I’m not much of an adventurer. My notion of a good hike is to drive to a scenic spot not far from civilisation and walk in a big circle so that I’m never more than a few miles from the car. Though I’m too lazy and timid to really head out into the wild, I hate running into people when I’m on a hike. It’s especially awkward to meet a stranger in a remote spot, because you’re pretty much obliged to stop and make conversation, even if your hatband is dark with sweat and you’re breathing hard like a phone pervert.
National parks are perfect for my level of adventurousness, because without too much driving you can usually find side roads that are untraversed by tour buses and yet offer good opportunities for private exploration. Some of my favourite hiking experiences have been in Death Valley, less than a twenty-minute drive from the main visitor centre at Furnace Creek.
For instance, here I am in a little canyon I discovered off the Artist’s Drive. A couple miles into the one-way road there are two big signs announcing a DIP in the road where it crosses a wash. After the second dip I parked the car and wandered up the wash. This involved a little rudimentary rock climbing every fifty yards or so as I followed the channel from the desert floor up into the mountains. Here I am pointing the camera back toward the entrance:
(Please note, and admire, my new Tilley hat.)
And here I am a half hour into the canyon at its narrowest point, maybe ten feet across, with the sheer walls towering up hundreds of feet on either side:
I don’t even know if this canyon has a name. I suppose it does, and I could acquire a topographic map of the park and find out. But I’d rather imagine that I’m the first person who ever thought to park his car by that particular dip in the road and clamber over the inviting pile of pink rocks on the right.
If you’re in Death Valley I would also recommend driving out to Beatty, Nevada, and taking the one-way Titus Canyon road over the mountains and back into the park. I did it alone in a budget rental car, which was probably spectacularly stupid – if the car had broken down, or bottomed out on a large rock, it would have cost a fortune to coax a tow truck driver onto that narrow alpine track to retrieve me. (I believe there’s a sign at the entrance saying that high-clearance vehicles are recommended.) So drive cautiously. But the views from the top are worth it, as is emerging at last onto the sandy floor of the canyon among surprised pedestrians who’ve entered from the park side.