A (Very Hot) Day in Death Valley National Park

Oh boy, this place is hooooot. We went at the end of April and temperatures were already in the 100s. But it was still a fun trip. The thing about Death Valley is that pictures don’t really do it justice. I promise, it’s more interesting to be there in person. The majority of the highlights are on the east side of the park, though, so you won’t have much reason to venture farther in unless you 1) will be there for more than one day and can spend Day 2 exploring Scotty’s Castle Road or 2) have never seen sand dunes before, in which case it’s worth driving out to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes:

Hilly sand dunes

Alas, my family only had a day, but we still got our fill of hot desert goodness. First, there’s Zabriskie Point, which might be the prettiest overlook of the entire park (or as pretty as a desert can be):

Yellow and brown mountain peaks

There’s another overlook called Dantes View that’s pretty cool, but the drive to get there is a bit long. It gives you a great overhead view of Badwater Basin, though:

Looking down at the flat, white basin

After you’ve seen enough, you can drive down Badwater Road for more up-close scenery. My favorite stop on this road was the Golden Canyon Trail. There are actually several trails in this area, some of which will take you all the way back to Zabriskie Point! Depending on the heat, you probably won’t want to hike very far in, however. Most people only go to Red Cathedral before turning around, but my family and I didn’t even make it that far. Nonetheless, the views were fun:

A canyon with tall, rocky, yellow walls

I also really enjoyed exploring Devils Golf Course. This isn’t a hike; you can see the “golf course” from the parking lot. But you’ll want to walk a little ways out among the rocks, kneel down, and just… listen. The salt crystals in the rocks audibly pop as they expand and contract under the heat. It’s a very cool experience.

Small, jagged rocks covered with salt crystals

The only other time you’ll need to get out of the car on this road is if you’re gonna walk along the Badwater Basin. The beginning of this salt flat walk isn’t terribly exciting, but push on and you’ll be rewarded with some mesmerizing patterns that appear in the ground near the end of the trail:

Flat, white ground with octogonal patterns in it

On your way back, driving north on Badwater Road, don’t forget to take the Artists Drive detour. This scenic route offers some extra views of the more colorful mountains that reside in Death Valley, including a spot aptly called Artists Palette:

A mountain with shades of yellow, brown, green, and red

And that wraps up our day in Death Valley. Now if we could just find a shady spot to have lunch…

The Top 10 Best Tourist Attractions in China

This travel blog used to be about my adventures as an English teacher in China from 2008 to 2010. For better or worse, I totally scrapped all of those old posts, but I at least wanted to preserve my overall list of favorite tourist spots in China. So here goes…

10. Tongli
A water canal in Tongli
There are plenty of “water towns” in China, and I’ll admit I haven’t seen them all. I did have the most fun at Tongli, though, because I went during the off-season when the crowds were tolerable. But you could probably choose any one of these. They’re all very rustic and quaint, and the canal setting offers a picturesque look at life outside the metropolitan cities.

9. Slender West Lake
Slender West Lake with Daming Temple in the distance
West Lake in Hangzhou is a bigger and more famous body of water, but I prefer Slender West Lake in Yangzhou. The tighter environment makes it easier to appreciate the scenery on the other side of the lake. And the park ends at one of the more interesting temples in China: Daming Temple with its tall, square-shaped pagoda.

8. Zhangjiajie National Forest
Mountain spires in Zhangjiajie
This was the first national park dedicated in China. As such, it’s very busy and overly commercialized, which keeps it a bit lower on my list. But it’s also like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The tall, thin spires covered in vegetation are absolutely stunning.

7. Li River
Mountains alongside the Li River
Guilin is surrounded by odd-shaped mountains. You don’t necessarily need to take the Li River cruise to see them, but you’ll get some of the best photo opportunities along the ride. The cruise also drops you off at Yangshuo, a smaller town that’s worth spending a few days in to really get to know the area.

6. Lingshan Buddha
Steps leading up to the Lingshan Buddha
The Spring Temple Buddha is China’s largest statue, which I have not seen. But I did see the bronze, 88-meter tall Lingshan Buddha in Wuxi. And 88 meters is no laughing matter! It’s an impressive statue. It’s also not in the middle of nowhere, unlike the Spring Temple Buddha. Wuxi has a lot of other fun things to see while you’re there.

5. Great Wall of China
A guard tower along the Great Wall of China
Obviously, if you’re going to go to China, you have to see the Great Wall. Many of the other famous attractions (like the Terracotta Warrior Museum) ended up being a disappointment for me, but the Great Wall was the one thing that exceeded my expectations. I’ve been to it three times now and still wholeheartedly recommend it.

4. Huangshan
Mountains in the Huangshan area
Huangshan, also known as the Yellow Mountains, has a lot of cultural significance. This is where the iconic “welcome pine” comes from, after all. It’s also just a really impressive mountain range, looking like an enormous pile of leftovers from other mountains.

3. Ice and Snow World Festival
A house and boat made out of ice
Every time I see pictures of Harbin, I have a hard time believing I was actually there. The whole city felt like stepping into the ice world of a video game. The snow and ice sculpture venues were particularly surreal, because they’re so different from all the other tourist spots in China. It’s damn cold, but this seasonal festival is well worth the visit.

2. Huanglong
Terraced pools of water in Huanglong
Huanglong, meaning “yellow dragon,” gets its name from the bright blue pools of water that look like the scales of a yellow-skinned dragon. The scenery here isn’t very diverse, though. It’s just one long trail full of blue pools that cascade all the way to the bottom of the mountain. But that’s still a sight to behold.

1. Jiuzhaigou Valley
A waterfall in Jiuzhaigou
Usually, I would pair this with Huanglong, because they’re in the same vicinity and both feature gorgeous blue water. But Jiuzhaigou wins for being so much bigger and offering so much more. Colorful lakes, big waterfalls, striking mountains, and quaint Tibetan villages. This is the most beautiful natural park I’ve ever seen.