Visiting Death Valley National Park

In my previous post I talked about the first half of my California trip which was centered around traveling to San Francisco for a wedding. While planning what we were going to do in California I knew that I wanted to take advantage of being on the west coast and do something or visit somewhere new after the wedding and eventually decided on visiting Death Valley National Park. Before the trip and in San Francisco kept asking why Death Valley. Honestly it came down to really wanting to visit another national park and wanting to avoid snow which eliminated northern California and higher elevations. With Death Valley National Park being known for its extremely hot summers, an opportunity to visit in February seemed perfect.

The day we arrived in Death Valley we were coming from Bakersfield which was just over a three-hour drive. We had got a bit of a late start with our day so by the time we made it into the park and got our pass we headed straight to The Ranch at Furnace Creek where we were staying. After checking in and dropping our stuff we took a walk around the Furnace Creek area to check out what was around and ended up eating dinner at the restaurant by the golf course. While the menu was small and the food was pretty basic, watching the sunset across the golf course was a nice way to end a travel day.   

view on the west side of Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater | Looking West
old stovepipe wells
Old Stovepipe Wells

On our first full day in Death Valley we woke up and decided to head to Ubehebe Crater which was about an hour drive from Furnace Creek. When we arrived at the crater there were only a few other cars in the parking lot, which when compared to our experience in Yellowstone was surprising to us. The Ubehebe Crater is a 600 feet deep, half a mile wide, maars volcano created when hot magma rising up from beneath the ground came in contact with ground water, causing water to turn into steam and gas eventually resulting in a large explosion. We decided to do the 2-mile Rim Trail, along the edge of the crater. The trail is relatively easy but thee ground is a sandy consistency and there is a 270ft incline on the west side so it isn’t the easiest trail. But with that being said I wouldn’t go as far as to categorize it as moderate or difficult. The trail, as well as the entire Ubehebe Crater area, was pretty quiet with only two or three other groups around at one time. After spending about an hour or so at the crater, we headed south towards Badwater Basin. The only pit stop we made along the way was to the old stovepipe wells. The old stovepipe wells display is really just a plaque located at the end of a dirt path off of Scotty’s Castle Road. The plaque marks the only waterhole in the sand dune area which was the junction of two Indian trails commonly used during the time of Rhyolite and Skidoo. The old stovepipe well was the only known water source on the cross-valley road and is now a California registered historical landmark.

salt flats at badwater basin
Salt Flats at Badwater Basin
natural bridge trail
Natural Bridge Trail

Nearly an hour and a half later we made it to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. The salt flat basin sits at 282 feet below sea level. It is only a short walk from the parking lot out to the salt flats which is an almost unreal and unique landscape. After spending about 30 minutes walking around the salt flats we made our way back to the car and worked our way slowly back towards Furnace Creek. On the way north, we stopped at the Natural Bridge Trailhead. While the natural bridge trail was the same length as the Ubehebe Crater Rim Trail I would say that it is a bit more challenging because the natural bridge trail is gravel and uphill. While the entire Natural Bridge trail is one mile each way, the natural bridge rock formation is only half a mile into the trail. It was at the Natural Bridge trail was by far the busiest place we experienced during our visit, with a tour bus even stopping to do the hike. I remember at one point, standing in one place for about 10 minutes trying to get a certain picture without any people in the frame; with how busy the trail was in February I can’t imagine what it would be like during the summer.

devil's golf course
Devil’s Golf Course

Our next stop was to Devil’s Golf Course which if your time in Death Valley is limited, I would say it isn’t a must see because it is a lot like the salt flats at Badwater Basin. Devil’s Golf Course got its name from a 1934 National Park Service guidebook to the then Death Valley National Monument, that stated, “Only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” The rough surface is a result of large halite salt crystal formations. During warm temperatures you can even hear popping coming from the ground, as a result of the billions of tiny salt crystals bursting apart as they expand and contract in the heat. I would say that at most we spent five minutes at Devil’s Golf Course before leaving to head to Artist’s Drive.

