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Imagine walking over crunchy, hard-packed salt while the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states billows over you. Exploring volcanic craters and canyons straight from Star Wars before running over rippled sand dunes. Curling up in a sleeping bag under millions of unobstructed stars. Well, pack plenty of water and make sure your car tires are in shape because Death Valley National Park delivers it all. Read on as one TravelingDad shares all the deets on what to see, what to do and what to bring during your family visit to this spectacular wonder.
Looking back on the day
“There are so many weird sights, it really keeps the kids’ interest,” Randall was saying as he sat back in a camp chair at his Texas Spring campsite near Furnace Creek, California, U.S. “The dunes, the zebra mountains, walking on salt, Death Valley National Park has something each one of our kids has liked the best.”
Gwen mopped her brow against the evening warmth and passed some instructions to the kids on their way to wash the dinner dishes at the outdoor sinks a few campsites down the road. She heaved a sigh, “I can’t believe how many miles we actually drove today,” she said. “This park is huge, but you have to see all of it.”
Having brought their three kids from San Bernardino in southern California to America’s largest national park, Randall and Gwen counted off what they had seen during the day. A couple of guys at the campsite backing up to our adjoining sites walked between Randall’s SUV and a tent with an armful of cold beers.
“You all look like you could use these,” Brice said. From Las Vegas, Brice and Jacob pulled up chairs and joined the conversation handing around the beers. Their motorcycle engines ticked as they cooled from their day’s ride.
The night turned the sky indigo and ebony
Behind them, the sky was already indigo fading to ebony, and the canopy of stars was beginning to show. A cool swirl of breeze made the flames dance as another prime Death Valley National Park day drifted into a star-filled night.
Prime season for Death Valley weather is from October to April. The national park’s daytime temperatures remain toasty, but the nights are cool. Randall made the kids pull on their hoodies. The rest of us started reaching for jackets. During the day, the Death Valley temperature can range from the upper 70s into the lower 90s, but never into three digits during prime season.
Because of the short season, campsite or in-park reservations need to be made early. There are rarely last-minute rooms. The Furnace Creek Ranch campground requires reservations, but Texas Spring and the overflow campgrounds are first-come, first-setup.
Wildflowers abound, but don’t overwhelm
Although spring 2019 had record rains in California creating wildflower superblooms, Death Valley National Park was not so blessed. Throughout the park, wildflowers were visible alongside roads and adjoining water-collecting salt-free low spots in the park.
This is another icon of the American West. In the summer, the Death Valley temperature is one of the hottest points in American, but it’s cooler at higher elevations. In the prime season, October to April, temperatures are warm on the Valley floor, but cooler in high elevations.
Badwater Basin: 25 minutes from Visitor Center
“It’s the crunch,” said Brice. “Like walking on corn flakes.”
He was talking about the hike on the salt flats to Badwater Basin from the parking area. After walking down a boardwalk ramp to the basin, it’s about a ten-minute walk on hard-packed salt to the lowest point in North America. Hikers on this three-quarter mile (1.2km; all travel times, mileage and kilometers are rounded up. Travel time is based on general adherence to speed limits) walk end up 288 feet (88m) below sea level, about the same height as Niagara Falls.
Badwater Basin is one of the most popular places to discover Death Valley. Visitors want to stand on the low-point below sea level while Mount Whitney in the distance, the tallest point in the lower 48 states, looks down on all.
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That morning, Badwater was seeing steady traffic in the cool air. The hard-packed salt easily handled a conventional wheelchair as a trio of friends headed for the middle of the salt basin. One of the three broke away and flipped giggling into a head-stand. Her friends laughed at her putting her head on the salt.
Nearby a father tried to corral his two young sons into a picture while their mother stood patiently with the phone aimed at them. The older one was fascinated by the natural geometric forms that bubbled up across the salt.
Saltwater potholes attract kids
At the campfire, Gwen said she had to keep pulling the youngest from the little potholes in the salt where water was rising from the salty bottom.
“He kept wanting to taste it,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s safe or not.”
Brice commented that it was probably so salty, it would have been spit out in an instant.
The parking area is off Badwater Road, about 30 minutes (18 miles, 29 km) south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, and a little less from Death Valley Junction. Take in the hike to the lowest point, add a little time playing and photographing, and you should allow 90 minutes for the round trip. Carry at least one-half liter of water per person to the basin from the parking area; Actually, just to be safe, make it a liter.
Four hours in Death Valley
For a quick three-to-four-hour visit in the national park, Badwater Basin takes half the time, but there are three other stops I detail below that you should consider on the return trip to the Visitor Center. Most people start their trip at the Visitor Center. It’s the place where visitors check-in for passes, ask rangers questions, take a quick look at the small museum and watch a video. Spend 30 minutes at the Visitor Center as it’s a worthwhile way to start a trip. There’s also a Death Valley Natural History Museum gift shop.
