Few names in the American West are as well known as Death Valley. Pioneers feared crossing this dry, hot, barren area and only the lure of finding gold or other valuable minerals finally opened the area to exploration and some settlement. While the beauty of Death Valley National Park is undeniable, it is hard to appreciate in the summer, when the average temperature hovers around 115 F (46 C).Death Valley is an immense national park. The valley itself is over 140 miles long and the park includes over 3 million acres of wilderness. It is the hottest, driest and lowest area in the United States. It features towering sand dunes, a volcanic crater, unusual canyons, a castle (of sorts), an 11,049 foot mountain that can be snow capped, and enough variety to keep visitors busy for several days, especially if you are willing to hike into some of the more remote areas of the park.
In the ancient past, the Death Valley area and many of the valleys in the intermountain west of the United States were covered by lakes and, in some cases, seas, although this was before the valley that is now known as Death Valley was formed. The climate changes associated with the Ice Ages made these areas wet and increased the power of erosion. In addition, the colder temperatures enhanced the power of freezing and thawing, further increasing the rate of erosion. The loose debris was transported by water and wind into sorted into sedimentary layers of various types in the process. The colors of the sedimentary layers varied depending on the source rock that was being eroded at the time.
Eventually the Ice Ages ended, water disappeared, and uplift, folding and faulting took hold of this area. Down dropped blocks formed valleys, while other areas were uplifted and became mountainous. Erosion once again began to fill the valleys, but since the climate had turned arid erosion slowed due to the scarcity of water. Death Valley is a prime example of a valley formed by a down-dropped block due to faulting. Its landforms are erosional in some cases and depositional in other, such as sand dunes.
There are three major areas to explore in Death Valley National Park; Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Scotty’s Castle.
Things to See at Furnace Creek
The Furnace Creek area features a number of scenic drives and several modest hikes. Be sure to see Artist’s Drive (a scenic loop drive with multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills). Visit the Devil’s Golf Course (an area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires). Also see the Natural Bridge Canyon, an easy ˝ mile hike from a trailhead south of the Artists Loop scenic drive..
Badwater is lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. There may be briny water here part of the year, as well as the ever present salt flats, but the water is not drinkable (in fact, it is Badwater). Avoid visiting the salt flats in summer, as they are in the lowest part of the valley and incredibly hot. You can look across to the mountains and see Telescope Peak often snow-capped and always towering above you at 11,049 feet of elevation. The juxtaposition of the lowest elevation in North America and a tall, snow-covered peak is a spectacular sight.
By the way, the common story of Badwater’s name is that a group of Mormon pioneers looking for the “Golden Land” tried to pass though Death Valley on their way west. When they found water in the middle of the desert, several of these intrepid souls were adventurous enough to try it and became very sick from drinking the briny fluid. However, there were no recorded deaths based on this attempt.
The Mormon’s were responsible for many of the unusual names you will find in the the west. For example, the Joshua Tree is a shaggy desert Yucca that is a distant relative of the Lilly. The tree has an unusual form of branching that seems to have limbs pointing in every possible direction. To the Mormon’s however, one particular tree they saw seemed to be pointing the way out of the desert. As a consequence they named the species after Joshua of biblical fame who helped lead his people to the “Promised Land”.
Zabriskie Point provides a spectacular view that includes a dramatic range of colors draped across layers of sedimentary rock that make this badlands a beautiful place to see. The location is a favorite with photographers at sunrise and sunset and the best viewpoint is a short walk uphill from the parking area.
Dante’s View -more than 5,000 feet above the floor of the valley is regarded by many as the best view in the park. The access road is paved, although there are vehicle length restrictions.
Things to see at Stovepipe Wells
Sand Dunes – rising nearly 100 feet from Mesquite flat these dunes are rippled with numerous patterns and just plain gorgeous, especially in the late afternoon. Many prefer to see them at dusk or in moonlight, but Sidewinder rattlesnakes hunt here during the cool summer evenings and any time they feel like it. If you see a rattlesnake, Sidewinder or other variety, avoid them as their bite is poisonous and can be deadly if you cannot reach medical assistance in time.
Mosaic Canyon offers hiking in a colorful canyon with polished marble walls. Be careful here in the rainy season as thunderstorms can generate flash floods in these narrow canyons. Flooding in a desert sounds unlikely, the these arid environments usually have a hard surface that can absorb very little water. In addition, the mountains surrounding Death Valley act as collectors and funnel water to lower elevations. So, keep your eye on the weather and ask the rangers for guidance.
Salt Creek is the home of a rare pupfish variety, which can sometimes be seen in the river in the spring of the year. The pupfish are an endangered species and their ecosystem is very fragile, so pay attention to the signs.
Titus Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the park. It features beautiful scenery, petroglyphs (Indian rock carving/painting), a ghost town and more. However, the road is accessible only to high clearance vehicles via a 26 mile one-way dirt road that begins outside of the park.
Things to See in The Scotty’s Castle area
Scotty’ Castle is a Spanish-style mansion associated with the prospector named “Death Valley Scotty”, who claimed it was built based on the wealth of his goldmine (a good story but false). The Castle was actually the summer home of his wealthy friends. History tours of the castle and its furnished interior are given by park rangers and should not be missed.
