A short trip to a different planet: Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Extraterrestrial

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.

Badlands Loop Trail near Zabriskie Point
Lunch overlooking Golden Canyon/Red Cathedral
Golden Canyon

Badwater Basin

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.

Badwater Basin honeycomb-shaped salt crust
Badwater Basin salt flats…it’s not a frozen lake

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.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Artist’s Drive

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.

Artist’s Drive
Artist’s Palette viewpoint

Desolation Canyon

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.

Colourful rock walls along Desolation Canyon Trail
Rewarding review at the end of the Desolation Canyon hike
Heading back down into Desolation Canyon

Ubehebe Crater

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.

Banded layers of sedimentary rock on the walls of Ubehebe Crater
Wrinkled walls and crater rims around Little Hebe make for a sci-fi movie scene

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.
“Ducky”—our fun camper van

Next post will get back to cycling in France.

Categories: Hiking, United States | Tags: , , | 52 Comments

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52 thoughts on “A short trip to a different planet: Death Valley National Park

  1. I have never been – your pics make me want to go there. I love that colorful van!

    Like

  2. josypheen

    What amaaaaziung views! Those salt flats are simply gorgeous and the other areas just look like a different planet.

    This must have been a bit of a shock after all the rain in Vancouver, but it must have been lovely to feel some sun on your skin!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That Death Valley ET was certainly unexpected ;-).

    When I sign up for those landscape photography lessons from you, we are headed to Death Valle, preferably in the Ducky Campervan.

    Otherworldly indeed. The image of the salt flats at Badwater Basin is exceptional as is the picture of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. And I said ‘OMG’ loudly (waking The Captain) when I viewed the Artist’s Palette. Definitely gets me excited to head back to the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The US certainly has its share of wonders and we keep on going back to the southwest (it’s also convenient to fly into Las Vegas from Vancouver). Traveling in the campervan was a hoot!
      Thank you for your kind comments about the photos. Actually, credit for a few of them go to hubby. I think the exceptional lighting and experimenting more with our Olympus OM-D helped produce better photos. It’s an ongoing learning process this photography!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. AndyG

    Oh wow that makes me want to go back so much! We spent barely a day in the park in 2003 and it blew us away. The night sky was so incredible we stopped the car and laid on the warm tarmac just staring up… I like the camper van option – will definitely consider that for our next visit!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You should go back Andy! It’s such an easy, hassle-free trip but you feel like you are a million miles away from Vancouver. We loved the incredible night sky too…I need to learn about night sky photography. The van was great and gave us the flexibility to see different parts of the huge park in relative comfort.

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  5. Mike Hohmann

    I’ve never been through Death Valley, NP. Lots of interesting locations and views.
    Looking at the map, I see I’ve always used 80 north of Death Valley, through Reno, or 40 south of Death Valley or 15 from Vegas through Barstow, CA. This is definitely the time of year to visit! Thanks for the post, Caroline. Next time I’m out that way, I’ll have to check out Death Valley, NP!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Mike! I haven’t “seen” you, or at least not got any notification of posts. Hope all is well. Death Valley was a fun little trip with great scenery. I was so grateful to get seven days of pleasant temperature and sun. It has been particularly gloomy here this winter. You should check out Death Valley…fascinating place.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. An amazing-looking place, isn’t it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fabulous photos! It’s an amazing place. I was there in 1978! and still remember it.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What an interesting landscape. It looks like it’s from another planet or something. I am actually planning a trip to Utah for later in the year and was contemplating adding a few extra days to visit Death Valley. I think I might do just that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The landscapes in Death Valley are unique. If you have time, it would be great to add it onto your Utah trip. There are just so many great parks in the US Southwest…we keep on going back for more.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow! I’ve hiked Red Rock Canyon near Vegas and it was nice but not spectacular. I assumed the rest of the hiking in the area was the same but this is so beautiful. Your pictures look like paintings. I love the artist’s palette picture. And not too far away!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a lot of people aren’t aware of the beauty in Death Valley. It’s a super cool place and quite different from other parks we’ve visited in the US Southwest. We spent our last day in Red Rock Canyon. It was nice but super busy—not a surprise being only 17 miles from Vegas.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Great photos. Death Valley reminded me of Atacama, at least through your photos. Plus if there’s a chance of seeing Boba Fett’s cousin… I’m sold.

    Now, I will go on record to say that camper vans are distilled evil for me (at least in Europe they’re big, bulky, slow white boxes on wheel whose drivers never pull over to leave traffic flow past, are impossible to overtake and, from a cyclist point of view, a death trap) but Ducky looks absolutely spectacular!!!!

