|Death Valley - Badwater Basin Salt Flats, lowest elevation in North America|
Death Valley didn't become a National Park until 1994. Before that, it was a National Monument (in 1933), and before that, parts of the valley and surrounding mountains were mined for gold, silver, lead, and borax, leaving abandoned mine shafts and ghost towns when the mines eventually played out.
We decided to visit Death Valley this year during April, one of the rainiest, dreariest months in Seattle, but the very end of the comfortable winter tourist season in Death Valley. We flew into Las Vegas, NV and stayed on the Strip for an afternoon and one night. To be honest, that was about enough Las Vegas for my husband and me - we don't drink and we both figure that gambling is just a quick way to play video games and donate money to the casinos. So we just walked up and down the strip to take a look at all of the casinos, which is fun in its own way - kind of Disney-like, just with more drunk people and pornography advertisements.
We stayed at Excalibur, mostly because it was one of the more affordable hotels on the strip, and it was decent, but definitely not luxury class. It seems like they are slowly remodeling their guest rooms because the first night we were there, the room was dated and slightly dirty, but the second night (a few days later, after we got back from Death Valley) we were in the other tower and the room was newly remodeled and very nice. The casino itself was smokey, loud, and crowded, and of course had the requisite aggressive marketing people you have to dodge every time you step foot on the casino floor but the buffet was very nice.
We left early the next morning for the two hour drive into the park. We entered the park through Shoshone, CA in the south, on Badwater Road, which goes through some less visited parts of the park. It was an interesting drive and a nice introduction to the park without a lot of crowds or traffic.
Lack of traffic also meant we could stop dead in the middle of the road when we saw this guy in the way.
Can't see him very well? Don't worry, he ran over, straight to the passenger door. I rolled down the window to snap a picture, but I was honestly worried he would just jump in to raid our lunches from the cooler.
|Ha! Wildlife photography is easy, right?|
Driving north on Badwater road, you eventually hit Badwater, the lowest elevation spot in the park and in North America itself. It is a hot, blinding white salt flat. We got there before noon and it was already over 95°. I guess I don't need to say to bring sunscreen and lots of water when you visit Death Valley.
Next going north is a short hike into a canyon with a natural stone bridge (aptly named Natural Bridge on the maps) And then after that in the valley, Devil's Golf Course, so named because it's apparently playing golf in hell is all in the rough...
|Above, Natural Bridge. Below, Devil's Golf Course (watch your step!)|
Going farther north, you'll reach a one way (going north) turn-off called Artist's Drive. This road will take you closer to mountains that have multi-colored mineral deposits, making the mountains almost look painted.
Shortly after you re-join the main road, you will come to the Furnace Creek Junction, with the historic Furnace Creek Inn to the east (right), and the Furnace Creek Ranch up the road a bit to the northwest (left).
The Furnace Creek Inn is a historic four-star hotel, originally built as crew quarters for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The Inn has a formal restaurant, warm springs pool, and tennis courts. We stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch up the road, which has two casual restaurants, a bar, a small museum, a pool, game courts, golf course, and horse stables and has motel type lodging or duplex cabins. We stayed in a cabin, which was small, but very comfortable, with a TV, free wifi and excellent air conditioning.
|Restaurants at the Furnace Creek Ranch|
We got to the ranch in the early afternoon, so we still had time to travel north a bit to see more sights. Just north of the ranch is the National Park visitor center, with rangers on hand to answer questions (and a gift shop!). Next along the road is a short roadside trail with remains of the historical borax mining and refinery that took place in the valley. Along the trail is a fabled 20 Mule Team Borax wagon train from the 1880s.
Another 12 miles north of the borax trail is a boardwalk and interpretive trail over Salt Creek, home to a type of fish found only in Death Valley. Shortly after that is an intersection, where you can head farther north or turn southwest to Stovepipe Wells. We headed west (left) and got gas and snacks in Stovepipe Wells village, which also has a motel and restaurant. Along the road to Stovepipe Wells are long views across the valley to the Panamint mountain range as well as 100 foot tall sand dunes. You can walk the few miles out to the dunes, if you don't mind sand in your boots.
|Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes|
After the sand dunes, we drove back south to our cabin, ate in the 49er Cafe (very good buffalo burgers...), swam in the warm springs fed pool, and then enjoyed sitting outside in the 85° midnight weather.
