The thought of visiting Death Valley National Park in the summer has never appealed to me. Death Valley, in addition to being the largest National Park in the lower 48 states, is also the lowest, driest, and hottest. In the Valley itself, also known as Badwater Basin, summer temperatures exceed 130 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius.) Sorry, but willingly going into that frying pan is nuts. Visiting Death Valley in the winter is the way to do it.
So, since we were visiting Southern California and Channel Islands National Park in January anyway, it was not too big of a deal to add on a four-hour drive to Death Valley and see it when there were fewer people, some water, and even snow. (More on snow later.)
Death Valley is a driving park. The distances are great and the roads are often curvy and steep. And you'll spend a lot of time in the car. Services are few and far between, so visitors are advised to fill up their tanks before entering the park, and to continue to keep an eye on the gas needle.
There are plenty of hikes into the park at various spots along the road, and winter is a great time to do them. Although it's cold in the morning, as is any desert, in January it warmed up nicely into the 60s and made for perfect hiking weather. It is invariably sunny, though, so be sure to bring a hat and sun screen.
Also recommended is spending a little on the National Geographic detailed map of the Park. Also, we found the Falcon Guide Best Easy Day Hikes in Death Valley very useful. You can buy them in a package together at the Park's Visitor's Center.
Things to do in Death Valley National Park
The Father Crowley Vista is just inside the west entrance to the Park and is probably the first signpost you'll see if you enter from that direction. We got to the Park in the early afternoon, which is the time that any photographer will tell you is the least attractive light. So, we got out of the car, looked out over the designated vista, and got back in the car and moved on.
However, I made a note to come back to the vista early the next morning. Although the sun rise was in the opposite direction of the vista, I suspected the surrounding mountains would provide a nice frame for the sunrise. Now, if only the clouds would cooperate. The results are in the photo above.
Zabriskie Point is on the east side of the Park, nearly exactly opposite the Father Crowley point. This would have made a great sunrise photo perhaps, but was at least an hour's drive from where we were staying. The viewpoint near the road overlooks the Furnace Creek formations, and the stark badlands landscape is one that does show itself well in bright sunlight. If you like, you can hike down a ways into the area or start the hike around Badlands Loop. Connector trails lead to Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, and Red Cathedral.
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes are an interesting, but a bit difficult, walk. There are no paths into the dunes so if you want to get back to the more pristine and higher dunes, you'll be walking half an hour through the deep sand. It's a little workout, especially when you climb the higher dunes. But the further you go back, the fewer footprints of other hikers you'll find. Go all the way back to the top of the last dunes, and there are almost none.
Artist's Palette Drive is a one-way drive just off Highway 190 on the east side of the park. You can get out of the car and take a hike into the area on a 4.5 mile loop. Or you can just do the drive and admire the subtle change of colors.
Badwater Basin is the actual name for Death Valley. Being there in the winter means you'll get to see it with a little bit of water in it if you're willing to walk a mile or so from the parking lot. And, if there's water, there can be an amazing reflection of the Amaragosa Mountains to the east.
If you do walk out onto the flats, you'll also get a view of the process of rain and evaporation that leaves a pattern of rough hexagonal salt ridges like the ones visible in the photo at the top of this post. A fascinating process really, and one you can't get a true sense of unless you visit in winter. In the summer, you'll get a sense of how hot the world can get, as the Badwater Basin is the hottest part of the Park.
Aguereberry Point was our destination of choice to get a panoramic view over the Badwater Basin. Dante's View is generally regarded as the premier view, but it was closed because of the snow in the mountains. We were assured by a park ranger that Aguereberry Point, although actually higher than Dante's View, was open. And it would have been to an all-wheel drive car. Unfortunately, our rented SUV was only front-wheel drive.
I specifically asked for an SUV when we made the rental reservations because I knew we'd be in for a little rough terrain in Death Valley. In Minnesota, where we're from, an SUV by default is all-wheel drive, because, well, we have lots of snow here. So I never thought to check when we picked up the car. I just (stupidly) presumed.
As we were climbing up the mountain pass and began to do a little sliding around, I asked Kris to check the owner's manual to see if we were in an all-wheel drive, and she had just got the book out of the glove compartment when we hit some deeper snow and stuck. And, of course this being a California car, there was no snow equipment, or even a scraper, we could use to dig ourselves out. We hiked a bit up the road, only about 30 feet actually, and were able to bring back laundry bags full of gravel to put under the wheels. We succeeded after an hour's effort of moving the car about ten feet, and were stuck fast still. Of course, there's no cell signal anywhere in the Park you could use to summon help.
Luckily, another car finally came up the road, and Graham from Wales helped us with our predicament. All we managed to do was slide the car further down the road, into more snow, as the result of another hour's work.
Then, we got even luckier when Johnny and Michelle showed up in a serious four-wheel drive truck. And Johnny happened to be carrying actual traction pads. Between the traction pads and three men pushing we finally got the car unstuck. We drove it back down the hill a ways to where we could park it off the road facing downhill.
Then, Kris and I joined Graham in his all-wheel car, and we easily motored up the rest of the way to the amazing overlook, staying close to Johnny and Michelle, convoy style. I have to say, it was worth the trouble.
Where to stay in Death Valley National Park
Panamint Springs Resort – Panamint Springs is where we stayed. It's just about ten miles inside the west entrance to the Park on Highway 190. The Panamint Springs Resort is a pretty generous appellation. There's not much of what you'd think makes up a resort there. What there is is a motel with standard small rooms, a bar/restaurant that serves excellent chili and burgers sort of fare, and breakfast, and a general store and gas station. All you need– especially if you're like us and spend minimal time in the room. Get up, eat, fill the water bottles, and hit the road. This is the place for that. And, by the way, it's by far the cheapest lodging in the Park. Another thing about Panamint that needs mentioning is that the staff was perhaps the nicest people we've run into in a long time. From the guy at the General Store who checked us in, to the wait staff in the bar and restaurant, they all made us feel very welcome.
The Inn at Death Valley – Inside the Park The Inn at Death Valley is pretty much the opposite of the Panamint Springs Resort. We didn't see any of the rooms, but we did stop into the restaurant for lunch one day. (It happened to be near where we were.) A hamburger was $21 and a beer was $10, if that gives you any ideas of the place. Last time I checked, the rooms were around $500 per night, which was about four times the rate at Panamint. If you're going to Death Valley to swim in the pool, this is the place for you.
The Ranch at Death Valley – Inside the Park All we can say about The Ranch is that it's priced about half of The Inn, which still makes it twice as much as Panamint Springs. I'm sure it's nicer. If you're not into the “rustic” feel of Panamint Springs, this might be the choice for you.
Death Valley National Park is part of the US National Park system. See this post for a list of all US National Parks sites, with links to stories about the ones we've visited.
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