Death Valley National Park
36.2419° N, 116.8258° W
Endless playground: mountains, mysterious canyons, salt flats & dunes
Each morning we scrabbled through new and amazing canyons in death valley located in the over 3.3 million acres of wilderness (the largest National Park in the lower 48). It was an endless playground full of rugged mountains, mysterious slot canyons, unique salt flats and majestic sand dunes. The evenings were perhaps even more enchanting. The first stars appeared along the horizon as if unlocking a few secrets of the Milky Way one twinkle at a time. We began to recognize a few more constellations, planet and stars each night as we laid on our backs falling deep into the dark oblivion above us.
It seems unbelievable to think that you can have this type of experience in what amounts to a short days drive from all of California’s major metro areas. Yet, it will feel a million miles away from the busy city streets where you began your trip. Death Valley is located only 265 miles east of Los Angeles, plan for a 4.5 hour drive and slightly over 8 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area. Fueled by your excitement to be on the open road and your choice road trip soundtrack, you will be the one star gazing in no time flat.
The descent (easy on the brakes here folks) into the 282 feet below sea level valley is not only long and steep, but perhaps one of the most staggering drives in the West. The views are endless! Driving east into the park your first RV camping option is Stove Pipe Wells, depending on the time of year. It amounts to a small lot, nothing special but a good location for several hikes. Keep in mind that although Death Valley park is open year-around it is most popular as a winter get-away, therefore not all campgrounds will be open outside of the October through April timeframe. You are able to make reservations at Furnace Creek Resort and RV Park otherwise many of the other more scenic sites are on a first come first serve basis. With plenty of overflow options you will most certainly have a place to set up camp at any time of year. A very pleasant and stress-free change from the likes of the summertime Yosemite camping crowds.
Pick a campground site near your planned Death Valley hikes
Death Valley is such an expansive park that the campgrounds can be far from certain desired hikes. Be sure to visit http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm to view a map and camping options before your trip.
Once you have found your chosen campsite the real fun can begin. The amount of hiking and exploring in this park is beyond ridiculous! After 10 days spent here I barely scratched the surface, yet I left feeling like I alone had discovered a new and untouched part of the world. You will often have the trails to yourself. Marveling at the rock formations like a novice geologist or imagining a prehistoric beast appearing around every bend in the canyon.
Must see hike: Badwater Salt Flats
A few favorite hikes worth naming include the easy undertaking of a visit to Badwater Salt Flats. You will behold the tiny salt crystals that have covered the lowest point of the valley floor. No trip to Death Valley would be complete without at least a few steps out onto the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, where you feel as though a Bedouin tribe will appear along the horizon. One of the more popular trails is Mosaic Canyon, due to its profound rock formations it is no wonder that this hike was the only trail where we encountered a handful of other groups. If you’re looking for more challenge and mystery, take to the numerous deep, dark slot canyons of Sidewinder and be sure to bring a headlamp and your imagination along. The 6.9 mile loop of Golden Canyon-Gower Gulch is a classic that will have you believing you truly are on another planet. With several options of hiking for any ability level you will be able to fill your days with anything from a short stroll atop sand dunes to a challenging scramble through dark slot canyons.
This vast playground is not all about hiking, there is a plethora of choices for any campers pleasure. Perhaps, the history buff will be fascinated with the stories that lie in this sunken valley. The nomadic Timbisha tribe have taken to calling this valley home for portions of the year, dating back over one-thousand years . Signs of the borax and gold mining industry of the late 1800’s is still apparent and telling of a now dead industry. And the story and a tour of Scotty’s Castle will have those of all ages impressed and bewildered.
Take a refresthing dip and swim Furnace Creek Ranch
An even more unexpected treat is that of water in the desert. By that I mean the swimming pool at Furnace Creek Ranch, all park campers are welcome to enjoy this luxury swimming hole for $5. A refreshing treat even in the middle of January. Here you will also find laundry facilities, showers, and a small market with basic provisions and very high prices. So be sure to stock up and plan ahead long before reaching the park.
Just because you are on a camping trip in the middle of a desolate land by the name of Death Valley doesn’t mean you can’t let someone else do the cooking and cleaning for a night. Furnace Creek Ranch also boasts a steakhouse, a cafe, and saloon. And if your idea of camping still includes a collared shirt or a little black dress, a short drive from the Furnace Creek campground is a fine dining establishment that won’t disappoint. The Inn at Furnace Creek was beautifully crafted in the late 1920’s. It offers an elegant option to take in the starry night sky with a glass of excellent vino in hand.
Don’t be caught off-guard by this vast and harsh landscape. It is always best to be prepared before taking to the road. Although food can be purchased inside the park it is limited and very expensive. If you complete your shopping list outside of the park I promise, you will be grateful.
It’s called Death Valley for a reason! Pack lots of water
A few absolute essentials; water, water, and water! It’s called Death Valley for a reason and the desert is unforgiving. Be sure not only to bring plenty of water but consume it long before you become thirsty. It may seem obvious given where you are going, but I stress the need of applying plenty of sunscreen. Wearing a hat and long sleeve shirt will make your days in the hot, dry sun much more pleasurable. When the sun goes down it can get cold, especially in the winter months. Always, pack a few layers with you and bring them along even on your hikes.
This is by far one of the greatest National Parks in America and you won’t leave disappointed, even if you try. Whether you’re on an extended weekend in your newly acquired Outdoorsy rental rig or this is just one stop along your road trip out West this place will stay with you. Just imagine, you and your traveling tribe exploring a land that so few others have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Over 3 million untouched acres to explore and you are close enough to be back home in time for dinner.
WHAT: Death Valley National Park
KNOWN FOR: Star gazing, hiking, exploring canyons, geology, camping, learning about historic sites
MORE INFO: http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm
Written by Jes Striker
Jes Striker is an herbalist and product developer by trade, turned free lance writer. She lives on the road full-time in her Toyota Tacoma and tiny travel trailer, and can often be found in the mountains gathering plant medicine or descending steeps at a rapid pace on her bike or snowboard. To find out more about her daily adventures visit allpointsinbetween.com