Death Valley National Park
The wind was howling and I thought the outhouse would be carried away like Dorothy’s farmhouse in the Wizard of Oz. With me inside it.
This is my most lasting memory of visiting Death Valley National Park as a small child. It was a year with a strong bloom of wildflowers and my mom was determined that the family would make the trip even with no hotel space available. Our family of 6 car camped in the station wagon with a small tent for my older brothers, the boy scouts. Thus our visiting the outhouse in the path of an oncoming twister or at least that was my fear.
This year was once again a strong year for wildflowers but I just couldn’t get excited enough to make the trek during the bloom. Instead, we passed through the park on our migration east from LA to our summer digs in Minneapolis. Late April is the tail end of the spring high season and can already get dangerously hot in the lower elevations. We experienced a range of high temps during the day paired with rain storms and cool cloud cover.
Lately, I’ve been using audio tour guides during a number of our car trips through the National Parks. For both Joshua Tree and Death Valley we used tours by Just Ahead. What’s nice is that the tours can run in the background while music is playing. The narrator pops in with stories as the car approaches sites of interest or to offer logistic tips such as turns and side trips. I still like to read up on the various hikes and major sites before the trip but the audio guides can put some of that knowledge in context.
Hiking in Death Valley
Stock up on water before you go! We carried two gallon jugs and kept refilling them every chance we got. It helped to measure how much water we were drinking to meet the recommended guidelines of 4 liters per person per day. The ranger stations will have spigots or filtered water dispensers available for refilling water bottles in an effort to reduce the use of plastic water bottles in the parks.
One of the fun activities offered by the Park Service is the HikeDeathValley Challenge – hikers earn points based on the number and difficulty of hikes they document with selfies. Four points earns a limited edition decal. The Challenge has options for those with limited mobility so the entire family can participate. Check the details here on the National Park Service website.
Our trip was so short that we only earned a single point for this visit. But we managed to hit these highlights in the southern end of the park all within a 24 hour visit:
The trail is located near Panamint Springs as we traveled into the park from the southwest entrance. This was a chance to stretch our legs after being in the car for 5 hours. During the summer months it is also one of the few hikes that will have any shade thanks to the trees growing along the creekside. Short, easy and as we arrived on Sunday afternoon a number of families were using the hike as a last hurrah as they left the park for home in California.
This was a fun stop with the salt flats opening up before us. It is the lowest spot in the US at 282 feet below sea level. With no outlet for rain or snow melt, salt crystallizes in the basin as the water evaporates. Our tour app equated the crusty topsoil to chocolate cookies – crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. Yum!
We drove out to Badwater Basin first thing in the morning then on the return journey chose to drive the Artist’s Loop. Don’t miss this road if you have time! The colors of the rock are amazing. At Artist’s Palette, we walked around the edges coming close to the various mineral deposits without climbing the main ridges.
Golden Canyon Trail
This is one of the more popular trails in the park with several length options. We took the spur trail up to the Red Cathedral formations. If we had more time, we could have done the full loop which reaches Zabriski Point.
Another don’t miss site. From the parking lot it is a short paved and winding climb to the overlook. The view of the surrounding badlands is worth the effort. If I had known how grand the view was, I would have tried harder to make it out for a sunrise viewing. The weather had been stormy overnight so I consoled myself with the idea that the morning shadows would have been disappointing.
Furnace Creek is an oasis within Death Valley having the shallowest access to the water table so it is a surprisingly lush area. It is home to the primary ranger station along with a camp store, two lodging options, a golf course, horse stables, restaurants and a gas station. The lodging within the park is still fairly limited and gets booked up quickly for the spring high season.
To save money, I booked just a single night at the Ranch at Furnace Creek (which is about half the price of the upscale Inn) and our second night in Las Vegas about 2 hours drive from the eastern park entrance. The plan was to stop for short hikes on our way in from the west and on our way out of the park.
The Ranch at Furnace Creek has cabins and regular hotel rooms on the property. Our guidebook had warned us that veg options are limited within the restaurants and that is very true.
If you are booking park lodging, check around for discount links online. Sigh, I qualified for an AARP senior discount. Though, I can’t really complain about being a member since I wasn’t too proud to join last year to get a substantial discount when I bought an international medical evacuation membership.
Our whirlwind tour through Death Valley was definitely calmer than my first visit and now I have a wider range of positive memories of the park. Death Valley is its own natural Land of Oz and the Element safely made the journey with all four wheels safely on the ground!