And we are going on with our Californian road trip, after Yosemite, San Francisco or even the Pacific Coast Highway, we are now retreating inland and going to the gigantic Mojave desert… in Death Valley National Park ! If the name might ring a bell, only a very few of you will actually know more about this place. The park is over 13 600 km² big (mainly in California but also in Nevada for a small bit of it) – making Death Valley the largest national park in the United States after Alaska. When you think about the word ‘desert’, you usually picture sand dunes as far as the eye can see… And you will be surprised (just like me !) to discover landscapes that you would not suspect ! From Badwater (-85.5m below the sea level) to Mount Whitney (4400m high), you will enjoy views as impressive as interesting !
Well, of course, it is not called Death Valley for nothing… The national park is one of the driest and hottest place in North America ! I am not going to give you a meteorology lesson (I have literally no skill in that field haha) but just know that only 49mm of rain drop on the park every year. For a long time, Furnace Creek, at the heart of Death Valley, detained the world heat record ever measured on the Earth surface with 56,7°C (1913). We got there beginning of May, and the outside temperature was already almost unbearable : around 40°C, with no air and of course no shadow to protect yourself from the heat. You will have to carefully choose the period on which you will visit the park. I consider it as a must-see (especially since it is on the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas) but you should be able to enjoy it without grilling under the sun ! You can read this article on the choice of the season to plan your trip. Another small detail, choose your vehicle wisely and accordingly : it should be hefty not only to survive the road conditions (we actually went through a piece of road that just was not covered in tarmac right in the middle of the highway) but also the weather conditions. Remember that gas stations are rare and expensive within the park (fill your tank up beforehand) and that you should avoid overheating at all costs (AC to the maximum is just not possible).
After this long introduction (oh well…), we are now going on a discovery in the park. And we are just going to visit major places around Furnace Creek, a locality on the Eastern part of the national park : Mesquite Sand Dunes, Artists Drive, Natural Bridge, Badwater, Zabriskie Point – I have drawn you a map at the bottom of the article. We were not staying very long (once again unfortunately) and we planed our tour with the information provided by the rangers at the visitor center. We had driven for quite a while before getting there, and like anywhere else, I suggest that you just stop whenever you feel like it !
» Mesquite Sand Dunes
Well, I know I was just saying that Death Valley was a desert different from those we have in mind… But I will still start this tour with sand dunes : the Mesquite Sand Dunes. (FYI, the park is only covered with sand by 1%… !) They are located on the way to Furnace Creek coming from the Western entry of the park. They go along the main road, and you can just stop as soon as you find a place you like. Why not near these dead trees for a photo shoot ? Not very glamorous presented like that, but you can climb on top of the trees for a few memories to put on the house’s fridge ! Be careful with your feet : the sand is really piping hot with the sun boiling the dunes all day long and I might have heard about insects starring at your toes (flip-flops = bad idea of the day).
» Artists drive
After a stop at Furnace Creek to discover the place (and choose our camping spot), we went towards Artists drive. It is in the middle of a sinuous road (shaking a bit, our radio will remember the trip…) that you will find Artists Palette. It is a vista point from which you can admire the mountainous area taking different colors, a result of the oxydation : from red to green or even purple, the name of this place was not given randomly.
» Natural Bridge
If you want to stretch your legs after hours behind the wheel ? Get to Natural Bridge. Signs will show you the way from Badwater road and you can park at the beginning of the trail. It is a one-mile hike back and forth (about 1.6km). Natural Bridge is a bridge naturally carved into the stone, under which you will feel pretty small… I would recommend to do this trail at the end of the day, when the temperature is a bit more bearable (everything is just relative) – but the shadows on the stones might prevent you from shooting the perfect picture.
I was mentioning this place earlier in this article, we are now going to Badwater. It is then the lowest point in North America, 85.5m under sea level. If it looks rather small on paper, an indication on the nearby mountain makes you rethink that idea ! Badwater is a salt bed (more or less cracked from one season to another) that offers a great view. The tail is beaconed, it is forbidden to go beyond the markers for safety reasons. Do not forget to bring a bottle of water, even if the walk is short, you can get dehydrated very easily.
» Zabriskie Point
We are taking another road (CA190) to get to the best vista point of this stage (in my opinion) : Zabriskie Point. The platform is not that big, but give you an amazing overview on the mountains and the erosion phenomenon : it looks almost like a lunar landscape. It is at sunset that the colors are the most beautiful; and you can enjoy it longer with the temperatures going down. (Some say that it is as nice at sunrise, but I have to admit that we have not tried… haha)
» Furnace Creek ranch
We also wanted to push until Dantes View but unfortunately have not had the time because the sun was going down, we went back to Furnace Creek as it was where we were spending the night. Just next to the campground, there is Furnace Creek ranch (next to = you should still go by car). It is in this mini town (qui touristic) that you can go grocery shopping or fill up your gas tank. There is even a small post office ! It really looks like a town from a Western movie at the heart of the desert.
Planing your road trip on the US West coast, you can clearly think : what is the point of walking in that furnace ? Why visit the driest, hottest and lowest place in the US ? Death Valley is a unique and spectacular place, associating danger (insects, heat and dryness – we love it), diversity (quite surprising for a desert right ?) and beauty all in the same spot ! I think that the park is really worth visiting in the winter, in order to discover plenty of new places without suffering from the temperatures ! By the way if you have any tips to give me/us,do not hesitate 🙂