Exploring Death Valley—Getting There and Exploring
April 11 , 2008
Preface—If you’re looking for the usual travel photos of Death Valley, see the 2007 article in National Geographic, which has some pretty photos of Death Valley. If you want to see what the place really looks like, read this article! Today’s prettified articles are useless for understanding what a place really feels like. [In retrospect I wish I has taken many more ordinary snapshots which in total offer considerably more insight into the character of a place than the perfect-light photos that are all the rage. Live and learn].
Late winter / early spring
Death Valley is beautiful and comfortable in the February / March time frame, an ideal time where the risks from exposure (heat and dehydration) are far lower than in summertime, and the conditions are not just comfortable but very pleasant. The same backup plans are needed for remote travel, but the risks are much lower.
Don’t count on wildflowers, but when that “100 year rain” comes as it did in 2004, mid February through early March is the time to go; the dilettantes reading month-old magazine articles show up mostly in April after the flowers are largely gone (this is based on firsthand knowledge in 2004!).
From May through October Death Valley is brutally hot, but the park is largely empty away from the paved roads. It’s a great time to go, but extremely risky when straying from paved roads without adequate water and a backup plan for getting back to the road eg:
- at least two gallons of emergency water and the means to carry it on one’s person;
- a plan for vehicle breakdown mitigation eg a mountain bike to allow transit to help;
- a quality headlamp and the brains to travel at dusk/night/dawn in the case emergency;
- ideally, a travel buddy.
This photographer spent several days in Death Valley in July in 2004 (well up Cottonwood Canyon) and loved every minute of it. It’s not for everyone, but 100°F in the shade and zero humidity is really very pleasant so long as the sun is avoided from 10am to 4pm (eg in a canyon).
Death Valley is an enormous park, and can be entered from several directions. I you’re flying in, Las Vegas is the best choice, because it’s only two hours from there by car to Furnace Creek (or eight hours by bicycle). Los Angeles is also a good choice, but driving distance is perhaps 4 hours or so.
Many travelers will enter the park from the west, heading up US 395 until the turnoff just south of Owens Lake to Highway 190 (Owens Lake is a dead lake, destroyed by Los Angeles’ quest for water). See the google map.
At the cottonwood greeting, make the turn from US 395 onto Hwy 190, but watch out for the two-legged jackasses who think the next 6 miles or so are a personal drag strip. It’s easy to hit 100+ mph here, and the cops seem to frequent US 395 only.
The place looks like this—mid-day light is harsh and unrelenting with a deep blue sky if not too much dust is present—not friendly to those in a wagon without water. Still, in February and March, it’s exceedingly pleasant. Much on your jerky and cruise...
Within 6 miles or so (very rough estimate), turn right, and enjoy the stark landscape. Take a moment to savor the brutally unfriendly unofficial entrance to Death Valley. Panamint Springs is half-way there; Stovepipe Wells is where you’re now headed.
Turn around and get your jerky now if you forgot it, because after this point it’s “mad cow discount” only—teriyaki cowhide at Chevron in Furnace Creek. If it’s summertime, leave the A/C on high. If it’s late winter, step out and feel the wonderful air.
Camping affords the best opportunities, because some locations are a 3-4 hour drive over rough roads (which means 6-8 hours round trip!). You can camp almost anywhere that is not close to water, or a popular stop (2 mile setback in most cases). Sleeping inside your SUV is an excellent choice; it keeps out the dust. A tent is also fine, but takes more effort to setup and stow each day, and one becomes all too intimate with dust and dirt in some areas (other areas are just fine). For example, the very fine dust near Eureka Dunes is no fun at all.
Motor homes—some people opt for the “sewage in tow” option. Go for it if you love barren campgrounds filled with other people and the sound of generators—the antithesis of a wild experience. Remember that such vehicles are constrained to paved roads and a few well-maintained dirt roads, acceptable for seeing many easily-accessible places, but impossible for The Racetrack or Eureka Dunes or many interesting canyons.
Hotels/motels are available at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Plan ahead as they’re often fully booked, though February often has vacancies. If you want luxury there is only once choice: the Furnace Creek Inn.
Stow a bare minimum of one gallon per person per day in the winter—all of it for drinking, more if you like to wash yourself or things. Two gallons for drinking should be allotted for summer months. You can purchase one of the 5 gallon heavy duty containers at camping stores (I have one), but the 1 gallon Crystal Geyser bottles are a lot handier and the 5-gallon nuisance stays in the attic now.
