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Everyone talks about how vast Death Valley National Park is, so on my first visit I assumed I’d stop 700 times for gas, get stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and maybe need to change a tire, and that no matter how early I left I’d still arrive at the hottest part of the day and render any hiking impossible. Regardless, Death Valley was on my must-see list when I was living in Southern California. It’s only about a four hour drive from Burbank if you enter the park at Panamint Springs, so it makes for a great weekend road trip destination from Los Angeles. Luckily, none of my fears came to fruition and it turns out Death Valley is pretty chill. That said, I did learn a few things you might keep in mind if you want to make the most of a weekend visit to Death Valley National Park:
1. No Cell Service
This became apparent quickly. I’d say I wasn’t able to get cell service for about 80% of my time in the park. Fortunately the free maps and brochures available at any information booth are detailed and easily readable, so even for someone dubbed “Wrong-Way Ramsdell”, going without my cell map was fine. I found a map first thing when I pulled over to pay the park entrance fee. Even though there was no-one on staff at the moment, I paid the $25 using the machine onsite and grabbed a map from the free “take one” bin nearby (later in the more populated area of Furnace Creek, park rangers were at the desk to offer more maps and advice). Since this trip, I’ve learned to prepare by downloading offline maps in advance (especially for hiking, using the GAIA app). This time, the only real drawback about not preparing for lack of cell data was that I didn’t download more music to my offline Spotify playlists! I was tired of most of the albums that were saved and just listened to The Black Angels “Death Song” album on repeat. They’re always my go-to for desert highways anyway.
2. Distance Is Key
That talk of vastness checks out as accurate. I was able to do everything I wanted to with time to spare, but that’s because I picked the middle section of the park and stuck to it. I would have loved to see the many ghost towns (I only made it to Ballarat; pictures below) and the Ubehebe Crater further north, but that’s another hour and a half drive from, say, Zabriskie Point (where I ended my first day) to the crater. There are a handful of landmarks all concentrated around the center of the park at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, so you can knock a lot of things out there in a day or two. The further north or south you go, the sparser it gets, and there are fewer pit stops to enjoy along the way to break it up.
The strategy I chose on Day One was to start at the southernmost point I wanted to visit on Badwater Road, which was obviously the Badwater Basin salt flats, circle around to the southernmost point I wanted to visit on CA-190, which was Dante’s View, and finally work my way north back towards the main campgrounds between these two points. This was for three reasons: 1) ending up near the camp where I planned to sleep in the evening was clearly ideal, 2) I wanted to hit Zabriskie Point last, in time for sunset, since the colors are renowned. Sunset seemed preferable to sunrise because in the morning I wanted to head straight out for the hike I’d planned without making any stops, 3) Artist’s Drive, one of the detours off Badwater Road, is a one-way loop. If you start at Badwater and work your way back towards CA-190, you’ll come to the entrance to Artist’s Drive first, and the exit will spit you back out along the same route in the direction you were already headed.
On Day Two my only plan was to drive out to Wildrose Peak, where you can see the Charcoal Kilns and then do a solid 8 mile out-and-back hike to summit the 9,064ft mountain (the highest in the park is Telescope Peak at 11,048ft). I wanted to give myself ample time, and I’m glad I did; the hike itself didn’t take any longer than expected, but the drive there felt never-ending! Lacking my cell phone map and any road signs for reassurance of my course, I kept wondering whether I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Why wasn’t I there yet? Why aren’t there any signs? Why aren’t any other drivers out here? The landscape was stunning the entire way, full of valleys and mountains and wildflowers, and it felt like I’d stumbled into some remote paradise. If you feel this way, you’re on the correct road. Towards the end I finally came upon a sign and some other drivers and I knew I was in the right place. I also saw people camping in this area and regretted that I hadn’t hunkered down closer to the peak the night before.
Photo note: the charcoal kilns were completed in 1877 by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company. One of the incorporators of the company was George Hearst, Father of William Randolph Hearst, whose castle in Cambria I recently visited!
