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  • Writer's pictureMarie Bailly

Life in Death Valley

Hottest, driest, lowest - all accurate descriptions of Death Valley, yet many find the valley an irresistible lure. It’s sensible to visit DV during winter or spring months when nights are refreshingly cool and days eventually warm up, but as as long as you are well-prepared (carrying plenty of emergency water, driving only on main roads and following Park’s summer rules) you won’t be in any great danger when visiting in the summer time. Almost all campgrounds below sea level are closed in the summertime but you can still do dispersed camping in higher altitude spots like Eureka Dunes.

Death Valley overlanding trip
Harsh, hot and hellish - yet completely irresistible

Whether you come to Death Valley for a day or a week, it quickly becomes evident how out of place humans are there - especially without support of modern technology like air conditioning. And then you can’t help but marvel at the plants and animals of Death Valley that have successfully fought the tough conditions in this terrifying but endlessly beautiful place.

“First-time visitors, beware: the desert doesn’t coddle. It is harsh and uncompromising to the unprepared. Learn to accept its moods, discover its secrets, and partake of its unique treasures” - Jerry Schad, a fifth-generation Californian and a famous desert explorer

Eureka Dunes overlanding and dispersed camping
Eureka Dunes - great for an overnight stay and a morning hike

Death Valley is a part of the vast California Desert, covering 25 million acres (also the size of the state of Virginia) and boasts massive unpopulated areas that are perfect for different types of recreation. The first thing you notice when you drive into Death Valley is... silence. Silence of waterless canyons or lifeless sand dunes, all you will hear is wind and your own heartbeat.

The biggest open-air museum in the world

Within its boundaries mountain ranges soar as high as 11,000 feet above sea level. There are rock formations that date almost halfway back to the origin of our planet’s creation - Death Valley is one of the biggest open-air museums in the world. This national park is a well-known haven for overlanders and off-roaders, with a considerably big network of paved and unpaved roads - although famously, distances here can be deceiving. A 25 mile drive from Eureka Dunes to the Saline Valley hot springs is called Steel Pass and it’s considered one of the hardest off-road passes in the world. Last time we drove it, it took us almost 4 hours.

No visit to Death Valley is complete without checking the Badwater Basin - the hottest, driest and the lowest place in the western hemisphere - as it lays below the sea level at munis 282 feet. Its record summer temperatures have earned it the title of the hottest place on Earth. Warning: do not attempt to go to Badwater Basin during summer months as the day temperature typically covers around 125 F (51 C) and might cost you your life. At midday during the summer, the human existence here is nearly impossible, in part because the sun’s radiation, reflected off the salt surface, roasts exposed human skin. Coupled with extremely low humidity and most of your skin’s moisture will be gone at an alarming rate. Even the nighttime temperature rarely drops below 100 F (38 C).

There is a drive-up viewpoint called Dantes View that’s not to be missed. It offers an aerial perspective of the Valley including Badwater Basin almost 6,000 feet below and the massive mountains of the Panamint Range, that are covered with snow for most of the year. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’re going to love Dantes View - episode IV was filmed here. If you want to explore further, there is a neat hike that takes you along the ridge and gives you an even better view of Badwater Basin.

Saline Valley Hot Springs - we already mentioned that Death Valley National Park is the land of extremes and you can see that especially well when you notice Palm trees on the horizon - sign of water and an oasis ahead. A great reward after one bumpy ride to get there, Saline Valley hot springs is a collective of hot and warm springs - bonus: you can also take an outdoors shower. There are a lot of nudists walking around so taking a picture can be problematic :)

If you feel like a proper hike, head to the Telescope Peak. It offers a panoramic view from the 11,000 foot summit and on a good visibility day, you can see far away mountain ranges up to 150 miles away. The way to this peak is a long day of epic adventure - first by a narrow road then by 7 miles of hiking along the ridges of the Panamint Ridge. Pack plenty of water and avoid this hike in the summer time.

Zabriskie Point is arguably the most visited viewpoint in the Valley, as it’s super close to the main tourist headquarters of Furnace Creek. Best visited at sunrise as the soft golden light starts to illuminate the yellow-tinted clay hills of the Amargosa Range, with the Panamint Range in the back offering a stunning backdrop.

One of our personal favourites in Death Valley are the beautiful Eureka Sand Dunes. The dunes are easily accessible if you’re coming from the North West entrance via Inyo National Forest and Mammoth Lakes. They are a gorgeous colour of page grey sand mountains surrounded by rugged cliffs of pink, grey and black. Eureka Sand Dunes are the highest dunes in California. We recommend hiking to the peak early in the morning while the sand is still not fully soft (thanks to the night dew which dries out with the first sun) - top of the dunes offers a stunning view.

The one way Artists Drive loop road leads you to the close up look of one of the most beautiful places in Death Valley - Artists Palette. These unique multicoloured hills have a mosaic of yellow, orange, black, green, violet and brown hues - the colours were created as a result of oxidation of iron and magnesium. We like to come here towards the sunset when the canyons seem to glow from within from the soft golden light.

We love Titus Canyon for multiple reasons - it offers one of the best drives in Death Valley though ancient rocky formations. This beautiful drive offers an intimate view of the eroded, rock layers exposed on the canyon walls. Don’t expect solitude on this drive though - it’s the most famous backroad in the entire park. Bonus: you don’t need a 4x4 to do this drive - a 2WD will be perfectly capable except when its muddy.

A beautiful mansion called Scotty’s Castle is a stunning Santa Barbara-style building in the middle of one of the world’s most desolate desserts - unfortunately, its been closed for a while now due to severe flooding and will remain closed until Fall of 2021.

Want to feel like you’re visiting planet Mars? Visit Ubehebe Crater in the north east part of the Valley - a large volcanic crater 600 feet deep. This crater was created when rising magma came into contact with groundwater. This event occurred over 4,000 years ago and offers an otherworldly landscape as black as coal.

Beyond the crater, lays a beautiful road at nearly 5,000 elevation where you will encounter stunning Joshua Trees where they can survive in the stony soil. Eventually the road will lead to one of the biggest hits of Death Valley - to Racetrack Playa. Its flat surface ripped by mud cracks is the repository of fine clay particles washed down from the neighbouring Cottonwood Mountains. There is incredible stillness here - it seems that life has paused still here.

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