Category Archives: Scientific Phenomenon

The World’s Only Corn Palace

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It’s one of those tourist attractions that makes most people just ask why. Corn is certainly Eastern South Dakota’s primary feature. However, it is impossible to drive by this place, see billboards advertising it, or hear about it from friends and not wonder what sequence of events lead to this idea actually being pursued and funded.

In the 21st Century, it sounds like the result of some combination of boredom, drugs, alcohol and/or sleep deprivation. But, when it was first constructed, in 1892, the idea was actually quite commonplace. Despite being the “World’s Only” Corn Palace, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD was not the world’s first. The idea was actually originally pursued in Sioux City, IA. Meanwhile, nearby Plankinton, SD was pursuing something called a “Grain Palace”.

So, what was behind all of these efforts to produce what is today seems like a pretty oddball attraction? To understand it requires actually visiting the place and taking a closer look at it, both inside and out.

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While the palace is reconstructed every year with a different theme, one aspect remains the same. The images, carefully created using corn, depict life on the Great Plains. The 2018 theme, South Dakota Weather, showcased an important aspect of life on the Great Plains, dealing with variant, and sometime wild weather patterns.

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The more the artistic displays at the Corn Palace are observed, taken in, and absorbed, the more the attraction makes sense. Rappers often use their lyrics to brag about the place in which they came from. Countless young adults showcase their lives on social media, showing primarily what they are proud of. This is just another version of this. South Dakotans showcasing what they are proud of…

Their resilience in the face of wild weather.

The pioneer spirit that drove them to the West, and the dedication and hard work it took to make life work in a rugged place.

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Cooperation, the community spirit, and the feeling of connection with the natural world.

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And, most importantly, the unique manner in which they show it.

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While the idea is not new, and it comes across as odd, the Mitchell Corn Palace is actually quite refreshing. In a world where bragging is everywhere, the form it has taken here is both unique and does not require insults be thrown at anyone else. It should serve as a challenge to all of us, as we attempt to find our place in a crowded world. Is there a way that each one of us can show the world why we love ourselves and why we feel valuable? But, do so in a way that is actually interesting to those around us, unique to each and every one of us as an individual, and does not require anyone else to be diminished in the process?

 

 

Sioux Falls: Not What its Supposed to Be

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I could stare at this for hours, looking at every detail about how the water pours over the rocks, creating a continuous splash, swirls in a pattern that is both chaotic and controlled at the same time, and a fine mist that sprays outward from the surface it lands on.

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No matter how many times I see waterfalls like these, it always fascinates me that some of the water that cascades downward takes on the appearance of foam, as if it was not water at all, but had taken on another form. Watching the water rapidly descend and subsequently take on this different form feels reminiscent of a human being that undergoes an experience that is both traumatic and transformative. The water, traumatized by unexpectedly falling rapidly, suddenly exudes a sudsy and bubbly appearance.

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The amount of raw power that is created when large amount of water steadily pour over a rock. The variance in colors that appear as a result of every small scale detail about how the rocks are arranged. The changes in the manner in which the atmosphere feels in proximity to this phenomenon.

All of this creates a level of curiosity and fascination in me reminiscent of an 8-year-old at a science museum, in awe by dinosaur bones and that electricity ball that makes people’s hair stand up any time they put their hands on it. How did the rocks come to be formed in this manner? Why did the water chose this path on its way to the ocean to complete the water cycle? And, in this case in particular, how did this happen in a place so unexpected?

Falls Park is not only in a section of the country that is quite flat (Eastern South Dakota), but it is also right in the middle of a city (Sioux Falls). Everything about its location is contrary to what most people think of when they imagine encountering waterfalls. Yet, it is there, powerful and beautiful.

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It is also not just one waterfall, but a series of waterfalls that cover a surprisingly long section of the Big Sioux River. The park itself spans 123 acres, includes a restaurant, permanent sculptures, and gets lit up for the holidays in December. It does for Sioux Falls what Central Park does for New York, and Golden Gate does for San Francisco. It is the place in the heart of town that is natural and scenic, providing a kind of convenient short-term escape from day-to-day urban concerns.