3. Patience Is A Virtue
I made perfect time and arrived at Zabriskie Point just as the sun was about to pass over the horizon. Other groups of photographers were already set up and waiting, and when I overheard one man speaking to a handful of camera-clad listeners about the times he’d been here before, I realized he must be a guide leading a photo excursion and I got excited that this spot ought to be extra special. We waited for the right moment. During the big finale I got a few interesting shots, but overall I wasn’t impressed with myself. Others must have felt the same way, because only a few minutes later dozens of people had already cleared from the overlook and disappeared into their cars. A couple of us waited to take in the view and try to salvage something interesting from the moment. Out of nowhere, maybe 15 minutes later, the most brilliant hues of pink and blue streaked across opposite ends of the sky. Without thinking I let slip the word “wow”, and as I walked back toward the ledge I heard two other witnesses echo the same sentiment, all of us speaking out loud to ourselves like crazy people. It’s got to be one of the most astoundingly rich twilights I’ve ever seen in my life.
This moment embodies a lesson about patience that I constantly have to remind myself of when traveling. I preach the benefits of slow travel, of spending months at a time in each destination in order to learn more about the culture and understand the minutia of daily life there. On shorter day or weekend trips outside of the main city I’m living in, I try not to rush my schedule just to tick boxes and be able to say “I’ve been there”, but to take the time to really experience and be present. But these philosophies are not integrated into my psyche 100% of the time. I get distracted. I get uncomfortable. I get tired. I fall into autopilot. It’s like when you read a whole sentence or paragraph of your book, only to realize that you didn’t retain a single bit of the information and need to read it again. Or when you arrive at the end of your drive, and realize you don’t remember making any of the turns or directional decisions that got you there. I’m not very into meditation or yoga, but I believe in checking in with yourself and your surroundings. I’ve learned that sitting with how I’m feeling in any given moment, even if that feeling is painful, is better for me than trying to distract myself from it. I’ve learned that rushing through an experience so I can be safe and cozy in my bed, or so I can go ahead and just post the pictures, is akin to not having had the experience at all.
So if you go to Zabriskie Point, stay awhile and look harder, give it the chance to impress you. If you go down Artist’s Drive, pull over and get out; at a few of the view points, you’ll notice people have worn trails into the earth that go past the dry riverbed and high up into the pastel-stained hills, so you can see the sand up close. At Dante’s View, leave the view area and hike to the furthermost point; a short, windy stint, but worth it for the spectacular perspective. At Badwater, walk until the trail runs out, notice the way the salt consistency and ground patterns change every few yards. I’ve never felt in retrospect that patience and taking my time hasn’t served me (as long as I have ample water, food, and sunscreen!), and this rang true in Death Valley.
4. Consider Your Vehicle
My truck is four wheel drive and never fails me in any terrain, so I gave no prior thought as to whether my vehicle would be right for this trip. It’s not like I was going to be trying to fit through a drive-thru tree. For most of my time in Death Valley, I was simply driving on long stretches of highway trying to get from one landmark to another, then parking and getting out to hoof it on the rougher trails.
However, there are two considerations that hadn’t occurred to me prior to arrival that could easily affect other travelers. I’m glad I don’t have a different kind of car, because I never look this stuff up in advance. Don’t be like me.
One is to be aware of your space if you’re hauling a trailer or have a wide camper of some kind. When I first pulled up to pay my entrance fee and grab a map, two men were waiting outside hoping a staff member would arrive to give them advice about whether their rig could make it on some of the narrower and steeper roads, like Artist’s Drive or Dante’s View. They’re allowed in some campsites, but prohibited on some roads entirely. You can find size, weight, and dimension regulations here.
The main issue is clearance and the necessity of four wheel drive if you intend to go on any backcountry roads. When I finally neared the Charcoal Kilns and Wildrose Peak trailhead, the road suddenly turned from paved and easy, to made 100% of rocks and the tears of those who came before. I had to slow to probably 5 miles an hour and was still jerking around so much that I questioned whether I should continue. A few minutes in, another car was coming in the opposite direction and we rolled down our windows to chat. They said they couldn’t make it and were giving up, that it gets even worse further up and they were worried about damaging their rental car, but that it’s probably only another mile or two and I ought to be able to make it in my truck. I pushed on with white knuckles and succeeded in the end, but on my way back after the hike I noticed other cars had parked prior to the beginning of the unpaved road and walked the rest of the way.
