Death Valley National Park

by on December 8, 2011

Visit the Strange California – Nevada Desert of Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is a sightseeing adventure unlike any other in the United States. The terrain and weird formations in the park make it seem like a NASA spaceshot of the surface of Mars, as can be seen in areas like Devil’s Golf Course and the Racetrack regions of Death Valley National Park. In fact, movies like Star Wars were even filmed inside the park, due to its unique desert landscape.

Known for its extreme record breaking temperatures and low elevations, the park has been dubbed as inaccessible by many guides and books, during the heat of the peak summer months. With the right preperation, you can have an enjoyable visit to the park even in those 110 degree August days. Read on to find some tips for Death Valley National Park sightseeing, hiking, lodging information, and a breakdown of some of the popular regions of this must-see National Park.

Death Valley

Devil's Golf Course at Death Valley, a true indication of how strange and other worldly this area is. Photo by flickr user sryffel, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


The Racetrack Playa

The Racetrack area of Death Valley National Park is only accessible by four wheel drive. It contains the near mythical desert dry lake bed, home to the curious moving stones. These huge stones somehow make their way across the large expanse, leaving an indented groove into the dry lake bed behind them. How do they move? Though no one has ever witnessed one of the rocks in motion, it has been best theorized that the rocks move from water, ice and wind movement during the storms that the valley experiences in the winter months.

Death Valley sand dunes

Death Valley sand dunes, photo by Joe Bruckman, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


The Sand Dunes of Death Valley

Death Valley’s sand dunes are an incredible site to see, and one of the best sightseeing destinations within the park. The intense sun and light of the park combined with the brown hues of the dunes make daytime photography rather dull. To get the best shots, take your photos later in the day or early in the morning, when the shadows better define the dunes, and the angle of the sun best compliments them.

The park contains the sand dune areas of Saline Dunes, Ibex Dunes, Panamint Dunes, Eureka Dunes, and the most accessible of all, the Stovepipe Dunes.

Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin, Death Valley. 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America. Photo by John Bruckman.


The Closest Major Airport to Death Valley National Park

One of the reasons that Death Valley is so calm, relatively quiet at most times, and pristine is its remote location in the desert of California. The nearest major city to Death Valley is Las Vegas, which is still approximately 3 hour and 15 minute drive to the east, and around 135 miles. McCarran International Airport is the major airport of Las Vegas, and where most people fly into if they are headed to Death Valley. Flights to Las Vegas are available non-stop virtually everywhere in the country. I’d suggest a non-stop flight if you can find one to minimize the stop time, and to prevent lost baggage (the more changovers you have, the more the opportunity that your bags could be lost!).

There’s a Reason It’s Called Death Valley!

death valley desert flowers

A rare glimpse of wildflowers at Death Valley, north of Furnace Creek. Photo by Tom Hilton, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Heat is no joke in Death Valley. The temperatures can soar during the daytime to 120 degrees on a summer’s day. This can cause heat stroke, extreme dehydration, intense scarring sunburns, and even death, which has happened. When hiking and driving in Death Valley, always notify someone of where you are headed, and when you expect to be back. The area is very isolated, desolate, and has intermittent visitors, even at the peak park times.

Before hiking in Death Valley, follow these important rules to ensure your own safety. Avoid hiking in the salt beds and valley area during the day, since there is no shade whatsoever. When traveling to the park by car, gas up before your journey. Gas tends to be much pricier within the park, and there’s only one gas station that I saw during my visit. Also make sure the car is reliable, and the tires are properly inflated. The last thing you want to happen in Death Valley is to break down!

Where to Stay Near Death Valley National Park

Las Vegas

Las Vegas is the closest major city to Death Valley. Photo by Pedro Szekely under Creative Commons 2.0.

If you’re visiting Death Valley for the day from Las Vegas, head out as early as possible. Starting early, you should gas up before leaving town, and at the half-way mark. Gas inside the park is usually substantially more expensive than the surrounding towns, which are still far away. Expect to spend 6-8 hours on the road if Death Valley is a day trip back and forth. Lodging inside the park is available, but scarce. Book ahead if you plan on spending time in or right outside of the park to guarantee yourself a room. Rates are fairly reasonable all times of the year.

Other towns nearby to Death Valley National Park include Barstow, which is about the same distance as Las Vegas is to the park, as well as Sequoia National Park to the northwest. This area of California has no major towns, so any lodging is going to be in small, quiet towns. Beaty and Indian Springs Nevada are some of the towns along I-95 south, while I-395 will take you by Olancha, Lone Pine, Ridgecrest, and to the far northwest, Yosemite National Park. The city of Palm Springs is about six hours away.

Five Things to Remember When Traveling to Death Valley National Park

racetrack playa

The mysterious roving rocks at the Racetrack Playa. Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

Death Valley isn’t something to be taken lightly. A plan must be planned out well, with the right equipment taken with you, and the proper amount of time given to enjoy yourself (not to mention be safe).

1. Don’t take an old, beat up car to Death Valley. You’re asking to break down in the middle of the desert, and that’s no way to spend a vacation. Make sure your car, no matter how new, is ready for this extreme ride by checking the tires, getting gas before hand, and checking the fluids, especially the radiator. Also, have a tire jack and spare, because it’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help you if you’re on a backroad.

2. Always bring a cellphone with you on your trip, and tell people where you’re going. It’s very easy to get lost while hiking in the park, it’s enormous.

3. Bring plenty of water. It might seem obvious, but every year, tourists dehydrate themselves and need to be rescued within the park. Hydrate yourself well in advance, and stop to rest.

4. Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Some people think they’re being tough by heading out into the sun during peak hours of the scorching summer sun, but they quickly fall victim to the elements. The extreme heat is too much for the human body to bear, so take the park’s advice on traveling in the park by visiting the Ranger’s Station first.

5. Be realistic with your trip planning. How much do you aim to see? A day trip allows you to get a good overview of the park, but you won’t be able to see everything the park has to offer. Plan to stay the night in or near the park to see more. Keep in mind things fill up fast since lodging is scarce in the park and outside.

Some of the Best Places to Photograph in Death Valley

Dante's View

Sunset at Dante's View, Death Valley. One of the best places to see the entire park, especially at sunset or sunrise. Photo by Black Dots on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

  • Dante’s View – This remote peak provides a spectacular view of most of Death Valley and is a slight break from the heat down below. Late evening and early mornings, like most sites in the park, are the best time to photograph.
  • Badwater and Devil’s Gold Course – There’s no missing these two attractions of Death Valley. They’re right on the main route through the park, and don’t even require much hiking. A word of advice: don’t wear open toed shoes in the spiky salt flats of Devil’s Golf Course!
  • The Sand Dunes – The park is famous for its incredible dunes, which come to life during the windy dusks and dawns.
  • Scotty’s Castle – Why on earth is this castle on the remote north end of Death Valley? Read all about Scotty’s Castle on Wikipedia here for the answer.

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