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Get Outta Town

Venture to Death Valley With Leigh Forsstrom as Your Guide

Get Outta Town BY kate welsh 03/08/2016


One look at Leigh Forsstrom’s ceramics, and you can see the influence that nature has in her work: organic shapes, washes of color, and tiny, perfect details. So it makes sense that the Brooklyn-dweller tries to get outdoors whenever she can—and that means more than just a walk in Prospect Park. Leigh and her husband Rob are pretty serious backpackers, and California’s scorching Death Valley is a favorite stop—let her prepare you with tips for exploring her favorite strange land.



“First off, the essentials: Make sure to rent a four-wheel drive to access some amazing sites more easily. Bring a really good camera to capture the desert’s subtle colors and beauty. Bring salty foods to snack on. Bring water (a lot of water). Wear a hat. Don’t worry about a tent—really.”



“Rob planned our first trip to Death Valley. We had been going on a lot of backpacking trips, and Death Valley seemed totally different—it’s so old, you can actually see layers of time. The landscape is super varied: there are salt flats, dunes, the valley itself, canyons, and caves.



There are two resources that are great for planning hiking in Death Valley. One is this book called Hiking Death Valley by Michel Digonnet. It’s really cool: The author is a guy who is obsessed with Death Valley, and that book is kind of the bible for everyone else. He’s been on hundreds of canyon hikes, and he catalogs them all. He has these hand-drawn maps of the hikes and the canyons. It was super useful the last time we went. And then the other guide we like is a site called Steve Hall’s Death Valley Adventures. It’s basically the internet version of the first book. Steve Hall is constantly in Death Valley trying to explore all the nooks and crannies. He writes these really detailed trip logs. We use him a lot.”


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“Death Valley is huge. There are marked trails, which the National Park Service keeps up, that are very easy and accessible. There are also backcountry trails, which are unmarked and unmaintained. The last time we were there, we went on a three-day hike in Dry Bone Canyon. We registered with our itinerary with the Park Service so they could make sure we came out alive—they keep a log of all the itineraries, and there hadn’t been anyone in this canyon for two years. Like, no living person had walked up there for two years! It’s nice to feel like you got someplace by virtue of your own will. And sweat.”



Bighorn sheep are, like, the one thing that lives in Death Valley. They’re super rare to spot, but if you go up into the canyons, you see skulls. It’s a little like, ‘Hey! We’re here, too!’ It’s a little morbid—because obviously that one’s dead—but it’s really the only sign of life.”



Everyone should take advantage of the Park Service programs. Once we went on a ranger-led archaeology hike, and we saw ancient camel footprints! “



“These are—I think—nautilus fossils. Death Valley used to all be under water, so there are parts where the rock has eroded so much that you can see fossils of seaweed and kelp. Which is so weird because there’s no life there now—maybe one Joshua tree every hundred miles.”



“One of the other cool things about Death Valley: It is so dry, so there are no bugs—no mosquitos, no critters. And it’s definitely not going to rain. So you can hike out into the desert without a tent or a tarp or anything, which is awesome because then you fall asleep looking at the stars. It’s so dark—and in the middle of nowhere—that you can see so many stars.”



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