DEATH VALLEY, Calif. —Summertime in Death Valley. Breathing hurts a little. The wind blows heavy like a hair dryer, burning our nostrils. The asphalt sizzles through the soles of our shoes.
It's 120 degrees outside, our rented PT Cruiser tells us when we slide back inside. I reach for the air conditioner, a layer of grimy salt covering my arm.
"Let's turn the heat on, just to see what happens," says Chicago Tribune photographer Chris Sweda, my co-pilot on this mission. We giggle and crank the heat full blast, trapping ourselves in a literal hell on wheels. We drive and sweat, masochistically, maybe deliriously, relishing the outer limits of discomfort until breathing becomes too suffocating to bear.
It's July in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. We're covering the Badwater Ultramarathon, a brutal 135-mile running race from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, to halfway up Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
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The runners, many swathed in white, huff painfully along the side of the road, proudly enduring their self-imposed torture.
There are other masochists here too. Tourists. Many of them Europeans on summer holiday. Most are just passing through en route from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon, tickled to spend a few hours midsummer in one of the hottest and driest places on Earth, where landmarks have sweltry names such as Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Devil's Cornfield.
"We wanted to experience the extremes," says Jason Mellott, of Hagerstown, Md., standing with his wife, Stephanie, on a sand dune glistening with golden flecks under the scorching sun.
During fall, winter and spring, when average high temperatures range from the mid-60s to the high 80s, the stunning 3.4-million acre Death Valley National Park draws people for the ample hi king, backcountry road adventures, crystal-clear stargazing and colorful spring wildflowers. In the summer, the triple-digit heat prevents you from doing much of any of that. So the heat becomes the main attraction.
Take the young British woman in shorts and a tank top who is lying on her back in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, making a sand angel.
"Didn't you hear me screaming?" she says when asked how that sand felt on her back. "I just thought it would be cool to get back and be like, 'I've done this in Death Valley.'"
Death Valley. It got its name when pioneers seeking a shortcut to the California gold mines got lost in the valley in 1849-50, and one of them died. Just one. But that was winter.
Today, the heat kills three to six people each year, often because they try to hike farther than they should, or their car breaks down on a backcountry road and they don't have enough water , said Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation at Death Valley National Park.
"No matter how many warnings we put out that you have to drink water or have to avoid strenuous activities, someone always gets in trouble," Baldino said. "It's amazing how little time it takes for the heat to get ahold of you."
It's not just that it's hot. It's dry. Death Valley sees less than 2 inches of rain annually, while the evaporation rate is 150 inches per year. You don't even realize you're losing much water because it evaporates so quickly, Baldino said. Summer visitors are advised to drink at least a gallon of water per day.
Visitors also are advised to avoid the backcountry roads in the summer because of the dangers of overheating if you get lost or have car trouble. That's unfortunate because it means you shouldn't visit bizarre sights such as Racetrack Playa, famous for the inexplicable track marks left by boulders that have inexplicably slid across the flat terrain.
Still, a summertime stop in Death Valley is well worth it, and not only for the bragging rights of having survived. The shimmering salt flats, the intricate folds of dusty, bone-dry rock, t he otherworldly vistas and the surprising splashes of color give you the feeling on being on another planet, or maybe on this planet some billion years ago.
And then there is the absolute silence.
I had never before known the sound of nothing until I stood at the edge of Salt Creek, where a rare stream of water spurts up from the desert and hosts pupfish during late winter and spring (we saw neither water nor fish on this blistering afternoon), and heard — nothing. It was as if a vacuum had sucked the sound out of the world.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The closest airport is Las Vegas International Airport, which is 120 miles away. Park entry fee is $20 for a standard vehicle for unlimited seven-day re-entry.
STAYING THERE: If you stay inside Death Valley itself, the nicest hotel is the Inn at Furnace Creek and the accompanying Ranch at Furnace Creek (800-236-7916, furnacecreekresort.com). The inn is the more elegant of the lodgings, but it's open only October through May, so if you go in summer you'll stay in the more casual ranch (May to October rates: $134-$184). The ranch has 224 guest units, three restaurants, a saloon, a general store and The Borax Museum, an ode to the valley as an old borax mining region. It also has a swimming pool, a golf course, tennis, horseback riding and horse-drawn carriage rides. Another in-valley hotel option is Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel (760-786-2387, escapetodeathvalley.com, $80-$145).
MORE INFO: nps.gov/deva