We recently we spent several days in Death Valley National Park. Below you’ll find a summary of our experience which will hopefully inform those who would like to visit the park and possibly convince those who haven’t considered it to make a visit!
Death Valley National Park is the largest park outside of Alaska and has more roads than any other national park. It is located in South-East California bordering Nevada, West of Las Vegas. We were amazed by the vastness of the park and diversity of the geological formations to be seen. We spent four days in the park and still had to leave much of it unexplored.
Where to Stay
There are a number of campgrounds within the park, most of which are centrally located. Most have a limited amount of RV hookups or none at all. There are two ranches that offer room rentals for those not wanting to rough it, including a pool, tennis court and spa services, all with a western flair. Rates that we saw for RV sites with hookups ranged from $35 to $38; rates without hookups ranged from $12 to $20. There are also backcountry camping options available for those with 4 x 4 vehicles or who are backpacking. We stayed at a place outside the park called “the pads”. The GPS coordinates are 36.339178,-116.600926. It appears to be an abandoned RV park and what remains are the concrete “pads” for the old sites. It provides dozens of perfectly level places to park your RV if you don’t mind not having hookups – and it’s totally free. On a busy holiday weekend we were there for 4 nights and there was plenty of space. Our nearest neighbor was at least 2 football fields away. We heard about it on freecampsites.net. Since it’s at around 3000 ft. elevation it offered cooler temperatures than within the park where you are near, at, or below sea level.
What to See
Due to the vastness of the park the points of interest are fairly spread out – take the travel time in to consideration when planning your visit. Some, including one of our favorites (The Racetack), require high clearance vehichles to reach. For those that don’t own a high clearance vehicle you can rent one right in the park. There are even some tours that will do the driving for you. Despite spending four days in the park there is a lot we did not see. Here is an overview of what we were able to experience on our visit.
Easiest To See – Sites Without Hikes or 4×4 Drives
The Sky – Death Valley has been designated an International Dark Sky Park due to it having some of the darkest night skies in the United States. With the naked eye you can see the Milky Way, hoards of constellations and even the orangish light of the Andromeda Galaxy. We attended one of the free night ranger programs as the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and were able to look through a telescope to take a closer look at one of those very bright stars we had been seeing each night. Turns out it was Jupiter!
Badwater – At 282 below sea level Badwater is the lowest point in North America. High above on a nearby cliff there is a sign that makes sea level to show the perspective from where you’re standing. There is a paved road that leads right up to Badwater which makes it one of the busiest places in the park. There isn’t actually a lot to look at here other than the sea level sign. There is a pool of salty water siting within salt formations however, we thought the formations were much more impressive at Devil’s Golf Course. Badwater is worth visiting though since it’s not every day you get to see the lowest point in North America.
Devil’s Golf Course – An immense area of knee-high salt formations that have been eroded by wind and rain. The formations are jagged spires and incredibly sharp. The name comes from the saying that it is “so incredibly serrated that only the devil could play golf on such rough links”. Just a short drive down a gravel road it’s worth the stop.
Artist Drive – A nine mile, paved scenic loop (limited to vehicles under 25′ in length). The hills in this area a multi colored due to the presence of various minerals. The pastel colors range from light pink to teal. It is almost like someone spray painted the mountains – it’s a pretty cool drive.
Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center – Contains a small exhibit on animals and plants that can be found in the park, culture of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe which actual still live in the park and the park’s mining history. It is also the location of many of the free ranger programs. You will also find multiple rangers here that can provide tips and directions.
Ubehebe Crater – The crater wasn’t on our original list of must-sees but was along our route to something else so we stopped and we were glad we did! Not visable from the road below is a surprisingly deep volcanic crater. There is also a 1.5 mile loop around the main crater and along another smaller crater for those interested.
In addition to the main attractions there are interpretive sign posts at various locations along the roadside in different areas explaining geological formations, etc. There are also some mining site remnants that we didn’t happen to stop at.
Short Hikes – High Clearance 4×4 Not Required
Natural Bridge Canyon – 1.5 miles up a gravel road to the parking area. At the time this road was beyond the “washboard” phase and could be better described as moguls however still passable with a sedan. The natural rock bridge is a 1/2 mile walk up a gradual incline through a canyon. Along the way there are areas in the rock that appear to have been eroded away by non-existent waterfalls. The canyon hike continues another 1/2 mile past the natural bridge but we turned back at that point.
Golden Canyon – Short gravel road to trail head that was in pretty good condition. The trail consists of a canyon walk in a golden-red rock canyon. The canyon walls contain fragments of other types of rock imbedded in the walls. There is supposed to be an interpretive guide however there weren’t any left when we were there. Total length of trail is one mile with a red cathedral rock about 1/4 of the way.
