at a distance are overwhelmed by the whiteness so the salt seems always a little whiter just a little farther.
I decided the proper thing to do was to lie down in the salt and stare up at the merciless sun. Trail was of the opinion this was the embarrassing thing to do. Lucky for me on the way back to the car I discovered I was not the only one to come to this lying down in the salt conclusion and I was thus spared judgement.
Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin – meaning a basin that retains water and does not have an outflow to other external bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, but converges instead into lakes and empties out by evaporation. The site itself consists of a small spring-fed pool of “bad water.” The salts of the surrounding basin make the spring water undrinkable, thus giving it the name.
Nearby is another salty environment with a very different character. It’s called The Devils Golf course and is part of the same valley floor but has a less salt and more earth. This salt flat gets its viciously rough texture from the large halite salt crystal formations. Here the salt crystallizes heaving up the earth into cement like mounds studded with crystal spikes. Each mount is something of a sculpture into itself. Like the salt flat’s you are welcome to wander about though signs rightly warn that a miss-step could result in some serious cuts and bruises.
Here my attempt to immerse myself was to find a relatively pure bit of salt and give it a taste. I can report it was delicious, much like kosher or mineral salts it had quite a complex mineral flavor and while predictably salty was not overwhelmingly so. Most of the salt in the lowlands is common table salt but the mineral mix also includes some calcite, gypsum and borax. I figured keeping my sample small I’d be fairly safe.
Due to the somewhat tricky terrain you have to take a short dirt/salt road out to the spot to best appreciate what charitably would be a par 2,000 but in hell is likely a par 2.