Moab – Arches – Canyonlands

This spring, upon leaving Canyon De Chelley we headed to the Moab area. The main draw to the area for us were Arches and Canyonlands National Parks but there are a few gems on the route that we took advantage of.

To get there we traveled from Chinely, AZ North on 191 then East on 163 towards the town of Mexican Hat, diverting on 261 to stay at Goosenecks State Park. This location gave us access to Monument Valley, Natural Bridges National Monument and Valley of the Gods. Goosenecks State Park offers a small dry camping area overlooking the 1,500 ft deep San Juan River valley for $10 per night. What beautiful views and sunsets!

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This is why it’s called Goosenecks State Park

Monument Valley, one of the “7 Wonders of Navajoland”, is a valley filled with sandstone mesas, spires and buttes that tower above the valley floor. The valley is featured in many old western movies and is referred to by John Wayne as “Gods Treasure”. We drove the 17 mile dirt road through the valley which is a Navajo operated park and not part of the National Park system. It was fun to see such an iconic area with our own eyes!

Natural Bridges National Monument is a small park offering views of three of the worlds largest natural stone bridges. We traveled the 8 mile loop through the park to view each of them. There are hiking trails leading to each, one even features some ruins, but dogs are not allowed. Although admittedly cool, this park is definitely overshadowed by the magnificence of Arches National Park. The main difference is that most of the features are actually “bridges” rather than “arches” and aren’t reddish in color.

The Valley of the Gods is sort of a small version of Monument Valley with many sandstone formations. It is also a dirt road and dispersed camping is allowed. It was a fun drive and the dogs had fun running around.

We left Goosenecks State Park, backtracked up 163 and continued North on 191 for Moab, UT. There are tons of BLM camping opportunities in the Moab area. They all have a fee ($10 or $15 per day). We investigated several however and found many of them already full (due to the upcoming Easter jeep safari) or not well suited for our rig. We returned to an area about 11 miles South of town that had a couple of campers in it. It was unmarked at the time and we asked one of the campers about the area. He said he’d been there multiple days and nobody bothered him so we decided to stay! We were there 11 days and had no issues. We have added this location to freecampsites.net. We needed to dump our tanks twice while we were there and used Farm and City General Store both times. We found them using rvdumps.com.

Moab is a 4×4, bicycling and hiking mecca. There are way too many trails and 4×4 roads to list ranging from entry-level trails for stock vehicles all the way to extremely difficult slick rock trails that even the most modified buggy style 4×4’s have difficulty with. It is home to the annual Easter Jeep Safari which draws thousands of people and their 4×4 vehicles from near and far to run trails. We did some entry-level trails/roads suggested by the visitor center, some of which were later a part of the safari weekend. We traveled Long Canyon over Pucker Pass, Shafer Trail Road which begins in Canyonlands National Park descends to Potash Road. We also traveled a combination of trails beginning at Willow Flats in Arches National Park. The latter was included as part of the “Copper Ridge” trail during the jeep safari. We were able to have a little fun in the jeep without risking damage to our only vehicle shorter than 33 ft.

Arches National Park is full of naturally occurring sandstone arches, pinnacles, fins, windows and balanced rocks. There is one main paved road with off-shoots for viewing of the formations. You can then hike up to them and most of the trails weren’t that long. There are a couple of 4×4 roads, one leading to Tower Arch hiking trail which we would love to return to. There are also ranger led walks and hikes, most notably the Fiery Furnace hike which requires an advanced ticket – also on the bucket list! Pets are not allowed on any of the trails. The park is so breathtaking and offers amazing photo opportunities at sunrise and sunset. Due to that fact the line to get in to the park at late afternoon can be quite long.

Canyonlands National Park is a large park made up of three separate areas, each divided by the deep canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers. The regions are called Island in the Sky (North), The Maze (West), and the Needles (East). We visited Island in the Sky, a huge mesa, driving the paved roads to several overlooks in to the canyons. In this section is the White Rim road, a 100 mile 4×4 road below the rim which takes multiple days to complete. We may go back to do this at some point. We would also love to explore the less accessible and wild Maze region and Needles region which boasts colorful spires, ruins and lots of trails.

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There is quite a lot of dinosaur evidence in the Moab area including fossilized tracks and bones. We saw tracks in two places, along our Willow Flats drive on Copper Ridge outside of Arches and along Potash Road on the East side of Dead Horse Point park. This stretch of road also has a huge petroglyph wall.