The 1 gallon Crystal Geyser bottles (readily available at most supermarkets) can be opened and resealed/refilled, in contrast to many other brands. They can be abused a fair amount without leaking, the rectangular bottle doesn’t roll around in a vehicle, and the carrying handle is a nice plus. They can be flattened when empty and discarded opportunistically. They also make great vessels for mixing gatorade or similar drinks and/or can be filled with sand for holding down tents, etc. If you like finding small rock samples as I do, they can also be used as a nice stowage container that protects the car from damage. They are about $1.49 each, and they are such nice containers I don’t like throwing them away! Oh, and the water tastes good too.
In addition to the 1 gallon bottles, purchase a six pack of 1 liter Evian bottles; you will drink and cook using water from them. Again the best choice, they are durable, resealable and have a wider mouth than most brands, making them easy to refill from the 1 gallon jugs (which you’ll do a lot in DV). They also fit easily into most stuff pockets of most day-packs.
I’m partial to the jerky just before the Hwy 190 turnoff, the teriyaki nuggets being particularly tasty. Vegans can find various nuts and dried fruits inside too, if dead cows, turkeys, deer or elk do not appeal.
By this point in your travel, you should have already purchased water and all other food you need in Death Valley—the selection is extremely limited in the Furnace Creek store, unless you like junk food. Of course, if you intend to stay in the hotel or cabins near Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells you can do as you like. But day trips still require some food.
If you have kids along (you’re advised to allow extra time), make use of the advance playground facilities and the pet dump station (for kids or pets).
Badwater is best seen from the eastern side, paved Hwy 178 south of Furnace Creek. A small pullout area with parking offers a chance to wade into shallow water dense with dissolved salts which can be very irritating to the skin if the skin has any cuts or scrapes.
This pullout or nearby are where most of the gorgeous shots involving sky and water are taken; late in the day the water can take on whatever is in the sky, making for beautiful post-sunset shots.
Badwater can also be seen at a distance from West Side Road, or from Dante’s View. Seeing it from all perspectives is worthwhile.
Although the water itself is too briny to support anything but microscopic life, the opposite shore across the salt-encrusted mud is full of life at the Harmony Borax Works site (West Side Road). When I visited, birds and insects were everywhere and it felt really alive, in sharp contrast to much of Death Valley.
Sunrise brings only shade to Badwater; most images are taken at sunset. The image below shows the sun just rising, taken from Hanaupah Canyon area.
The famous moving rocks are shed at one end of the playa and take off from there.
Seen in the background is the outcrop (above at left) from whence these rocks depart.
It is an unhappy fact that some people haven’t heard of “leave no trace” and/or simply have brown stuff for brains. See the Racetrack before it becomes too popular, and don’t walk on it while it’s even wet or damp.
The road to The Racetrack has some of the worst “washboard” surface I’ve ever encountered. Most vehicles can do about 10mph on such roads. My vehicle is far more capable than most (a Porsche Cayenne with 3 differentials and air suspension), and 30-40mph was feasible so long as the road was reasonably straight. But it is a bone-jarring drive for about 30 miles. I also am sure to run all-terrain (A/T) tires in such places; you’re playing with fire using normal tires as these roads eat them up, especially near Eureka Dunes. There are also very few pullouts on the way to Racetrack Playa—the Park Service has very annoyingly left 1-2-foot-high edges along much of the road, leaving the road itself in a very bad state to boot.
I saw several vehicles with flat tires on the way to The Racetrack. Make sure you have two cans of tire sealant and a spare, otherwise you’ll end up between a rock and a hard place as with this Jeep. Especially from April - October, a breakdown 20 miles down a dirt road could be life threatening.
Please see Death Valley Snapshots also.
Death Valley has various mines, some of which can be explored safely. But many mine shafts are extremely dangerous, never assume good structural condition, or even good breathable air. More details on mines coming...
Although meeting people in the wilds of Death Valley is not a common occurrence, you might run into a number of interesting people there. College student and climber Alyssa K, part of a survey group is shown here after a short climb to the top of this outcrop near Eureka Dunes.
If you’ve visited Eureka Dunes, exiting the park via Death Valley Road to Big Pine is far easier than backtracking to Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells. It depends on your destination, but the bone-jarring drive to Eureka Dunes is best done to/from Big Pine. This is higher country though—in late February snow can be present at the higher elevations, up to 8000' or so.
Death Valley offers a wide variety of landforms and history for those willing to explore. Take a sturdy 4WD vehicle with appropriate provisions and get away from the beaten asphalt path.