On the Eastern border of California, and near the Western border of Nevada, is an area that is full of mystery, wilderness, and desert solitude. This area is Death Valley National Park. The name alone “Death Valley” transcends time and space, and for hundreds of years has been a beacon to prospectors, explorers, adventurers, and today, casual visitors. While Death Valley is, as its name suggests – a fundamentally hostile environment, with temperatures regularly soaring over 100 degrees from April through October, it is more than a flat wasteland. In reality, Death Valley is one of the most geologically diverse environments on the planet, where the remains of glacial Lake Manly are laid bare, and the effects of active volcanism and erosion are easily visible. Within the confines of Death Valley, one can find tall, uplifted mountains, year-round waterfalls, volcanic craters, sand dunes, eroded canyons, and the lowest spot in North America.
Alongside the geologic wonders of the park are the remnants of mankind’s efforts to utilize the resources for their own gain. From the Charcoal Kilns in the Panamint Mountains, to various other locations, Death Valley’s mining history is readily accessible and visible in a number of locations. If the stunning geology and history of the region weren’t enough incentive to visit, the area is also chock-full of legendary characters, like Walter Scott and Shorty Borden; and interesting legends of abandoned underground cities. Today, while Death Valley is easily accessible through a relatively short drive from both Las Vegas, and the Eastern Sierra, it also is an area that still requires proper preparation and planning. Unfortunately, even in 2016, visitors to the region still occasionally become lost and perish due to improper planning. Visitors to Death Valley should be aware that due to its size, remote location, and geography, there are many areas in the National Park that still may not have either cellular service, or GPS service. Correspondingly, no matter the season, visitors should always have plenty of water, gasoline, and other essential supplies for their visit.
Despite the risks, Death Valley National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the National Park System, and one that has plenty of solitude for its visitors, along with a plethora of unique locations. Death Valley is also one of my favorite parks, and due to the enormous amount of things to see and do within and around the park, it is a location I find myself returning to on a yearly basis. With over 5,270 square miles of land in the National Park, there is a huge amount of land to explore. In this guide, I’ll cover the different zones in the park from West to East, starting with the Western Border, to the Panamint Range, to the Stovepipe Wells Area, the Furnace Creek Area, the Northern Section of the Park, and the Southern Section. To cover all of these areas in one visit would likely require a fair amount of time, or a willingness to move very quickly. As with any guide I provide, I recommend that my readers pick and choose which areas they want for a first – or any visit – and then fill in the gaps from there.
The Western Region (Father Crowley Point, Darwin Falls, Panamint City).
The Western border of Death Valley is only accessible by one road – Highway 190 – which intersects with Interstate 395 at Olancha, and can be also accessed by Highway 136 which heads East to meet the 190 just South of Lone Pine. This region, like all of Death Valley is empty, full of big skies, and for a majority of the year, hot. From the 395, the 190 passes the Coso Range, and the Coso Wilderness, before entering Death Valley. On entering the park, the first location visitors will see is:
Father Crowley Vista: This easily accessible viewpoint right off the 190 is named for the “Padre of the Desert”, Father Crowley, and has stunning views of both the Panamint and Searles Valleys, along with the Panamint Range. Although there are many great spots with views in the park, this location is probably the best spot to watch the sun rise in all of Death Valley.
Darwin Falls: Located a short distance from Father Crowley Vista, and from the town of Panamint Springs, Darwin Falls is the park’s only year-round waterfall. Although the road to the falls can be somewhat difficult to traverse at times, this hike is perhaps the most unique – and unexpected one in the whole park because of its flowing water and lush vegetation.
Panamint Springs: The only place for services in this region is Panamint Springs, which has a gas station, and some lodging. Visitors to all of Death Valley should be advised that any gas purchased in the park, including Panamint Springs will always be quite expensive (usually $2.00 above market rate), but it is always preferable to have a relatively full tank rather than run out of gas.
Off the Beaten Path: From the town of Panamint Springs, the 190 crosses the Searles Valley, which is as flat, hot, and desolate as Death Valley. Midway across the valley is an intersection for Highway 178, which heads South into the Searles Valley. Visitors who follow the 178 South will eventually come across the intersection for Ballarat, a mining ghost town outside the park, and a place that was also used by Charles Manson and his followers. If you can stand the heat, or it is winter, Ballarat is a location that offers free camping year-round, and is thirty miles (one way) from Panamint Springs.