The town of Moab has a variety of restaurants and the typical gift shops you would expect near national parks with a focus on the 4×4 and outdoor lifestyle. There is so much to see and do here and in the surrounding areas. We’ve barely scratched the surface so I’m sure we’ll be back.

Our beloved and dearly missed Bailey lived out her last days with us in Moab. If you are in need of a skilled and compassionate vet while in the area give Moab Veterinary Clinic a call.

 

Canyon De Chelly National Monument

Upon leaving the Petrified Forest we set out for Canyon De Chelly on the Navajo Indian Reservation! Little did we know at the time, but this little known National Monument would become our favorite destination so far. We headed through the petrified forest and went East on I-40. We then took Hwy 191 North, arriving in the town of Chinle. Located in North-Eastern Arizona, Canyon De Chelly National Monument consists of two main canyons (De Chelly and Muerto) and multiple side canyons. The canyons range from 30 to 1000 feet deep and have been inhabited by different civilizations for nearly 5,000 years.

History

The earliest inhabitants, Archaic, used the canyons seasonally. They were followed by the farming peoples of the Basketmakers, Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), Hopi and finally the Navajo. The Navajo raised domesticated sheep and goats, corn and tree fruit within the canyon. They also used it as refuge from warfare with other tribes, Spanish settlers and the US army. In 1863 the US army launched a brutal campaign against the Navajo, entering the canyon and capturing or killing most of them. They were then marched over 300 miles (The Long Walk) to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The remaining Navajo were allowed to return to the canyon in 1868 to find their homes (hogans), crops and livestock gone. They worked to rebuild what they had lost while turning a focus to trading posts where they could trade their jewelry, wool rugs and crafts for food and other staples in order to survive. Navajo families continue to farm in the canyon using traditional methods to this day and many live there during the summer months. The National Monument was created in 1931, in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, to preserve the amazing amount of cultural history and artifacts within the canyon.

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Where to Stay

When visiting Canyon De Chelly you will be on Navajo property and therefore boondocking is not available. There is one main campground near the visitor center called Cottonwood Campground. The campground is first come first served and costs $14 per night. There aren’t any hookups but there is a dump station (without water). The maximum RV length is 40 feet. Expect to have a wild horse roaming around camp and to hear a lot of dogs barking at night.

Visitor Center and Programs

The visitor center is your source for maps and information as well as a bookstore and orientation video. Be sure to ask about free events and programs. The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years).

Canyon Overlooks

Much of your tour of Canyon De Chelly will be from the 10 overlooks along the North and South Rim drives since access to private property in the canyon bottom is restricted. Each rim drive is less than 40 miles round trip. These overlooks will give you fantastic views of cliff dwellings, ruins and farms on the canyon floor. Each viewpoint will have signage explaining what ruins you are looking for. Unfortunately many of them are really faded and some difficult to read. Also look closely at the canyon walls because in some places you can see old “trails” carved in to the stone that have been used for thousands of years. Some of the walkways to the overlooks are across rock – look for footprints carved in to or painted on the rock to guide your way. There will be local people selling their goods at some of the parking areas if you’re looking something very authentic.

Hiking

There is one trail leading down in to the canyon that is accessible by the general public without a guide or permit, the White House trail. The 2.5 mile hike leads 600 ft down the rocky canyon wall to the White House Ruin. The ruin was built by Ancestral Puebloans about 1000 years ago. There are toilets available in the bottom along with local artisans selling their hand-made jewelry, sand paintings and other crafts. We purchased a sand painting of the white house ruin from a young man including the petroglyphs found on the canyon wall and meaning of each on the back. He was painting it at the time and brought it to us later at the campground. An amazing thing that we saw along the trail was a young mother who had given birth in the canyon hiking out with her infant to take it to its first well child check. It is such a different way of life than we’re used to!

Archaeology Month (March)

We just so happened to visit the monument during the month of March which is Arizona Archaeology Month. This means that throughout the month there are free programs and hikes offered to visitors. We attended a really informative talk on the people and cultures that have lived in the canyon given by an archeologist who has participated in digs and preservation within the canyon.

