Death Valley-Pretty Nice Despite the Hell & Death References
Feb 19, 2000 (Updated Mar 11, 2000)
Review by Eric Goldman
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:beautiful sunrises and sunsets, interesting geological formations, great desert scenery, good hiking opportunities, chances to rejuvenate your spirit
Cons:weather, crowds, huge distances between attractions, limited food/gas/other services
I've been to Death Valley twice. First, I went in Spring 1993 on a backpacking trip up a nameless canyon with some friends. This was an OK trip, but it wasn't much different from a backpacking trip in some other desert canyon.
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As a result, I resolved to go back, which I did in between Christmas and News Years 1998 as a solo trip. The remainder of this review describes that trip.
I drove from San Carlos (in the Bay Area) to Death Valley. This is a full 8 hour drive that required traversing a couple of 5,000 foot passes. I didn't have any problems with pass closures as it was a dry but cold La Nina year, but the trip could have been difficult if it was snowing or had recently snowed. The trip took me through Trona, one of the most depressing towns I've ever been through, and through the Panamint Valley at sunset, which displayed gorgeous pinks and purples as the sun sank.
Unfortunately this meant that I arrived at Furnace Creek after dark. As a result, both the Furnace Creek and Texas Springs campgrounds were filled. (if you want to camp at the Furnace Creek campground, you usually need to make reservations in advance.) The Sunset campground, however, was open, but to call this a campground is generous. The Sunset campground is a huge swath of flat gravel--think parking lot. It's also right on the freeway, which normally would be a problem except that I couldn't hear the freeway because all of the RVs parked nearby were using their loud generators. Eventually they did the generators off, but we're not talking much of a wilderness experience here.
There was a second problem--I forgot my sleeping bag. A sleeping bag is a pretty basic part of camping, so you really ought to bring it. I realized I had forgotten it as I was driving through the Central Valley, so I made an emergency stop at the Super KMart in Wasco (home of a large prison). Being too cheap to buy a replacement sleeping bag, and given that usually I am very hot when I sleep, I arrogantly bought a $3.99 pink flannel blanket and thought that would be sufficient. Wrong! The temperature in Death Valley got into the 20s at night, so I was freezing! When I went to sleep, I put on everything I had (including the long johns and down jacket) and I still couldn't sleep because I was cold. Lesson learned.
The next morning I hiked up Golden Canyon early. The canyon walls indeed did take on a luminous golden color in the morning light which faded as the sun got higher. My wife actually liked the photos I took of the darker brown badlands even more. I hiked all the way to Zabriskie Point for nice views.
Along the way, I saw many abandoned mines. These were fascinating--usually hand-chiseled out of hard rock with a mouth about 4 feet wide. It struck me as a pretty hard way to make a living. Of course I didn't enter any of the mines--only a death seeker who likes cramped spaces would do that.
After this hike, I hiked the Natural Bridge hike. This was a crowded hike to see a single natural bridge. Nice, but definitely skippable. I also drove the Artist's Drive loop, which was also nice but only a brief diversion.
I set up camp at Texas Springs early to ensure I got a campsite. The campsites in Texas Springs were gone by 5 p.m. during this holiday week. I walked up to the top of a point behind the campsite and watched the sun set. Watching sunsets (and sunrises) is one of the best things to do in Death Valley, so take the time to enjoy them. The mountains turn lovely colors, and any clouds in the sky go through a wide range of hues. It's a moving experience.
That night I walked around the "town" of Furnace Creek. There is nothing there: 3 non-vegetarian-friendly restaurants, one gift/snack shop, and some non-retail services. Definitely not much of a distraction!
The next morning, after watching the sun rise, I hiked the Salt Creek Interpretive Hike in search of the elusive pupfish. I didn't find any pupfish, but the search was fun! I enjoyed contemplating the harshness of this narrow riparian area, plus the morning sky created some fascinating lighting.
I then drove up to Rhyolite, a ghost town in Nevada just a few miles outside of the park. This is one of the best ghost towns I've ever been to and I recommend it highly. There are still many partially-standing structures and, interestingly, tons of trash piles from many years ago. I was amazed at how interesting the trash piles were. They truly are an insight into society at an earlier time. There is also the house built out of glass bottles, with an old-timer who talked about his story and the story of the house to everyone who dropped by. It was also interesting to see the mountain sides dotted with mine entrances. Rhyolite was fascinating, and I easily could have spent all day exploring.
I swung through Beatty to gas up and pick up some supplies. Beatty is a sorry-looking community of mobile homes, cheap motels and bars. But the gas was cheap! (compared to any other options around Death Valley).
