In the ancient past, the Death Valley area and many of the valleys in
the intermountain west of the United States were covered by
lakes and, in some cases, seas, although this was before the valley that
is now known as Death Valley was formed. The climate changes associated with the Ice Ages made
these areas wet and increased the power of erosion. In addition, the
colder temperatures enhanced the power of freezing and thawing, further
increasing the rate of erosion.
The loose debris was transported by water and wind into sorted into
sedimentary layers of various types in the process. The colors of
the sedimentary layers varied depending on the source rock that was being
eroded at the time.
Eventually the Ice Ages ended, water
disappeared, and uplift, folding and faulting took hold of this area.
Down dropped blocks formed valleys, while other areas were uplifted and
became mountainous. Erosion once again
began to fill the valleys, but since the climate had turned arid erosion
slowed due to the scarcity of water. Death Valley is a prime example of
a valley formed by a down-dropped block due to faulting. Its
landforms are erosional in some cases and depositional in other, such as
Courtesy National Park Service
There are three major areas to explore in Death Valley National Park;
Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Scotty's Castle.
Things to See at Furnace Creek
The Furnace Creek area features a number of scenic drives and
several modest hikes. Be sure to see Artist’s Drive (a scenic loop
drive with multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills). Visit the
Devil’s Golf Course (an area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged
spires). Also see the Natural Bridge Canyon, an easy ˝ mile hike from a trailhead
south of the Artists Loop scenic drive..
Badwater is lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
There may be briny water here part of the year, as well as the ever
present salt flats, but the water is not drinkable (in fact, it is
Avoid visiting the salt flats in summer, as they are in the lowest part
of the valley and incredibly hot. You can look across to the mountains
and see Telescope Peak often snow-capped and always towering above
you at 11,049
feet of elevation. The juxtaposition of the lowest elevation in
North America and a tall, snow-covered peak is a spectacular sight.
By the way, the common story of Badwater’s
name is that a group of Mormon pioneers looking for the “Golden Land”
tried to pass though Death Valley on their way west. When they found
water in the middle of the desert, several of these intrepid souls were
adventurous enough to try it and became very sick from drinking the
briny fluid. However, there were no recorded deaths based on this
The Mormon's were responsible for many of the unusual names you will
find in the the west. For example, the Joshua Tree is a shaggy
desert Yucca that is a distant relative of the Lilly. The tree has
an unusual form of branching that seems to have limbs pointing in every
possible direction. To the Mormon's however, one particular tree
they saw seemed to be pointing the way out of the desert. As
a consequence they named the species after Joshua of biblical fame who
helped lead his people to the "Promised Land".
Zabriskie Point provides
a spectacular view that includes a dramatic range of colors draped
across layers of sedimentary rock that make this badlands a beautiful
place to see. The location is a favorite with photographers at sunrise and sunset and the best viewpoint is a short
walk uphill from the parking area.
Dante’s View -more than 5,000 feet above the floor of the valley
is regarded by many as the best view in the park. The access road is
paved, although there are vehicle length restrictions.
Things to see at Stovepipe Wells
Sand Dunes – rising nearly 100 feet from Mesquite flat these dunes are
rippled with numerous patterns and just plain gorgeous, especially in
the late afternoon. Many prefer to see them at dusk or in moonlight, but Sidewinder
rattlesnakes hunt here during the cool summer evenings and any time they
feel like it. If you see a rattlesnake, Sidewinder or other
variety, avoid them as their bite is poisonous and can be deadly if you
cannot reach medical assistance in time.
Mosaic Canyon offers hiking in a colorful canyon with polished marble walls.
Be careful here in the rainy season as thunderstorms can generate flash
floods in these narrow canyons. Flooding in a desert sounds
unlikely, the these arid environments usually have a hard surface that
can absorb very little water. In addition, the mountains
surrounding Death Valley act as collectors and funnel water to lower
elevations. So, keep your eye on the weather and ask the rangers
Salt Creek is the home of a rare pupfish variety, which can sometimes be seen in the
river in the spring of the year. The pupfish are an endangered species
and their ecosystem is very fragile, so pay attention to the signs.
Titus Canyon is one of the largest canyons in the park. It features beautiful scenery, petroglyphs (Indian rock carving/painting), a ghost town and more.
However, the road is accessible only to high clearance vehicles via a 26
mile one-way dirt road that begins outside of the park.
Things to See in The
Scotty’s Castle area
Scotty’ Castle is a Spanish-style mansion associated with the prospector
named “Death Valley Scotty”, who claimed it was built based on the
wealth of his goldmine (a good story but false). The Castle was actually
the summer home of his wealthy friends. History tours of the castle and
its furnished interior are given by park rangers and should not be
Ubehebe Crater was formed about 3,000 years ago by a large volcanic explosion,
which released a pent-up underground reservoir of steam and gases. The force of the
blast blew a 600 feet deep
crater in the floor of Death Valley. Although it is visible from a paved road, you
might want to hike around the crater to see the smaller craters inside
Eureka Dunes, near Scotty's Castle, are the highest dunes in California rising slightly over
700 feet from the valley floor.