I was also ecstatic to be able to take another hike down in to the canyon led by a Navajo park ranger! I went on a 3.5 mile hike on Bare Trail, crossing the river 3 times to reach Ledge Ruin. The trail was basically invisible in most places to those of us attending the hike. Faint paths could be seen in the slick rock in some places along with some foot and hand holds in steep places carved many years ago. Our Navajo guides knew the trail by heart and traveled by foot in and out of the canyon up to 3 times a week on various trails to reach family farms. If you know the way it is faster to reach them by foot down the canyon wall than drive the trails from the canyon entrance! Along the way we saw a farm owned by a woman who raises hay to feed her sheep, which she uses to harvest wool. She creates dyes from traditional sources then dyes the wool and uses it to weave beautiful wool rugs. I felt really honored to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Guided Tours

If you want to get a closer look at the canyon outside of archaeology month or do not want to hike, there are many private guides that will take you on horseback or in their vehicles in to the canyon via the 4×4 trail through the bottom.

Other Area Attractions

Flea Market

Weekly (on Thursday if I remember correctly) there is a flea market in the town of Chinle. If you want to try some local fare like mutton stew or Navajo tacos this is the place! You may also find some jewelry, old DVD’s, car parts or clothes you just can’t live without!

Hubbell Trading Post

An ally to the Navajo, John Lorenzo Hubbell began trading in the area in 1876 after purchasing a small trading post. He opened his home as a hospital to the Navajo when small pox swept the reservation. He employed Navajo to demonstrate weaving and crafts and marketed Navajo rugs to Eastern cities. A post office opened at Hubbell trading post in 1883 and he built a home and ranch on the property in the 1890’s The Hubbell trading post stayed in the family until 1965 when it was sold to the National Park Service. You can tour the trading post, where you can still purchase Navajo rugs and other crafts, along with the barn and property.

Know Before You Go

The Navajo nation observes day light savings time but the rest of Arizona and the Hopi reservation do not so be sure you know what time it is! We verified the time in the visitor’s center and set our phones to that. No cell phone carriers have service within the Navajo reservation so don’t plan on making any calls or using your hot spot. The reservation is open range land so watch for livestock and wild horses. All of the land is privately owned and it is asked that you gain permission from property owners to take pictures of their property out of respect. In town you will be approached by many locals attempting to sell jewelry or other crafts that they have made. They are all very nice and are not offended if you don’t wish to purchase anything. The only thing we bought was some cupcakes from some little girls at a mini-mart!

Petrified Forest National Park

After leaving the Grand Canyon in March we continued along I-40 through Winslow (being sure to get a picture “standing on a corner”) then took Hwy 80 at Holbrook to Petrified Forest National Park. We stayed for free at the Crystal Forest Museum and Gift Shop which actually had a few RV spots – no hook ups of course. The main road through the park is a 28 mile paved road between I-40 and Hwy 180 with short side roads or loops to areas of interest.

Petrified Wood

Well, obviously the main attraction at the Petrified Forest is the petrified wood among the dry open grassland! It is fascinating that two million years ago the area was tropical and covered in trees where all that is left now are petrified remnants in a surprising rainbow of colors. There are multiple walking paths along the main route through the park that highlight things like large logs, long logs or jasper as an example.

Agate House and Puerco Pueblo

A half mile trail leads to Agate house, a partially restored pueblo made out of petrified wood. It was interesting to see this in comparison to all of the red rock pueblos we had seen further South in Arizona. Puerco Pueblo is another ancestral pueblo site.

Newspaper Rock

Another sign of civilizations come and gone, newspaper rock is a petroglyph wall boasting symbols up to 2000 years old.

Landscape

Aside from the petrified wood the park also contains some interesting geological formations and is cast with many colors from various types of minerals. The openness lends itself to amazing sunsets and if you could time your visit to coincide with the wildflower blooms.

Fossils

Paleontologists continue to study fossils in the park such as that of the crocodile-like phytosaur. The Rainbow Forest Museum contains fossils and replication of what the forests may have looked like long ago.

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Being a small park it can easily be enjoyed in one day, depending on how extensively you wish to hike or explore. Backcountry permits can be obtained for overnight backpacking. This does happen to be a pet friendly national park so you can take Fido on the trails and even in to the back-country as long as they are leashed.

Grand Canyon 2015

During the month of March we visited the South Rim of Grand Canyon national park. Our over all impression is that of true amazement at the enormity of the canyon. It’s one of those things that a picture can’t really capture because it’s almost hard for your brain to grasp how deep and large it is, even in person. That being said, it is one of those parks that has many views of essentially the same thing from different angles. On the first day your jaw will drop repeatedly, on the third day you may be thinking yep, that’s pretty cool. The point being, if you only have a day or two and don’t want to hike below the rim, you can really take in the best the park has to offer. It’s definitely a must see in a person’s lifetime and we plan to return and explore it’s deeper wonders.

