Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley National Park, situated on the California-Nevada border, is a landscape of dramatic scenery and astounding contrasts: towering mountains and desolate salt flats, verdant oases and windswept sand dunes, vibrantly hued mudstone hills and rugged canyons. The range and diversity of the isolated environment is remarkable, with each section of the park offering a variety of extreme conditions, stunning textures, and vivid colors. In fact, exploring this challenging environment, which holds the distinction of being the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America, is most hospitable between autumn and spring.
With a foreboding name like ‘Death Valley,’ it is commonplace for many naïve adventurers to disregard Death Valley National Park as a possible vacation destination. Despite the fact that it sounds like an ominous, desolate wasteland, it is, in fact, a vast and unique desert wonderland that welcomes adventure. It is the perfect getaway for hikers, photographers, stargazers, wildlife enthusiasts, artists, and campers that are seeking inspiration and solitude.
As the largest national park in the contiguous United States, the fascinating geologic attractions of Death Valley National Park are spread over 3,000 square miles of rugged terrain. Although a majority of the landmarks and roadside lookouts are accessible by any passenger car, some will require the use of a high-clearance, 4WD (four-wheel-drive) vehicle, which will be denoted as such. Also, since Furnace Creek is considered the hub for any tourist excursions within Death Valley, this travel guide will use the Furnace Creek Visitor Center as its starting point:
*NOTE: The roads to Scotty’s Castle and Mosaic Canyon were closed due to construction during my visit, so they are not listed in the itinerary.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center:
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is centrally located within the park along California Highway 190 and is open daily from 8am to 5pm. It is a phenomenal source of information about the climate, geography, wildlife, history, and recreational opportunities found within Death Valley National Park. The information is presented in a clear and concise manner through its educational exhibits, 20-minute orientation film, and interactive 3D topographical map.
During the seasons of autumn and spring, park rangers are available to provide expert advice on how to safely navigate the arid environment through one of their ranger-led tours. Discussions include the importance of being vigilant and remaining hydrated while hiking in elevated temperatures. To that end, the visitor center also has a water bottle refilling station on site, as well as safety placards in the bathrooms, which illustrate the urgency of staying hydrated through its urine color gradient chart.
Before leaving, be sure to pay the $30 entrance fee, which covers each vehicle for 7-days. Doing so will allow motorists to bypass the lines at the automated kiosks that are stationed at the entrance into Death Valley National Park. Due to its extreme weather, the kiosks are a safer and more manageable manner in which to collect the park fees; furthermore, it’s not advisable to forgo paying the entrance fee, as park rangers will verify each vehicle’s payment receipt as they drive throughout the park.
Traveling on CA-190, a mere 5 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the highway ascends to the most visited viewpoint in Death Valley: Zabriskie Point. At an elevation of 710 feet, the vista provides a bird’s-eye view of the surreal landscape, which includes sunbaked hills, undulating badlands, and the snow-capped peaks of the Panamint Range in the distance. The mesmerizing color scheme in the sediment surrounding Zabriskie Point is a result of the Furnace Creek Lake drying up millions of years ago. As it dried up, the existing mud, gravel, and volcanic ash were deposited and compressed to form the finely sculpted range.
The vista is best visited during the early morning or late afternoon when the terrain is complimented by a dramatic golden light and accented by long shadows. Although the overlook is a short walk from the parking lot, a 7.8-mile hiking trail proceeds through the canyon for a more inspiring experience. The excursion is worth the added effort, as it affords visitors varying perspectives of the gold, ivory, and beige banded environment.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon:
About a mile farther south on CA-190, an unpaved road loops through Twenty Mule Team Canyon, which was named after the wagon teams that hauled borax out of Death Valley. The winding, 2.8-mile gravel pathway is suitable for any automobile and offers scenic views of the gold and chalky mudstone hills from the comfort of your vehicle. Near the end of the narrow loop, a small roadside turn-off is available for anyone wanting to park and scale the ridges for an elevated view of the ethereal badlands.
Continuing on CA-190, a 13-mile spur road climbs the Black Mountains to Dantes View, an overlook that ranks as Death Valley’s most illustrious and incredible vista. The paved road is suitable for any auto that is fewer than 25 feet long, since the steep elevation gain requires vehicles to traverse a series of dramatic switchbacks to reach the summit. At its apex, the 5,475-foot overlook provides a sweeping panoramic view that encompasses Death Valley’s lowest and highest points: Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) and Telescope Peak (11,049 feet).
Due to its elevation, the temperatures can average 20 degrees cooler than on the valley floor, which is important to consider if visiting for sunrise or sunset. Arriving at this time can be magical, because the rising sun yields a brilliant desert environment that shimmers with a golden radiance and mountains that are illuminated in an alpenglow. Exercise caution when scouting a location to photograph from, since high gusts of wind, loose rocks, and steep terrain can make for a treacherous excursion.