Panamint Mountains (Emigrant Campground, Eureka Mine/Harrisburg, Charcoal Kilns, Wildrose Peak, Mahogany Flat Campground, Rogers Peak, Telescope Peak)
Although there are many surprising things about Death Valley, one of the most surprising to people is that the park features many tall mountains exceeding 6,000 feet in a number of mountain ranges. The largest – and tallest range in the park, and is a region that has a number of mining ruins, great hikes, and in the winter, snow. The area is located 21.5 miles from Panamint Springs, and is accessed by Emigrant Canyon Road. Visitors to this region can also access the mountains from Highway 178 via Wildrose Canyon Road, but since 2015, this road has been intermittently closed, and is a graded dirt road in spots. From Highway 190, the first location visitors will see is:
Emigrant Campground. This location is a great spot to camp in the park, as it is always slightly cooler as it is located at 2,100 feet elevation. The downsides of Emigrant are that it only has 12 tent sites; it is slightly exposed, and is right next to Highway 190. However, as it is free, it is a great spot to stop for a night or two, especially as it is right across from Emigrant Canyon Road.
Eureka Mine: Located on the broad plateaus of the Panamint Range, the Eureka Mine contains some good relics from Death Valley’s mining past, and is located near the former mining town of Harrisburg, which had over 300 inhabitants around 1905. The area still has a number of structures that people can explore in and around.
Charcoal Kilns: Further up Emigrant Canyon road, the road forks and becomes Wildrose Canyon Road as it ascends up toward Mahogany Flat. While most of Wildrose Canyon Road is paved, slightly before the kilns (~1.5 miles), the road becomes a graded dirt road. While this road is passable during most of the year in a standard drive car, during the winter months, it may require a 4WD or high clearance vehicle due to snow and ice, as this area of the park is above 4,000 feet elevation. The Charcoal Kilns are one of the most photographed areas of the park, and are some of the most unique structures that remain from Death Valley’s mining history.
Wildrose Peak: The Panamint Range portion of the park offers some great hiking and climbing opportunities for adventurers, and Wildrose Peak is the northernmost mountain in the “high” section of the Panamint Range that is accessible to visitors. At 8.4 miles of roundtrip hiking distance, and 2,200 feet of elevation gain, this mountain provides a great payoff in terms of views from its 9,604 foot summit. The trailhead also leaves directly from the Charcoal Kilns parking area.
Mahogany Flat: This campground is located at the end of the Wildrose Canyon Road, and is only accessible by vehicles that have 4WD or AWD, as the road from the Charcoal Kilns is rough and steep. It is also worth noting that this campground is only open from April-October. From October – April, access to the campground is by foot only, as the Park Service closes the road every winter. At 8,100 feet, Mahogany Flat is always cooler than the remainder of the park, and can be quite pleasant even during the 120 degree temperatures that the valley experiences July through September. This is my favorite spot to camp in Death Valley, even its spaces are limited, and it is primitive camping. For those looking to climb either Telescope or Rogers Peak, this is a great spot to sleep either before or after a climb.
Rogers Peak: Out of all the peaks in the Panamint Range, Rogers is the most accessible, and easiest to climb, even though it is a 5.25 mile roundtrip hike. This is in part due to the National Park Service fire access road, and because there is a gradual elevation gain from where the road departs at Mahogany Flat. Although Rogers Peak is a “walk-up” climb in summer months, in winter it becomes a technical climb because of ice and snow.
Telescope Peak: At 11,049 feet of elevation, Telescope Peak is the park’s highest point, and the highest point in the Panamint Range. To summit Telescope Peak, one must take the Telescope Peak trail, which is a challenging fourteen mile roundtrip hike. Advanced hikers and climbers can string together Telescope, Bennett and Rogers Peaks into a three-summit day, but beginning hikers should stick to the summit trail from Mahogany Flat. Like Rogers Peak, Telescope Peak becomes a technical climb during the winter months, as it does have snow and ice.
