You might know gypsum as the white powder inside drywall panels. Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms sand dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin. The white color of the dunes does make for extra intense albedo, so be sure to bring sunglasses and carry plenty of water. Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot a lizard species evolved to camouflage in the sand.
Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially after a rainfall. It is fun to see children wearing T-shirts and shorts sliding down the sparkling white slopes.
Follow markers on the five-mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes with views of the San Andres Mountains.
The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you decide to backpack or take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.
Spring and fall, since it can be very hot in the summer.
Mostly paved and the packed dirt road is drivable by all vehicles.
Only backcountry camping is allowed in 10 designated sites for $3 per person, but that is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight so call ahead or check the schedule online. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground south of Alamogordo.
Explore More – What happens to the deep root system of a soaptree yucca when the dune it is growing on blows away?
Death Valley is our favorite of the 9 National Parks in California. Ghost towns and abandoned mills abound throughout its 3.4-million acres, including Leadfield on the one-way dirt road through Titus Canyon. Most of the attractions are found in and around the historic Furnace Creek Inn: watch sunrise at Zabriskie Point or sunset at 5,475-foot Dantes View; hike through gorgeous Golden Canyon or under Natural Bridge; drive to the ironic Devils Golf Course or the colorful Artists Drive; and walk into Badwater Basin, which at -282 feet below-sea-level is the lowest point in North America, even more impressive since it sits directly beneath 11,049-foot Telescope Peak.
Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon Trail, Devils Golf Course, Artists Drive, Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Titus Canyon, Telescope Peak, sand dunes
Death Valley averages less than 2 inches of precipitation annually, yet less than 10,000 years ago Badwater Basin was the bottom of a massive inland lake, the remnants of which be found along Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Here tiny desert pupfish survive in the salty, hot water. The related and endangered Devils Hole pupfish can be seen at a disconnected part of Death Valley National Park surrounded by Nevada’s Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
There are great trails throughout this park, but we prefer walking wherever we want on the many sand dunes. The best are the Panamint Dunes; tucked on a mountain slope they require a three mile hike to reach. That means when you drop your sleeping bag on top you will likely have the place to yourself. More centrally located are the popular Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. In the northern section of the park the steep Eureka Dunes have a free primitive campground at their base.
A dry, flat lakebed in the northwestern corner of the park provides a racetrack for rocks of all shapes and sizes. High winds and ice crystals are the key to their movement, which is clearly shown in their wake. Do not let the 26 mile dirt road stop you from visiting this spectacular site. It is passable by most vehicles when the road is dry (we drove our mini-van there)and when the Racetrack is wet you should refrain from walking on it anyway.
Spring and fall, with summer’s being incredibly hot except at the highest elevations. However, it can snow just about any month of the year.
The main roads are paved, but to really enjoy the park you should drive a high-clearance vehicle (rental 4x4s are available near Furnace Creek). As of December 2018, Scotty’s Castle is still inaccessible due to flood damage on the road.
There are campgrounds, but a unique aspect of this National Park is that you can disperse camp for free along many of its dirt roads. Backcountry camping is also free and does not require a permit.
Explore More – What is the connection between Death Valley, 20 Mule Team Borax, and Stephen Mather (who in 1916 became the first Director of the National Park Service)?
The only thing that is nearly as fun as visiting National Parks is reading about them. Here is a list of our 10 favorite non-fiction books that cover multiple units of the National Park Service (NPS) System. Our previous list was limited to those set in a single park.
10. Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America’s National Parks by Jim Burnett (2012) Like the historic Oh, Ranger! books, this one covers the lighter side of interactions between NPS employees and tourists.
9. My Wild Life: A Memoir of Adventures within America’s National Parks by Roland H. Wauer (2014) The first half of this autobiography of a National Park Ranger is an interesting look at research in Big Bend, Death Valley, and other National Parks before devolving into his life list of international bird species.
8. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks by Mark Woods (2016) This Florida journalist received a grant to explore National Parks across the United States of America and brings an interesting perspective on them.
7. The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest by Timothy Egan (1990) The author visits many National Park Service sites in this good introduction for outsiders to the landscapes and people of Washington and Oregon.
6. Travels in the Greater Yellowstone by Jack Turner (2008) The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem also includes Grand Teton National Park and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, and this is an interesting journey across its many corners by an always opinionated and interesting writer.
5. Desert Time: A Journey through the American Southwest by Diana Kappel-Smith (1992) The author’s pencil illustrations add a wonderful layer to her vivid descriptions of American deserts from Idaho to Texas, including numerous National Park Service units.
4. House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest by Craig Childs (2007) Craig Childs has written several great non-fiction books set in the Southwest U.S. This one describes the world of the Ancestral Puebloan (formerly called Anasazi) people at multiple sites including Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.
3. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1874) The author, a one-armed Civil War veteran, led the first expedition down the unmapped and untamed Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
2. Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks by Michael Lanza (2012) The writer travels to some of the most imperiled National Parks with his family to experience them before they are permanently altered by climate change.
…and finally our number one non-fiction book set in multiple National Parks:
1. Our National Parks by John Muir (1901) Famous preservationist John Muir wrote many colorful descriptions of America’s wonderlands in his books (especially his beloved Yosemite), but none covers as wide a range as Our National Parks.
Honorable Mentions Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck (1962) Perhaps a bit dated now, but this is a cherished travelogue from a national treasure.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (2012) The Pacific Crest Trail crosses many parks in the National Park Service System and is considered an affiliated unit. This sometimes painful-to-read autobiography contains beautiful descriptions of the natural landscape.
At age 15, Andrew Johnson fled his apprenticeship in Raleigh,North Carolina and eventually started a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee. In 1829, he began his political career, ultimately serving as a U.S. Representative, Governor of Tennessee, U.S. Senator, Vice President, and President upon the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He was the first President to be impeached after vetoing the Tenure of Office Act (later found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and was acquitted by the margin of one vote.
House tour, tailor shop, museum, film, National Cemetery
Start at the visitor center, which offers a film, a small museum, and the enclosed tailor shop where Andrew Johnson worked before going into politics. Dress-up clothes are available if you want to take a photo straight out of the mid-1800s (no smiling for authenticity). There you can also pick up a free timed ticket for the homestead tour and a ticket to vote in Johnson’s impeachment trial.
The small National Cemetery atop a hill in Greeneville, Tennessee contains the graves of Andrew Johnson, his wife, and about 200 soldiers.
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., which General U.S. Grant was also expected to attend. It is common knowledge that Lincoln was shot by an actor (John Wilkes Booth) not performing in the play and died the next morning of his wounds. What is less well known is that the assassination plot also targeted the Secretary of State William Seward(critically injuring six men and one woman) and Vice President Andrew Johnson (which was never attempted). Since 1933,the National Park Service has run the site and the neighboring Petersen house where Lincoln died, which are open to tourists with timed tickets except when rehearsals are underway in the still-active theatre.
Museum, Booth’s gun, ranger program, live theatre
You can get a ticket to the free ranger talk that does not include the National Park Service’s excellent museum downstairs from the theatre, but this should not be skipped by visitors. It contains thought-provoking interpretative material and the original gun used by Booth to shoot Lincoln.
Take a walk to the boarding house where the conspirators met, which is now a restaurant in D.C.’s Chinatown. Mary Surratt, who ran the boarding house, became the first woman executed by the U.S. federal government on July 7, 1865.
There are still plays performed at Ford’s Theatre, but your timed ticket will only get you in to listen to a ranger talk about the assassination without any singing or acting. Either way, the stage right balcony provides the best view of the President’s box seats.