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The Lowest Spot in the Western Hemisphere

Death Valley salt pan at lowest spot
Death Valley salt pan at lowest spot

"Peak-baggers” by the thousands earn personal satisfaction by climbing notable high points throughout California. No such interest is directed toward the state’s low points — except maybe the attention given to the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. This obscure but remarkable place in Death Valley is six hours away from San Diego — about five hours of driving, plus an hour of walking.

For hundreds of millennia, runoff rich in dissolved minerals from a vast area of eastern California has been steered by gravity into the vast landlocked basin of Death Valley. During the last ice age the runoff rushed in fast enough and often enough to form a deep, permanent lake on the valley floor. But now that we’re in a much drier time, any lake that manages to appear here dries up very quickly. As the water evaporates, salt is left behind in a crystallized form. This salt is primarily sodium chloride, or common table salt, because this mineral is the most abundant of those dissolved in the water.

One place to start a hike to the low point is Badwater, 18 miles south of Death Valley National Park’s visitors’ center at Furnace Creek. An interpretive panel and direction finder at Badwater arrows two separate points in the valley that have supposedly been surveyed as lowest points. Commonly available maps, however, show only one point, which is 3.3 miles away. There’s a whopping three feet of elevation loss from Badwater on down to this low point, so don’t forget the uphill climb you must make on the way back.

The Badwater approach is a good one if you want to hike only a short distance, because less than one-half mile of walking takes you to the edge of the salt pan, where the crystallized salt has formed fascinating polygonal patterns on the ground. The long trek to the low point from this edge features much more of the same scenery.

For those who simply must get to the very lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, I’d suggest a shorter approach from across the valley. Use the unpaved West Side Road to reach Tule Spring, which is 1.2 miles north of the junction of the dirt road ascending into Hanaupah Canyon. From Tule Spring, the hike is only 2.3 miles almost due east. This is a more interesting approach, as you first traverse some higher ground rich in calcium salts and then hit the hard crust of sodium chloride about halfway to your destination.

Only a fool would venture on the glaring salt pan during Death Valley’s hellish summers, but winter is surprisingly cool here — a bit cooler than Anza-Borrego. The other general caveat — not likely to be an issue at all during this dry winter season — is to beware of muddy ground.

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Death Valley salt pan at lowest spot
Death Valley salt pan at lowest spot

"Peak-baggers” by the thousands earn personal satisfaction by climbing notable high points throughout California. No such interest is directed toward the state’s low points — except maybe the attention given to the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. This obscure but remarkable place in Death Valley is six hours away from San Diego — about five hours of driving, plus an hour of walking.

For hundreds of millennia, runoff rich in dissolved minerals from a vast area of eastern California has been steered by gravity into the vast landlocked basin of Death Valley. During the last ice age the runoff rushed in fast enough and often enough to form a deep, permanent lake on the valley floor. But now that we’re in a much drier time, any lake that manages to appear here dries up very quickly. As the water evaporates, salt is left behind in a crystallized form. This salt is primarily sodium chloride, or common table salt, because this mineral is the most abundant of those dissolved in the water.

One place to start a hike to the low point is Badwater, 18 miles south of Death Valley National Park’s visitors’ center at Furnace Creek. An interpretive panel and direction finder at Badwater arrows two separate points in the valley that have supposedly been surveyed as lowest points. Commonly available maps, however, show only one point, which is 3.3 miles away. There’s a whopping three feet of elevation loss from Badwater on down to this low point, so don’t forget the uphill climb you must make on the way back.

The Badwater approach is a good one if you want to hike only a short distance, because less than one-half mile of walking takes you to the edge of the salt pan, where the crystallized salt has formed fascinating polygonal patterns on the ground. The long trek to the low point from this edge features much more of the same scenery.

For those who simply must get to the very lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, I’d suggest a shorter approach from across the valley. Use the unpaved West Side Road to reach Tule Spring, which is 1.2 miles north of the junction of the dirt road ascending into Hanaupah Canyon. From Tule Spring, the hike is only 2.3 miles almost due east. This is a more interesting approach, as you first traverse some higher ground rich in calcium salts and then hit the hard crust of sodium chloride about halfway to your destination.

Only a fool would venture on the glaring salt pan during Death Valley’s hellish summers, but winter is surprisingly cool here — a bit cooler than Anza-Borrego. The other general caveat — not likely to be an issue at all during this dry winter season — is to beware of muddy ground.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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