I then hiked the Death Valley Buttes. The "trailhead" starts at the rest stop near the intersection of the Daylight Pass Road and the Beatty cutoff. There really isn't a trail to get to the top--you just point yourself towards the ridge, scramble up the side of the butte, and then walk along the ridge to the top. Along the way, you get great views of Corkscrew Peak, which is very inviting but I'm sure is a tough hike. Once you get to the butte's ridgeline, the hike is pretty easy, but getting to the ridge is a chore. Watch out for cactus! The views from the top of the butte were excellent and made the scramble worthwhile. The whole hike RT was less than 2 hours, and I didn't see a soul.
I then got a campsite at the Stovepipe Wells campground. This is also a huge parking lot-style campground on the freeway. Fortunately, in the back there are some tent-only sites that are a little private, but watch out! There are some port-a-potties along the perimeter, and you definitely do not want to be downwind from them.
I then hiked Mosaic Canyon, which is a couple mile drive over a gravel road (completely fine for a 2WD low-slung car) from Stovepipe Wells. The walls of this canyon are smooth marble in many places, which are beautiful to look at. This was a pretty popular but very worthwhile hike.
Then I went to the Mesquite Dunes to watch the sunset. The dunes are very popular, so you won't find many interesting and undisturbed sand forms you've seen in the photos. Instead, in many places people write out huge messages in the sand they create by walking around to create the letters. It's not a real wilderness experience. However, the further you go into the dunes, the less crowded it becomes, but it's a lot of work going deep into the dunes because they are not especially easy to climb. Usually there is a set of "steps" earlier visitors have created--take those! Also, beware that the sand is very fine and will creep into every crevice of your shoes. I kept finding sand in my sandals for months after this. All of this is totally worth it because watching the dunes and surrounding mountains and clouds change color at sunset was enthralling. The experience was a little surreal and very spiritual. If you visit Death Valley, you must visit the dunes at sunset or sunrise!
That night, I walked around Stovepipe Wells. There was only a single non-vegetarian friendly restaurant and an even smaller gift/snack shop than in Furnace Creek. Instead of sticking around those, I hung around my tent and played cat-and-mouse with a clever and curious coyote who was probably looking for handouts. I would walk towards the coyote (based on sound--he rarely showed himself) and he would retreat, and then come back towards me from a different direction. It was a full moon, but he never did howl for me.
Things I have not done at Death Valley that I hope to do on a future trip:
* tour Scotty's castle. Given its remoteness from everything else, it is pretty much a minimum of a half-day trip.
* Hike Telescope Peak. This is not a trivial hike, which is why I've never done it, but I've heard that clear views from the top can be amazing. I'd also like to do Wildrose Peak, which looks a little easier but probably has great views too.
* visit the Racetrack. This is the area where stones move on their own and leave unexplained trails in the dirt as they do so. This requires 4WD to get to.
* drive Titus Canyon. This requires 4WD.
* hike Corkscrew Peak. This looks like a tough trail worthy of respect.
* visit during the spring to see wildflowers. However, I suspect the Valley is crowded to capacity during this time.
* visit other ghost towns. There are a number of other interesting towns to check out.
Let me recap a few key points:
* during the winter, sun sets early and the sun rises late. I only had about 10 hours of daylight (7-5) to work with. The evenings are long, especially on a solo trip.
* the sunrise and sunset periods are absolutely the best time to do anything (or nothing). An experience may be boring mid-day but spectacular at sunrise or sunset.
* there are extremely limited food options. In many ways, camping is better than staying at one of the few lodges in the park, because at least then you can control your meals.
* the best attractions are also the most popular. It takes a lot of extra effort to find something really cool in Death Valley that is also not swarming with people. (Of course, you can easily find some boring parts of the park that aren't swarming).
* Just about every attraction is somehow tied to geology. If you're bored by geology, this park is not for you!
Finally, let me offer my survival tips in Death Valley:
* make sure your car is in tip-top shape. Repair options are very few, and the roads can be pretty hard on cars. My clutch was dying on my car (I didn't realize it before I left) and the steep grades on the highways forced me to downshift often. If my clutch had gone out, this would have become a not-very-fun trip.
* bring your own food. The dining and shopping options are shockingly limited.
* bring lots of water. This is a low humidity place, and your body will need fluid replenishment.
* Don't go from May-October unless you are a heat-seeking freak.
* In the winter, bring warm clothes for the evening. It will get cold!
* If it rains on you, stay out of flash flood zones. During my 1993 trip, it rained briefly on the way there, and the highways were nearly flooded out in some places.
* Don't go into the mines. It's a foolish way to put yourself in jeopardy.
* Don't try a road that says it needs 4WD unless you actually have 4WD. I had no problem visiting the main attractions with a low-slung Honda, but I wouldn't stray from the beaten path without 4WD.
* leave enough time to get around. The park is huge, and the attractions are many miles from each other.
* As a corollary, don't drive on a partially-full gas tank. Running out of gas would be a bummer.
For authoritative information on Death Valley, see http://www.nps.gov/deva/ .
Death Valley is a fine and fun destination if you're into desert scenery and geology. If you find both of those boring, there are many other places you'll enjoy more!
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