It took some sweet-talking from me and a few years to convince Eric that we really needed to give Death Valley another chance. In December, he reluctantly agreed. It helped a lot that he figured out a route this time that was less wearing on our brakes and our nervous systems.
Although we still had some curvy, steep, and rollercoaster roads to deal with, we found it much less stressful coming in from the south on Highway 178 and then picking up Highway 190 east into the park. That route avoids the worst of 190 (that was the drive that made Eric boycott Death Valley for so many years).
A Place Of Extremes
December is a perfect time to visit Death Valley National Park. The temperatures are just right for hiking, and the angle of the sun in winter illuminates the colors of the landscape. This is a place of extremes—it’s the hottest place in the world (the highest recorded temperature is 134 degrees) and the driest place in North America. Just sitting in the shade in the summer doing nothing you’ll lose two gallons of water in a day. The national park is diligent about warning visitors of the dangers, including posting visual aids in every restroom for monitoring the color of your pee (dark yellow means you’d better drink more water).
A note about visiting the park in December: Go before Christmas break, and you’ll avoid the hordes that descend on the park from late December through March.
Along with winning the prize for hottest, driest, and lowest, Death Valley is enormous. At over 3 million acres, it’s the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. Once a warm inland sea and sculpted over the eons by earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods, Death Valley is a surreal landscape of unique beauty. Yes, it is desolate. But there’s something peaceful and soul-nourishing about the expansive vistas of softly folded mountains, carved canyons, shifting dunes, and crystalline salt flats.
We set up camp at the Furnace Creek Campground and focused our explorations in the southern region of the park. This is where most of the don’t-miss attractions are concentrated, and there was plenty to keep us occupied for four days. We’ll return another time to explore the northern half of the park and to visit Scotty’s Castle and Mosaic Canyon, both of which were closed while we were there.
Zabriskie Point is the place to go for a spectacular panoramic view. And it’s the starting point for several trails, including a 2.5-mile loop hike into the beauty of the badlands.
Click on any photo for a larger image
Golden Canyon Hike
The Golden Canyon hike is one of the most popular in the park. We started with a ranger-led one-mile ramble that focused on the history and geology of the area and continued on our own for a gorgeous 4-mile loop hike that combined Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch. There’s a steep climb up to Manly Beacon before dropping down into Gower Gulch—it’s worth the effort.
The lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level and is one of the most photogenic places in Death Valley. It doesn’t look like much from the road, but we walked a half-mile beyond the short boardwalk trail and were rewarded with a moonscape of expansive salt flats.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Sculpted anew by winds every day, there are no defined trails in Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. A mile of hiking (which is more than plenty in soft sand) took us into the middle of the highest dunes.
Harmony Borax Works & Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
Harmony Borax Works is a relic of the mining industry in Death Valley. Double teams of mules hauled borax processed here across the desert to a train depot 165 miles away (this gave rise to the “20-Mule Team Borax” slogan in 1891). When a steam engine brought in to replace the mules broke down, the mule team dragged the engine out of the valley. :-)
Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette
Artist’s Drive showcases some of the most vibrant colors in Death Valley. And it’s a fun drive (without a trailer, of course). The 9-mile one-way road dips and winds through a landscape of yellows, reds, greens, blues, and purples created by oxidized minerals. We drove the road two different times and found that the late afternoon sun best highlights the colorful rock formations.
Furnace Creek Inn & Campground
The elegant Furnace Creek Inn was built in 1927 by the Pacific Borax Company to attract tourists to Death Valley when the mining industry waned. It’s a gorgeous palm tree studded oasis in the desert and just a mile from Furnace Creek Campground. We enjoyed a delicious and relaxing lunch on the terrace—such a treat in the middle of nowhere!
Speaking of campgrounds, the Furnace Creek Campground offers a range of no-hookup to full hookup sites, some of which have front-row views of the Panamint Mountains. It’s a short walk to the excellent visitor center and a good location for the attractions at the south end of the park.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Leaving Death Valley, we stopped for a couple of nights just outside of the park to visit Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, which we first heard about from our friends Lisa and Hans of Metamorphosis Road. This is one of the most beautiful wildlife refuges we’ve seen in our travels, with boardwalks snaking through a landscape of golden grasslands leading to turquoise warm springs that sparkle like little jewels in the desert landscape.
The land was rescued from developers who planned to turn it into another Las Vegas. It’s now a refuge for migratory birds and endemic species found nowhere else (including a weird little water bug related to bed bugs). I guess everything has an important role in the web of life, right? We stayed at a casino campground just a couple of miles away with water and electric hookups—basically a big parking lot, but the sites closest to the mountains have an excellent view.
One More Thing: A Quirky Hot Spring Stop
Many years ago, we discovered Delight’s Hot Spring Resort, a funky little hot spring in the wide-spot in the road known as Tecopa. There is absolutely nothing fancy or resort-like about this place. But we had a site with a wonderful view, and the private hot pools are clean and filled with naturally flowing hot mineral water that bubbles up from the desert. Delight’s is just as quirky as we remembered, with the addition of some really tacky statuary and a fantastic microbrewery walking distance from the campground. Soaking in a hot pool under the stars on a chilly December evening—yeah, that was good.
China Ranch Date Farm is nearby and makes for an interesting day trip to a working date ranch and all the dates you care to taste from at least a dozen varieties.