However, given its location, surrounded in all directions by flat lightly forested grassland and corn fields, a waterfall like this feels like it is not supposed to be here. Sioux Falls is a city in the Great Plains. The other cities in the region are bisected by rivers that gently flow towards the Mississippi in some capacity, not cascading waterfalls that are typically found in mountainous terrain.

Sioux Falls captures the imagination much in the same way light switches captivate a 9 month old, or magnets a 4 year old. It is not what is expected. It is not what it is supposed to be. Places like this, people like this, and ideas like this are what makes life interesting. Sure, we are all comforted when what is around us, including the people we interact with, follow some sort of pattern, behaving as expected. However, without the mavericks out there, the teacher with a strange method of reaching students, those that quit stable jobs to start a business, and that one person in your social circle who always has a story from last weekend about something the rest of us could never even imagine doing, things can get quite stale. Therefore, for the same reason I salute the first person to decide to travel the world by bicycle, I salute Sioux Falls for not being what it is supposed to be!

Chasing Records- Spearfish, SD

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At 7:30 A.M. on January 22, 1943, the temperature in Spearfish, South Dakota was -4ºF. A mere two minutes later, the temperature had suddenly jumped to +45ºF, a swing of nearly 50 degrees in a manner of two minutes. The Great Plains is known to be a region with extremely volatile weather. However, with respect to volatility on this short of a time scale, this one event is still in the record books.

75 years later, locals, as well as those interested in weather, still talk about the event. In fact, the event is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Spearfish.

But, why so much volatility? Why here? The answer to that question lays in the geography of the region.

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Spearfish sits just north of the region known as the Black Hills. The Black Hills, although detached from the Rocky Mountains, are actually quite mountainous, with peaks rising several thousand feet above the river valleys. The manner in which peaks rise up in either direction while rock formations are carved out by small creeks is quite reminiscent of the Rockies.

Just over the border, in Northeastern Wyoming, Buttes of varying colors pop out of the more open, but still hilly landscape.

Only ten miles south of Spearfish is one of what feels like 500 different waterfalls that goes by the name “Bridal Veil Falls“.

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It is, nonetheless, breathtaking, but, what is it about this name? Did the wedding industry  somehow collaborate with the outdoor industry to try to convince tourists looking at waterfalls to be thinking about fancy weddings through this common nomenclature? Was there an early 20th Century conversation that went something like this…

“Okay, we’ll name every other waterfall ‘Bridal Veil Falls’. In exchange, you will encourage every newlywed couple to take something referred to as a ‘honeymoon’.”
“A honeymoon.. what is that?”
“A vacation that everyone is expected to take right after getting married. Think about it, both of our industries can make a ton of money off of this. We’ll get people thinking about getting married and specifically doing so with a fancy dress, likely to cost a lot of money, and then you make sure that when they wed, they are spending money on another vacation.”
“Sounds like a win-win.”

Okay, maybe it was not exactly like that, but it does seem pecular.

As far as Spearfish is concerned, traveling in the other direction, North, from town, could not be a more opposite experience.

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It is the Great Plains, and specifically the Dakotas, the way most people picture it.

It is this contrast, and specifically the North-South orientation of this contrast, in Spearfish that created this record breaking temperature change. When air travels from high elevation to low elevation, it warms. It is this exact reason that Denver, Colorado, just east of the Rocky Mountains, has frequent warm spells in the middle of the winter. In fact, January 16th is the only calendar date in which Denver’s record high is lower than 65ºF (it’s 64).

With the flat, wide-open, treeless land to the North, it could not be easier for bitter cold air straight from the North Pole to reach Spearfish. However, when warmer air does come from the South, it is further warmed by its trip over the Black Hills.

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But, why all the fuss about setting records? Specifically, why do people care so much about bizarre records? In 1943, the news about the wild temperature swings in Spearfish provided a war-weary American public with some lighter news. And while the impact was only a bunch of broken windows, people can learn from these records.

