Death Valley National Park offers a lot of variety for those who like to explore geological wonders and discover unique bits of American history. You can hike into the back country, but you can also have a very full experience without hiking at all.  Climb sand dunes, experience amazingly cool breezes over the Ubehebe Crater, discover a variety of geologic creations, and visit the lowest inland elevation in North America (Badwater…282 feet below sea level).  Explore the history of Mustard Canyon, where Chinese laborers harvested long-standing deposits of Borax until this natural resource was fully depleted.  Form your own opinion of the legend of Scotty’s Castle.  You may even see some wildlife in this intriguing place with the unfortunate name of Death Valley.

Death Valley badlands

How is it that a place called Death Valley, with a geological feature called badlands, can be so beautiful? This view is from the road…no hiking required. In fact, I am forced to admit that I did not do much hiking at all in Death Valley. If you are so inclined, there are many hiking opportunities, including alluvial fans, canyons, sand dunes, craters, and mountains. Just bring lots of water! Remember, this is the desert, and cell phone service is sparse or nonexistent. Also, if hiking the canyons, be sure you’re aware if there is any rain in the area, as flash floods easily occur and can be quite dangerous.

It is possible to explore this land of contrasts in a standard passenger vehicle or motor home.  In fact, we had enough to engage us for several days as we traveled by car.  If you want to experience the fullness of this park, consider coming prepared with a high clearance or four wheel drive vehicle.  This is necessary for travel to several areas of the park, including the larger sand dunes and the racetrack (where rocks mysteriously move across the desert floor).

Death Valley highlights:

View of Badwater and the salt flats from Dante's View

Dante’s View is at 5000 feet of elevation, while Badwater is 282 below sea level.  There is a temperature loss of about 5 degrees for every 1000 feet of elevation gain, making the temperature difference from Badwater to Dante’s View about 25 degrees.

Ubehebe Crater - 1/2 mile wide, 700 feet deep

Another place where temperature plays a central role is at Ubehebe Crater.  This crater, created when magma encountered water-soaked bedrock and alluvial material, generates quite a cool breeze when you stand at the rim.  You may want to bring a jacket…even on a warm day.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike to the bottom of the 1/2 mile wide, 770 foot deep crater. I was tempted, but decided to forgo the opportunity since I knew I’d have to hike back up. Instead, I opted for a short hike to “Little Hebe” crater, much smaller but no less interesting.

Scotty's Castle

aka Death Valley Ranch

I was more impressed by the lore of “Scotty’s Castle” than by the living history tour. I should have taken my friend’s advice and gone on a behind the scenes tour of the innovative air conditioning system. Ah, well, live and learn! Legend has it that a gold prospector and con man, Walter “Scotty” Scott, used investment money from wealthy easterners to build this oasis in the desert.

Coyote minding his own business

Scotty’s Castle is located in an area of the valley that has a lot of springs. Therefore, it is fairly lush and cooler than the rest of the valley. It seems the coyotes agree that this is an inviting area.

My sad attempt at photographing sand dunes at high noon

We went to the Mesquite Flat Dunes, just off the roadside in the middle of the park. This was the most strenuous activity of our trip, and it was an amazing hike! A troop of boyscouts was hiking a couple of dunes away, and they looked like ants by the time they got to the top of the dune. There are several other sand dunes in more remote sections of this 140 mile long park, including the 600+ foot tall Eureka Dunes in the north.

If you’ll be taking a lot of pictures, or it’s a warm day, try to schedule your hike to the sand dunes for the early morning or afternoon. Pictures taken when the sun is its highest don’t come out as well as those taken with some shadow.

Zabriskie Point, land of the caterpillars

You can see the formation called “caterpillars” from the Zabriskie Point overlook, and explore them up close on one of the many hiking trails. They look like multi-hued sand dunes that are frozen time.

Devil's Golf Course

Drive right up to Devil’s Golf Course, and walk on the paths. I don’t think you’d want to walk right on these formations…it looks like they’d tear your feet apart and sprain your ankles! Reminds me of coral but without the ocean.

Arroweed plants form Devil's Cornfield

Arroweed plants are at the heart of Devil’s Cornfield, where it seems the wind has stolen the ground in which they were growing. There’s a yearly growth cycle by which they continue to prosper here.

Artist's Palette presented by mineral deposits

Discover Artist’s Palette on a one way drive not accessible by class A motor homes. This colorful outcropping of rocks uses mineral deposits and volcanic rock to present its pinks, greens, and purples to the curious traveler.  Nearby, you can take an easy canyon hike to see more mineral deposits at the Golden Canyon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick tour of Death Valley National Park.  Check out my Death Valley podcasts which include more details about lodging opportunities, how to get to Death Valley, and off-road adventures. 

Death Valley Podcast – Part 1
Death Valley Podcast – Part 2

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6 Comments on Death Valley National Park, California

  1. […] 5 – Death Valley National Park, Part 2 In this long-awaited episode, we travel to northern Death Valley National Park in California, and go on some backcountry adventures.  We took a journey through southern Death […]

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  3. davenycity says:

    great blog thank you

  4. Mary says:

    Thanks for the info. I can hardly wait to get back to Arizona to do some more exploring.

  5. Angela says:

    Loved the info and your so easy to listen too…interesting too! Check out Arizona and it’s array of national forests and sites. I sent you a list in separate email.

    Keep Smiling and traveling!
    Angela ();)

  6. […] exploring the southern part of Death Valley National Park. A journey through northern Death Valley will be coming up in Part 2 of this series, which will […]

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