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Death Valley: Hitting New Lows

As mentioned in the Death Valley introductory post, Death Valley is a land of superlatives. The temperatures can be extreme, the dryness is extreme, and the difference between the highest point in the park and the lowest point is over 11300 feet. Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America, and one of the lowest in the world. After hiking Golden Canyon, we continued south about 12 miles south on Badwater Road to Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin is truly a fascinating place. The expansive salt flats are evidence of a much different time. There was once a Lake Manly, a large inland lake, which evaporated away thousands of years ago. Like other salt lakes, this lake had no outlet, so the salinity of the lake increased over time. When Lake Manly evaporated, salts and sediment were left behind, the layers of which have grown over the years. Over 11000 feet of accumulated sediment exists underneath the surface of Badwater Basin. Today, the glistening snow-white salt flat attracts many of Death Valley’s visitors who want to get low in the national park.

Badwater Pool

The flats appear to be unfavorable for life. There are not many plants that grow among the flats, and other than the hikers taking photos among the flats, there were not many other visible life forms. That said, there boardwalk near the parking lot that allows visitors to check out Badwater Pool. Despite its name, the pool is not ‘bad’ as in poisonous, it is merely salty. The source of the pool’s water is an ancient aquifer that flows up through the faultline at the base of the mountain. This pool is the natural habitat for Death Valley’s rare, native Badwater snail. These snails are endemic to the region and live only in the few springs at the edges of Death Valley’s salt flats. There is also pickleweed that grows around the pool.

I’ve hit a new low, -282 feet below sea level to be exact.

After parking the van, we joined the droves of visitors walking on the salt flats. The ground was slightly crunchy, but the hike was easy and flat. There is no real trail past the boardwalk, and once on the flats it was easy to spread out. We took many photos, making jokes about ‘hitting new lows.’ We also tried the salt. As the salt is composed mainly of table salt (sodium chloride), we figured the biggest issue would be germs from people walking on the flats. Yes it was salty, as one would expect. Please note that I am not recommending trying the salt. In addition to sodium chloride, gypsum, calcite, and borax also make up the salt on the flats.

After hanging out at the flats for an extended while, we started the trek back to the car. As we approached the parking lot, we noticed the small sign in the cliffs above the parking lot. This denotes sea level, and the difference is striking. The other cool thing about Badwater is that there is a great view of the Panamint Mountains and their highest point, Telescope Peak. At the time of our February visit, the peaks were snow-covered, contrasting with the desert scenery. It was a beautiful landscape, set against a bright blue sky, and a perfect day for hitting the lowest point in my existence. Literally.

The tiny white sign indicates where sea level would be.

Some things to consider:

While the salt flats are okay to walk on, Badwater Pool can only be viewed from the boardwalk. This is for the protection of the rare Badwater Snail and its environment.

While we visited on a cooler day, the sun was out and salt does reflect sunlight. Sunscreen is definitely a good idea. The National Parks Service also recommends that summer hiking is done before 10 am. Weather conditions can get extreme quickly, especially during the summer.

Pets are not allowed at Badwater Basin, even if carried. This is to protect the sensitive environment of the park. There are roads where dogs are allowed to hike in Death Valley.

It was great to explore Badwater Basin and get down with some cool geology and interesting ecology. This was definitely a fun and educational happy trail.


“Badwater Basin (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,,sediment%20and%20salt%20over%20time.

I also references portions of the the Geology handout from the Ranger Talk in the writing of this post. Ranger talks are a wonderful way to learn more about the parks!


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