Where to stay

We chose to stay in the Kaibab National Forest just outside of Tusayan where dispersed camping is allowed for free. About a half mile up road 320 we found a spot large and flat enough for our 33′ rig which allowed our dogs to have some freedom. We were essentially 5 minutes outside of the park gates and just a couple of minutes from groceries and gas. There are tons of spots along this route for car camping and smaller rigs as well. The local ranger station can provide details on this and other routes that allow dispersed camping.

Within the park along the South Rim there are three campgrounds to choose from. Only one has RV hookups and it can also accommodate RV’s up to 50 feet. The other two do not provide hook ups and have length limits. Also within the park are a number of resort and cabin options including Phantom Ranch which is in the bottom of the canyon but requires special arrangements to access. Outside of the park along highway 64 between Tusayan and Valle there are other RV park and Hotel options to choose from.

Transportation

Many, but not all roads are accessible by car. Some routes however are accessible only by free shuttle buses (red, blue and orange routes). The red route for instance can only be accessed by bus unless you acquire a permit for those with mobility issues. Parking can be an issue despite the park having multiple lots. We found parking near Market Plaza or the Maswik lodge less stressful than looking for a spot near Bright Angel. Once you get parked just take the buses where you want to go.

What to See/Do

Bright Angel Area (Blue Bus Route)

If you only have one day focus your activities in the Bright Angel area. This area will give you a good mix of services such as restaurants, visitor centers and gift shops along with amazing views of the canyon and the Bright Angel trail. Here is a description of some of our favorites. The Lookout Studio is a 1914 studio built right on the cliff edge and has a telescope view of the canyon. Hopi House is a pueblo style building built in 1905 and is now a gift shop containing a large selection of Native American crafts. There is easy access to the paved Rim Trail which provides an easy stroll along the canyon and services in the are. One of our favorites in any national park are the free ranger talks. We attended one about fossils where they walk you over to where there are hundreds of fossils in the rock right along the rim trail. If you’re interested in the geology of the canyon they have a great talk on that as well. There are tons of other gift shops and two visitor centers in this area. There are various restaurant options but we really only ate at one since we packed a lunch every day to eat along the way. Keep in mind that this is the most popular and crowded area of the park.

Hermit’s Rest (Red Bus Route)

The red bus route on the West side of the park is only accessible by bus unless you receive a handicapped permit. There are multiple viewpoints along this route, the most spectacular being Hopi Point and Pima Point. The end of the line is Hermit’s Rest, a historic retreat built in 1914. It’s an awesome stone structure right on the cliff edge. We walked past the building up the trail a little way and had a picnic lunch overlooking the canyon and watching the ravens soar above and below us.

Desert View/East Entrance (Orange Bus Route)

The road to the Eastern entrance of the park can be traveled by car. The Orange bus route travels along a portion of it and has access to Yaki Point and the South Kaibab trailhead which is not accessible by car. Along this route is the geology museum so if you really want to learn about the canyon wall this is the place to go. Yaki point does have a spectacular view so you may want to take it in. Continuing along towards the East entrance there are several viewpoints but the highlight on this section is Desert View watchtower. The tower was built in 1932 to replicate a pueblo watch tower. The interior murals were painted by a Hopi artist and a climb to the top will give you 360 degree views of the area. We think it is worth the drive out to see this.

Walks/Hikes

First things first – take water! Oh, and then take water! Also, it is ill-advised to attempt to hike down to the river and back in a day since it’s nearly 5000 ft of elevation and temperatures in the bottom can easily be 20 degrees hotter than on the rim. All overnight stays below the rim require a permit and there is an involved application process.

The Rim Trail is a great option for minimal elevation gain since it follows along the rim. It can be accessed at multiple points so a nice option is to combine bus and rim trail travel along your site seeing route.

Bright Angel trail is the most popular trail in the park so the upper trail can be quite crowded with folks who just want to go down a half mile or so, as well as groups of mule riders. This trail can be taken all the way through the canyon and out to the North Rim, permits required of course. The views are stunning but it will likely be crowded.

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Bright Angel Trail – bottom of canyon

The South Kaibab trail is one route to the river that intersects with the bright angel trail and can be used to through hike to the North Rim. Since it is less popular I chose this trail for my “below the rim” experience. I hiked to the Cedar Ridge rest stop, 1.5 miles and 1,120 feet below the rim. It was quite a climb out but if you’re up for it I recommend taking the opportunity to get below the rim for a different perspective!