The wild temperature ride in Spearfish demonstrates how the atmosphere works. Is there something similar to be learned by the man who broke 46 toilet seats with his head in one minute? Do people who have watched that video avoid breaking their own toilet seat at home?

Or, is there something other than intellectual curiosity at work? Records like this one are interesting to people regardless of whether or not they care about the ins-and-outs of how the atmosphere works. They are just entertaining. They also provide people with one of the main things we are all searching for in the modern world; significance.

The people of Spearfish can always bring up this wild temperature swing as something that makes their town stand out among all of the towns of roughly 10,000 people out there. It is the same for the man who bloodied his head breaking toilet seats, or that one person in everyone’s social circle that did something bizarre, like stop at every Arby’s between Chicago and Saint Louis (there are 13). They have this way of making the world just a bit more interesting.

 

An Intense Hike Outside of Boulder

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Colorado has some really intense hikes! Places like these, where steep terrain features rise up out of the ground like gigantic walls, are breathtaking beyond belief, but also intimidating for hikers. Most people commonly think of places like these as being tucked away in the densely packed mountains of the Central Rockies, hours away from Denver and Boulder, or even further away, in the canyons of the West. However, there is a hike, a challenging hike, with just this kind of feature just outside of Boulder.

Bear Creek is a hike that, in some way, feels similar to hiking up a 14er (A peak whose elevation is greater than 14,000 feet). Its total elevation gain is right around 2800 feet, and the hike up Bear Peak, along with its neighboring peak, South Boulder Peak, has frequently been described as a great way to train for a 14er. It can be accessed from two points, both just outside of Boulder; the Mesa Lab and Eldorado Canyon State Park. The later has a $5 parking fee, but offers a somewhat more pleasant hike.

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From a distance, the flatirons have some amount of intimidation factor, particularly for those who are relatively inexperienced with respect to hiking. It is, after all, a fairly abrupt transition between the flatness of the Plains to the East and the rugged terrain of the mountains that are a near constant feature for miles to the West.

From Eldorado Canyon, the hike has two parts to it. The first part is relatively easy, and actually persists for a somewhat surprisingly long distance, just over two miles.

Deer run through a gently sloped field jumping in and out of the bushes. Flowers of all colors appear alongside the trail. The mountain features gradually get closer. However, this is all just a set-up, kind of a prelude. It turns out to be a warm up that lasts nearly half the hike. After that the trail runs right into Shadow Canyon, where everything changes quite abruptly.

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All of a sudden, the wide open trail and wide open spaces all collapse into densely packed trees and rocks, shade, and a tight single-file tail.

It also becomes quite steep!

Over a 1.2 mile stretch, the trail gains 1600 feet in elevation, going pretty much straight up most of the way. Only towards the top are there any switchbacks. In this case, the switchbacks actually make it easier. The slope of the trail becomes far less intense, than the stair-steps that are nearly constant for about a mile. It ends up being a good reminder of why switchbacks are commonly used on roads and trails.

There are two peaks at the top, less than a mile apart, Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak. Getting to both peaks involves a sketchy, rocky scramble.

This is only the last few hundred yards. On both peaks there is reasonable cause to be nervous. The rocks can be both slippery and unstable, and the terrain is steep in all directions.

Both peaks also offer views of both the mountains to the West and Boulder and the Plains to the East.

Bear Peak is a little bit closer to town. It may be one of the best places to overlook Boulder and the surrounding area in its entirety. One thing that can almost always be observed when looking at some of these Colorado towns from above is how many trees are planted by people in cities. Just east of the Rocky Mountains, trees do not naturally grow. The distinction between what is natural and what isn’t can be seen quite clearly. It is almost more evident than any of Boulder’s actual features, such as downtown or CU campus.

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The view of the mountains from South Boulder Peak is not all that different from Bear Creek, but still feels like the better view.

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Looking in the other direction from South Boulder Peak, as the day wares on, a reminder appears, as to unique of a year 2018 has been.

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According to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, several major fires are ravaging the state, leading to fire restrictions in all but some of the northernmost counties and even some prolonged closures on major Colorado highways.