Many visitors to the park find great satisfaction in the Panamint
Springs Area, known for its Wildrose Charcoal kilns, the Lee Flats
Joshua Trees (a unique variety of Yucca) and Aguereberry Point,
which is even higher than Dante's View (but in our opinion, less scenic).
If you have the time, you might want to consider visiting this area.
If you are going to hike in anywhere in Death Valley National Park take plenty of water and avoid walking in the heat of the
summer. If there is a trail, use it. Footing can be rough, slippery and
dangerous. Never place your hands on rocks above your head if you cannot
clearly see the surface of the rock, as snakes and other cold blooded
critters use these ledges to warm up after the cool evenings in the
valley. The best hiking season is October to early April. Hiking in
Death Valley can be
dangerous in any season, but summer hiking is particularly dangerous
See this section of the park website for information on hiking and
The vehicle entrance fee is $20 for 7 days and $10 for
individuals traveling on foot, motorcycle of bicycle. If the
motorcycle or bicycle has more than one rider, each is charged the $10
fee. Vehicles, cycles and individuals can leave and re-enter the
park as often as necessary during the 7-day period for which their entrance fee is valid.
The park is open year around and the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and
Museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Pacific Time Zone).
Scotty's Castle is open daily in winter from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
and in summer from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
There are more than 300 miles of paved roads, 300 miles of improved
dirt roads and several hundred miles of unmaintained 4x4 (Jeep) roads in Death
Valley National Park. Conditions can change quickly with inclement
weather, so check for current conditions at the Visitors Center or with
park rangers before taking backcountry roads.
Always load your car with plenty of water in case of emergency and
drink at least 2 to 4 liters per day, more if you are active in the
heat. Summer hiking is not recommended.
Food is available at the Furnace Creek Inn, the Furnace Creek
Ranch, Stovepipe Wells Village, the Panamint Springs Resort, and
there is a snack bar at Scotty’s Castle.
While most everyone who visits Death Valley thinks about the heat as
the biggest threat, the reality is that the main cause of death in the
park is from single-car accidents. So, wear your seatbelt, observe
the speed limits, heed the road signs and stay alert.
Death Valley National Park has nine campgrounds. Furnace Creek,
Mesquite Springs, Emigrant (tent only) and Wildrose are open year round.
Sunset, Texas Spring and Stovepipe Wells are open from October through
April. Two high-elevation camps in the mountains (Thorndike and Mahogany
Flats) are open March through November, but are accessible to high
clearance vehicles only and may require 4-wheel drive.
Furnace Creek campground converts to a first come-first served
basis ($12 per night) from mid-October to mid-April. See this page
from the parks website that explains your
camping options and how to make reservations.
Spring is the most popular time of the year to visit Death Valley
National Park. The days are usually warm and sunny and if the
previous winter was wet, there is the possibility of extravagant
wildflower displays that usually peak in late March and early April
(inquire locally to make sure).
The park is often packed at this time of the year, so make your
Winter is a good time to visit, although the nights can be quite cold
if you are camping. The average low temperature for December and
January is 39 F (4 C). Crowds thin during the period between
Thanksgiving and Christmas but steadily increase from the end of
December. Cloudy weather is somewhat common in winter, but aside
from influencing your photography, it will not inhibit your explorations
of the park.
Autumn is you next best choice and usually the weather is warm, but
pleasant and the skies are clear.
If you can avoid visiting in summer, you will have a much better
experience. By the time May starts it is already too hot for most
visitors. The average daily high in May is 99 F (37 C), rising to
115 F (46 C) in July. The record high in the park occurred on July
when the temperature in July hit 134 F (57 C). Hiking at this time of
year is not recommended and most tourist restricts their activities to
driving the park's scenic routes.
You have probably noticed that we have not mentioned precipitation,
but this is a desert and the annual precipitation is 1.94" (4.9 cm).
Having said that, January and February are usually the month with the
most precipitation (.27" (0.7cm) and .35" (0.9 cm). In
some years there has been no rain at all.
Lodging in one of the facilities in Death Valley National Park is
a better strategy than driving back and forth to nearby towns,
especially since no town is really nearby. However, the park facilities
are often full in high season, so make your reservations early.
The park, itself is huge, and the sights far apart. We recommend
that you stay in the park, rather than commute from a distance as doing
so will add many miles to your travels.
Lodging within the park is available at
Furnace Creek Inn (mid-October through Mother’s day),
Furnace Creek Ranch,
Stovepipe Wells Village, or the
Conversely, you may be planning only for a day trip in the Park and, if so, lodging outside the park may
be your best bet.
Outside of the park you can find lodging along highway 95 in Nevada.
Nevada towns in some proximity to the park and that offer some
lodging possibilities include Tonopah
(136 miles), Goldfield (107 miles), Beatty (44 miles), Indian Springs
(114 miles) and
(118 miles), as well as in Pahrump, Nevada (56 miles and a good choice). On the California side you can find lodging to the west of the park at
Mojave (191 miles), Ridgecrest (156 miles), Inyokern (147 miles), Lone Pine
(108 miles), Independence (121 miles), Big Pine (175 miles) and Bishop
(163 miles. Note that with the exception of Las Vegas, many
of these towns are small and have limited lodging availability.