Death Valley was high on our list of must-see places because so many of our friends had raved about it, and it seemed like the kind of place we would really enjoy. Hell, for years, I’ve been pointing out instances where the National Park Service seemed to relish the opportunity to kill its visitors and I knew a place called “Death Valley,” home to such scenic locations as “Funeral Peak” and “Coffin Canyon”, would offer plenty of opportunities to prove my theory. With its claim to fame being the hottest, driest, lowest place in North America, I figured there would be no shortage of ways for unsuspecting tourists to meet their demise, but even I couldn’t envision all the possibilities beforehand:
But, to be honest, sometimes my critique felt a bit too ‘on the nose.’ For that and other reasons, Death Valley falls firmly into our “one and done” bucket. Unlike so many other national parks we’ve sworn we’ll return to, we were happy to check this one off the list and admit: we’re not going back.
Located on the eastern edge of California, about two hours northwest of Las Vegas, DVNP is the largest national park in the lower 48. It is also one of the least accessible. There are only a handful of paved roads that cross through the park, mostly to allow visitors easy access to several main points of interest, but the vast majority of the park is inaccessible absent serious back country hiking. (Folks with high clearance/4WD vehicles can also see some pretty cool features like Racetrack Playa and Eureka Dunes, but since we don’t have our Xterra anymore, we nixed the idea of visiting those places.) Additionally, it should go without saying that DVNP gets hot and dry. Very hot and very dry. We visited at the end of March and it was already getting toasty. Finally, the park is remote. The closest reasonable sized town is Ridgecrest which is almost two hours away, and getting there requires driving on remote desert roads where you’ll see few other vehicles or businesses.
A couple months ago I mentioned that, as a person who’s always lived in highly developed areas and who’s married to someone with a significant history of cardiac issues, I get a bit “twitchy” when we’re in really remote places. Places like DVNP take my low grade twitchiness and dial it right up to “full-on seizure.”
Stovepipe Wells Village Campground
One thing that didn’t help was we stayed inside the national park – something we’ve never done before. Usually, it’s not even an option because the sites aren’t large enough to fit us, reservations are impossible to get, or because the campgrounds don’t have hook-ups (and we don’t want to leave Thor in the RV with no temperature control in a lot of these places.) So I usually just find a campground outside whatever national park we’re visiting and we drive in for day trips. However, in Death Valley, there are actually two campgrounds inside the park that offer hookups – one at Stovepipe Wells and the other at Furnace Creek.
The Stovepipe Wells Village Campground only has 14 FHU sites, and consists of nothing more than a dirt parking lot with a row of parallel sites, but it was good enough for our needs. (FYI, there’s also large FCFS campground at Stovepipe Wells that is operated by the National Park Service. If you’re good with dry camping, that lot is much larger and, as I understand it, rarely gets full.)
However, being inside the national park meant we didn’t have reliable cell service for the better part of a week. Although we had spotty 3G service at our campground, once we drove away from the RV to explore the park in our car, we had nothing, and after a particularly bad windstorm, we lost even the 3G.
Speaking of which, our time at the campground was challenging because of the terrible windstorms that kick up. On our first full day, the winds went absolutely nuts, and because of all the dirt and sand, it was like a scene from the Mummy.
The wind was so intense, we brought our slides in, which reduced our liveable space by about half, but saved us from losing our slide toppers (pieces of cloth that roll out over the slides to keep leaves and twigs and other junk from getting stuck in the slides).
Fortunately, I had checked the weather reports before we headed into the park, so I knew the wind was coming. Later in the week, when another windstorm kicked up out of nowhere, everyone was caught off guard and left scrambling for cover. We watched tent campers in the campground across from us, chasing down their possessions as they suddenly blew away.
That brings me to a little rant. Join me over here as I jump on my soapbox for a good old fashioned grumble session.
Most national parks do not offer cell service in the parks. Why? Because they think it takes away from the aesthetic of the parks. No one wants to see unsightly cell towers in nature, and no one wants to listen to some tourist talking too loudly on their cell phone at a beautiful overlook.