By the start of July, the haze from these fires had become a near permanent feature of the afternoon sky. The appearance of a thick low cloud with an orange tint on an otherwise perfectly clear day serves as a reminder that no two experiences, even if in the same place at the same time of day and year, are exactly the same. The weather, just like many other aspects of our lives and culture, is always changing. There are times that are considered “normal” and other times that are considered “abnormal”. Sometimes what is considered “abnormal” beings to appear more frequently, or persists longer than expected. In these cases, it is natural to speculate, but only the future will truly settle whether what is normal is shifting, or whether the world is destined to shift back to what was previously considered normal.

Memorial Day Tornados in Eastern Colorado

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2018 has not been an active year for tornados. With May, the most active month for tornados nearly complete, only 416 tornados have been reported.

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This is, by any scientific measure, over 35% lower than the long-term average, and according to the Storm Prediction Center, in the bottom quartile for tornado activity.

This Memorial Day storm chase almost came as a surprise. First of all, I typically travel Memorial Day Weekend, as does a lot of people. Also, with the season being as inactive as it has been, there had been plenty of days throughout May where forecast models looked promising for a good storm chase several days to a week ahead of time, only for the atmospheric setup to never materalize.

While some aspects of weather forecasting have become quite accurate, forecasting weather beyond a few days, and forecasting weather phenomenon on a small spatial scale remains a challenge. Thus, those that long to see what is perhaps nature’s most violent storm, tornados, can do one of two things. They can set aside a period of time, typically sometime either in May or early June to go out and look for storms.

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Several companies offer this service, a set 7 to 10 day chase in vans like these ones. However, even in May, there is no guarantee that any kind of active thunderstorms will be happening, let alone tornados. Those that have ever chased in this manner end up becoming familiar with all sorts of oddball attractions in the Great Plains!

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There are also those that keep an eye on weather outlooks, deciding to go when the setup looks good. This requires some often last minute decision making, and sometimes chaining plans. This is what I did on Memorial Day. A day that started out slowly, with brunch in Cherry Creek, quickly transitioned to traveling due east out of Denver, straight into the storm.

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Still, even if this tactic guarantees that there will be activity, it does not guarantee that there will be tornadoes. There is still some element of luck to it.

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Near the tiny town of Cope, Colorado, the sky had an interesting orange hue to it with what appeared to be a funnel cloud. This can actually happen quite frequently without an actual tornado being spotted.

At that point in time, around 4:30 P.M., we made two decisions that would put us in the right position to view the tornados. First, we decided to get to the East side of the storms before they became big. Second, we decided, due to Eastern Colorado’s sometimes limited road network, to actually use dirt roads, something that can, at times, be dangerous in the case of a flood.

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The first tornado, Southwest of Cope, we saw kind of in the distance.

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We traveled south, along a dirt road, to get a closer view of it, however, we eventually saw it dissipate.

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Still, the entire time, cloud formations indicated a strong low-level rotation, conditions necessary for tornado development. There was even a “landspout” and several dust devils between the storms.

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Before long, two new tornados were spinning up, just a bit to the South and East of where we had seen the first one.

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The strange thing about these storms was that they were first visible on the ground, with clouds of debris extending outward from both emerging funnels.

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Watching them develop proved quite remarkable. First the funnels showed, then we actually got to see the darker clouds of debris around the funnel fill in from the ground up, forming two side-by-side fully mature tornados.

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The funnels were on the ground for about half an hour.

They gradually evolved, taking on different forms, giving way to yet another tornado, a bit further South and East, near a tiny town called Vona, CO.

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As a person with many interests, I only end up storm chasing several days per year. In the past several years, this was by far the most successful chase day. Even for the most knowledgable chasers, just seeing a tornado constitutes a successful day. Seeing four of them, as well as being able to watch tornados form is nothing short of amazing!

I am also always glad to see when tornados are not actually impacting people where they live. One thing I notice is that storm chasing continues to become more and more popular with time.

