I have drove across California’s Mojave Desert many times on my way to Las Vegas. It’s a horrible drive. I complain the whole time. At some point I will say: “I really want to check out Death Valley” and a discussion begins about how I can’t handle driving across the desert, why would I want to make the trip longer and there’s nothing in Death Valley ‘just more of this’. That usually ends the conversation until it is repeated the next year. (Yes, Vegas is a yearly a trip. I live in SoCal, don’t judge.) This year I met high school friends in Vegas. We were all coming from different directions and I could have easily flown. Instead, I decided to make this an epic road trip with a stop in Death Valley. Death Valley is NOTHING like the route to Vegas!
California had a gold rush in 1949. A wagon train of 1,000+ people from Salt Lake City took a short cut through the Panamint Mountains that ended up not being so short. They ran out of food and water and were stuck in an area close to Furnace Springs; many died. They got more supplies and continued on. As one of the survivors made it out he commented “Goodbye Death Valley” and the name took. The area has lots of fun names: Hell’s Gate, Dead Man Pass, Funeral Mountains, Starvation Canyon, and Coffin Peak.
Death Valley is a US National Park. It is the lowest, hottest and driest place in North America. It is huge. 3.4 million acres with 1,000 miles of road. 350 miles of that road is dirt and requires a 4×4. The actual valley is 130 miles long and 13 miles wide. It is surrounded by various mountains. It starts at 3280 feet on the North end and drops to -282 feet at Badwater Basin. It is extreme. 120° F during the day; 90° F at night. Death Valley’s highest temperature was 134° F in 1913. Don’t go in the summer.
It is desolate. There are outhouses in the parking areas by hiking trails off the main route and two shopping areas in the park. Bring water, snacks and toilet paper with you. It is dry. Death Valley has an average rainfall of two inches a year. Check the weather and do not hike into canyons if it looks like it is going to rain. I know, two inches is not much rain but “those canyons flood and you will be swept away” is what a Ranger told me as I headed into Golden Canyon in the mist. I went anyway, but, it wasn’t a relaxing hike because I had visions of death in Death Valley running through my mind the entire time.
It is dangerous. This is a huge area with few Park Rangers. Stay on the main roads and do not blindly follow your GPS. It is unlikely you will be found if your car gets stuck in the sand. It is mysterious. Large rocks move across a dry lake bed in an area named the Racetrack. I ran out of time and did not make to this area, but, how cool is that? It is full of life. Bobcats, fox and desert big horn sheep live in the mountains. Pupfish surviving from the Ice Ages swim in Salt Creek. And, every now and then, there is a super bloom turning the desert into a garden. It is beautiful. You will see insanely gorgeous mountains, deep canyons, salt flats and sand dunes.
Check out Death Valley for Yourself!
I was shocked at how much there was to see in Death Valley. I saw a third of the area and did not spend as much time as I would have liked on the trails. One day is not enough. I visited in November and the temperature was perfect but the rain clouds were not. Mid-April would have good weather and you may see the desert in bloom. If you like to live on the edge the Badwater Ultramarathon is held in July. Check official park details here.
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