Read Time: 4 Minutes
Picture Credit: Andrew Charbonneau
With fall semester coming to an end, the much-needed winter break was right around the corner. After some planning, myself and eight other fellow adventurers decided that staying in cold, icy, Buffalo, New York was not an option. We were headed to California. Along our 8,000 mile journey we experienced amazing adventures, crazy stories, and friendships that will last a lifetime. One of the highlights of the trip was our stop at Death Valley National Park. This is a globally unique place since it is the lowest terrestrial area on earth (282 feet below sea level!) and also has the hottest recorded air temperature on the planet (134°F). Sounds like a horrible place to visit, right? However during January, it was a nice relief from the sub-zero conditions on the east coast and offered some of the most inspiring views I have seen.
Death Valley was one of our first big destinations. We had previously visited Durango, Colorado and outside of Las Vegas Nevada, a halfway place to set up camp nearby Lake Mede along the journey to Death Valley. We came up with a revolutionary plan on how to enter the park that would yield forever lasting effects on all of us. We decided the best way to fully experience the park for the first time was to see the sunrise over the desert valley from the top of beautiful Mount Perry (~5,500 feet). We kicked off this plan by arriving at the park around midnight. We were exhausted from the long drive from Vegas. After setting up tents and crashing for a few hours, we started the hike. It was 3:00 AM and we were very sleepy, but excited to begin the hike nonetheless. We gearing up and headed out with headlamps illuminating the trail in front of us. Everyone was thrilled to be finally out of the car and hiking. Luckily, the trailhead started at a higher elevation so we didn’t have to hike from sea level, which would have been horribly difficult. Instead of a sufferfest, although we did break a little sweat, we were granted the opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty surrounding us. The sky was unreal. That night I saw some of the best stars in my life. Just from the stargazing, I was falling in love with Death Valley.
~ Our headlamps lighting the trail with the amazing sky above us ~
As we kept hiking the ridgelines of countless mountaintops, the darkness began posing a challenge and the trail quickly became hard to notice. After relying on the few and far between cairns (rock piles to help mark the trial), they quickly became too spaced for us to carry on. At this point, it was maybe 4:00 AM with still a few hours until the much-anticipated sunrise. We decided to carry on with the hike and continued to the top of the nearest mountain to enjoy the sunrise. While we were waiting we all became very cold as the temperature was below 20ºF. It was getting unbearable. We decided to descend from the mountaintop in search of natural rock shelters. Bundled up, we all cuddled together on top of some very uncomfortable rocks. We even broke out a few space blankets. After a lot of resting (and shivering), the sunrise was moments away. A few of us hiked to the summit to check out the awaiting sun. To our surprise, the giant mountaintops behind us were finally visible. The beautiful view made for a truly magical moment.
~ The first views of mountains surrounding Death Valley ~
We quickly called the rest of the group to the top and so that we could all enjoy the moment. Although standing around invited back the cold. We decided it was time to start moving again. We descended down from the mountaintop and were now finally able to see the trail without the aid of headlamps. It was now obvious where we missed the trail. We carried on with hiking to Mount Perry. As we came around to the other side of the current mountain we were on, the sunrise finally arrived. It was a vibrant, warm orange view that was instantly coveted by everyone in our group. The warmth and delight that the sun brought helped everyone become encouraged to hike after a long and cold night.
~ The first sunrise in Death Valley ~
As we kept hiking harder than ever, we couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the desert valley was. This was a truly amazing experience to see the park for the first time after a perfect sunrise.
~ The trial along the way to Mt. Perry ~
Soon enough we made it to the summit of Mt. Perry. This was a big moment for many since it was a lot of people’s first summit. I will never forget my first summit at Algonquin in the Adirondacks. Back then, I was new to hiking and had never made any summits at high altitudes. The moment when you finally reach the summit after pushing yourself to the limit is unreal. At that very second, everything else fades away except for the beautiful views and the feeling of your heart thumping out of your chest. Being on top of a peak is a wonderful experience that few people have the privilege of relating to, the epitome of karuna in outdoor travels. Maybe this moment is fueled by the feeling of accomplishment, near death drops, or the strong wind chilling your body. This strange instant is why being on top of peaks is worth the extreme trek, representing a total victory over fear and elevation.
~ Celebration on the summit ~
Overall, the plan for driving in at midnight, hiking to the top of a peak at 3:00 AM, and seeing the sun rise to a beautiful landscape could not have been any better. After that moment, we decided to plan on visiting new places at sunrise, as it provides the perfect context to experience the outdoors and epitomize the beauty the natural world has to offer.