We visited Badwater Basin twice during our visit to Death Valley National Park. The first visit was after the Golden Canyon Hike.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The depth is visually demonstrated by a sea level sign placed on a nearby cliff, so visitors can crane their necks up to see just how far below the sea they would be (yes, I know exactly what I did there). Signs at the site say it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, but that’s technically no longer true. It is Laguna del Carbón in Argentina, which is the lowest place in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres at 344 feet below sea level.
There is water in Badwater Basin. At the entrance is Badwater Pool, a small pool of water that is very salty as one would assume. A surveyor found the pool when he was mapping the area, but when his mule refused to drink from it he marked the pool on his map as “bad water.” And it has been Badwater ever since.
While it may not taste very good to us, the water is not poisonous or devoid of life. The Badwater Snail is a tiny mollusk that lives only in a few of the springs in the salt flats. They are capable of living completely submerged in the saltwater, along with pickleweed and aquatic insects.
On the afternoon of our first visit, the site was crowded with visitors coming to marvel at the salt flats. While some of our group went out to explore, I stayed back to rest and people watch. There were the families with young children, groups of people taking close up pictures of the salt crystals, and more than a few people staging what I assume were posts for Instagram. Most notably was the wedding party, a bride and groom followed by a few a well-dressed guests and a photographer (no, it wasn’t Abbi Hearne though I was kind of hoping it would be).
As much as I enjoyed watching people walking about the salt flats, I enjoyed Badwater Basin much more the next morning at sunrise. Except for a few other early risers, we had the space entirely to ourselves. It was quiet, without the cacophony of families in the parking lot shouting at each other smile for the cameras. There were no voices or birds or insects. Just silence as the sky began to lighten.
The thing I remember most strongly about Badwater Basin is the smell. It smells like salt. I know what you’re thinking, of course it does! But in order to convey what it meant to be there, I have to start with that overwhelming smell of a saltshaker held under my nose.
We wandered out onto the white path, formed by thousands of feet crushing the salt crystals. The path is about 5 miles long, but few people walk the full length. The father we traveled from the parking lot, the more the path narrowed and we could see where most of yesterday’s crowds had turned back.
The flats are formed when rainwater collects in a basin. The rainwater carries salt and minerals from the nearby mountains as it runs into the basin. When rainwater cannot be drained from an area, it usually forms a lake. But Death Valley is not only the hottest place in North America; it is also the driest. The rainwater evaporates and leaves behind the salt and minerals from the rainwater. Over thousands of years, the salt has formed a salt crust over mud.
The ridges of the crust form hexagonal shapes, a geometric pattern covering the earth. When we lean down to look closely, we can see the salt crystals. Their delicate forms can be destroyed by heavy footsteps or just a strong wind. But they are reformed when the next rainstorm creates the temporary pools of bad water that will evaporate and leave behind a refreshed salt crust.
As the sun rose and the distant mountains changed from blue to pink to gold in the morning light, we turned back towards the parking lot. I was shivering in my fleece and wool hat, eagerly awaiting a hot cup of coffee back at the campsite. But I was glad we braved the pre-dawn cold of the desert. It was a wonderful opportunity to quietly appreciate Badwater Basin and the salt flats away from the afternoon crowds.