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Death Valley National Park

March 3, 2019

For our daughter’s “Ski Week” break from school in February we headed to Death Valley. We’ve been to most of the other major national parks in California (Yosemite, Sequioa, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Pinnacles), so we thought it was finally time to visit it. And given that the lows in the summer can be over 100, February seemed like a good time to do it. Also after the rainy winter we’ve been having in the Bay Area, going someplace dry seemed like a great idea.

We thought about driving (we’ve driven to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon previously), but given that it’d take over 8 hours to drive there from here and only 2 hours to drive there from Vegas, we opted to hop a short flight to Vegas and rent a car. Overall the worked out pretty well; Southwest has enough cheap flights to Vegas that it was easy to make the timing work out.

For our stay in the park we opted for the Ranch at Death Valley. While it can be cheaper to stay outside of the park (and the accomodations can be nicer), it’s hard to beat the convenience of staying in the park itself, rather than having to drive in and out every day. And the Ranch turned out to be nicer than I expected; Xanterra had recently refurbished it. There were a couple of restaurants and a general store within the Oasis complex, so it was easy to walk to meals and also to buy food to take on hikes. The Oasis is looked in Furnace Creek within the park, which is within a 30 minute drive of many of the major sites within the park.

I like visiting the desert; there’s sonething beautiful about the stark landscape. I think one of the things that surprised me about Death Valley was the variety of habitats that you could visit and hike though in the park. On our trip to Joshua Tree, there were really only two habitats: the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. But in Death Valley you could hike through a badlands region, then drive 10 miles and hike through salt flats, then drive 20 miles and hike a salt marsh (complete with pupfish), then drive another 10 miles and find yourself walking through sand dunes.


The primary salt flats the most people walk out onto are near Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It’s a little surreal; it looks like you’re walking out into a snow field, but in reality it’s primary sodium chloride (it was very tempting to taste it, but I have to confess that I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it).


The most popular hike in the park is Golden Canyon. It’s really close to Furnace Creek, and it’s relatively easy with some nice views. It’s also where some of the scenes from Star Wars Episode IV were filmed (Tatooine scenes, obviously). There are a number of regions in the park that served as filming locations, actually; it was fun to figure out which areas looked familiar.


The view from Dante’s View down into Death Valley served as the overlook of Mos Eisley in the film. At over 5000 feet it had great views of the valley and the Panamint mountains across it. We’d planned on hiking the ridge, but hadn’t quite reckoned on the temperature difference between the valley and the ridge; it was close to freezing. So we opted for a hike a bit lower down (and out of the wind) instead.


One of the hikes we did was in the Mesquite Flat Dunes. There wasn’t a trail; you just struck out into the dunes in the direction you wanted to go. I felt like I should have brought the overture to Lawrence of Arabia to listen to, but sadly we had to make do with the hissing of the sand in the wind instead. And the wind did blow the sand everywhere. Still, it was totally worth it to feel a bit like a desert explorer.

IMG_20190219_164504.jpg While Death Valley doesn’t have lots of colored foliage, it does have lots of colored rocks. Even just driving around you can see lots of colors, striations, and rock types, but to see lots of colors in one place you can take Artist’s Drive to Artist’s Palette. We actually visited it twice, once during the middle of the day and once at sundown to experience how the rock changed color with the different angles of the light.


And right near Artist’s Palette is another filming location from Star Wars; R2-D2 passes down this arroyo before being captured by jawas. Plus it’s pretty.

While the most popular locations in the park are accessible by paved or dirt road, to really explore the park you’d need an off-road vehicle. We were somewhat surprised to learn that Death Valley only became a National Park in 1994, and with the visiting season somewhat limited it may not get as much investment as the other national parks. As a result, getting off the beaten path means more there than it does it other parks. Now that we’ve seen the major destinations, if we go back we’ll definitely have to rent something more rugged to explore more out-of-the-way places.

From → Travel

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