Artist's palette in the afternoon sun
Artist’s Palette in the Afternoon Sun

Artist’s Drive is a nine-mile one-way drive through the canyons. Unlike the Twenty-Mule Canyon Drive, which I will get to later, the Artist’s Drive has plenty of places to pull off and get out of the car to walk around and take photos. The main stop along the nine-mile drive is Artist’s Palette, about five miles in. The multicolored hills at Artist’s Palette are truly extraordinary. The variety in colors are a result of mineral oxidation from the deposit of volcanic ash and minerals on the area millions of years ago. While you can see the colorful hills right from the parking lot, you can also walk around and climb the hills in the area, thanks to Death Valley being a free hike area.

sunset at Zabriskie Point
Sunset at Zabriskie Point

After finishing Artist’s Drive, we headed to Zabriskie Point for sunset. Zabriskie Point is the most famous viewpoint in the park. To get to the outlook you park in a relatively small parking lot and then walk up a paved incline to the viewpoint, which makes it totally accessible. The viewpoint definitely got busy as sunset drew closer, especially in the number of amateur photographers with their cameras and tripods. I would say that unless you specifically want to see Zabriskie Point at sunset, there are other less busy locations that provide the same sunset experience. After watching the sunset, we headed back to The Ranch at Furnace Creek where we simply grabbed a bunch of snack type items from the general store for dinner.

view of Death Valley at sunrise from dante's view
View of the Valley from Dante’s View at Sunrise
sunrise at dante's view
Sunrise at Dante’s View

Sunrise the next morning was at 6:23 a.m. (PST), so we got up around 5:15 a.m., quickly got in the car and made it to Dante’s View before 6 a.m to see the sunrise. When we got there, there was only one other person around and even by the end only two other people joined us, which leads me to highly recommend getting up early for sunrise because it was a much more enjoyable experience than the busy sunsets I experienced. Our sunrise experience at Dante’s View was an incredibly tranquil experience but also invigorating because we got to see the light emerge from behind the mountains and watch entire area slowly “come alive.” After watching the sunrise from Dante’s View we headed to the Twenty-Mule Team Canyon Drive. The canyon was used from 1883 to 1889 by mule teams as a means to transport borax from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead in Mojave. Due to the conditions of the road the 165-mile trip took 10 days to complete.  Today the canyon drive is a 2.8-mile one-way dirt road. Sadly, the drive doesn’t have any pull offs which makes it a bit difficult to enjoy the view and take photos, especially if there are cars behind you. Since it was so early in the morning, we were lucky and there were only two other cars around making it a more enjoyable experience.

Twenty-mule team canyon drive
Twenty-Mule Team Canyon Drive

After the Twenty-Mule Team Canyon Drive we headed back to The Ranch and ate breakfast at the buffet, which honestly was not great and would recommend trying to avoid unless you run out of other options. After breakfast we headed back to the room to take a little nap and get some work done. After our mid-morning break, we wanted to head to the Keane Wonder Mill and Mine, but found the area temporary closed due to safety hazards. Instead we headed to the Rhyolite ghost town, which had us crossing the border into Nevada.

Speeltheater Holland Studio Puppets in Rhyolite
Speeltheater Holland Studio Puppets
Cook Bank Building in Rhyolite
Cook Bank Building
Porter Brothers Store in Rhyolite
Porter Brothers Store

After gold was discovered the year before, the town of Rhyolite was founded in 1905 and like many other old mining towns quickly became a place of prosperity but also greed. By 1906, the town was thriving thanks to indoor plumbing, electricity and other modern luxuries. A short four years later the mines began to fail forcing people to move on, leaving the town behind. If you visit the town today, very little of the town actually remains due to buildings having been either moved to other towns or looted for materials. Our first stop in Rhyolite was to the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which is a sculpture museum with many unique and thought provoking installations. I would say that the main feature of the town is the Tom Kelly Bottle House which was built in 1906. The house is a three-room building that was built to be raffled off as a family residence and most recently has been used as a collectables shop. After spending time looking at and walking around the bottle house we drove the little loop of the town, simply just seeing the remnants of the buildings from the car. After our time in Rhyolite we did a big loop back through Beatty, Amargosa Valley and then down to Death Valley Junction, along the way we stopped at the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge

Crystal Reservoir
Crystal Reservoir
Crystal Springs Boardwalk
Crystal Springs Boardwalk

