Saturday, September 28, 2013

Death Valley Travel Tips

Approaching Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
I hope you enjoyed your virtual tour of Death Valley National Park in my 3-part series highlighting our visit in November, 2012.  If you haven't read it yet, click here for easy access:  Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.  If you've now decided that you'd like to pay this most terrific National Park a visit, I've put together a short travel guide to make the most of your experience.


Park Information

The National Park Service maintains up-to-date park information on the Web at http://www.nps.gov/deva.  The current entrance fee is $20 per vehicle, good for 7 consecutive days.  Pay at either the Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek visitor centers.

Getting There

From Los Angeles:  There are two primary routes to the park, depending on which part of LA you're coming from.  One is to take I-5 north (Golden State Freeway) to Santa Clarita, then State Highway 14 north (Antelope Valley Freeway) to the junction of US Highway 395 near Inyokern, then US Highway 395 north to Olancha, and finally State Highway 190 east over the Panamint Range and finally into the park.  The other option is to take I-15 (Barstow Freeway) north to Hesperia, where you can catch US Highway 395 North and follow the remainder of the directions above.  Or, you can continue on I-15 to Baker, take State Highway 127 north to Shoshone, and then State Highway 178 west over Salsberry Pass to Badwater Basin.  Regardless of your route, travel time is 4-5 hours.

From Las Vegas:  The easiest approach is to take State Highway 160 west to Pahrump, then State Highway 372, which turns into State Highway 178 at the California state line.  Follow this highway to Shoshone, and then over the Salsberry Pass to Badwater Basin.  Or, at Pahrump, turn left at Bell Vista Avenue (unsigned State Highway 190) to Death Valley Junction, California, and then continue on State Highway 190 west to Furnace Creek.  Travel time is 2-3 hours.

From Reno:  You can either take US Highway 395 south to Olancha, California and follow the directions above, or take US Highway 95 south to Beatty, then State Highway 374 west over Daylight Pass to the park.  Travel time is 6-8 hours.

WARNING:  DO NOT RELY ON GPS SYSTEMS to navigate through the park!  There have been instances of GPS devices directing unsuspecting travelers onto unpaved, unmaintained 4x4 roads, with deadly consequences.  Stay only on main, paved roads.  If you have a 4x4 vehicle and plan to explore the park's jeep trails, make sure to carry a reliable map, and check road conditions before heading out.

Services in the Park

Full services, including food, gas, lodging, and camping, are available at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek.  No services are available elsewhere in the park.  Lodging and food are provided by private concessions; links to their websites are below:

Furnace Creek Resort - http://www.furnacecreekresort.com/
Stovepipe Wells Village - http://www.stovepipewells.com/index.html
Panamint Springs - http://www.panamintsprings.com/

What would I recommend?  It really depends on which part of the park you plan to spend most of your time in.  Stovepipe Wells is pretty centrally located (45-60 minutes max to major park destinations), and the service was good, so I would suggest giving them a try. 

As for food, we ate at all three establishments in the park, at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek.  None were particularly great, with Stovepipe Wells probably the best of the bunch (the chili in particular isn't too bad).  If you're able to bring a cooler, Death Valley is a great place to picnic, since there are no restrictions on where you can hike.  Or head up to Beatty, Nevada, where a good collection of local eateries and chains are available (my recommendation is KC's Outpost, where you can get a good homemade sandwich and slice of pie for a good price). 

WARNING:  Gas is extremely expensive in the park.  In November 2012, prices were $5.50-6.00 a gallon for regular unleaded.  Instead, fill up outside the park, and save the park gas stations for emergencies.  At the time of our visit, gas could be had for $3.95 a gallon at the Shell station on Highway 395 in Pearsonville, CA, and $3.59 a gallon in Beatty, Nevada.

When to Visit

I found mid-November a perfect time to visit.  Temperatures, even in the lowest elevations of the park, were pleasant, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s.  Higher elevations, like Dante's View or the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, were quite a bit colder, with max temperatures in the 50s.  Plus, the heavy tourist season from Thanksgiving to New Year's hadn't started yet, so crowds were minimal, and prices for lodging quite reasonable.  We paid $95 a night for our room at Stovepipe Wells.