The view is absolutely stunning from the observation point; however, there are a variety of trailheads that lead off in both directions for alternative perspectives of the arid landscape. The hiking trails provide outdoor enthusiasts an opportunity to bask in the natural beauty of the heart of Death Valley as it stretches out more than a mile below. In fact, the view must have made an impression on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, since it was used as the Mos Eisley overlook in Star Wars: A New Hope.
Artists Drive is a 9-mile, one-way loop that begins approximately 10 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center on CA-178. The short, winding road traverses the rolling badlands and can be undertaken by any type of vehicle that is fewer than 25 feet long. The drive should be done during the mid to late afternoon, when the sun contrasts beautifully with the shadows to create an environment where the rainbow-hued colors are at their most vibrant.
The highlight of the backcountry drive comes at Artists Palette, a unique geologic attraction that features undulating sedimentary and volcanic hills encrusted in a kaleidoscope of pastels. The picturesque display is a result of the Earth’s natural oxidation of various metals and elements found in the soil; however, looking past the scientific explanation, and embracing the inner child in all of us, the scene is reminiscent of a whimsical land that was pulled straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss.
Devils Golf Course:
After completing Artists Drive, continuing south on CA-178, for just over a mile, will direct motorists to an entrance sign for Devils Golf Course. The gravel path leads to an unforgiving landscape, where a vast expanse of saltpan has been heavily eroded by the wind and rain to form dagger-like spires. In fact, the area was given its name because it is said that the terrain is so serrated that ‘only the devil could play golf on such rough links.’ With that in mind, be sure to exercise caution if venturing out onto the bizarre environment for an incredibly unique experience.
Just beyond the entrance to Devils Golf Course, on CA-178, a spur road on the left-hand side directs visitors to the Natural Bridge Canyon Trail. A 4WD vehicle with high clearance is recommended, but many 2WD vehicles have been able to tackle the journey. It is best to undertake the walk during the morning when the temperature is cooler and hikers can avoid the midday heat.
Once at the trailhead, the short, 2-mile round-trip excursion passes through a 50-foot high stone bridge approximately a half of a mile into the trek. The natural arch, along with the interesting rock configurations and smooth vertical chutes on the canyon walls, were all sculpted millions of years ago through water and erosion.
Continuing south on CA-178, the highway leads to Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park’s lowest point at 282 feet below sea level. A dramatic reminder of how low Badwater Basin is by looking on the mountainside for the sign that signifies where ‘sea level’ is in relation to your position. The environment features nearly 200 square miles of salt flats that blanket the landscape in white for miles. The salt and minerals are left behind after significant water runoff from bordering peaks and rainstorms cover the basin with a thin layer of standing water. Due to the elevated temperatures experienced at such a low elevation, the newly formed lakes are only temporary, as they quickly evaporate and return the landscape to its usual, dry condition.
In fact, this process has made the water in these pools have a high salt content, which led to the region begin given its name since the water was unsuitable to drink and therefore was deemed ‘bad water.’ Depending on the season, the water may not always be present, but this does not negatively affect the photography opportunities. When the water is gone, visitors can traverse the dry landscape endlessly for unique photographs of the eerily surreal setting. When water is present, and the wind is still, the reflections of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the basin create a stunning scene. No matter the time of year, a key to photographing the below-sea-level basin successfully is by shooting low so that the detail of the salt flats contrast tremendously with the towering mountain peaks.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes:
Returning to the hub of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the wind-sculpted waves and patterns of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are about a 30-minute drive northwest on CA-190. The breathtaking displays of towering, rolling sand hills are the most accessible in the park and a favorite amongst visitors. Their serpentine ridges resemble the spines of snakes as they slither towards the snow-laden mountains that command the horizon.
Since there aren’t any marked trails through this undulating desert, travelers are left to decide how far they wish to immerse themselves. It is recommended to undertake the journey during the early morning or late afternoon when the temperature is cooler and more enjoyable. For photographers shooting at dawn or dusk, seek out one of the many mesquite trees that are scattered throughout the environment. Their dramatic and distinctive shapes bolster the composition of the photograph when paired with the streaks of vivid color highlighting the sky and the long shadows accentuating the sea of shifting sand.
Traveling further west on CA-190, a turnoff, roughly 33 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, directs motorists to Charcoal Kilns. The road climbs steeply as it meanders through Emigrant Canyon and over Emigrant Pass, which was the same route used by miners to haul equipment and ore out of the valley. The scenic drive to this remote section of the park is beautiful, passing by subalpine forests of juniper and pinyon pines. It is important to remember to dress in layers because of the elevation, since the weather can be considerably cooler at Charcoal Kilns than the valley floor.