5. Don’t Pay Extra (If You’re Gutsy)
Campgrounds are pretty cheap already in Death Valley, and it’s rare that they fill up (though this may not be true anymore in COVID times). I arrived without a reservation of any kind, easily found a spot at the Texas Springs campground, and paid at the machine onsite (so I learned you don’t need to worry about your time of arrival in order to pay someone directly or check in).
This was a simple strategy that kept me from spending any extra time, effort, or anxiety. I just grabbed a spot and continued on my way, and it was much cheaper than any of the fancier lodging options. However, I only planned to explore the park for two days. If I’d stayed for the entire week that the park entrance fee bought me, or longer, the price tag of the campgrounds would eventually add up. There are a couple of designated free spots (I really should have camped at Wildrose), but I also learned later you’re allowed to backcountry camp almost anywhere you want for free, as long as you’re a mile from any paved road and 100 yards from water sources! If I was staying for any length of time, I would definitely read up on the backcountry camping regulations here and choose this option over others. There’s little reason to worry about potentially dangerous animals bothering you, according to one park employee I spoke to. I had read about the presence of mountain lions, but she quickly dismissed this concern with a wave of the hand and a wizened and incredulous, “Aghhhh, there’s no mountain lions”. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a mountain lion sighting, let alone attack, in Death Valley. I’ve heard of bobcat attacks, in which case the concern is rabies, not being mauled to death. Snakes are usually in hibernation in winter (though it’s not impossible to see one). All in all I would feel pretty safe, as long as we’re not in the middle of a government shutdown. 🙄
6. Be Prepared For All Weather Conditions
My trip was in mid-/late-November, which was totally ideal and almost, dare I say, chilly. Clearly, fall and winter are the best seasons to visit a place called “Death Valley”, which translates to “Fiery Hellscape” in my mind. I dressed light, like I would for a hike in the Los Angeles area. This was perfect during the more strenuous treks that had me breathing hard and generating enough body heat, but when I reached higher altitudes at the top of Dante’s View and Wildrose Peak, I wished I brought more layers. Wildrose had my teeth chattering and my nose running, it got so cold, and I didn’t regret not lingering at the summit too long. At night while I was camping the temperatures dropped noticeably as well, so I was thankful I had my thermal sleeping bag.
It didn’t occur to me that rain could be a possibility in Death Valley, but when I stopped for gas the cashier warned me that a storm was rolling in late afternoon on the day of my Wildrose hike. I began the hike as early as possible to avoid it, so my trail was sunny for the majority of the time, but I watched as grey clouds formed around what I assumed was Telescope Peak in the distance. In the final stretch to the summit the ominous grey began to drift towards Wildrose Peak, and I thought of the tips I’d seen on the trailhead sign about avoiding lightning – mainly, stay below the treeline. I was so close that I pushed on anyway, ecstatic (and freezing) when I made it to the summit view. Minutes after I finished taking it in, I heard a huge CRACK of thunder just behind my head, and let out a verbal “oh shit”. I scurried back down the trail at lightning speed (pun intended), calming a bit when I got back below the tree line. I passed the first people I’d seen thus far, an Australian couple on their way up, and warned them of the storm brewing. They’d heard the sound too and thought it was a jet breaking the sound barrier, which it may have been – does anyone know how to tell the difference? All I know is I was glad to be back on the sunny side of the mountain half an hour later, while also pleased that I’d pressed on and achieved the view. I’d have been so bummed if I turned back early only to watch the Aussies skip past me with no fear.
