Ghost towns, mysterious moving rocks, acrid salt flats, sweeping sand dunes, chiseled canyons, surreal landscapes, and a posh desert castle. Death Valley was just the sort of quirky place I was looking to spend a few, cherished vacation days. Situated in southeastern California between the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas (135 miles / 216 km to the east), Death Valley National Park spans over 3 million acres, is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, and is one of the hottest places on earth. (How hot? Temperatures of 120F / 49C are run-of-the-mill.)
Perusing a map of the area before leaving, I noted places such as Dead Man Pass, Last Chance Range, Dry Bone Canyon, and Devil’s Cornfield – they sound like attractions at a Disneyland located in hell.
What I found was far from hell, although the unfortunate pioneers who named Death Valley in 1849 would disagree. They barely survived the trip through this merciless valley nestled between the Panamint and Amargosa mountain ranges.
We entered the park on Highway 190, a scenic two-lane road that winds along the Furnace Creek Wash, and crossed a threshold to the past: the history of Death Valley speaks through the land. Curvaceous sandstone hills resembling giant wads of kneaded dough rise from the desert floor.
A kaleidoscope of chalky colors and shadows play upon the surrounding mountains and salt-encrusted valley. Millions of years ago, a sea covered the area, leaving behind layers of sediment that striate the landscape and salt deposits that sparkle in the sun. Ruts from wagon wheels dating back to the gold rush days scar the ground.
My travel partner, Benjamin, and I flew from San Francisco to Las Vegas and drove two hours to the valley in a rented SUV (you can also book a day trip to Death Valley from Las Vegas over on the Viator site). We had two backpacks and a giant duffel bag stuffed with gear for camping. Death Valley is a popular destination for backpackers, tent campers, and RV retirees, as well as those looking for more indulgent lodging. In addition to backcountry camping and 9 well-maintained campgrounds with drinking water, clean bathrooms, fire pits, and BBQs, Death Valley also has two hotels: the 4-diamond Furnace Creek Inn and the more reasonably priced Furnace Creek Ranch.
Our schedule was leisurely, but packed with things to do and see. Death Valley’s geologic oddities, dead mining boomtowns, hiking trails, driving tours, and museums could easily fill several weeks and we only had 4 days to explore millions of years of geologic change. Formed by ancient seas and lakes, volcanic action, wind, and erosion, the landscape is composed of terraced rock formations, colorful mineral residue, salt deposits, snaking canyons, and enormous sand dunes.
Driving tours and hiking trails are an excellent way to experience the peculiar world of Death Valley. Places like the Devil’s Golf Course, with its convoluted ground made of sodium chloride craters and spikes, Bad Water at 282 feet below sea level, and the Ubehebe volcanic crater, are but a few of the park’s unusual attractions located conveniently just off the side of the road.
For the daring – skull shattering, unpaved roads lead to places like the Racetrack, a sparkling white playa nestled in dark mountains. One of the more bizarre characters in Death Valley’s roster of oddities, the Racetrack is named for its mystifying moving rocks.
I felt melancholy as I said good-bye to Death Valley. Watching the magical land disappear in the rear view mirror felt like closing the cover of my favorite book, sad that I’d finished the story.
Death Valley is a land of extremes, diversity, wonderment, and history and offers something for everyone: golfers, backpackers, mountain bikers, hikers, nature lovers, photographers, and those simply looking for a little R&R.
The colorful characters and rich history of Death Valley mixed with the diverse landscapes and natural phenomenon of the park make it a truly unique destination. Don’t let the grisly name fool you; Death Valley is a vibrant desert paradise.