Wildlife

Always be on the lookout for wildlife. Every evening there will be ample Mule Deer and Elk viewing along the roads – don’t drive too fast! There are a lot of Ravens soaring overhead and below the rim among other birds. We saw multiple Scrub Jays and various sparrow type birds. We unfortunately weren’t lucky enough to see a Roadrunner or California Condore however we spoke to people who had seen them while we were there. There is a squirrel with long ears like a horned owl called Albert’s squirrel which is fun to see and there are lots of lizards. And of course those of the domestic variety roaming the forest.

Sunset

With the orientation of the South Rim the sun actually sets behind/to the side of your view of the canyon however the shadows and colors it casts on the canyon walls is breathtaking. Make it a point to catch at least one sunset at a viewpoint while you’re there. We didn’t take in a sunrise since we’re not morning people but I imagine it would be beautiful.

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Sunset casting shadows

Outside the Park

Cameron Trading Post

Established in the early 1900’s, the trading post served as a place for the local Hopi and Navajo to barter and trade their wool and animals, among other items, for dried goods. The trading post is still in business today and specializes in native american artwork, jewelry, blankets and other crafts. There appeared to be a LOT of genuine native american goods and of course some look-alikes or imported goods. One of the best parts is that there is a Navajo woman who weaves blankets on a large loom right inside the trading post so you can see the skill it takes to create one of the amazing Navajo wool blankets. You can make this a part of your Grand Canyon experience by exiting the park on highway 64 on the East side. The trading post is about 30 minutes outside of the boundary. On the same property is a restaurant and motel.

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Cameron Trading Post

Navajo Roadside Stands

Along highway 64 between the East entrance of the park and Cameron you are traveling on Navajo land. Along the route you will see many road side stands where Navajo people are selling their hand-made goods. Since we were there in March most of them weren’t occupied but in the height of the tourist season there will be a lot of opportunity to purchase beautiful artwork, blankets, jewelry, Navajo food and other crafts directly from the artists and meet some really great people.

Road 320 to Grandview Lookout

An alternate entrance in to the park is along road 320 in the national forest (the one we camped on). It comes out near Grandview Point but on the South side of the road by a lookout tower. If you want a slightly different view of the park and rim climb up and take a look! It is a mountain road (unpaved) and was quite muddy when we took it in March. I expect it would be dusty in the summer.

We hope this gives you an idea of what to expect at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We loved it and plan to return!

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Yes, it is grand

Joshua Tree National Park

We recently spent a couple of days at Joshua Tree National Park in California. Here’s an overview of what we did and our general impressions of the park. Enjoy!

Where to Stay

Free Places

There are actually several free options for staying near Joshua Tree National Park. In the town of Yucca Valley there is a Walmart. We stayed there one night without any issues from management. We even did some fairly significant repairs to the RV in the parking lot using an angle grinder and they didn’t bat an eye. There is also some BLM land both North and South of the park. Our impression of the North side was that it looked like Walter White had set up a meth kitchen out there. It didn’t make us feel warm and fuzzy. Everyone there might have been sweet wonderful people, but we just had a bad feeling about it. The BLM lands on the South end seemed better, much more level and easier to get there. However, one ranger did say they had heard of people getting robbed in both locations.

Campgrounds

In the end we ended up staying at one of the campgrounds. None of the campgrounds provide hookups, but there are two parks that have water and a dump station available. For those with large rigs rangers at the Visitor Centers can provide a list of campgrounds with space for 35′ and over. However, some campgrounds are limited to 25′ total length (including tow vehicle). In the NE area the ranger suggested two campgrounds for the vicinity to large rock formations; Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We chose Belle ($10/night) because of it’s smaller size and more private spaces (in some areas).  We lucked out and secured an awesome spot with room for our RV and a really private picnic area between two sets of large boulders. Spot #4 if anyone is interested! By Friday evening our campground was full – by Saturday mid-day all campgrounds in the park were full and they are almost all first come-first serve.

What to See

Most of what Joshua Tree is famous for can be found in the North Eastern part of the park and this is per a ranger at the Joshua Tree visitor center.

Visitor Centers

There are three main visitor centers, one at each major entrance into the park. The visitor centers are a great place to chat with a Ranger, they always have great suggestions about what to see.