Death Valley Visitor Center
The visitor center is just north of the historic Furnace Creek Ranch area with campground, cabins and golf course. There’s a general store with a lot of souvenirs and the “did I really forget that” camping provisions. It’s a good starting point for the day on the way down to the first stop, Badwater Basin.
One of the rangers working the information counter was overheard being asked about getting to the Racetrack. The Racetrack is a playa (an area of flat, dried-up land, especially a desert basin from which water evaporates quickly) where the winds literally move rocks on the smooth alkali surface.
“That road is one of the roughest in the park,” she said, pointing to the spot on the park’s map. “What kind of car are you driving?”
The visitor replied the family was in a Nissan Rogue.
“The rocks along the road are from the volcano. They are really sharp,” the ranger explained. “You should be sure your spare is inflated, and frankly, I wouldn’t drive it in a Rogue.”
Natural Bridge. 15 minutes from Badwater Basin
After leaving Badwater Basin, it’s 15 minutes (5 miles; 8 km) to the Natural Bridge parking area. This involves about a quarter-mile uphill hike to see the natural bridge and dry waterfall. Carry water. It’s an easy hike in terms of skill, but the elevation gain, though gradual, can be felt. At least walking back is downhill.
The natural bridge is different from an arch. The bridge is formed by water pressure acting as a drill. An arch is formed by wind, rain, ice, and thaw. The dry waterfall, about 50 feet (15m) farther uphill in the shade of the canyon, is an open cylinder created with water cascading down from a wash on the canyon rim. The water pressure carved a straight slot down to the canyon wash.
A couple in their late 60s stood in the shade under the natural bridge gazing up at the erosion patterns while their grandchildren ran over to the dry waterfall to stand inside the rock alcove.
The roundtrip, including driving, takes about an hour, leaving just about 90 minutes before ending the Death Valley quick hit.
Artist’s Drive. 9 minutes from Natural Bridge Road
A short drive up Badwater Road comes to the entrance at Artist’s Drive. This one-way 8-mile (13km) drive winds through a landscape that befits its name. Hills and mountains of a variety of colors and patterns dot the landscape of the rising and falling rollercoaster-like road. The anchor-attraction is Artist’s Palette, a formation of splotched colors that would make a seasoned painter blush with envy. The colors here encompass the entire spectrum seen within Death Valley. This loop takes 45 minutes but can run longer if you’re stuck behind a slow vehicle or tour bus. Remember to drink water (about a half-liter each), even when just driving on this circuit.
The kids were saying that Artist’s Drive was pretty boring, but Randall pointed out that they loved climbing on the different color rocks and terrain at the Artist’s Palette.
A glance at Golden Canyon trailhead. 12 minutes from Artist’s Palette
Golden Canyon is on the valley side of a trail that starts at Zabriskie Point. Its unique geology will be instantly familiar to any Star Wars fan. You may know it as the planet Tatooine. On a four-hour Death Valley drive, this is just going to be a trailhead stop and quick look. The shortest of the hikes takes 1.5 hours and covers nearly 3 miles (4km).
The three hikes from Golden Canyon trailhead meander through geologically spectacular badlands. The routes are moderately difficult in terms of skill, but strenuous in terms of elevation gains and exposure to the sun—even in the winter—over the nearly 8-mile (13km) complete circuit. The long hike is a 4.5-hour round trip.
Death Valley Dining: It’s Lunchtime
Returning to Furnace Creek from Golden Canyon is about a 7-minute drive over Badlands Road and California Route 190. Nearby you’ll find some good food options for the family.
There are five dining options at the ranch area. Highly recommended on Google and Yelp, the Timbisha Shoshone Village Indian Tacos and Shaved Ice is moderately priced. It’s a casual-dining, self-order restaurant run by members of the Shoshone Indian Nation living in Death Valley. It’s also a chance to try fry bread and Indian tacos.
Dining is also offered at Xanterra Travel Collection National Park concession restaurants in what is now called The Oasis at Death Valley. The Inn at Death Valley is located at the junction of S.R. 190 and Badwater Road and has a café and fine dining. At the Furnace Creek Inn on the Furnace Creek Ranch, there is the Ranch 1849 Buffet, the Last Kind Words Saloon, and the 19th Hole at the Furnace Creek golf course.
For eating on the run, there is a grab-and-go in both the Ranch General Store and the Visitor Center.
Four hours and it’s “outta here!” But wait, there’s so much more worthy of one full day, or betterer, several days.
A full day in Death Valley
After lunch, if playing in the sand, looking down a volcanic crater, checking out old mines or staring at zebra-striped mountains are added to the day’s itinerary, you can easily make it a full day in Death Valley.