I get that.
However… in a place like Death Valley, it seems blatantly irresponsible and unreasonably dangerous to not offer reliable cell service to visitors. Death Valley is extremely dangerous. Extremely. And if you have trouble of any kind, you may quickly find yourself completely on your own in deadly conditions. Other than in the heavily trafficked areas near Furnace Creek and Badwater Basin, you may not see another human for a long time. On our way into the park, our tire pressure monitoring system went off so we pulled over to let Kevin check the pressure in the tires. In the 10 or so minutes we were sitting on the side of the road, not a single car drove by. That is concerning. If you have a medical emergency or a breakdown on one of these remote roads, you may find yourself stranded and alone for a lengthy period of time. And if and when someone does come by, you’ll need to wait as they go get help and the help then comes back to you. There are no roadside emergency callboxes or other ways to seek assistance. All of this is a recipe for disaster.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Less than two weeks after our visit, a 32 year old congressional aid – an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and an ‘experienced camper’ – and his wife ended up with a disabled vehicle on some remote road, went looking for help, and he is now dead. No one knew they were missing for days, no one found their car for days, and it took a helicopter team two tries to retrieve them.
Ya know what would have avoided all of that? A cell signal.
In the year 2021, we are all reliant on our cell phones. They are no longer a luxury or a “nice-to-have.” They are a necessary part of modern life. We’ve received warnings about all kinds of potentially dangerous weather – from tornadoes to snowstorms to windstorms to flash floods. We’ve completely changed our plans, switched directions, hunkered down, and stayed off the roads based entirely on news and notifications we received on our phones. And we’ve sought help in other ways too. Roadside assistance, emergency veterinary advice, and help for a million random problems via the magic of Google. None of that is possible if you look at your phone during an emergency and realize its only value is as a paperweight. And it’s not just those of us living in tin cans on the road, it’s everyone. Visitorship is off the charts at national parks and other wilderness areas and the truth is, most of these people are inexperienced. Here’s an entire article about all that.
Some national parks are starting to allow cell service and I expect more will follow suit, but it has been a very slow process even in the face of ubiquitous cell phone usage and exploding park attendance. And to be clear, I’m not arguing that cell service needs to be a priority in every park, but in an especially dangerous place like Death Valley, I think it should be. Yes, people need to prepare themselves and make good decisions about the risk they take on, but bad things can happen to even the most prepared people, and a mistake or some bad luck in a place like this, can quickly lead to tragic results. There’s simply no excuse to not at least try to mitigate some of that danger.
End rant. (Please feel free to tell me I’m an idiot. I’ve been called worse. You won’t hurt my feelings.)
Seeing the Must Sees
Alright, back to the good stuff.
DVNP is huge and requires a lot of driving. Most of the must-see stuff is in the southern section of the park, south of Stovepipe Wells, where we were staying, so we spent multiple days south of our campground while we only spent one afternoon north of it.
Badwater Basin & Devil’s Golf Course
DVNP boasts some of the most unique spots in the national park system. Take, for example, Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America. Mandatory picture to prove we were there:
And here’s a marker on the mountain behind the parking lot which shows where sea level is.
Beyond the coolness factor of being at the lowest point on the continent, you can go play on the salt flats, which extend for about 200 square miles.
As you walk out, there’s a decent sized area of compacted, bright white salt:
Keep going out further, and you’ll run into these hexagonal patterned salt formations. When we were there it was brown and white. I’ve seen other pictures where it was all bright white. I guess it just depends on the season. Either way, it’s the perfect spot to break out the old Insta-gaze.
Who did it better? Laura??
Me, obviously. I crushed it.
Anyway, just down the road from Badwater Basin is another area full of cool looking salt formations, called Devil’s Golf Course – the idea being only the devil would build a golf course on such terrain. Visitors are permitted to walk out on the formations, but be forewarned, they’re very sharp and will rip your skin open if you fall. Not that you could call for help if you did. Because… ya know.