Mosaic Canyon – Our favorite of the canyon walks that we did is Mosaic Canyon. It is a fairly easy walk up to a narrow canyon of smoothed down marble – it is truly unique and breathtaking. The first 1/2 mile has the coolest narrows and a couple small slick rock scrambles. This is a really great look at a unique geological formation. The trailhead is a short drive up a gravel road that is in fairly good condition. If you’re only up for one short hike, of the ones we visited, this would be the one we would recommend.
Fall Canyon – Short drive up a gravel road to parking area (also the exit of Titus Canyon drive). This is a 3 mile up a canyon varying in width greatly along the way from 100 ft. wide down to an arms span at different areas. There are unique rock formations and evidence of old water erosion all along the way. This hike was a bit more strenuous than the others listed not just because of the distance but that the canyon floor is loose rock the whole way so on the way up it’s kind of like walking in sand. After 3 miles you arrive at a 35 ft. dry fall – a hollow in the rock where the canyon is only shoulder width wide. There is a route you can scramble up a few hundred feet back on the trail and supposedly arrive at another dry fall in 2 miles however the climb was a little too sketchy. We also got to see some wild flowers at the beginning of the hike!
High Clearance and/or 4×4 Required Sites
Many of the roads within the park are designated as high clearance vehicle required and some are 4×4 required. We only went on a few miles of 4×4 required roads and not those described to us as being really hard-core. We never used four-wheel drive however I can see how in some areas, in damper conditions the deep dust/sand could be an issue. We saw some cross over SUV’s on the high clearance roads and they seemed to do fine. If you have heavy-duty tires (all terrain or mud tire) we would recommend letting down your tire pressure for a more comfortable ride since the roads are quite bumpy and washboarded.
Titus Canyon Drive – This is a 27 mile one way road through the largest canyon in the park. Inside the canyon you will see a variety of rock formations, a small ghost town, petroglyphs, a chance at seeing big horn sheep (we did not) and an awesome narrows section in the last 5 miles that will really impress. Give yourself 3 hours to get through the canyon so you have plenty of time to enjoy all it has to offer. This is high on our list of must do’s in the park.
Racetrack (Moving Rocks and Grandstand) – The road to the racetrack is no joke. You don’t need four-wheel drive but the road is VERY rough and it’s not wide enough most of the time for two vehicles to pass each other without one driving up on the burm – which contains sharp rocks. Heavy duty tires are highly recommended, they have a lot of flat tires out there. It’s also a busy road and people tend to drive fast, including the tour companies. The drive there has some pretty cool views, including an area with fairly large Joshua trees compared to other areas of the park. Once arriving at the racetrack the first thing you’ll see is the grandstand – a large black rock formation jutting up from the dry lake bed like an iceberg. It’s pretty spectacular! On the opposite end of the racetrack you will find the famous moving rocks. You can see the tracks left in the dried lake bed by the rocks while they were moving – really amazing! We thought it was well worth the drive to see such a unique act of nature – highly recommended!
There are a ton of back country roads in the park, many that can take you to remote areas to camp and enjoy the night sky and some, from what we hear, require experienced off roaders and narrow wheelbase 4×4’s. We only scratched the surface in this area so we can only imagine the fun to be had in this category if that’s what you’re in to.
- Don’t underestimate how large the park is and how long it will take you to get from place to place, just on the paved roads. Many of the high clearance roads are limited to 35 mph (if you can even get going that fast without your car rattling apart) so factor in the slower speeds not just the distances.
- If in doubt stop and get gas. You’ll be tempted to wait because it’s expensive in the park and not high quality but you’re going to have to do it so just bite the bullet and do it. Stovepipe Wells will have cheaper gas than Furnace Creek by about 10 cents per gallon, but you are still going to be paying about a buck more than the going rate outside the park.
- Be cautious on the roads! People speed – a lot, they are distracted, there are bicyclists, motorcyclists, runners and people walking across the road. We came across a motorcycle accident while we were there and nobody wants to end their weekend that way. Medical help is at least an hour away on a main road.
- It’s a really, really DRY heat. The highest temperature while we were there was 88 – nothing compared to summer temperatures but it wasn’t the temperature that was affecting us. The humidity level is so low we could barely drink enough water even when we weren’t sweating. Our lips were continually chapped and we both got scabs in our nostrils! Drink lots of water and take a lot with you – more than you expect to use. A great place to fill up water bottles is as the Stovepipe Wells ranger station. It’s not crowded and they have a dispenser outside.
- BYOF – Bring your own food! Neither general store we visited have much in terms of groceries although Furnace Creek had much more selection than Stovepipe Wells. A six-pack of micro-brew is going to cost you $15 though!
For being the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America, Death Valley really surprised us! We were truly in awe of the vast unfamiliar landscapes and could have spent much more time exploring all it had to offer. We personally would not recommend visiting during the summer months but during the winter season it is a fascinating good time.
A few more pics, including camping in Hidden Valley