A trip to the lowest point in Death Valley was high on Dinah's list, but low on mine. For me, hiking downhill to reach an objective held little appeal, but since Dinah found herself sick with a cold after we landed in Las Vegas, I could think of no better hike that used so little energy. Losing only a couple of metres over five km, this is undoubtedly the flattest hike we'll ever do.
Badwater Basin holds not just the lowest point in Death Valley, but at 86 m below sea level it's the lowest point of land in the Western Hemisphere. And instead of hiking on limestone, granite, dirt or sand, we would tread an entirely different substance: salt.
Our walk began at a tourist stop on the eastern edge of Badwater Basin. Although it was teeming with tourists, we soon left them in the salt dust as we crunched across the white expanse of the basin. Still, the flats ahead weren't free of people. Nearly a kilometre from the trailhead we encountered dozens of students strung out across the basin. They were conducting wind and temperature studies using instruments set on tripods. They said they were from the University of Vienna, Austria and their accents left me no doubt. When I asked a student what the temperature was, he peered at his device and told me it was 25°C.
Dinah and I didn't want to interfere with their work, so instead of going through them we walked around them, which took us off course a bit. Then using GPS, we zeroed in on the lowest point. We looked for a marker and after searching around we found a small stone, unnoticeable until we were nearly on top of it (UTM Easting: 0515675, Northing: 4010803). Strangely, we were ecstatic about finding this little rock, as if we had summited a major peak! The stone had sunk into the salt, making it harder to spot. So I lifted it out, filled the depression with a handful of salt and replaced it.
After taking the panorama (above), we set off for the parking lot. We could see it clearly from the low point even though it was over five kilometres away. Unlike the little stone marker, we had no trouble in finding our car.
Following the tourist path
Chunk of salt
After leaving the path we find cracks and pressure ridges
Students conducting wind and temperature studies
Looking back you can just make out the parking lot on the right
Because of strong winds, views to the west were hazy
A close look at a pressure ridge reveals dirt under the salt layer
A small stone marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere
Badwater Basin 1:24,000 Topo (7 mi, -282 ft)