DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — People vacation annually at spots like Lake Tahoe. My go-to-place is Death Valley.
Logging 23 trips covering 122 days over the course of 31 years, I’ve barely scratched the surface of the 5,270 square mile national park. It is the largest national park outside of Alaska and the fifth in the continental United States.
The allure of Death Valley is far from one dimensional.
When I was in my bicycling heyday and regularly compiled 10,000 plus years in terms of mileage I fell in love with the place. It was during organized commercial excursion via Backroads Touring.
As a roadie or one who eschews mountain bikes for racing bikes, Death Valley was heaven. There are long stretches of paved roads that drop and climb for miles going from below sea level to 4,963 feet with minimal traffic and completely unobstructed views. The first time I clocked 62 mph on a bicycle was coming out of Hell’s Gate (you’ve got to love many of the names features have been given in Death Valley) going down the Beatty Road cutoff. It is also where I surprised myself and made it up a sustained 28 percent grade to reach the top of Dante’s View at 5,674 feet. To this day my quads haven’t forgiven me and I’m sure those who were in vehicles behind me are still smirking when they think of the nut case they were caught behind.
While you can take mountain bikes to Death Valley you can’t go off-road with them nor can you use any of the few trails that are maintained in the park.
Bicycling to hiking, geology, stargazing & more
For the past 12 years I’ve been into hiking. If you’re a hiker and you’re into clear vistas summiting peaks, exploring canyons, and never-ending cross-country treks Death Valley is paradise. There are few maintained trails in the park and most of the destinations I’ve tackled over the years require finding your own way.
Given the two key valleys in the national park – Death Valley proper and the Panamint Valley – are less than several million years old plus the fact there are five distinct mountain ranges Death Valley is a dream come true if you’re into geology. Striking rock strata are in view virtually everywhere you go. Even people like me who think you have to have rocks in your head to get into geology can’t resist indulging in books to help explain the stunning sights.
Death Valley also rekindled my childhood love of stargazing. Thanks to the same mountains they create the rain shadow effect that makes Death Valley the driest and hottest place in North America, it is also a place where non-ambient light is blocked allowing you to view skies overrun with millions of stars. My favorite spots are heading out to the easy-to-access sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells after nightfall, making my way to the tallest dune in the field and laying on my back looking skyward for hours. I search the skies for constellations and simply contemplate. Back in the 1990s when sky lab was still orbiting, the lodging I stay at in Stovepipe Wells provided info sheets on where to look for the sky lab as it raced around every 90 minutes. I was surprised at just how easy it was to track but then again having camped at Mesquite Springs in the upper valley the prior year when I first was impressed with the rich darkness of the Death Valley night skies it shouldn’t have.
Death Valley is also where I managed to scare the hell out of three grown adults. It was in an S-10 Chevy Blazer that I had bought two months prior and had yet to use the 4-wheel drive. Off-roading is not allowed in the national park. We were heading down the narrow one-way Titus Canyon Road several days after a rare rain. We came to a particularly narrow section with a 100 or so foot drop off to the right. I was going extremely slow when I felt the wheels sliding sideways. The front seat driver – Kevin Andrews – kept telling me I was doing just fine. I didn’t think so as several times I thought we were going to be goners. Apparently that’s what Kevin really thought as well. A week after I returned home to Manteca people were coming up to me telling how I had scared the hell out of Kevin who said he thought he was going to die.
Plenty of pedestrian attractions, lodging options in Death Valley
So don’t think you have to be half crazy to venture to Death Valley – there are almost 1.2 million annual visitors to the national park that is larger in size than Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island – as there are plenty of things to explore that you can do by car with short walks or hiking distances involved. That includes the popular Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, Badwater that is the lowest spot in North America at 282 feet below sea level, overlooks such as Dante’s View, Death Valley’s colorful take on badlands at Golden Valley and Artist’s Drive, the asteroid created Ubehebe Crater, and an endless list of other natural attractions.
Most people like the idea of one to three day drive-bys exploring with short walks married with desert camping and unique and fairly quiet stays at lodging.
Most end up staying in the Furnace Creek area where the visitors’ center is located either in campgrounds or at the Furnace Creek Ranch or the Furnace Creek Inn. You will also find a golf course here.