As I headed out of the park from Wildrose I stopped at the Ballarat ghost town where I met its sole inhabitant/caretaker/mayor and his friend sitting on the porch of the store/town center. They told me to watch out for the lynx they’d seen hiding in the bushes as I walked around taking pictures, and I told them about my hike that morning. They answered the part about the storm with a resounding validation that, yup, you have to watch those storms out here, they roll in fast without warning.
So, although we all know how to prepare for Death Valley in its punishing summers (nonstop hydration, electrolyte tablets, keeping shielded from the sun, and potentially just opting out and staying home), keep in mind that there are a variety of volatile weather conditions to be prepared for.
7. Runners In The Badwater Ultramarathon Are Superior Humans
The Badwater 135 occurs in July. JULY. Last July in Death Valley was the hottest month ever recorded in the history of life on earth. According to the race website, The World’s Toughest Foot Race covers “135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA…the Badwater® 135 is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet. The start line is at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level. The race finishes at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States.” I believe the Barkley has had the least amount of finishers (only 15 in its 32 years), but at least those fools have tree cover.
Even with their individual crews on-hand throughout the race to help replenish their energy and tend to injuries, 20-40% of racers typically fail to finish. I would never finish in a million years (let alone the 48 hour deadline), but I would accomplish something no-one else has – there have been no fatalities. I’d be the first, no question.
I want to say that these people are genetically superior to my entire ancestral lineage, but I also don’t want to invalidate their incredible hard work and preparation; these things are never just genetics. So, does anyone have any tips for me on how not to die immediately in 130°F weather? I really want to know. I get spotty vision if I try to hike in SoCal in the middle of the afternoon on a normal summer day. New Zealand is at the bottom of my travel bucket list despite it’s Game Of Thronesian beauty, because the ozone layer is the thinnest there.
What is the secret?
As hikers and backpackers, we’re acutely concerned with preparations that feel tangible and immediate, like training for endurance and strength, focusing on backcountry nutrition, or planning the appropriate gear and clothing for the terrain at hand. I’ve rarely seen advice that focuses on skin protection, which is a topic close to my heart considering I’ve had multiple skin cancer biopsies and one melanoma excision. If you, like me, are prone to issues with the sun but also love to spend most of your time outdoors, read on for some tips I’ve developed in recent years.
Early on in my trip I read about the non-native burros who roam the park, descendants of those brought to the area by 19th-century prospectors, but I didn’t put two-and-two together when I kept noticing tons of poop on the side of the road. Especially around Wildrose, I concluded that they must run horseback tours in the area and wondered where they were sheltering all of these…productive…horses. I finally came across a pen where wild burros were being collected and remembered that the park service has little tolerance for the invasive species, who compete with other wildlife for resources and multiply at too rapid a rate to curb. Later, as I departed from my final stop of Ballarat back towards Trona and ultimately Burbank, a wild herd of burros crossed the road ahead of me. I slowed to allow them passage, then excitedly pulled over to attempt to capture quick photos before they disappeared into the brush. I know they’re considered a nuisance, but I have to admit I felt lucky to have stumbled onto a moment that is unique to Death Valley. I’ve never had to keep an eye out to avoid hitting burros before, the way I would be cautious about deer in other locales. Viva los burros (or maybe not)!
I know I missed a lot during my whirlwind trip; they say “you can’t have it all”. What are some of your favorite landmarks that I neglected to fit in this time? I’d love to visit again for the dunes, the crater, and to do a million more hikes. If your experiences have taught you any more pro-tips to better prepare for a Death Valley excursion, drop them in the comments! Some things you never know until it happens to you.
Good luck out there, and try to fight the enticing urge to crown yourself the sole inhabitant of a ghost town. In my mind I already am.
*Note – if you are planning on visiting Death Valley from out of state, or taking a similar active adventure holiday, please consider investing in travel insurance. I personally use World Nomads’ Explorer Plan because I hike, and it will cover me in the event of an injury or emergency mountain rescue. They’ll also help with cancelled flights, lost baggage, etc. Death Valley is a remote area and extra precaution may be worth it. You could also compare multiple providers and plans by inputting your own personal trip criteria into Travel Insurance Master.