The starring attraction in Death Valley National Park is the diversity of geology. From an 11,000-foot-tall mountain and natural bridges, to a volcanic crater and sand dunes, most sights are best accessed from cars. Many of the roads are paved, and other major roads are passable with a standard passenger vehicle.
Ubehebe Crater: 75 minutes from Visitor Center
See what happens when magma pushing upwards hits a cold water spring at Ubehebe Crater. The 600-foot deep crater was created by a massive steam explosion. Known as a maar volcano, the massive crater shares the general vicinity with Little Ubehebe Crater and a couple of unnamed geologic companions.
From the visitor center, it’s a 56 mile (90km) drive on Scotty’s Castle Road, also called the North Highway. The road to the crater is nicely paved.
The crater is rimmed with a 1.5 mile (2.4km) moderately difficult trail. The trail encircles the main crater, and when hiked counterclockwise, the trail passes the little crater and some other maar volcano craters in the area. Allow an hour for this hike and exploration, and a liter of water.
When heading back to the car in the parking area at the Ubehebe Crater, a man was walking around his Jeep Wrangler, tightening wheel lug nuts. When asked why, he said that Race Track Road was really rough.
“Lots of rocks, and they’re sharp,” he said. “That’s why I’m tightening the nuts. I don’t want a wheel to fall off at highway speed.”
He said that he passed several passenger cars, and did see one Subaru having a tire changed.
Historic Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Town of Stovepipe Wells.
About 33 miles (53km) back from the craters, a good 45-minute drive, the road to the historic Stovepipe Wells is a soft, packed-sand road running about a mile to the original well serving the area. The California Office of Historic Preservation says that this is the only water source in the dunes areas between the mines at Rhyolite and Skidoo. The stovepipe was pushed into the ground to mark the location for those times when sand obscured the well. Its use dates back to Indian tribal routes through the Valley. The drive to the well, including a brief walk around and photoshoots, and it’s just a 30-minute detour.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. 15 minutes from the historic well
Just 15 minutes away on westbound S.R. 190 is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The dunes are a magnet for kids and an attraction for many. Although just one percent of the total park area, the dunes are representative of what many believe desert is supposed to look like. Wind rippled patterns, scraggly trees and vegetation taking root, and a chance to disappear from the sight of civilization attract many visitors. Figure a good hour playing in the sand and brushing it off before saddling back up in the car. Also, plan on carrying a liter of water per person.
Stovepipe Wells Village for the afternoon break
It’s a good time for a mid-afternoon break, and Stovepipe Wells Village is just four minutes farther west. The general store, visitor center and historic buildings make for a quick diversion and chance to refresh. There are a campground, hotel and dining available in the historic mining camp. Easily, another 30 minutes will pass before heading east on S.R. 190 back towards the Visitor Center.
If it’s been about three hours since lunch, it’s a good time for a salty snack or a non-sugared drink with electrolyte replacement. If the temperature is over 85F (29C) degrees, cut that cycle to two hours.
Harmony Borax Works. 25 minutes from Stovepipe Wells mining town
On the way back to the Visitor Center and Furnace Creek east on S.R. 190 brings visitors to the Harmony Borax Works. The site is 23 miles (37km) from Stovepipe Wells general store.
“You should see the wagons,” squealed one of the kids. “The wheels are bigger than me.”
The huge wagons hauled the borax from the mines to the processing plant, much of which remains at the Harmony Works. At one time, this was a bustling mining town, and ruins of several stone homes and stores remain below the borax works.
The wagons were hauled to the works by, yes, 20-mule teams. This is the origin of 20-Mule Team Borax. The stories, real and imagined about life in Death Valley inspired the long-running radio and later, television program, “Death Valley Days,” which was hosted by later-to-be President Ronald Reagan.
Rangers programs tour at Borax Works
Depending on how many of the interpretive panels are read, and whether the town ruins are visited, planning 30 to 45 minutes at the Harmony Works makes sense. It will be hot and dry, so also plan for a liter of water per person. Ranger programs are often scheduled at the Works.
It’s just 5 minutes back east on S.R. 190 to Furnace Creek, and it’ll be time to start preparing dinner at the campsite or moseying on over to one of the restaurants if staying in the cabins or hotels.
“I can’t believe your kids still have energy after the day you guys had,” said Brice, watching the trio of kids romping through the campsite.
The driving adds up, more than 200 miles in one day, and close to eight hours exploring just a portion of Death Valley National Park.
Zabriskie Point. 9 minutes from the Visitor Center
If there is any energy before the sun sets, the 10-minute drive to Zabriskie Point to watch the sunset on the Sierra Nevada mountains is well worth the steep, paved walk from the parking area. The view is magnificent, and there are glimpses of Tatooine in Golden Canyon.