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There were several instances where we encountered large groups of people, just like this one, looking at and taking pictures of tornadoes. This is all good, but I do concern myself with how the people who live in these areas perceive this activity. We storm chasers should never be delighting in the destruction of anyone’s home or town, and I am concerned that the perception as such could lead to some resentment among the people who live in tornado prone areas, particularly the Great Plains, which far Eastern Colorado is part of.

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Not only was it one of the most successful chases of my life, but it also was quite possibly the most efficient chase I have ever been a part of. It started after what turned out to be a 90 minute brunch, and that evening I was back in Denver seeing a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater.

The perfect storm chase, like the perfect setup when it comes to things like jobs, relationships, communities and homes, results from the intersection of good decisions and good luck. The former can be controlled. The later cannot. Just as I have been on many other storm chases where my group made all the right decisions but still did not see any tornados, the same can happen in all of our pursuits. All we can do is continue to go out there, make the right decisions, execute properly, knowing that the luck will eventually materialize even if it takes several more tries.

 

Colorado Continues to Surprise Me

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Life, at times, can be trying, with a lot of ups and downs, surprises, and endeavors that do not go as planned. Of course, not all surprises are bad. Sometimes luck is on our side, and many of us unfortunately fail to truly appreciate when it is. However, we all certainly have times when we are just on the wrong side of circumstance, and feel like nothing is going right.

When doing what feels like all the right things repeatedly fails to produce any results. When it feels like all sorts of people trying to take advantage of us. When the wrong, most inept and mean spirited people seem to be getting ahead, while those that don’t deserve it are suffering. And, perhaps the most frustrating of all, when no logical explanation can be found as to why nothing is going the way it should be!

At these times, it is helpful to get a little distance between oneself and whatever situation is causing stress.  It provides a bit of much needed emotional rest, and taking a step back, and looking at a situation from afar, or from a different perspective, can often produce clarity.

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In one of those situations myself, I decided to head to Mount Falcon Park.

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Mount Falcon Park is only about a 40 minute drive from downtown Denver, near a smaller town called Morrison. Traveling to fun and sometimes far away destinations is very important to me. However, it is also important to remember that taking a little bit of time to step away from a frustrating situation to gain a new perspective doesn’t require traveling great distances, and does not have to wait until a major trip is feasible. For most people, there is a place, a retreat of sorts, somewhere relatively close. A place that is possible to just pick up and go to on a whim, as opposed to having to plan ahead, save money and travel significant distances.

Of course, one thing that always needs to be accounted for is the weather. April can be a very volatile time in a lot of places. Here in Colorado, it is quite common to have snowfall one day, and warm pleasant weather the next. There is no way to around having to think about the weather, and if a retreat involves an outdoor experience, it can be delayed by the weather.

The hike itself is fairly straightforward. It felt good to be exercising the body and walking through the dense pine trees that one encounters here in Colorado when they reach elevations above about 6500 feet.

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The main trail a the park is called the Castle Trail. Originating at the trailhead, near 6200 feet in elevation, it winds most of the 3 mile trip, up to the peak of Mount Falcon, at 7851′. Trying to get my mind off of disappointments related to day-to-day life, I thought nothing of the fact that this trail was called the Castle Trail. After all, trail names don’t always translate into real life experiences. I recall backpacking two summers ago along a trail called Rincon La Vaca. I did not see a single cow (vaca = cow)!

First, I was surprised to see a sheltered picnic area.

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This isn’t something typically encountered close to the top of a front range day-hike.

Then, I encountered Walker’s Home, or, well, the ruins of it.

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The ruins of this castle made me feel as if I were in Rome, or some other ancient city where the ruins of historically significant structures are being preserved for cultural reasons.

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Sings even informed visitors to keep out the fenced off remains of the building for preservation, just as they do at other historical sites.

The strange this is, unlike many other historical sites, this building is only 109 years old. In most cities, significantly older buildings can be found, with no historical fanfare, as they have just been in continued residential or commercial use for several centuries. The primary reason this building lay in ruins is because it was struck by lightning in 1918, leading Mr. Walker to abandon his plan of using this structure as a summer retreat for the President of the United States.

