Death Valley, one of the hottest, most unusual and ultimately spectacular places on earth is a joy to behold.
Never before have I seen so many ‘outstanding areas of natural beauty’ congregated into one single space, however vast that space may seem.
We saved the trip deep into eastern California for the crescendo of Far Out’s major road trip around America’s largest populated state. As previously mentioned, the desert is why we’re here and the desert is what, so far, intrigued us the most. We pinned a lot of our hopes on Death Valley and oh boy, it delivered.
Having been left utterly dismayed by the road closure forcing us to skip Yosemite, we knew Death Valley needed to pick up our hopes despite the wonderfully relaxing stop off at the Travertine Hot Springs. As a reminder, we took Route 395 down from Lake Tahoe to our destination, planning to join Route 190 which would allow us to tick off a number of the ‘must see’ spots on route to our motel.
You’ll be aware by now that motels, hotels and Airbnb’s in Death Valley can be pricey, that said, we’re here to save the day. If you head toward Death Valley Junction, take a left and drive in the direction of Nevada you’ll find that a few metres over the state line, glowing majestically in the distance with fluorescent lights, the Longstreet Inn and Casino – the most surreal, insane but entirely mesmerising motel – more on that below.
As you know, we’re heading into the Valley through Route 190. On this route we’ll manage to see a lot of incredible spots, it’s at this point the importance of organisation needs to be considered. Death Valley is a bloody big place and you don’t want to be driving around aimlessly. Remember, there’s only two petrol stations and it is incredibly hot – best not to get caught short.
First up on the craziest route imaginable…
Father Crowley Overlook
Father Crowley Vista is an easy route with a bit of a dirt road to park, but not at all stressful. It also has a little path for you to walk down to the end to take a few snaps. It’s a perfect entrance to what you’re about to find on your adventure. The overlook is a chance to get early pictures and get yourself uncontrollably excited for what’s coming around the corner.
The view looks toward Towne Pass and sits around 5000ft above sea level and, according to the info guide, was named after Father John Crowley, Padre of the desert 1891 – 1940. The landscape is dramatic and proudly shows off dark lava flows and a history of volcanic activity.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
It’s easy to forget sometimes that you’re actually in the desert. During this Californian road trip we’ve seen different types of desert, all of which are fascinating in their own right. That said, the arrival at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near Stonepipe Wells offers a chance of reality, a chance to live out the thought of a stereotypical desert that you’ve forged in your mind.
The dunes cover a couple of square miles, go up to 140 feet tall and have become what is probably the most photographed spot in Death Valley – how much of that is down to the fact that they appeared in Stars Wars you’ll have to make up your own mind.
Truth is, the dunes are great fun. You can walk for a long time across them as long as you’re wearing decent footwear (the sand is hot), you have plenty of water and you make sure you don’t head there at the hottest part of the day. Seriously, extreme high temperatures of 43°C to over 49°C is common so you need to be careful.
Ideally, if you can, aim for sunrise or sunset and you’ll be treated to quite the spectacular light show.
What a surreal place.
Badwater Basin really is one of those places you need to see to understand. The area has been recored as the lowest point in North America, sinking to a depth of 282 ft below sea level. Driving toward the basin, deeper and deeper as the road winds around, you’ll be forgiven for believing you’re witnessing a mirage of vast and eternal water in the distance. In truth, upon arrival, you’ll find that the water you pictured in your mind is actually a thick layer of table salt.
The pan, which used to hold ‘Recent Lake’ around 3000 years and held a depth of 30-foot, dried up within the extreme heat. However, on occasion, the area is subject to periodic rainstorms that can leave a deposit of water. Fascinatingly, such is the intense heat, the area is subject to a rapid evaporation rate meaning water never lasts long.
A sign at the parking area explains how a traveler, searching to find water for his donkey, stumbled across the basin but soon realised it’s heavy salt contamination… hence the name ‘Bad Water’.
From the depths of one of the world’s lowest points we head up to the dizzy heights of 5,476 ft above sea level in a matter of minutes, such is a trend in Death Valley.
