Situated astride the California-Nevada border is the hottest, driest place in North America: Death Valley.
Ringed by six steep mountain ranges, the valley’s floor is a 200-square-mile salt pan that stretches for 156 miles. Its sparse vegetation is watered by less than 2 inches of annual average precipitation, a fraction of what most deserts receive. When rain does arrive, it often does so in intense storms, causing flash floods that reshape the landscape and sometimes create shallow ephemeral lakes.
The place received its ominous name from a group of would-be miners who got lost there in the winter of 1849-50 while trying to take a shortcut to California’s gold fields. One person died, but the others were rescued. As they prepared to leave this unforgiving wilderness, one of the survivors turned around and uttered, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Today, at more than 3.3 million acres, this daunting sunbaked valley and a huge swath of the land around it compose Death Valley National Park, the largest of our national parks outside Alaska. It’s almost the same size as the state of Connecticut. Weird, exciting landscapes, fascinating flora and fauna, and the chance to hike in the lowest spot in the United States (Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level) to more than 11,000 feet are just some of the attractions.
Vast and rugged, this mountain and desert terrain is lightly used, especially in the summer, and for good reason: Temperatures in the park’s lower elevations frequently soar higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The national park also holds the world record for heat: 134 degrees in July 1913. For obvious reasons, the best time to visit Death Valley is from November through March, when outdoor enthusiasts can find comfortable quarters in the park’s wilderness.
Hikers can explore copper-colored rock cliffs and winding canyons, trek across giant sand dunes and cracked, shimmering salt flats that stretch for miles, or see open desert washes and intricately contoured badlands carved by more than a millennia of rushing water. Dirt roads also provide means to enter the backcountry. A list of trekking options is available at the park’s visitor centers or at the Death Valley website.
A few notables include an 8-mile round-trip foray into the long, winding narrows of Funeral Slot Canyon; a moderately strenuous 8-mile round-trip trek across ridges and minor peaks to 5,716-foot Mount Perry, providing tremendous views of Death Valley the whole way; and a 7-mile one-way ascent of Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet the park’s highest reach, with ancient bristlecone pines predominating near its cool summit. Short hikes to the Darwin Falls waterfall or the Natural Bridge rock formation and canyon are also worth the hike.
With few streams and springs, Death Valley offers little opportunity for multiday backcountry expeditions. But the payoff for getting out there is the opportunity to experience complete solitude, sweeping vistas, the darkest night skies imaginable and some of the region’s amazing geology. Some 700 miles of dirt and gravel roads provide ready access to a wealth of locations in the park. Exploration is limited only by your gumption and imagination. Backpackers are requested to first obtain a free backcountry permit at either the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.
Within the park are nine developed campgrounds, ranging from primitive to full hook-up. All are first-come, first-served except for the Furnace Creek Campground, which lies at 200 feet below sea level and has 136 campsites; reservations can be made from mid-October through mid-April. Nearby is the old Harmony Borax Works site, where three tons of borax were produced daily in the 1880s. Death Valley is open year-round, but many of its low elevation campgrounds close during the summer months, when overnight lows might dip only into the 85- to 95-degree range.
For roughly half the year, Death Valley can be an inferno at or below sea level, where ground temperatures over 200 degrees have been measured. (To put that in perspective, 160 degrees is sufficient to cook meat.) Hikers, backpackers, bicyclists and even those tooling around in air-conditioned SUVs need to be self-reliant and well-prepared. Always plan ahead, carry detailed maps, sun protection and, of course, plenty of drinking water — at least one gallon of water per hiker for each day expected on the trail.
You Won’t Forget
Camping under unfathomably starry skies. In 2013, the International Dark Sky Association certified Death Valley National Park with a gold tier designation, recognizing the darkest night sky possible. On a clear night, you will be greeted by countless stars, planets and the Milky Way. Stargazing can be more challenging if there is a full moon, but you can still have a dreamlike experience when moonlit landscapes take on unearthly glows.
Did You Know?
Death Valley is quite the movie star. It has played a part in almost 100 movies and TV shows, including standing in for a desert planet in a galaxy far, far away. Windswept and surreal, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes looks so much like another world that it became one: the fictional planet Tatooine in the 1977 original Star Wars movie. It’s here where R2-D2 and C-3PO cross the scorching desert on their way to meet Luke Skywalker.
While parts of Death Valley are indeed devoid of life, the park has environments where everything from the endangered Devils Hole pupfish to desert tortoise and desert bighorn sheep can be observed. And in spite of the heat — or perhaps because of it — many people visit Death Valley National Park in the summer. Locals jokingly refer to this visitation surge in July and August as “European season,” when tourists from Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and other cooler places arrive in Death Valley to experience record-breaking heat.
Fat tire and road cycling in Death Valley National Park is a bucket list item for many people. Bikes can be used on all park roads that are open to public vehicular traffic. Smart cyclists need to prepare both their gear and their bodies before launching an exploration into this harsh and varied terrain. The park’s website, visitor center and ranger stations have a list of recommended cycling routes of varying difficulty levels.
Prepare for all sorts of weather conditions; the air temperature in Death Valley, especially in the winter months, can drop quickly at night. Summer hiking is not recommended except in the early morning and evening hours and in the mountains. Cellphone service ranges from spotty to nonexistent.
When to Go
Mild temps make late fall through early spring the best time to log long hikes or rides. Winter is comfortable; average highs in January are in the mid-60s.
Furnace Creek, the main resort area of Death Valley National Park, is nearly a 300-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles and about 125 miles from Las Vegas. Some of the roads within the national park require four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Larry Rice is an avid canoeist, backpacker, bicyclist and world traveler who lives in Buena Vista, Colorado.