I would have to say that Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was one of my favorite parts in our Death Valley experience. The area is truly incredible because you can experience the arid desert right next to such a diverse wetland area. The Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge was established on June 18, 1984. The refuge protects and is full of rare native wildlife, many of which are unique to the area and don’t exist anywhere else in world. Our first stop in the refuge was to the Visitor’s Center where we met a lovely volunteer who gave us a quick introduction to the area, told us what roads were currently closed due to a bad storm and what route he recommended we take. After giving us all the information we needed, he started a video for us about the refuge in the Visitor’s Center classroom. After watching the video we headed out to the boardwalk out behind the Visitor’s Center. I would say that if you want to visit Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge but don’t have a ton of time the Visitor’s Center boardwalk is a good showcase of what the refuge has to offer. After the boardwalk we visited the Crystal Reservoir, Devil’s Hole and then finally the Point of Rocks picnic area and trail. After spending almost three hours exploring the refuge, we headed back into Death Valley to watch the sunset at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I would say that sunset at the sand dunes was busier than at Zabriskie Point but it’s a larger area, so it didn’t seem as bad. I wanted to find a spot where I was relatively alone and where there weren’t other people close by so I kind of took off and left my mom behind. I ended up sitting at the top of a sand dune alone just taking in beauty and sereneness of the moment. A little tip I learned during my sand dune experience, when trying to walk down a tall sand dune pretend like you are walking down a set of stairs to lower your chance of falling.

Red Cathedral from Golden Canyon Trail
View of the Red Cathedral in the Distance from Golden Canyon Trail

The next morning we were leaving Death Valley, but before we headed towards Las Vegas we headed to the Golden Canyon Trailhead which is one of the most popular trails in the park. The Golden Canyon Trail has a variety of different hike options and loops that can take you on anywhere from a 2.5-mile to 4-mile hike. Since it was our last day and we still needed to make it to Las Vegas in decent time we decided on the hike to Red Cathedral, which was about 2.5 miles roundtrip. The hike to Red Cathedral is definitely a more moderate hike. With that being said the incline is gradual unlike the Natural Bridge Trail, but to actually get into the Red Cathedral at the end you have to climb over, under and squeeze through some rock formations, so it isn’t for everyone but still very doable for both myself and my mom. The views, especially on the way back, are gorgeous and walking through the golden colored canyons was an awesome way to end our experience in the park. After getting back to the car we headed out of the park and drove to Las Vegas. I have to mention, it was a bit of a weird going from spending three days secluded out in the desert straight into to the in your face nature of Vegas. We had just visited Vegas in September, five months prior, so it was kind of weird being back so soon. When we got to Vegas, we checked into our hotel, showered, got ready for dinner and then headed to return our rental car, so we wouldn’t have to deal with it in the morning. After dropping the rental car at the airport, we took an Uber to old Vegas to eat dinner and see the Viva Vision Light Show at the Fremont Street Experience. We had wanted to see the light show during our previous visit, but we had run out of time so it was the only real plan we had going into the night. After seeing the light show, we headed to the Bellagio for dessert because we had stayed there in September and knew what the hotel had to offer. After getting a honestly mediocre desert from the Bellagio Patisserie, home to the World’s Tallest Chocolate Fountain, we watched the hotel’s famous water show before heading back to our hotel because we had an early flight the next morning.

Telescope Peak at sunrise
Telescope Peak above Badwater Basin from Dante’s View

Overall, my Death Valley experience was definitely not what I imagined. I mean I don’t know exactly what I expected going into the trip, but the juxtaposition of the desert between two mountain ranges still blows me away when I look at pictures. When people think of Death Valley I think they only think of complete desert and extremely hot temperatures, but in reality that is only one part of the park. For instance, when watching the sunrise from Dante’s View, at 5,475 ft above sea level, you can see Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, as well as the snowcapped Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet, all while standing in the same spot. Death Valley National Park has a variety of landscapes from salt formations and alluvial fans to sand dunes and badlands. When it comes to the weather in the park, while I can’t imagine visiting in the summer, we experienced everything from below freezing temperatures while watching the sunrise at Dante’s View to temperatures in the mid 80s while hiking Golden Canyon during our three-and-a-half-day visit. Death Valley National Park is one of those places I just know I will visit again. There are so many places and activities we didn’t have the opportunity to see or do. I truly believe Death Valley National Park is a place that everyone should visit at least once.


Missed my blog on the first half of my California trip. Click here to check it out.

My trip to California was my last trip before coronavirus and due to the virus all future travel is currently paused. But I can’t wait to see where my next adventure takes me. In the meantime head on over to my Instagram @YourBackyardTourist for more content during this very weird time.

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