Chances are that if you have heard of Death Valley, you know about the salt flats in Badwater Basin. With an elevation of -282 ft below sea level, it is the lowest place in North America and well worth a visit – even if it is just to say you have survived one of the most barren and inhospitable places on earth.
Location: Death Valley National Park, California, USA
Trailhead: Badwater parking area, 17 miles south of Hwy 190 on Badwater Road; pit toilet
Length: 1 mile or as far as you want
Trail Type: Open route
Warnings: Bring sun and eye protection as well as extra water. Temperatures can climb well above 100°F in summer.
What looks like snow from a distance, is actually salt crystals that have pushed up through the mud and expanded to create a salt flat decorated with strange patterns in its uneven crust. The flats are in an every changing state and continue to be created by Death Valley’s 9,000 square miles of drainage. Precipitation falling on the surrounding mountains travels downwards collecting minerals dissolved from rock along its way to Badwater Basin where it collects – sometimes forming temporary lakes in the basin. Trapped in the enclosed basin, the water evaporates in the arid environment and the salts along with other minerals remain forming the flats.
Hiking the salt flats is really more of a walk that lets you wander wherever your fancy takes you. To find some really interesting salt patterns, your best bet is to walk out a good distance from the parking lot and turn to the right or left. The area nearest the parking lot has been trampled down over time and is devoid of patterns.
If you are lucky enough to be in the basin after a light rain, you will find water pooling in between the raised crust of the various patterns. At sunrise and sunset, you will be treated to beautiful reflections in the standing puddles. If the rains have been more substantial, the basin will become a temporary lake and create perfect mirror like reflections of the surrounding mountains and sky.