Giant craters. Windswept dunes. Warped mountains. Monochrome hills dappled with garish green rock. Death Valley National Park may provide the best otherworldly experience while being firmly planted on Earth—you might even meet an extraterrestrial. Located in Eastern California, near the Nevada border, the park is stark, harsh and magnificent. We left the Vancouver rain behind and spent three mid-January days hiking and camping in warm, dry Death Valley. This post features my favourite photos from an out-of this-world park.
Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes. It’s the hottest and driest spot in North America. It contains the lowest point on the continent and has snow-capped mountain peaks. It has one of the darkest skies in the country, making it perfect for star gazing. We only saw a small portion of this massive national park—the largest outside of Alaska—and were awed by its variety of desert landscapes and outrageous geology.
Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch & Badlands Trails
This set of trails can be hiked individually, or combined in an epic 7.8 mi (12.6 km) loop. The trails are easy and filled with rocky wonders and stunning viewpoints. The whole loop is outstanding, but my favourite section was the north side of the Badlands Loop overlooking Golden Canyon and Red Cathedral. If you don’t feel like hiking, Zabriskie Point offers an excellent road accessible viewpoint.
At 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The surreal landscape of giant salt flats can be seen along the main road, but it’s best to walk out a mile or so (from the car park) to get a sense of its vastness and intricacies. Badwater Basin gets its ominous name from the spring-fed pool of “bad water” that is undrinkable due to the high salt content of the surrounding basin. Near the edges of the basin, the salt crust forms interesting honeycomb shapes, while closer to the middle, the crust is smooth and covered with a thin layer of water making it look like a frozen lake. Badwater Basin is particularly lovely just before sunset.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
There’s nothing like a giant sandbox to bring out the kid in me. From the Mesquite Flat car park, we made a beeline to the highest dunes. At 100 ft (30 m) they are not the park’s highest dunes, but they are the most accessible. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, most visitors were heading back to their cars. We shared the dramatic ridge top views with a handful of photographers.
I usually prefer hikes to drives, but the 9 mi (14.5 km) Artist’s Drive loop got me pretty excited. The undulating strip of blacktop winds its way through narrow canyons and past mountains with banded ridges of colour. There are several viewpoints, the most impressive being Artist’s Palette. Shades of red, purple and green—produced by the oxidation of different iron compounds—are a freakishly beautiful contrast to the subtle desert colours.
Desolation Canyon is a gem of a hike (very close to Artist’s Drive) that gets few visitors. It’s a fun, moderately easy 3.6 mi (5.8 km) return hike with just a little bit of scrambling. We loved the variety—narrow passageways, colourful rock walls and a rewarding view over Death Valley. It’s an out and back hike, but we were amazed at the different perspective we got on our return trip.
Of all the places we visited in the park, Ubehebe Crater felt the most like we had landed on a different planet. The 600 ft (183 m) deep and 0.5 mi (0.8 km) wide crater, along with other smaller craters were formed 800-1300 years ago when massive volcanic explosions were caused by magma mixing with groundwater. Ubehebe Crater can be viewed from the car park, however the 2.5 mi (3.5 km) trail around the rim of Ubehebe and adjacent Little Hebe crater is extra special.
If you go:
- Death Valley National Park is an easy 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas.
- January is a great time to visit the park, with daytime maximum temperature of 67° F (19° C), and nighttime minimum of 40° F (4° C).
- The main visitor centre is at Furnace Creek. Be sure to go there to get free hiking maps/descriptions as most of the trails aren’t marked.
- There are lodging and camping options in different parts of the park. The largest campgrounds are closed during the hot summer months. Visit the National Park Service website for details and reservations.
- The park is very large, so if you want more than just a cursory look, plan on staying at least 2-3 days and consider camping in two locations to avoid excessive driving.
- We rented an Escape Camper Van in Las Vegas and spent 3 nights at Furnace Creek campground and one night at Mesquite Springs campground. The van was great—less expensive than the park hotels and much more comfortable than tenting.
- If you’re camping, be sure to buy groceries outside the park. The general stores in the park have limited supplies and are expensive.
- Be sure to check out the night sky. It was particularly great at Mesquite Spring.