A park with vast and diverse landscapes from bone dry desert basins 300 feet below sea level to lush alpine forests at elevations up to 11,000 feet. Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states with an area of 3.4 million acres and is located on the California/Nevada border in the southeastern part of California.
As we approached Death Valley, we did not know how to feel about this park. We had done some research and, as far as we could tell, this was just a very large and very dry mountainous desert. However, 12 days later as we headed west to our next destination, we could not get over how awesome this giant park is and were happy we had taken extra time to soak up its natural wonders.
Coronavirus & Social Distancing
A week before we came to Death Valley, we were in Flagstaff, AZ fresh off a 4-day visit from Ashby’s family during which we visited the Grand Canyon. At this time, we were aware of coronavirus and had not really given it much attention but, when orders to shelter in place began to appear, we figured we should consider how our plans might be affected. By now, the NPS had already begun closing or restricting access to various public lands so we decided to park in one spot for a while and monitor the situation. Death Valley was one of the next destinations on our list and seemed like a good location given its remote nature. The park is also surrounded with BLM land and thanks to freecampsites.com, we found a spot near the southeast border of the park in Tecopa, CA (Campsite Link). This spot became our home for most of the next week and a half.
Sidewinder Canyon & Badwater Basin
On our first exploration day of Death Valley, we left our spot in Tecopa and entered the southeast side of the park via highway 178. After a short stop at Ashford Mill, we continued to Sidewinder Canyon. A small sign indicates this point of interest from the road where there is a gravel parking lot near the trail head.
From the parking lot, the trail led us uphill into a large drainage roughly 100 feet wide and 30 feet tall. Along the way, at various locations in the drainage walls, are smaller drainages in the form of narrow slot canyons. We hiked into 3 of these narrow canyons, the longest of which being nearly a mile. Hiking through the canyons did require scrambling over various 4 to 6 foot tall walls along the way. All in all, this was a fun hike into some unworldly parts of the park.
Our next stop of the day was Badwater Basin, probably Death Valley’s most popular attraction. Sitting at an elevation of 282 feet below sea level, this vast salt flat is the lowest point in North America. Rainfall and snowmelt from a surrounding area of 9,000 square miles drain into this area only to evaporate leaving behind the minerals it picked up along the way.
Due to coronavirus precautions, the park service had closed the parking lot at the scenic walk that leads out onto the salt flat so we had to park off the road near the walk. The walk takes you half a mile out on the salt flat where you can look for miles to the north or south and see the white salt deposits. Also, when we looked up on the mountain to the east of the parking lot, there was a sign roughly 300 feet above that read “SEA LEVEL” indicating where we were standing in relation to the normal level of the ocean. It is quite an interesting experience to be standing below sea level and see mostly nothing but dry earth.
Dante’s View & Artist Drive
After a night’s stay at a free campsite called “The Pads” (remnants of an abandoned mining operation just outside the park), we headed up to “Dante’s View”, a scenic overlook located 5,000 feet above Badwater Basin. From this point we took in beautiful vistas of the valley below and surrounding snow-covered peaks. There is also a trail that leads from the parking lot along the adjacent ridge that provides additional views of the scenic surroundings.
After Dante’s View, we drove back down into the valley and onto what is known as “Artist Drive”, a 9-mile scenic drive through hills that are naturally multi-colored by the various minerals that make up these badlands. The loop contains many points of interest with parking areas so we could stop and take it all in. The most vibrant multi-colored formation is “Artist Palette” with hues of gold, green, pink, white, and red.
Ubehebe Crater & Darwin Falls
Located on the northern end of the park is a volcanic formation named “Ubehebe Crater”, a 600 foot deep crater created by a steam and gas explosion. Upon our arrival to the crater, we took a few moments to take in the view from the parking lot then hiked down the trail that leads to the bottom of the crater. Because it was Spring, the hillsides were covered with wildflowers making a pleasant addition to the already beautiful surroundings. From the bottom, one of the most attractive things we noticed were the multi-colored bands of the various layers of earth that make up the crater walls. After climbing out of the crater (and catching our breath), we hiked along the circumferential trail that leads around the rim of the crater. The hike around the rim also led us past a smaller crater known as “Little Hebe”.
After visiting Ubehebe Crater, we headed southwest to the desert oasis called “Darwin Falls”. This is a small waterfall that flows year-round located near Panamint Springs. After driving down a rocky unpaved road to the trailhead parking lot, we hiked a mile uphill to the falls. As we got closer to the falls the vegetation grew increasingly greener and the stream grew larger. At the foot of the falls lies a small pool that leads to the stream. After seeing nothing but desert for the previous week, it was interesting to see so much water in such a dry place.
For our last day of exploration, we chose to hike up Wildrose Peak, the second highest peak in Death Valley National Park with an elevation of 9,064 feet. Starting from our previous night’s campsite on the western border of the park near Panamint Valley Road, we headed up Wildrose Road toward the trailhead parking lot. This parking lot is also the location of some Charcoal Kilns used during mining operations in the late 1800s.
The trail to the peak is an 8.4 mile out and back hike with an elevation gain of 2,200 feet. Given it was early Spring when we made this hike, most of the trail was covered with snow (up to knee deep at the summit), this was a welcomed site for 2 Texans who rarely see snow! The snow did however make locating the trail difficult in some areas but, thankfully other hikers had come before us leaving their footprints to show the way. As we climbed higher the temperatures grew colder and the air thinner but, we finally made the summit.
From the top we could see all the way down into Badwater Basin, almost 9,500 feet below. It was quite a unique experience to be standing knee deep in snow surrounded by lush Juniper and Pinyon forest while looking at a place we were standing only a few days before that contains such little water or vegetation. Once it was time to go, we ate some lunch, filled out the logbook, and reluctantly made our way back down to the parking lot, stopping occasionally to play in the snow.
Death Valley National Park is certainly the largest and most diverse park we have visited so far on our journey. We came not knowing what to expect and left surprised and full of new memories to have for our lifetime. Our only regret was that that the visitor’s center and many hikes were inaccessible due to coronavirus precautions set in place by park staff. This is understandable however as they are only trying to protect the general public in this time of crisis.
If you do plan to visit Death Valley in the future, we recommend you do so in a high clearance 4×4 vehicle as many of the roads are rough and primitive. Also, because of the shear size of the park, be ready to drive quite bit, we drove over 120 miles each day when we were exploring the park. We hope you enjoy Death Valley as much as we did!
Bye for now!