As the journey approaches the final 2-mile stretch, Charcoal Kiln Road transitions from asphalt to dirt as it navigates to the parking area adjacent to the mammoth stone structures. A short walk from the parking lot, visitors come face-to-face with a row of ten, 30-ft beehive-shaped kilns that were utilized to produce charcoal for lead and silver smelters across the Panamint Valley. For a more intimate view, it is permissible to walk inside to comprehend their size, as well as breathe in the aroma of the smoke that still lingers.
In the far north of the park, about 60 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center on CA-190, is the enormous hollow of Ubehebe Crater. The depression measures approximately a half-mile across by 600-feet deep, which was created by a series of catastrophic events. The National Park Service states that the powerful outburst occurred when ‘hot magma rising up from the depths reached ground water, where the intense heat flashed the water into steam and expanded until the pressure was released as a tremendous explosion.’
The aftermath of such a violent eruption left the charred landscape surrounding Ubehebe Crater unlike any other region in Death Valley. Lava flows and dark cinders blanketed the area to give the environment its characteristic ‘dark’ appearance. Although the crater is visible from the parking lot, hiking trails leading around the rim and into the crater are available for the more adventurous. The various treks allow visitors different perspectives of the fascinating setting, as well as an opportunity to escape the chatter and congestion of crowds for gusts of wind and solitude.
Proceeding southwest on Racetrack Valley Road from Ubehebe Crater, visitors will need a 4WD (four-wheel-drive) vehicle to safely navigate the backcountry road to Racetrack Playa. The drive through this remote section is only for 25-27 miles, but it can take close to 2 hours due to the rough, rocky terrain and slower speeds required. The additional time and effort needed to access this renowned setting instantly pays off when witnessing the phenomenon of rocks appearing to glide across the vast expanse, leaving elongated trails etched in their wake.
For the longest time, this miracle had made Racetrack Playa one of Death Valley’s most mysterious locations. Through meticulous research, it was discovered that boulders of varying sizes, some recorded as weighing as much as 700 pounds, tumbled to the basin as a result of erosional forces jarring them loose from the surrounding mountains. It wasn’t until recently that a study concluded that floating ice sheets, and heavy rain on the dry lakebed’s surface, were the reason for the moving stones. The ice and water, with the aide of light winds, had created a slick surface suitable for transporting rocks across the desert floor. Once the ice melted, and water evaporated, the stones were left resting in their place with trails as records of their movement: some traveling as far as 1,500 feet.
To reach this iconic destination, motorists are encouraged to stop at the 25-mile mark, where a parking area to the Grandstand provides access to the north end of the Racetrack. Although this is not the area famous for the illustrious rock trails, it is a prime location for viewing the expanse of dry lakebed from the large island ridge. For the most preeminent views of the rock trails, continue heading south for approximately two miles from the Grandstand Parking area, park, and then walk at least half of a mile toward the southeast corner of the playa.
It is recommended to visit during early morning late afternoon; however, arriving for sunrise or sunset has its rewards, despite the treacherous, low light trek. The magnificent composition of the deep, contrasting shadows, and the exquisite colors of the transitioning sky, produces an awe-inspiring scene that makes the journey worthwhile.
Eureka Sand Dunes:
The Eureka Dunes are at the furthermost part of Death Valley National Park, approximately 100 miles northwest of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. They span the remote Eureka Valley, an enclosed basin that separates the Last Chance Mountains in the east from the Saline Range to the west, and are toted as being the highest sand dunes in California, measuring to heights of nearly 700 feet. The fine, white sand and distinctive patterns of these behemoths are at their most spectacular during the early morning or late afternoon, when deep shadows accentuate the beauty of the rolling landscape.
In order to reach this isolated section of the park, rangers advise that visitors utilize a high-clearance, 4WD (four-wheel-drive) vehicle to traverse the rugged terrain. They also encourage guests to plan and prepare for all scenarios, as there are no facilities in this secluded section of the park; moreover, while undergoing the arduous assent of the wind-swept ridges, hikers will be fully exposed to elements like sun, heat, reflecting light, and wind, so extra precautions should be taken. Doing so will insure a safe and successful excursion that culminates with sweeping views from the crest of these enormous desert features.
Another aspect to consider is that there aren’t any marked trails; so, navigating the undulating environment is left entirely up to each adventurer. The only caveat is that the ecosystem is fragile, so trekkers are encouraged to be respectful of the surrounding vegetation. Any activity that may have detrimental effects on the environment, like off-roading or sandboarding, is strictly prohibited. Being cognizant of these conditions will ensure the longevity and continued success of this spectacular, desolate wonder for generations to come.
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