I was yearning for a fun road-trip, as it often happens during the pandemic. I opted for a visit to Death Valley, unequivocally one of the most beautiful national parks in the United States. I had been to the park various times during the Summer of 2019 when I was leading tours for an adventure company in the US but the weather, as you can imagine, was always very hot and dry. What else would you expect of such a desert during the Summer, right?! I would actually not recommend going there in the Summer when temperatures can rise well above 100°F.
When to go:
I decided to head out on a road trip to return to this magnificent park in November of 2020. This time around, I would go on my own to hike and photograph its most iconic landscapes.
This park is famous not only for its beauty but for being the driest and hottest place in all of North America. The highest temperature ever recorded near Furnace Creek Visitor Center was a whopping 134°F! The park also has the lowest place on the continent at an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.
How to get around:
This is a park where you definitely need to have your own car as distances between the main highlights can be large. Unfortunately there are no shuttles running people from place to place like in other national parks, but there is plenty of parking wherever you go. Keep in mind there is very little to no cell service inside the park so be sure to download an offline map of the area on your phone so you can easily navigate around.
Where to stay:
There are various places to stay the night- Stovepipe Wells Village, The Oasis at Death Valley including the Inn and the Ranch, and Panamint Springs Resort. All are open year-round but I strongly suggest checking for the latest updates on lodging and road closures (especially during Covid times) on the NPS site.
There are various campgrounds where you can put up your tent like Furnace Creek, Sunset, Texas Springs, Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite, Emigrant, Wild Rose, Thorndike and Mahogany Flat. From October to April, the Furnace Creek Campground is the only one that takes reservations. Keep in mind that it is often very busy on weekends and holidays. All other campsites are on a first-come/first-serve basis and no reservations are required. There are kiosks with automated machines near the entrance of almost all campgrounds where you can pay with a credit or debit card anytime upon arrival. The Emigrant, Wild Rose, Thorndike and Mahogany Flat campgrounds are actually free!
I would definitely think twice about camping in the Summer months as temperatures will remain very high throughout the day and night. Only campgrounds at higher elevations will be open such as Mesquite, Emigrant and Wild Rose. I encourage you to check for the latest on openings, conditions, rules and rates on the NPS site.
I came in the park through Sears Valley and camped at Stovepipe the first night. From there I was able to do a short drive to Mesquite Dunes to see the sunset. The next day I packed up all of my gear and moved to Texas Springs campground which is located in the hills above Furnace Creek. I based myself in Texas Springs for the next three days from where I could easily access other main sites of the park. I highly recommend staying in the upper loop where you find hills with giant rocks, perfect to climb at night for amazing star-gazing opportunities.
What makes it special:
Everything! Nothing in this park will disappoint, I promise! It is absolutely stunning but there is so much to see that I would recommend planning an itinerary ahead of time to avoid missing any major points of interest. And stay for at least two full days to make your visit worthwhile!
This park is gigantic with 3.4 million acres, making it the largest national park in the lower 48 states. Due to its varying heights across the land (lowest point being 282ft and highest point being 11,049ft) the park is home to more than 1,000 species of plants, 300 species of birds, 51 species of mammals, and 36 species of reptiles. You just never know what you may encounter as you venture out into its wild and beautiful landscapes. The geology of Death Valley is incredible presenting a variety of mineral deposits of gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, antimony, tungsten and borax, among others, giving the park its colorful soil and layered mountains, making it a great destination for photographers and painters alike.
What to see and do:
There are many points of interest. Here are some of the sites that I visited during my time there:
Mesquite Sand Dunes: These are the most known and the easiest to reach in the park. I hiked 1.5 miles going up and down over its magnificent undulating dunes, finally reaching its highest point at 100 feet to watch the sunset. The dunes are so big and expansive that you will have no problem finding your own private spot from which to enjoy a perfect sunset.
Zabriskie Point: I visited Zabriskie for sunrise during my second day at the park. It was truly amazing to watch the color of the rocks change over Manly Beacon, other surrounding peaks and canyons as the soft sunlight began to slowly illuminate them. You can follow the path found on the right of the main viewpoint trail to hike deeper into the canyons. A photographer’s paradise!
Golden Canyon & Gower Gulch: Just after sunrise I began the moderate 5.8 mile hike from Zabriskie point towards Manly Beacon and Red Cathedral all the way to the Golden Canyon Trailhead and parking area. After taking a break I headed back the same way to end back at Zabriskie. You can also follow the trail back through the Gower Gulch. This hike is very popular so head out early to avoid the crowds.
The amazing 9.2 mile drive through this beautiful part of the park is one of the must do’s! There are a few spots where you can stop safely to admire the landscape.
The most popular stop is the third turn to the right where you will find a small parking lot with a canyon just in front of you presenting pastel-colored hills of blue, green and purple shades, just like an artist’s palette, hence the name. I highly recommended arriving there an hour before sunset to watch the colors change over the hills. Be sure to hike around the little alleys inside the canyon and climb up the hills for different perspectives. If the parking lot is full just park safely on the side of the road.
Badwater Basin: Another amazing must-see place in the park. I visited in the early afternoon but I was told it’s another fantastic place to watch at sunset. This is where you find the lowest point in North America at 282ft below sea level. What appears as a snowy landscape, it’s actually salt accumulated on the basin over thousands of years. Since I visited in November, the temperature was pleasant and I was able to hike in on the path for 1.5 miles to reach the amazing hexagonal outlines formed by the wind, changing temperatures and evaporation processes. It was truly a surreal experience.
Dante’s View: One of the best places in the park, definitely another must-see and easily done by anyone. It is reached via a 13-mile road located off the main road. At the top of the mountain, there is a big parking lot where you can safely leave your car and walk around to enjoy the truly fantastic and expansive views of the entire Badwater Basin and the peaks surrounding it, including Telescope Peak, the tallest one in the park at 11,045ft. It can get very windy up there so take a jacket.
Be sure to download an offline map as there is no cell service in most areas. Mark the points you want to see so you can make the most efficient use of your time and you can reach your desired spot for sunrise or sunset at least a half-hour before. Always take plenty of water and snacks with you, especially if you are going out on hikes. Ensure a full tank of gas if trying to cover long distances as gas stations inside the park are few and far between. And no matter where you go and what you decide to do, always take your sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen and several clothing layers as the temperature and weather can vary greatly in the desert. And above all, please take care of the environment, be a responsible tourist and leave no trace!
Other popular points of interest:
Unfortunately I did not have enough time to see all the main sites of the park but it just gives me a reason to return yet again.
Other places of interest that visitors rave about are: Ubehebe Crater, the Racetrack, Salt Creek, Devil’s Golf Course, Harmony Borax, 20 Mule Team Canyon, Darwin Falls, Father Crowley Vista, and Telescope Peak.
For information on these and to plan your trip, visit the official park’s NPS site.
Death Valley is considered the darkest out of all the National Parks in the US with the lowest light pollution and frequently cloudless skies making it a great destination for star-gazing. I recommend getting up in the middle of the night (around 3:00am) and climbing to a high and/or very dark location for an amazing star show. And if you are a photographer…don’t forget your tripod!