Small groups of families and friends were scattered across the large, paved overlook gazing into the western sky as the sun painted its desert colors of blue, red, orange, yellow and pink across the mountain ridges and peaks in the Sierra Nevada. The blazing colors of the mountains kept fading to dark, while the sun changed the colorscape of the badlands below the overlook. The creamy white color changed to golden hues, then red was overtaking the golds, and the dark blue shadows of night crept towards the top where the groups stood quietly watching nature’s color show.
Death Valley Stargazing
One by one, the kids snuggled into sleeping bags, exhausted from a long 9-hour day at Death Valley. Gwen grabbed a cold beer from the cooler and plopped into her camp chair. The flames had retreated into a bed or glowing red-orange coals ebbing and flowing with the breeze. Our ad hoc group of strangers, now camping companions, all stared at the growing canopy of stars.
Death Valley National Park is a Dark-Sky Park, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. There are virtually no exterior lights in the campground, and any lights around Furnace Creek are shielded and aimed for ground illumination only.
Conversation was quiet and yawns prevalent. The fire was drowned, stirred and tested for coolness, and the companions all retreated to their tents.
Near midnight, the alarm on the phone chirped, and it was time to take photos of the Milky Way. It’s still a learning experience, but there are websites with simple and clear directions. The arc of the Milky Way is in its prime position between 11:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. the next morning. At Death Valley, it is well worth the sleep deprivation to experience the colors and light of the stars.
More than 80 percent of the population of the U.S. cannot see the Milky Way in their home communities.
Extended Death Valley Vacation: More days = more side trips
Death Valley has passenger vehicle-accessible canyons, mountain passes, historic charcoal kilns and abandoned mines, such as Leadville in Titus Canyon. The park is 5,262 square miles (8,468km2). About 90 percent of the park is wilderness only accessible by backpacking and hiking.
The park has roads for mountain and road biking, hiking trails for every skill level, and colorful geology found in very few places. Death Valley guidebooks are available online, and at the Visitor Center Gift Shop, Furnace Creek General Store, and most sporting and outdoor stores around the nation.
A good map is also very important, and the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series is a personal favorite.
One of the most famous places to visit, Scotty’s Castle, is closed due to severe flood damage and won’t open until late 2021. Check the website for other closures or reopening sites.
Another place for an amazing view of Death Valley is the overlook at Dante’s View. Located off eastbound S.R. 190, Dante’s View is 20 miles (32km), about 45 minutes from Twenty Mule Team Canyon. It’s one of the most photographed sites in the national park.
Death Valley National Park is a must-see in the American Southwest.
Enjoying the desert safely
- The nomenclature “national park” is misleading. This is not what one expects of a park. The average humidity is 10 percent or less. Even in winter, perspiration will be evaporated, which affects the body’s ability to cool. One liter of water per hour is a safe rule of thumb. Children may drink less, but should drink water and balance the water with a non-sugared electrolyte and salty snacks. Candy, coffee, soda, and tea do not count for hydration. Many 100 percent juice products will not properly hydrate, but can aid electrolyte balance. Be smart. Be prepared, be safe.
- Carry a first aid kit in the car. There are many things that bite, itch, and poke in the desert. Alcohol and iodine wipes are a good supply to have on hand, as well as anti-itch medications or ointments. If hiking is on the agenda, some Moleskin and stretch bandages are important to pack in the kid.
- Temperatures in the prime visiting season are comfortable, but situated below sea level, the sun can be brutal. Always wear sunscreen, even if the day is cloudy. There may be a scientific explanation, but personal experience says the sun is brutal at the low elevations in the park, and thirst-building at higher points. “Cool sleeves,” the white or lime long sleeves seen on cyclists, are perfect for keeping the sun from burning arms. If purchasing, ensure the sleeves carry the SPF50 sunscreen rating.
- Wear appropriate shoes. Open-toe shoes of any kind worn outside of the campgrounds, hotels, and paved parking areas are invitations to cuts, injuries and ant bites.
- Hike the well-developed or paved trails with light hiking boots or hiking shoes supporting foot arches. Hike the backcountry trails with high-top hiking boots supporting arches and ankles. Trekking poles are not a necessity in the backcountry on flat trails. In the canyons or climbing, the poles make a lot of sense. The poles help in soft sand as well.
- Check road and trail conditions every day at the Visitor Center. Conditions can change throughout the park. At the time this article was written in late summer 2019, there were major closures throughout the park.
- Plan your trip on the Death Valley website. Never be embarrassed to ask questions, the knowledge gained may enhance the trip or save a life.
- Bring lots of memory cards and remember spare batteries from the digital devices. There are no power outlets at some of the campground, so power cubes may also be a good idea. Parts of the park have no mobile device signals, so do not depend on mobile devices for navigation or emergency contact. Bring a map and compass and know how to use them. REI has inexpensive and free orienteering courses throughout the year. Take a class.