Monday, June 23, 2014

Death Valley National Park

Home to the lowest surface point in the Western Hemisphere and the hottest temperatures in the United States, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes – from the peaks of the snowcapped Panamint Range at over 11,000 feet to Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level at the bottom of Death Valley. Anyone visiting this park cannot fail to be impressed with the natural beauty here. 

Just as it is hard to convey all of Death Valley in a single visit, it’s hard to convey through words the stark beauty of the Park. The scenery is simply amazing throughout the park and the extremes make it incredibly interesting to visit. Standing at Badwater Basin, looking up over 11,000 feet towards the Panamint Range, you see everything from one of the driest and hottest points, to a land with snow, rain and plenty of vegetation.

Where is Death Valley 

Death Valley National Park is located just to the west of the Nevada/California State line (though a bit of the park is in Nevada). There are several ways to access the park with roads entering the park both from the east (Nevada Routes 267 and 374) and from the west (California Route 190 and the Badwater Road). California Highway 190 travels through the park and provides one of the best routes to see the major sights of the park in a fairly straightforward manner. There are several other roads that make their way into and out of the park, but they are generally 4x4 roads and are more difficult to travel and require some advanced planning

When should I go? 

It depends on what you want to do and what you want to experience. During the Spring, Summer and Fall months, Death Valley gets very hot – well over 100 degrees hot. Other times of the year, the weather is more temperate – with temperatures in to 40s to the 70s in the wintertime.

If you want to experience the heat, by all means go during the summertime, but if you are interested in exploring the Park outside of your car, I would suggest early spring, late fall or wintertime visit to the Park. This gives you the ability to get out, hike around and really explore the various sites throughout Death Valley and gives you a much better overall experience than just driving through the valley when it’s 115 degrees.

When is the Park open? 

Death Valley National Park is open year round. Some of the campgrounds on the valley floor close during the summertime due to the extreme temperatures (who really wants to camp in 100 degree weather?). Most of the services in the park are open during normal business hours during the week and on the weekend.


Like all National Parks nowadays, Death Valley requires user fees. The only benefit is that the majority of these fees go towards funding improvements and maintenance in the Park itself, instead of going back to Washington where they took away the money for the park in the first place, leading to these fees. There are several self-service pay stations at the entrances to the Park and you can also pay the fee at the Visitor’s Center. If you have a National Parks Pass or a Golden Eagle Pass, all you have to do is display that while in the Park and you won’t have to pay an entrance fee.

Big destinations? 

There are three major destinations with services in the Park. Furnace Creek is home to the Visitor’s Center, gas station, a ranch, lodging, dining and a luxury hotel. Stovepipe Wells Village offers gasoline, camping, Park information, dining and lodging. Scotty’s Castle, in the northern portion of the Park offers gasoline, dining and park information.

You may think its odd to mention gasoline, but with long distances in the park and the surrounding area undeveloped, it’s important to watch your gas tank, since the last thing you want to do is to run out of gas in the middle of the desert and literally in the middle of nowhere.

Must see sites 

There’s a lot in Death Valley that you could see, but if you don’t have that much time, there are several sites that you must stop at to get an idea of the Park. My most see sites in Death Valley include:

Salt Creek 
To the north of Furnace Creek and home to the tiny pupfish, this creek in the middle of the desert is an amazing sight. Due to the local geology, groundwater from the mountains is forced to the surface and runs year round for about a ½ mile. The water though is very salty and the upper, wetter portion of the stream has grown up like a giant salt marsh. The lower portion of the stream is interesting as well, as you can watch the water being evaporated and reabsorbed into the ground as it tries to continue to run downstream. Walkways along the stream allow you to explore most of the creek and see the tiny pupfish in the stream. This species of pupfish isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

Furnace Creek 
After driving through the stark desert, it is odd to find the Furnace Creek area – an oasis in the Valley that is fed by the groundwater emanating from Furnace Creek Canyon. The Visitor Center and surrounding development are nestled among palm trees and other vegetation that just doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Valley. The Visitor Center is also a great place to learn about the Park – including expansive exhibits, an interpretive movie, and information from the Rangers.

Also the Furnace Creek Ranch is located here, which is home to two hotels, some restaurants, a ranch and a golf course should you want to stay in Death Valley or just grab a bite to eat.

Devil’s Golf Course 
On the road south to Badwater Basin from Furnace Creek, the drying salt of the valley floor forms strange and interesting shapes here in the Devil’s Golf Course. Here you can walk among the formations, listen to the salt cracking as it dries and even perhaps watch salt crystals forming in pools of brine.

Badwater Basin 
About 18 miles south of Furnace Creek is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It just feels deep and it’s an amazing location. The walls of the Black Mountains rise over 5,000 feet directly in front of the Basin to the east and the top of Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range on the western side of the valley rises over 11,000 feet from where you are standing. Not only that, it might be 90 to 100 degrees at Badwater Basin and as you look up to Telescope Peak, there could be snow on the mountain.