Ubehebe Crater was formed about 3,000 years ago by a large volcanic explosion, which released a pent-up underground reservoir of steam and gases. The force of the blast blew a 600 feet deep crater in the floor of Death Valley. Although it is visible from a paved road, you might want to hike around the crater to see the smaller craters inside the rim.
Eureka Dunes, near Scotty’s Castle, are the highest dunes in California rising slightly over 700 feet from the valley floor.
Many visitors to the park find great satisfaction in the Panamint Springs Area, known for its Wildrose Charcoal kilns, the Lee Flats Joshua Trees (a unique variety of Yucca) and Aguereberry Point, which is even higher than Dante’s View (but in our opinion, less scenic). If you have the time, you might want to consider visiting this area.
If you are going to hike in anywhere in Death Valley National Park take plenty of water and avoid walking in the heat of the summer. If there is a trail, use it. Footing can be rough, slippery and dangerous. Never place your hands on rocks above your head if you cannot clearly see the surface of the rock, as snakes and other cold blooded critters use these ledges to warm up after the cool evenings in the valley. The best hiking season is October to early April. Hiking in Death Valley can be dangerous in any season, but summer hiking is particularly dangerous
See this section of the park website for information on hiking and other outdoor activities.
Availability and Admission Fee
The vehicle entrance fee is $20 for 7 days and $10 for individuals traveling on foot, motorcycle of bicycle. If the motorcycle or bicycle has more than one rider, each is charged the $10 fee. Vehicles, cycles and individuals can leave and re-enter the park as often as necessary during the 7-day period for which their entrance fee is valid.
The park is open year around and the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Pacific Time Zone).
Scotty’s Castle is open daily in winter from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and in summer from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
There are more than 300 miles of paved roads, 300 miles of improved dirt roads and several hundred miles of unmaintained 4×4 (Jeep) roads in Death Valley National Park. Conditions can change quickly with inclement weather, so check for current conditions at the Visitors Center or with park rangers before taking backcountry roads.
Always load your car with plenty of water in case of emergency and drink at least 2 to 4 liters per day, more if you are active in the heat. Summer hiking is not recommended.
Food is available at the Furnace Creek Inn, the Furnace Creek Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village, the Panamint Springs Resort, and there is a snack bar at Scotty’s Castle.
While most everyone who visits Death Valley thinks about the heat as the biggest threat, the reality is that the main cause of death in the park is from single-car accidents. So, wear your seatbelt, observe the speed limits, heed the road signs and stay alert.
Death Valley National Park has nine campgrounds. Furnace Creek, Mesquite Springs, Emigrant (tent only) and Wildrose are open year round. Sunset, Texas Spring and Stovepipe Wells are open from October through April. Two high-elevation camps in the mountains (Thorndike and Mahogany Flats) are open March through November, but are accessible to high clearance vehicles only and may require 4-wheel drive.
Furnace Creek campground converts to a first come-first served basis ($12 per night) from mid-October to mid-April. See this page from the parks website that explains your camping options and how to make reservations.
Best Time to Visit
Spring is the most popular time of the year to visit Death Valley National Park. The days are usually warm and sunny and if the previous winter was wet, there is the possibility of extravagant wildflower displays that usually peak in late March and early April (inquire locally to make sure). The park is often packed at this time of the year, so make your reservations early.
Winter is a good time to visit, although the nights can be quite cold if you are camping. The average low temperature for December and January is 39 F (4 C). Crowds thin during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas but steadily increase from the end of December. Cloudy weather is somewhat common in winter, but aside from influencing your photography, it will not inhibit your explorations of the park.
Autumn is you next best choice and usually the weather is warm, but pleasant and the skies are clear.
If you can avoid visiting in summer, you will have a much better experience. By the time May starts it is already too hot for most visitors. The average daily high in May is 99 F (37 C), rising to 115 F (46 C) in July. The record high in the park occurred on July 10, 1934 when the temperature in July hit 134 F (57 C). Hiking at this time of year is not recommended and most tourist restricts their activities to driving the park’s scenic routes.
You have probably noticed that we have not mentioned precipitation, but this is a desert and the annual precipitation is 1.94″ (4.9 cm). Having said that, January and February are usually the month with the most precipitation (.27″ (0.7cm) and .35″ (0.9 cm). In some years there has been no rain at all.
Lodging and Nearby Places
Lodging in one of the facilities in Death Valley National Park is a better strategy than driving back and forth to nearby towns, especially since no town is really nearby. However, the park facilities are often full in high season, so make your reservations early. The park, itself is huge, and the sights far apart. We recommend that you stay in the park, rather than commute from a distance as doing so will add many miles to your travels.
Conversely, you may be planning only for a day trip in the Park and, if so, lodging outside the park may be your best bet. Outside of the park you can find lodging along highway 95 in Nevada.
Nevada towns in some proximity to the park and that offer some lodging possibilities include Tonopah (136 miles), Goldfield (107 miles), Beatty (44 miles), Indian Springs (114 miles) and Las Vegas (118 miles), as well as in Pahrump, Nevada (56 miles and a good choice). On the California side you can find lodging to the west of the park at Mojave (191 miles), Ridgecrest (156 miles), Inyokern (147 miles), Lone Pine (108 miles), Independence (121 miles), Big Pine (175 miles) and Bishop (163 miles. Note that with the exception of Las Vegas, many of these towns are small and have limited lodging availability.