The next morning we set out back towards the north, taking the Scotty's Castle Road, the northbound route at the junction before Stovepipe Wells. This is another less traveled portion of the park. We drove north for almost 20 miles without passing another car.
Along Scotty's Castle Road is the outlet for a 27 mile, one way, four wheel drive road through a box canyon - from outside the east side of the park, passing through a ghost town and the Armagosa Mountain range, then down through Titus Canyon into the valley. We didn't have enough time or gas to try to drive this route, but it is on our list for the next time we visit.
|The road out of Titus Canyon|
All the way at the north end of the park is Scotty's Castle - a 1920s vacation mansion in the foothills above Death Valley. The "castle" was never completely finished, but you can walk the grounds for free or purchase a guided tour for the interior of the mansion.
We walked around the grounds and chose to skip the interior tour so that we would have a chance to drive a bit west to check out Ubehebe Crater, caused by a volcanic eruption 300 years ago. You can walk down into the crater, but be prepared for a hot, dusty climb out. You can also hike along the rim of the crater, which we did for a short distance.
|Ubehebe Crater and obvious signs...|
After the crater, we headed south, back towards Furnace Creek Inn and turned east to exit the park. Along the road out of the park you can view Zabriskie Point, with views of yellow badlands, and a short, twisty one way dirt road though 20 Mule Team Canyon, with close up views of the badlands. As well as an opportunity (for my husband at least) to test the rental Jeep's high speed off road capability. I have video of that experience, with me gasping and swearing in the background, but I think I'll leave that to the imagination...
The last thing we did before the drive back to Las Vegas was a 26 mile round trip road up to Dante's View (apparently, they just ran with the death/hell/devil theme for the majority of naming opportunities). The last few miles of this road are steep and rather hair raising, with switchbacks so tight that larger vehicles and trailers aren't allowed. The drive is paid off by the sweeping views of the whole valley, as well as refreshing 72° temperatures at 5400 foot elevation (compared to the 100° on the valley floor).
|Death Valley from Dante's View point|
After that it was a peaceful desert drive back into Las Vegas, where we spent another night and took a quick side trip to Hoover Dam - which I think will be its own short Travel Tuesday entry, since this is getting long.
We spent almost two whole days in Death Valley and we only saw the highlights. With a good map and a Jeep, there are hundreds of miles of backcountry roads throughout the whole park. In fact, some of the coolest sights are off the paved roads, like Leadfield ghost town along the Titus Canyon road and Racetrack Playa, where rocks mysteriously move and leave tracks over the dry lake bed, only reachable by a 27 mile long high clearance dirt road.
|Racetrack Playa - next time! source|
I highly recommend renting a 4x4 vehicle for a trip to Death Valley. We found a Jeep Wrangler in Las Vegas and there are also Jeep rentals at Furnace Creek in the park. Keeping track of your gas tank is also very important. There are only three gas stations in the park: Panamint Springs (on the far west entrance), Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek. Gas at Stovepipe Wells was comparatively cheaper while we were there ($4.75 vs $6.00 at Furnace Creek), so it pays to top of your gas tank outside the park and keep an eye on your gas gauge, especially since cell coverage is limited to areas around the hotels.
Heat is also a concern in Death Valley. We went there right at the end of the winter tourist season, and temperatures were starting to get slightly uncomfortable, over 105° at mid-afternoon. Summer visits are unwise, unless you zip through the park and never leave your air conditioned car.
I think I might be planning another trip to Death Valley in the coming years. It is a good way to dry out and heat up away from the wet, chilly Seattle winters.
As always, the National Park website is a great place to find maps, information about lodging, things to see and current conditions in the park.