By Chris Biggs
Nestled on the border between southern California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is one of the hottest, driest, and most inhospitable places on earth. Lori and I spent three memorable days in Death Valley on a recent road trip, and if you heed our advice - and can avoid a run-in with the howling coyotes at night - you’re in for a memorable trip.
A few fast facts about Death Valley: The region receives less than two inches of rainfall annually (for comparison: New York gets about 45 inches of rain each year). At 282 feet below sea level, the park’s Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America - and one of the lowest in the world. And the park’s record high temperature is a toasty 134 degrees Fahrenheit, which warrants some serious SPF.
Beyond its rough exterior, the park’s core is one of the most raw, natural places available for exploration. We timed our trip to reduce the likelihood of unbearable heat (late October high temperatures can range from 77 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit), and found that while we needed occasional Gatorade breaks in the shade, the climate was bearable enough to spend the majority of our time outdoors.
The three days we spent in Death Valley produced so many worthwhile sights: rolling sand dunes reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia; boulders that looked to be stolen from Mars; and cracked, scorched earth that could have inspired Dante’s “Inferno.” The best part? All of this is a mere two hour drive from Las Vegas, or just over four hours by car from Los Angeles.
I’m also fully aware that I just described an environment so hot and rough that you’d be right to retort, “Why should I use my vacation days to visit Death Valley?” To that, I’ll simply say that Death Valley is the best spot I’ve visited so far in the National Park system (for context: I’ve been to 12 of the 58 parks to-date). Couple that with the park’s more-intimate feel, unlike its more-touristy neighbor Yosemite, and you’ve got a winning recipe for a vacation in the American desert.
For those bold enough to explore Death Valley, I’ve got a number of must-do activities, all of which can be accomplished in a single full day (or spread across a few days as you see fit). They include:
Explore Zabriskie Point: This lookout is otherworldly; I stared out at the jagged landscape for minutes wondering, “Where is Matt Damon and the Mars rover?” Without a doubt, Zabriskie Point is the star of the show and likely one of the most beautiful views you’ll see in any National Park. Be ready for busloads of tourists here, one of the few places in the park where you’ll have to compete with crowds. And if you’re interested in hiking Death Valley, this location also marks the starting point of one of the park’s few marked and maintained trails (the 2.7 mile Badlands Loop). Bring lots of water.
Watch the stars: The party doesn’t really start until the sun sets in this desert. One of only three National Parks certified as an International Dark Sky Park (translation: vivid stars as far the eye can see), Death Valley is an ideal location to wow yourself with views of the Milky Way, planets like Jupiter and Venus, and and the far-away Andromeda Galaxy. It’s basically Star Wars minus Jar Jar Binks, and provides visitors with the ultimate planetarium feel.
Grab a local beer: While the park can feel huge and desolate at times, it’s also home to the universal language of travelers from every nation: beer. Unwind with fellow desert explorers at Corkscrew Saloon (in Furnace Creek) until 11 p.m. nightly, and as a special treat, sip on a Badwater Ale - a treat brewed especially for the park by Indian Wells Brewing Company. Badwater Ale is to Death Valley as Yuengling is to Pennsylvania: part of the fabric of the area’s drinking culture.
Snap photos on the sand dunes: The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located near Stovepipe Wells Village, and they are what you’d likely expect based on the name: endlessly rolling hills of sand. They’re perfect for running (albeit slowly), jumping, and posing for epic photographs. Aim to arrive at either sunrise or sunset for the best light.
Walk (carefully) through Devil’s Golf Course: Aptly named due to its rough environment, Devil’s Golf Course is the last place you’d want to play 18 holes. Try walking for a few minutes and you’ll see why - the landscape features acres of hardened salt remains, making navigation on foot difficult at best. Tread carefully to preserve the salt crystal formations.
Cruise Artists Drive: Just south of Furnace Creek is Artists Drive, a loop road accessible only by car that circles among some of the park’s most jaw-dropping scenes. Especially impressive is the unique Artists Palatte; here you’ll find a splash of natural colors on mountainous rock that look as if Van Gogh or Picasso had visited shortly beforehand. The drive itself can be done in under 30 minutes, even with stops for photos, so it’s a must-do while in Death Valley.
For those who have had an opportunity to explore the vastness of America, you’ve likely realized just how big and beautiful the country can be, especially when visiting a National Park. Death Valley is no exception. The kind of rugged beauty found in this desert is worthy of a multi-day trip, and it will provide you with memories that last much longer than your next Badwater Ale.