I reached a low point last week. Actually, the lowest point in the continental United States. I took a brief vacation with my partner Shad, and we drove over the Tioga Pass (and the aspens were still a splendid gold) to explore Death Valley. Neither of us had visited the park before and thought we should make the journey before the pass closed.

On one of my Mt. Whitney trips, I had planned to hike the 21 miles roundtrip to the summit, get in my car and drive a few hours to Death Valley, and then walk to Badwater so I could lay claim to being at the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S. in one day. It was one of those “it was a good idea at the time” ideas, and by the time I had completed the Whitney hike, I could only muster up the energy to eat a cheeseburger and find a motel room.

I’m glad I waited to see Death Valley for the first time at a slower pace, not when I was rushed and exhausted from trying to complete some silly milestone. The starkness of the landscape requires patience to appreciate; the vastness of the desert does not lend itself well to a quick view.

At Badwater, I stood on a salty plain (playa) that extended in all directions, a white-brick road of amazing magnitude. During the Pleistocene Ice Age, Lake Manly covered this valley, reaching over 100 miles long, six to eleven miles wide, and over 600 feet deep. Today a small, spring-fed pool serves as a ghostly memory of the lake. From our position, 282 feet below sea level, we peered up at the cliffs that stand guard 5,000 above us. Telescope Peak, visible to the west, reaches over 11,000 feet into the sky.