That mirage of water you thought you saw driving toward Badwater Basin becomes even more mind-boggling from this view point. The mountain that Dante’s View sits on is part of the ‘Black Mountains’ and is easily accessible by the winding tarmac road that spirals to the top. Upon parking, you’ll find a selection of easy walking paths – one of which takes you to the very edge of the view and offers views like this:
Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette
Most people only talk about Artist’s Palette as the place to visit, but Artist’s Drive undoubtedly deserves a mention in this section. It feels quite bizarre to be driving through the desert on a freshly tarmacked road, cutting through the mountains with nonchalant ease – it felt like we were part of an advert for Mustang or something.
Having climbed the Black Mountains with Dante’s View, Artist’s Drive allows you to dip deep into the canyons and surround yourself in colour. Formed by violent explosive volcanic periods, Artist’s Palette is a breathtakingly colourful section of hillside, with bright shades of colour that range from orange, pink, red and brown to green and turquoise – all created by reactions with minerals and metals in the rock.
Titus Canyon – Leadfield Ghost Town
I don’t believe in divine intervention, let me put it out there. However, I am sure that I was put on this earth to drive down this road, to write this article, to warn you the people, not to do this.
Potentially the scariest moment of my life, we delved deep where no couple should go aimed with limited water and a low riding Ford Mustang.
The maps will tell you it’s doable – which it is clearly as i’m still alive – however, it was a close call. This route is amazing and the canyon is incredible but let me tell you, unless you have a 4×4 vehicle, don’t even bother.
It’s what they all talk about, isn’t it?
Staying on the same note about dodgy roads, the route to Natural Bridge seems like you’ve taken on another impossible dream in a car. But fear not, you’ll make it up the road which stretches about two miles of dirt and leads you to the designated parking area. After that, it’s a short uphill walk that isn’t hard work at all. Saying that, I saw a German man chasing his hat that had blown away in the wind and he fell down, probably best not to run downhill at high speed on that basis alone.
Rhyolite Ghost Town
Ghosts Towns are what it’s all about in Death Valley. They’re bloody spooky and it leads to you imagining how this area, littered with crumbling shacks and decrepit buildings could ever have been a bustling town.
The story goes that on August 9, 1904, a two-man duo going by the names of Cross and Harris found gold in an area which would later be named Bullfrog Mountain. By February 1905, word had spread. People flocked to the area and Ryholite became the largest of the gold mining industry and, remarkably, the area boasted a population of 5000 people just two years later with a reported 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, 16 restaurants, a school, a post office and even a local newspaper. However, Rhyolite was doomed to live a short and hectic life.
Despite producing more than $1 million, an amount that us the equivalent to around $24 million today, profit dried up and people began the disappear. By March 2011, just over six years after its founding, the area was declared a ghost town.
In 1984, Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created his sculpture The Last Supper which takes precedent there now. That and the Goldwell Open Air Museum which houses all the art.
It’s a little creepy, but really interesting.
Tecopa Hot Springs
This is a real hidden gem, trust me.
California – and the desert particularly – is riddled with natural hot springs. We mentioned earlier about our trip to the incredible Travertine Hot Springs and it had given us a taste for it. So, with some help from fellow travellers, we set about trying to find the best spot in Death Valley.
As you know, we’re staying at the Longstreet Casino Inn which is situated on Route 127, encroaching on the Nevada State Line. Tecopa, a small town located close Death Valley, has built somewhat of a trade in the hot springs. Driving into the town you’ll see small buildings offering entrance to privately managed hot springs for nude enthusiasts. However, we’d heard the best spot is the free natural pool located before entering the town. Drive past the Post office, turn left into Tecopa and park up. You’ll see a path in the field, then, on your right-hand side… behold:
Longstreet Inn Casino & RV Resort
Also, something I found a bit strange but totally great, it has a fully working shop that stays open 24hours. Don’t know why I think that’s awesome but it is… really helpful. So yeah, you should definitely stay there.
In general Death Valley is an amazing place – as i’m sure you’ve gathered from this information. You need to spend a few days there and really get a feel for the area and, importantly, treat it like an adventure and go off exploring as much as you can. Maps and guides are important to get your bearings but after that you should see what else you can find, it won’t be difficult.
We’ve included all key areas in a map below. Honourable mentions to Zabrinskie Point, The Devils Golf Course and all the rest we’ve added here.