Not only that, but here in Badwater Basin, in only a small pool that is maintained by springs year round are more pupfish. These pupfish are different from the ones at Salt Creek, isolated for tens of thousands of years since the lake that used to fill Death Valley dried up.

From the Basin you can also easily walk out onto the salt pan, which is well worth it in moderate temperatures. This gives you a better view back towards Badwater and the towering Black Mountains directly behind it.

Also, if you are standing and facing Badwater Basin, to your right is a large alluvial fan at the base of a small canyon on the Black Mountains. This fan right near the mountain front is cut vertically near the mountain face – with the portion of the fan against the mountain about 6 feet or so higher than the rest of the fan. This is an example of the faulting going on today in the valley – where the Black Mountains are slowly rising and the floor of the valley is slowly dropping.

More to see 

If you have the time to explore more of the park, there is any number of different places to explore. These include driving along Artist’s Drive, visiting the abandoned Borax Works, touring Mustard Canyon, off-roading through Titus Canyon, visiting Scotty’s Castle, hiking up to the Natural Arch, visiting Ubehebe Crater and looking at the tracks of the mysterious sliding rocks at The Racetrack.

The biggest hurdle for all these visits though is time and anyone wishing to really explore the Park will need to spend more than a day as the Park is very big and it takes quite some time to get from one end to the other. My suggestion would be to spend at least a night in the Park at Furnace Creek which gives you one day to explore the northern portion of the Park and another day to explore the southern portion of the Park.

Many locations are only accessible by vehicles with high clearance or only by 4x4 vehicles. Both times I’ve been in the park I’ve wished that I had a 4x4 vehicle, as it would open up so much of the park to exploration. Next time I’m going to have that SUV with me.


Any review of Death Valley wouldn’t be complete without a quick mention of the heat. Temperatures in July and August can climb to well over 100 degrees, making dehydration and heat stroke serious problems. You should have plenty of water in your car and if you are hiking in warmer temperatures, make sure you bring enough water to keep yourself hydrated as there is generally no water in most areas of the park (and if there is water, it’s usually salty except for streams in the higher mountains).

It’s also important to watch your car when driving in Death Valley – you don’t want it to overheat and break down – as you would be stranded in the desert. That’s why it’s important to keep supplies in your car and to know when your car may be overheating and take action to prevent it.


I’ve visited the Park twice, once in late April and then again in late December. In April the temperatures warmed up to around 90 degrees while in December, we were lucky if the temperatures climbed out of the low 50s, even at Badwater Basin.

And funny enough, on both of my visits to Death Valley, it rained! I know, one of the driest places in the world and it rains on both of my visits.

On both trips, which were day trips from Las Vegas, we were able to get out and explore and do some hiking as the temperatures weren’t that warm. Out of the two, my favorite time was in April – as many of the desert flowers were blooming and many of the valley slopes were bright yellow in color – with thousands and thousands of flowers blooming almost everywhere.

An easy hike, except for all but the warmest months is the hike up to the Natural Arch. You walk up a dry river gorge with towering walls until you reach a natural arch that has been carved out of the gorge walls and where the river, when it flows, now flows through. It’s a great way to see some of the massive forces at work in the valley and when you turn around and walk down, there are some impressive views of Death Valley spread out below you.

Another interesting stop if you are entering the Park from Nevada along Route 374 is the ghost town of Rhyolite just before you get to the Park boundary. This town was booming in the very early 1900’s, but now is just a series of long abandoned buildings. Managed by the Park Service, it’s free to visit and you can wander among the buildings and along the roadways.

One of the things that is most interesting to me about Death Valley is the starkness, emptiness and silence of the Park. When you are away from the busier tourist destinations you are literally alone in this park. You hear the wind blowing and perhaps you can see a car or a person far off in the distance but overall – you are in this land where its incredibly dry, incredibly hot and besides the occasional plant, is almost bereft of vegetation. It’s so different from anything else that I’ve experienced and it is what keeps drawing me back to the Park.

For my next visit, I want to spend at least two full days and preferably three days in the park and would stay at Furnace Creek for the visit (I’d probably stay at the hotel, I don’t want to camp in the desert especially if it’s quite warm). This would give me a day to travel north in the Park to Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater and the Racetrack Playa, time to off-road through Titus Canyon and then spend a day in the southern portion of the valley, using the backcountry road on the western side of the valley to explore both sides of the valley and to get a different view of the Park. I would also like to come in from the west and explore the portion of the Park on the Panamint Range, getting a chance to hike and climb in the mountains that form the western wall of Death Valley. The view down from those peaks must be amazing and up to 11,000 vertical feet of relief spreads out below you – that’s almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Final Thoughts 

Whether it’s a day or many days, Death Valley National Park is well worth a visit. This park gives you a chance to explore Mother Nature’s extremes and all that is in between.

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