The mission-style Furnace Creek Inn is the quintessential Hotel California as conjured up by the Eagles’ hit. Back in the 1920s it was “the place” for the Hollywood elite to hang out. It is definitely upscale which is why the rooms run between $369 and $569 a night. Besides being too rich for my blood, it is closed from mid-May to mid-October.
As far as Furnace Creek Ranch (lodging is $149 to $249 a night) there are too many people for my liking.
Given I’m not a huge fan of camping – my idea of roughing it is a Motel 6 – I prefer to stay at the Stovepipe Wells Resort near the base of the Panamint Mountains about mid-valley. The rooms are $144 to $199 a night. It is incredibly quiet especially Sunday through Thursday. More importantly it is centrally located to the bulk of the canyons and peaks I like to tackle as well as within an hour or so drive, including nine miles of slow time on a high clearance vehicle dirt road, to reach the jumping off point to hike to the Panamint Sand Dunes. They are characterized by many as the most isolated sand dunes in the park as they require a four-mile one-away cross county hike across what is known as desert pavement. It’s worth the trek. I’ve hiked there four times including a July hike with my nephew that we had to start at 1 a.m. so we could be back at our vehicle by no later than 9 a.m. when the air temperature would be pushing 100 degrees and the ground temperature much higher.
When it comes to solitude I have yet to find a place anywhere that comes even close to the Panamint Sand Dunes.
There is more than meets the eye from a car in Death Valley. I’ve hiked through snow to the tallest point in Death Valley – Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet – while passing several of the oldest living things on the planet in the form of bristlecone pines. From the summit you are a mere 15 miles as the crow flies from the lowest spot in North America, Badwater at 282 feet below sea level, making it one of the shortest elevation gradations in North America. The cross-country hike, though, covers 35 miles and takes two days. There is a maintained trail from the east that makes the hike a more-doable day trip covering 14 miles.
Death Valley always has a surprise for me.
Pummeled by ‘lady bugs’ and scared by mountain lions
Once on a summer hiking trip to Telescope Peak with my nephew, we reached the summit but were forced to leave after just five minutes. That’s because from all sides there were literally hundreds of what appeared to be lady bugs being blown up that were pelting us non-stop.
I’ve come within feet of deer, been repeatedly dive bombed by ravens near 9,000 feet on the Wildrose Peak trail, I’ve come across fresh mountain lion tracks in snow near Towne Peak and high-tailed it out of there, almost been stung by scorpions, encountered road runners and coyotes while hiking, and been charged by a wild burro while bicycling Wildrose Canyon.
The big surprise on my trip last month was I finally got to see a big horn sheep … at least in a manner of speaking.
I had tossed in a fairly easy hike on the last day to go up Lower Willow Creek Canyon where it ends in what is indeed a spectacular 40-foot dry fall after passing through tight narrows with what seemed like endless cuts into the canyon walls including a few side canyons.
National Park literature tells you that this is one of the few areas where hikers may venture that you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the elusive big horn sheep.
I got to the fall, took off my backpack and took a few a few photos. I then sat down to have lunch. That was when I noticed an odor. I looked up and about 10 feet away nicely blending in with the rock was the carcass of a big horn sheep.
Upon closer examination the insides of the ram had been gutted with a precision cut more like what a mountain lion would do as opposed to a coyote that tears at its prey. Even though the kill was clearly at least a week old and the fact mountain lions are nocturnal, I figured it was best to retreat down the narrows to where the canyon widened to finish lunch.
As bizarre as it may sound, there was kind of a beauty in the macabre scene given as it is part of the circle of survival that has sustained life in Death Valley.
And make no doubt about it. There is plenty of life in Death Valley. There are 1,042 species of vegetation, 346 bird species, 51 different species of native mammals, 36 different types of reptiles, six types of fish, and five amphibian species.
The best time to visit Death Valley is November through late February if you are looking for relative solitude and being able to do hikes without having heat becoming an overwhelming factor.
The crowds are thin between Thanksgiving and Christmas while January is slow as well. The December temperature averages are a high of 68 degrees and low of 39 degrees making it the coolest month of the year. July is the opposite with an average high of 100 degrees and an average low of 88 degrees.
The best part is paradise – Death Valley – is just over a 6½ hour drive from the 209.