Artist’s Palette, Mule Canyon Road, and Dante’s View
Not far down the road is Artist’s Drive which is a 9 mile, paved, one way road that takes visitors around and through a series of canyons and includes a viewing area for the particularly colorful “Artist’s Palette” – the result of oxidation of minerals contained in the rocks.
We saw several examples of these unique, colorful patterns in the mountains as we drove.
However, we actually enjoyed driving through the bizarrely named “Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road” even more. This unpaved road had far fewer visitors, but just as many multi-colored, layered, and textured mountains to gawk at. (You don’t need 4WD or high clearance for this road.)
Dante’s View is located on the southern end of Badwater Road. Unfortunately, we visited on a very windy day, and the elevation there is high, so it was cold and windy and we didn’t stick around long. If the views were clear, you’d be looking down the canyon between two mountain ranges. The white area in the picture is Badwater Basin. All the salt runs down from the mountains into the canyon and collects there.
Hiking Golden Canyon
One of the most popular trails in the park connects the popular Zabriskie Point overlook to the Golden Canyon trailhead on the far side of Golden Canyon. One can either do an out and back on the same trail, or connect to another trail called Gower Gulch to form a loop. Or, if you’re Laura and Kevin, you can accidentally miss your turn and end up doing a little of both. (Mistakes were made…)
The scenery along the trail is epic, but in looking at my photos, I realized how hard it was to capture the experience:
Did you notice the hikers in the above photos? There are 1 or 2 people in each of the pics.
That’s what I mean. It’s really, really big, and that sense of scale just does not convey in most photographs.
In addition to the scale of these formations, it was fascinating to watch the colors and shapes changed as the sun moved across the afternoon sky:
Without question, this was our favorite experience during our visit to Death Valley. We really enjoyed this trail and would highly recommend it to others.
Ubehebe Crater and Mesquite Sand Dunes
For our day north of Stovepipe Wells, we visited Ubehebe Crater and Mesquite Sand Dunes. The crater is located some 45 miles north of the campground, and it takes about an hour to get there. When you arrive, you will see a large hole in the ground.
Then, you will get back in your car and drive home.
I mean, it’s cool, but it’s a hole in the ground.
It was formed by volcanic action, so kinda like Crater Lake, but without the “lake” part. Here’s what it looks like from above:
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are located just a mile from Stovepipe Wells Campground. They would have been awesome to photograph right after one of the crazy windstorms. Alas, by the time we got there, they had been trampled all over.
Still neat though…
Speaking of the crater and sand dunes, we visited those with a very old friend of mine, Randi, and her partner Clare. Randi and I met when we were high school sophomores, attending a six week summer program for high school students at Cornell University. We were roommates for the program and have remained friends ever since – though we hadn’t seen each other for many years.
Here we are, age 17, outside our dorm room for our nightly ID check (can’t let a bunch of high school kids run around unsupervised on a college campus)
and here we are today:
It’s hard to believe an entire decade passed between these two photos.
Something like that, anyway.
Fortunately, we also got to spend time with Randi and Clare at the campground because they were camping in the same area as us. Unfortunately, we did not get to hang out with other friends who were passing through because they happened to pass through during one of the stupid windstorms (and we couldn’t hang out inside because of the virus). Which brings me back to my original point: Between the less than ideal weather, the lack of connectivity and resulting twitchiness, and the overwhelming amount of dust and dirt and brown and gray, DVNP ends up low on our list of favorite national parks. Not that it’s not worth visiting; it’s just not a place we’re motivated to return to.
So with that, we packed up our absolutely filthy motorhome:
and headed straight for a Blue Beacon for some professional crud removal:
Next up… we head back to the California coast to explore Morro Bay, Paso Robles, the Pacific Coast Highway, and, most importantly, get some of that sweet, sweet vaccine. In real time, we’re back to a more typical travel schedule as we start heading east to finally visit family, friends, doctors, and everyone else we haven’t seen in far too long. On the way, we’re looking forward to more national parks, more bucket list items, and Des Moines. Oh yeah… This summer, we’re going to Des Moines!!! Until next time…
Where we stayed:
Stovepipe Wells Village Campground, Death Valley, California