Weather wise, the best time to visit is November through March.  The heat starts building in earnest by mid-April, with triple digit high temperatures the norm by the second week of May.  The heat reaches its zenith by late June, with high temperatures frequently exceeding 120 degrees through August, and low temperatures struggling to fall into the low 90s.  The heat typically goes on through early October.  Rainfall is rare, with what little rain there is (annual average of just a little over 2 inches) falling either during the summer monsoon (July through early September) or the winter rainy season (mid-November through mid-March).  When it does rain, though, beware of flash floods, especially in low-lying areas or canyons.

Precautions to Take

It should go without saying, if you're going to go hiking in the desert, you need to be prepared.  Wear sturdy shoes, especially if you plan to scamper over rock formations, carry plenty of water (both on your person and in your vehicle), and bring a compass.  Be aware of the direction you need to walk to the road, and if you get lost, point your compass in that direction and keep going until you find the road.  If you car breaks down, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR VEHICLE!  It is far safer to stay with your car until help arrives.  If you are on a main road, a park ranger or other tourist will eventually show up.

In the unlikely event you experience inclement weather while in the park, beware that the desert terrain is highly susceptible to flash floods.  Remember the mantra:  turn around, don't drown!  Low water crossings will quickly dry up once the rain ends, so you won't be delayed that long.  Also, always check conditions before venturing on to unpaved roads or jeep trails.  Many of these roads can wash out or otherwise become impassible due to heavy rains, and can take days or even weeks to clear.  Always observe posted signs and barricades.

If you plan to hike in Badwater Basin or the Devil's Golf Course, beware that the heat and light can be intense, even during cool weather.  Wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothing, sunglasses, and a cap, and carry plenty of water and a compass.  Remember, the main road is to your east, so if you get lost, just keep walking east, and you will eventually get back to the road. 

And finally, if you are insane in the membrane enough to want to go to Death Valley in the summer, make sure you understand just how hot it is.  120 degrees is nothing to scoff at, and it can wipe you out in a matter of minutes.  Trust me, summer in Dallas is bad enough in that regard, and it's a good 20 degrees cooler than that. 

What I Recommend Seeing

As you may recall from my trip report, we saw the following places (descriptions omitted, since you can click on my trip reports for details):

Day 1 - arrive in park, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Scotty's Castle
Day 2 - Mosaic Canyon, Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Rhyolite Ghost Town (Nevada), Dante's View, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Artist's Palette
Day 3 - Salt Creek Oasis, Mustard Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Devil's Golf Course, Badwater Basin, leave park

But there's quite a bit more to the park than just what we saw.  Here's what else I recommend if you have time.  I would also suggest, if you have one and/or have the means to rent one, bringing a jeep or other sturdy 4x4 vehicle to the park.  There are hundreds of miles of unpaved roads to explore, and many of the park's most fascinating features are only accessible on unpaved roads that require a 4x4 to access.

- Artist's Palette at sunset - yes, we did visit Artist's Palette, but we got there just a little too late to really experience it properly.  Make sure to arrive approximately one hour before sunset so you can enjoy the full experience.  The best parts of the drive are about halfway through.
- Ubehebe Crater - accessible by turning off at Grapevine, 3 miles before Scotty's Castle.  This is a giant, 600-foot deep volcanic crater created by an eruption millions of years ago.  You can hike down to the bottom of the crater, where you can experience a stunning view of the crater's brightly colored walls.  
- The Racetrack - accessible by turning off at Grapevine, 3 miles before Scotty's Castle, and then continuing on the unpaved road past the Ubehebe Crater.  This is a bizarre area where rocks on the flat ground seem to "move" by themselves, as evidenced by the tracks in the dirt behind the rocks.  Why this occurs is unknown, but geologists suspect it has to do with wind patterns in the area.  WARNING:  4x4 vehicle required.
 - Titus Canyon - supposedly the most spectacular of Death Valley's badlands-style canyons, but unfortunately, it is also only accessible via an unpaved road that requires a 4WD vehicle, which we didn't have.  The access road is one way, and is located a few miles west of Beatty on Highway 374 (Daylight Pass Road).  Also found along the road is the Leadfield ghost town, yet another example of the many abandoned mining towns in the area.

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