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I did not expect an experience akin to visiting an archeological site. I did not expect to read about someone who appeared to be a multi-talented entrepreneur in the late 19th and early 20th century. I certainly did not expect to be pondering where presidents Woodrow Wilson, Waren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge would be expecting to spend their summers.

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Just like the ups and downs in the day-to-day weather, particularly in the springtime, and  the shadows produced by the mountains in the late afternoon, Colorado continues to surprise me. Travel to foreign lands and exotic far away places remains a very important part of my life. However, experiences like this provide us all a reminder to appreciate what is close to home as well.

 

 

Death Valley: The Largest National Park

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It is hard to truly describe what makes Death Valley such a wonderful and unique place. It is probably best known as the location of the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level.

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Land below sea level generally only exists in places with hot, dry climates, as otherwise, the low lying terrain would fill up with water. Death Valley certainly is dry! It receives less than 2 inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Minneapolis, a city that would be considered neither dry nor wet, averages around 30 inches per year (including winter snowfall).

Badwater Basin, like much of Death Valley National Park, is a large scale version of everything one would imagine dryness to be.

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The entire basin, which stretches out longer than expected, is covered with salt, deposited in a honeycomb-like structure, creating a scene that appears to be out of some kind of documentary about deforestation or climate change.

Of course, not the entire park is below sea level.

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In fact, its highest point, Telescope Peak, is over 11,000 feet above sea level, and despite the dry and hot climate of the valley below it, is covered in snow, and impassible without ice gear towards the end of March. Interestingly enough, while March may be an ideal time of year to visit Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek and some of the low elevations of the park, the higher terrain makes the park actually worth visiting in the summer too (with the right hydration precautions taken of course).

At the park’s lower elevations, near and even a little bit below sea level, the hikes are a bit milder, and significantly different from a typical hike in the mountains. Shorter hikes (1 to 3 miles each way) to places like Sidewinder Canyon…

and Mosaic Canyon…

have trails that cut through the rocks, through little “slots”, and along wide flat trails that appear to have been carved out by runoff from the flash floods that occasionally occur in the park.

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Death Valley is certainly a place with some unique weather patterns, and some unique weather hazards. When most outdoor activities are planning, the weather hazards most likely to be considered are related to temperature and precipitation. Extremely hot weather is Death Valley’s most obvious weather hazard. Visiting in March, or at some other point during the cooler part of the year, definitely helps visitors avoid these extremes.

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With wide open spaces, no trees, and complicated terrain, some crazy winds can occur in Death Valley, whipping up and and dust from the dry ground below it, covering any and all things!

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Storms will pass through the complicated terrain, often first producing some interesting looking clouds.

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Then, often times, while producing decent amounts of precipitation in the higher mountains terrain, in the valley below they will mostly just manifest as strong and gusty winds.

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These winds can even be hazardous to campers, breaking tents, bending poles, and complicating campfires.

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Other than the extremes, in elevation, temperature and dryness, the rest of the park feels kind of a bit like a National Park sampler pack.

There are hikes that take visitors to amazing views of the park, but the park is not all about hiking (like Rocky Mountain National Park).

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The natural bridge is most certainly an “arch”, but Death Valley does not have the concentration of arches found at Arches National Park.

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There are a few fantastic sand dunes here, but not as many as there are at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

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The park has some other unique natural features, such as the “Devil’s Golf Course”, but isn’t the constant barrage of unique features that is Yellowstone.

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One can even spot the occasional desert wildlife here.

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Those that are into numbers already know what makes Death Valley unique; elevation, temperature, dryness. Those who are more into experiences find themselves also loving the park, but in a manner that becomes harder to articulate. Often, it is just said that the place is “beautiful”, or “amazing”.

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Maybe nothing more needs to be said. After all, sometimes these commonly used descriptor words, although light on specifics, along with photographs, really do tell the story. Nature, like artwork, is open to interpretation, at the behest of the beholder.

However, when covering mile after endless mile across the park, it is hard not to observe how expansive and wide open the park feels, as a result of how dry the air is.

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Maybe that is the reason Death Valley is also the largest U.S. national park in outside of Alaska.