Mojave Desert Beauties, Part 1: Death Valley National Park
By Rachel Puryear
Deep in the Mojave Desert, in the rustic southeastern part of California/southwestern Nevada; is a place famous for its parched, sun-scorched landscape. It’s in one of the hottest, and driest, regions of the world.
It’s also incredibly, awesomely, humblingly beautiful and amazing.
I’m talking about Death Valley.
Now a National Park; its name conveys its harsh and unforgiving environment, but leaves it haunting beauty and captivating panoramic views a surprise.
Fall is also a great time to visit Death Valley. Though daytime temperatures in the summer frequently exceed 110°F/43°C in Death Valley, October through April tends to be much milder.
Plus, traffic and crowds are reduced after summertime is over.
Here are some of the many great sights to enjoy in Death Valley National Park:
Salt Flats/Badwater Basin:
This is such a beautiful, serene place. Even if the parking area – which has a short ramp that leads out to the salt flats – has a lot of people, it doesn’t take more than just a few minutes walking past the ramp to feel like a world away.
Walking out on the salt flats, with the vastness in all directions, and the way noise seems to just melt away quickly out there; it is one of the quietest and most peaceful places I’ve ever experienced.
If you catch the place after rainfall, the salt hexagons can look mirror-like. Either way, wet or dry, the place is delightfully otherworldly.
This is not too far from the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.
You’ll want to see this one along with the salt flats/Badwater Basin, as they’re both down the same road.
This spot has amazing splashes of color on the mountains, hence the name. This is due to sedimentary deposits over time.
It’s truly a spectacular sight – and may even inspire you to create some art of your own.
Zabriskie Point has a (paved) hill that’s a short hike/scooter ride up, where you can see panoramic views of colorful hills. Some of the hills look like someone poured chocolate on them.
This is also a quiet and contemplative place. If there are too many people on the paved part, there are trails you can hike, which I’ve encountered few other people on in the past.
The colors and hues on the hills change throughout the day, and with the movements of the sun and clouds. So it can look different at different times of the day.
Zabriskie Point is not far from the road that leads to the salt flats/Badwater Basin, and Artist’s Palette. It’s also very close to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.
Dante’s View is a stunning view of the salt flats and surrounding valley, from around 5,000 feet/1,524 meters up. Come up here, bring a jacket (it’s a lot cooler and windier up here than it is down below), and enjoy another awesome view from up above.
This is not too far from Zabriskie Point.
Pronounced “YOU-be, HE-be”, this vast crater is the result of long-ago volcanic activity.
You can hike around the rim; or, if you’re feeling pretty adventurous and are in pretty good shape, you could hike down to the bottom and climb back up. It’s about 600 feet/183 meters deep. It is cool to see down there, and you’ll probably have it to yourself.
Use your judgment as to whether you’re up for it – I did it once, when I was in my twenties. It took me a while to get back up, and I was sweaty and panty for a while.
If you hike the rim, stay on the trail, and be careful; as the material on the ground can be unstable and loose.
Not up to hiking either down or around? Just take in the view – that alone is pretty awesome.
Bring a jacket here, as it can be quite windy.
This Spanish colonial revival style villa in the desert can be toured, and the tour guide can tell you the fascinating story behind it.
In the early 20th century, Walter Scott (whom the castle is named for) persuaded Albert and Bessie Johnson, a wealthy Chicago couple; to invest in a “gold mine” that Scott told them he had in the desert.
The Johnsons were, of course, furious when they learned that the “gold mine” was fake, and that Scott had defrauded them.
Nonetheless, the trio eventually became unlikely friends, and were very close. The Johnsons greatly enjoyed the company of the highly charismatic Scott, aka “Scotty”.
The Johnsons constructed the castle after visiting the Death Valley area, and found that visiting the warmer, drier climate periodically helped improve their health.
They provided for Scott after they died, and Scott is buried near the castle.
Scotty’s Castle is close to Ubehebe Crater, so be sure to visit both while you’re out there.
Note: Scotty’s Castle is currently closed as it is undergoing repairs following a flash flood, and the NPS hopes to reopen it in 2023.
This spot contains the remains of the old borax mining operation in Death Valley. If you’re a history buff, and into ghost towns, you’ll enjoy this peek into Death Valley’s industrial past.
This is quite close to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes:
Want to climb sand hills, and slide down them? You can do that here.
Or, you can simply enjoy the view, and enjoy another place that’s amazingly quiet, and feels far away from the rest of the world.
It’s spectacular to be here as the sun is rising or setting, and see the way the colors shift over these sandy hills.
This is close to Stovepipe Wells village.
As a heads up, you’ll need a 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance for this one. If you don’t already have one, there are rental companies within the park who rent 4WD Jeeps (as always, confirm availability before you go, though).
