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At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater in Death Valley is the lowest point in North America. While that’s impressive by itself, consider that Telescope Peak, the sunlit mountain in center of this picture, is over 11,000 feet above sea level. But wait, there’s more…. Just 85 miles from where I stand here, Mt. Whitney towers 14,500 feet above sea level, the highest point in the lower 48 United States. And 5,400 feet vertical feet above me is Dante’s View; from there you can see both Badwater and Mt. Whitney. Pretty cool.
The Badwater playa is actually an ephemeral lake, filled only by unusually heavy rainfall and its runoff. With no outlet, and averaging less than two inches of replenishing rain each year, evaporation quickly empties Badwater Lake. Each evaporation cycle leaves behind a layer of salt. As the mud beneath the salt layer dries, polygonal cracks form openings that accumulate extra salt. Heat causes this salt to expand into corresponding polygonal shapes on the otherwise flat surface. Some winters I’ve found these shapes filled with water, like faceted jewels. And on my 2005 visit I watched a kayaker glide across the completely submerged basin.
Winter visitors have the best chance of catching the top salt layer before Death Valley’s ample airborne dust has had a chance to turn the playa from pure white to dirty brown. The north/south orientation of Death Valley means that the Panamint Range on the valley’s west side is bathed in the warm light of the rising sun. As with Mt. Whitney, the Panamint Range’s extreme elevation above the playa makes Badwater an ideal spot for early risers to photograph sunrise alpenglow. On this morning from early last February, the playa was pristine and a layer of thin cirrus clouds arrived at the same time as the sun, brushing the blue sky pink.