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps you’ll be even more excited that we saw baby Yoda too.
      I share some of your issues with campers, or at least the larger RV style ones. A few years ago we were cycling in Yellowstone National Park and it was frightening sharing the road with these beasts. I think the European ones aren’t as large as the honkin’ US versions with names like Conquest and Avenger. Haha, I’m glad you clarified your position on Ducky!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve heard of Death Valley before, but I never realized how diverse its landscape is and how it is a place of extremes. I never put Las Vegas as one of the cities I want to see in the US, but after reading this post I wouldn’t mind flying to the casino hub just so I can escape to this national park right away. It looks like when you were there were barely other visitors exploring this place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only thing that takes us to Las Vegas is its proximity to some of the best parks in America. Besides Death Valley, other amazing parks like Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion are all in easy driving distance. It’s the perfect “staging” city for a visit to the parks of the US Southwest. There were definitely other visitors while we were there, I just avoided them in my photos. Having said that, it wasn’t crowded and it’s such a large park that it’s easy to find solitude. Interestingly, some people find it too cold in January (at night anyway). We found it perfect…guess it depends on what you’re used to.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. So bizarre yet beautiful. This one is on my to-do list, so thank you for the recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, fantastic photos and such a great post! Death Valley National Park has been on my travel wish list for quite some time. With an amazing photo opportunities and beautiful views around every corner, it’s a photographer’s dream. And I wouldn’t mind the heat too, it’s been such a long and dull winter! Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Aiva! It’s totally a photographer’s dream…makes me want to take a course and learn more about capturing those amazing landscapes. I hear you about the long, dull winter. We really savoured a week of sunshine and warmer temperatures and are already missing them. January is not hot in Death Valley (I’d call it comfortable at about 67°F/19°C during the day).

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve always been curious about campervans, and this place looks like a great excuse to try one. I’d love to take the camera there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is the first time we’ve rented a camper van and we really enjoyed it. Camping in a few spots in Death Valley makes a lot of sense as it’s a big park. I hope you get to try out a van.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. The pictures are magnificent Caroline, these places make you feel like you’re the only person on the planet, so beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Myra. We did love the solitude. Even though there were other visitors, it wasn’t busy and really quiet away from the main attractions (and even a few miles into the popular hikes).

      Like

  16. Awesome. On my bucket list

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Surely out of this world! A perfect location for making sci-fi movies 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • The most famous sci-fi movies shot in Death Valley are Star Wars: A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. There are less movies being shot in the park these days due to strict regulations on commercial filming in wilderness areas.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. The photo of the reflection at Badwater Basin, and the sand dunes in the shot below it, are great shots. The American west is such an amazing place, with big-ticket places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Redwoods, the Grand Canyon, yet Death Valley is just as stunning as any of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a lot of people “dismiss” Death Valley because they think there’s nothing there/that it’s boring.Others think it’s too hot (only true May-September). I agree that Death Valley is as interesting (and less crowded) than many of the big name parks. The American Southwest really is a treasure of amazing landscapes. Thanks for your feedback on the photos.

      Like

  19. Oh my goodness, I am in love with Golden Canyon, gorgeous photos! Adding that to my trip when I head over to the US next!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Golden Canyon is phenomenal. If you can, try and do the whole hike. Most people just do the section from Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral, which is beautiful. Beyond that, the amazing scenery continues but with fewer hikers and much more solitude.

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  20. I love Death Valley! The colors and compositions in your photos are remarkable! Glad that you made it to Ubehebe – not too many people head up that way!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. NICOLE BEISSNER

    Wow!! How are you? I have been meaning to ask about the trip. Hope to see you soon. You missed NOTHING here will away. Raining non-stop😭NicoleSent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I heard we picked a good week to be away. I’m ready to go back to the sunny southwest. We have lots of catching up to do…looking forward to it.

      Like

  22. Beautiful photos Caroline. I will add this to my list of places to go!
    thanks
    Morag

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Photo angles of Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes & Artist’s Drive are great!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. I loved visiting Death Valley! I took my older parents there one time when they had found some great deal in Las Vegas but couldn’t stand being in the casinos! (We gambled all of $5 each, promptly lost it, and quit!) We hightailed it out of there and spent a wonderful day seeing Death Valley and the Hoover Dam.

    But I would have LOVED a camper van there! What a great little getaway; I’ll have to remember that idea when I go back with my husband someday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The best thing about Vegas is that it’s so close to many amazing parks (and relatively inexpensive for us Canadians to fly into). We also spent a day in Red Rock Canyon, which is beautiful and only 14 miles away from sin city. We’re not gambling fans either.
      The camper van was perfect. I hate spending money on over-priced, mediocre park hotels and we didn’t like the option of sleeping in a tent/schlepping all our gear from home. I would do the van option again in a heartbeat.

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Pingback: A short trip to a different planet: Death Valley National Park — Writes of Passage – Nomad Advocate

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