This is also a full day trip – it’s at least 3.5 hours each way from the Furnace Creek visitor’s center. There’s no cell phone coverage in the area. The road to Racetrack Valley begins near Ubehebe Crater.
For the time and effort, though, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views – and phenomenon that remained a mystery for several decades.
The site is named for rocks that sometimes slide across the terrain at night. For a while, no one knew exactly why.
In 2014, though, scientists observed that surrounding lakebeds would sometimes freeze at night, and there would be enough moisture on the ground to form ice. Add to that gusty winds, and this would cause the rocks to slide.
We just needed someone in the right place, at the right time, to observe this phenomenon – and we finally got it.
Night Sky Watching:
Death Valley is rather remote, and there aren’t any big cities around it for quite a few miles.
Between that and weather that’s often clear at night, you can get some pretty awesome night sky watching here at night.
Be sure to pack a headlamp with a nighttime setting, so you can see your way around outside without diminishing beautiful night sky views.
So go outside, sit back, and watch and enjoy the stars. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way, and often see some shooting stars.
One of my favorite spots to watch the night sky is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – you can get there early while it’s still dark, watch the stars, and then watch the sun rise over the dunes! It’s worth getting up that early for.
With earlier sunsets and longer nights coming, it’s a great opportunity for more night sky watching!
Visiting the Park:
It’s important to note that the climate in Death Valley is extremely dry – even when it’s not sweltering hot out. This increases water needs compared with most other climates.
Therefore, it’s essential – and even a matter of life and death – to bring plenty of water.
Each person should drink at least one gallon/4.6 liters of water per day, and even more than that if you’re physically active. This is necessary regardless of the season, or temperatures.
Always bring a full canteen or bottle with you before you begin a hike, or if you’ll be away from your vehicle.
People have died, or needed rescuing and emergency medical treatment (the lucky ones) after getting stuck somewhere out here without adequate water. Don’t skimp on water, and always err on the side of extra over not enough.
There isn’t much shade in Death Valley, as the climate supports limited plant life. Therefore, protection from the sun is important.
Be sure to bring a good hat that also covers your face and neck, good sunglasses, and clothing that covers as much skin as possible while also being light and breathable.
Sunscreen is also essential.
Consider also carrying a portable fan with you, especially if you’ll be doing much hiking and temperatures will be warm.
If you don’t already have one, a window shade for your car is also quite helpful – just don’t leave chocolate or anything in the car that will melt easily.
Other Personal Care:
Stock up on wet wipes to clean yourself after getting dusty and sweaty, which happens easily here.
Death Valley doesn’t really have large predators like bears, but there are snakes and scorpions which could bite. So watch your step.
Carrying a first aid kit with you is recommended. In some places in Death Valley, it can take a while for medical help to reach someone.
The views and quiet in Death Valley are amazing because of its remoteness.
The thing about that is, though, that remoteness also limits places to stay.
Nonetheless, you do have some options for accommodations around Death Valley.
One thing to note: Cell service is limited at best within the park, and some areas will have no cell coverage. Please plan accordingly. It’s a good idea to download maps of the area before you go.
There are a few hotels within the park, some of which have restaurants and shops. These will put you right near a lot of sights – Death Valley is spread out, so travel times can otherwise be long (yet beautiful). Of course, these hotels will also be pricey $$$.
Note that in Furnace Creek, there are two hotels. One is a luxury hotel, which is much more expensive than the other one.
If you’re willing to drive about an hour/hour and a half daily to Furnace Creek Visitor Center, which is centrally located within the park (and it is a nice drive), you can get hotels in nearby Pahrump, Nevada or Beatty, Nevada for a lot less than inside the park – sometimes saving around half the price. Drive some, save a lot.
Dining, gas, and other essentials will also be a lot less expensive in these nearby towns than within the park.
Speaking of gas, there is one gas station within Death Valley National Park, and it’s near Furnace Creek Visitor Center – be sure you’re fueled up before going on journeys to see the various sights – some of them are a ways away, including Ubehebe Crater and Scotty’s Castle, and the Racetrack Playa. This gas station is convenient – but again, expensive $$$!
If you’re staying in a nearby town, gas up there before heading into the park. If you’re staying within the park, though, any savings would probably be more than canceled out by making a special trip for cheaper gas.
There are several camping options within Death Valley National Park. All campgrounds except the ones at Furnace Creek are first-come, first-served – and some are free, while others charge a fee.
Note that the campgrounds are typically available only from October through April, due to extreme heat during the other months.
Don’t count on having much, if any, shade at the campgrounds. If you want to sit outside and have some portable shade, a pop-up umbrella can help.
See here for more about the campgrounds within Death Valley National Park.
See also here for more from the National Park Service about visiting Death Valley National Park.
Enjoy, and be safe out there!!
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to awesome national parks!
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