Roadside Signposts

There are numerous exhibits along the road side throughout the main roads in the park. You can learn much about the plants, animals, desert ecosystems and geology just be stopping at them. You will see if you drive throughout the park that some of them are repeated, probably because they are targeting visitors from different entrances who will exit the same way.

Geology Tour Road

Marked as a high clearance vehicle only road this one-way 18 mile drive takes you through 16 stops. At each stop you take out your guide and read highlights about that point of interest. This road is marked as high clearance but, a Honda Crosstour went through ahead of us and didn’t have any problems. However, that might be a different story if it had been raining.

Cholla Cactus Garden

This “garden” is an easily accessible area of the park that seems to be a fantastic environment for the Cholla Cactus because there are hundreds of them in this one spot. All over the ground there are little baby Cholla that have dropped off the bigger plants. It kind of looked like Tribbles had invaded. There is a trail that wanders through the plants. Along the route there are numbers stops where you can learn more about the area. Unfortunately, all of the guides were gone when we got there. If you plan on seeing this area we suggest asking for a guide at a visitor center when you arrive. We also suggest you stay on the trail and don’t touch the cacti no matter how much you may want to. When we arrived we saw three girls picking cactus needles out of their shoes and one lady yelling at her boyfriend in some Latin language while trying to pick needles out of her hand.

Ocotillo Patch

Another easily accessible site is the Ocotillo patch. The Ocotillo is a strange tree that looks dead most of the year so spring is the best time to view it – when it is leafing and blooming. The tree basically looks like a bunch of relatively straight brown branches reaching up out of the ground for the sky. In the spring however they grow tiny little leaves all along these branches and bloom a tuft of red at the very end of the branch. We were lucky to visit at just the right time!

Park Boulevard

This is the main road coming in from Joshua Tree and has some of the best views of rock formations and Joshua Tree’s in the park. You will likely drive it on your way to your other destinations and you can’t beat the sights from here of the parks main attractions. If you only have a couple of hours just drive through from the town of Joshua Tree to highway 10 or back around to 29 Palms.

Skull Rock

Near the Jumbo Rocks campground is a huge boulder that looks surprisingly like a giant skull. It’s a great photo-op!

Arch Rock Trail

At White Tank campground there is a short loop trail among the awesome rock formations that leads you to a rock archway. Along the way there are signposts with geological information. We saw multiple lizards along the trail!

Rock Climbing

This isn’t something we did, but there were a ton of people out climbing the giant rocks. It might be a popular spot for climbing newbies because the rocks are rough and seem to provide a lot of grip. Of course that is just speculation. It is fun to sit and watch if it interests you.

There are many more things to see throughout the park that we didn’t make it to, especially hikes, additional 4×4 roads, 49 Palms Oasis and Keys Ranch (you have to sign up). We would have needed a couple more days to further explore.

Outside the Park

Sky’s The Limit

Just outside of the parks north entrance, near the Oasis Visitor Center, is the Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center. We took a tour of their observatory and Orrery, which is a mechanical model of the solar system. Theirs was about 1:2000 scale which means it took up about a football field. We also got a chance to look through a telescope at the sun, a special sun only type so we didn’t burn our eyes out. The volunteers who work here are extremely knowledgeable and very enthusiast and passionate about astronomy. On Saturday evenings they have a night program for star-gazing and it’s all FREE!

Nearby towns

Very close to the park are the towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twenty Nine Palms. We only spent time in Joshua Tree. It has a kind of it a hippie vibe with hand painted cars/buses around and a hint of patchouli oil in the air. The people were all very friendly. We liked it.

Tips

  • Pick up a schedule for the Ranger programs. We have been to several and always have a great time and learn something new!
  • If you are an RV with toad they want your toad to be connected on the way in – they will try to charge you for both. We have an annual pass and disconnected prior to entry for ease of navigation in campgrounds. We asked her if she wanted us to hook back up so we didn’t have to pay entry for our toad and, I’m guessing to avoid holding up the line, she let us in but said we needed to be hooked up on the way out.
  • Keep your eyes and ears out for rodents in your vehicles. Our neighbor got a rodent in their RV and we had one in our Jeep! Rodents of various types abound in this desert landscape and the smell of food in your rig is hard to resist. We have a cat in our RV so we think his smell kept them out of our RV but the enticing smell of spicy peanuts in the Jeep without a cat was too much for them to resist!

Death Valley National Park

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!

 

Overview

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.

Our spot at "The Pads"

Our spot at “The Pads”

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.

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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.

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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.

Tips

  • 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!

Conclusion

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