Tips: The drive along Emigrant and then Wildrose Canyon, while not overly long (30 miles one way), is very remote, and contains many sharp mountain curves. Having said that, the drive itself is quite picturesque, and one of my favorite regions in the park.
Stovepipe Wells (Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes)
The Stovepipe Wells Region of the park is one of the more popular areas of Death Valley, especially as it has commercial lodging services and gasoline, and as it is located near the most easily accessible sand dunes in the park, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. If the sand dunes weren’t enticing enough, this region also has one of the park’s most popular slot canyon hikes, Mosaic Canyon. From the Emigrant Canyon Road junction on the 190, the first thing one will see is:
Mosaic Canyon: Located a short distance before the town of Stovepipe Wells, Mosaic Canyon is a stunning eroded marble slot canyon that ultimately expands out to reveal other interesting geologic features.
Stovepipe Wells: This town in Death Valley has a Ranger station, gas station, commercial lodging, and National Park Service campgrounds. While the campgrounds are well-maintained, they are quite exposed, and more suitable for RV’s than tents. During the summer months, these campgrounds are quite hot.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Death Valley has two sets of dunes, the Eureka Sand Dunes at the far northern end of the park, and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Of the two, the Mesquite Flat dunes are more accessible, and much more popular, as they provide great exploration opportunities, and great photographic opportunities at sunrise and sunset.
Furnace Creek Region (Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, Furnace Creek, Golden Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Artist’s Palette Drive)
Just past the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, the 190 heads east and ultimately comes to a junction heading both North and South in the park. To the south is the Furnace Creek Region, and the southern reaches of the park. To the North is the Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater regions of the park, along with the Racetrack Playa. The Furnace Creek region is the most visited area of the park as it is the most centrally located, and it has some of the park’s most popular areas, from Zabriskie Point to Artist’s Palette. From the 190 junction, the first thing one will see is:
Furnace Creek: This town is where the National Park has its primary ranger station and headquarters. There is also a gas station, campgrounds, and a large commercial presence including restaurants from the Furnace Creek Inn and Lodge. If one is looking to learn more about the park, get directions, or have a hot meal, this is the main spot in the park to do so.
Golden Canyon: Outside of Mosaic Canyon, this slot canyon is Death Valley’s most popular hike, and is located two miles south of Furnace Creek off Badwater Road (just South of Furnace Creek, the 190 splits to the East and South; the East fork remains the 190; the South fork becomes “Badwater Road”). Visitors on this hike can either go out to the Red Cathedral, or have a real adventure climbing up to Zabriskie Point.
Zabriskie Point: Visitors to Death Valley who don’t want to hike to Zabriskie Point from Golden Canyon can follow the 190 through Death Valley Junction five miles to the Southeast for the fantastic views that the viewpoint provides of the valley, and the Manly Beacon. From the parking area, it is a short and accessible walk to the viewpoint. This is the park’s most popular viewpoint, and another good place to watch the sun set, and rise.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon: Located a short distance from Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a one-way dirt road that passes through some of the badlands-like formations of Death Valley. It is located six miles from Furnace Creek off the 190, and is located one mile to the south of Zabriskie Point. The road is 2.7 miles in length, and does not loop back around. While it is graded, on occasion, visitors to this area may want a vehicle with high clearance or 4WD.
Artist’s Drive: This one-way, nine mile drive is one of the most popular locations in the park, as it is accessible to all visitors. From the paved road, visitors will have many opportunities to view the Artist’s Palette, an interesting range of hills with exposed and eroding minerals that are multi-colored. This is an area that is very popular in the park, and is best viewed in the late afternoon, when the setting sun provides excellent photographic opportunities.
Southern Region (Devil’s Golf Course, Saline Pools, Badwater, Dante’s View, Shorty’s Mine, Shorty’s Well Traverse, Ashford Mill)
Slightly past Artist’s Drive, but still within the park boundaries are a number of both well-known, and lesser known features, ranging from high peaks in the Amargosa Range, to the lowest point in the North America. While some of these features are located off of Badwater Road, others are located off of the West Side Road, and the Dante’s Viewpoint Road. From Badwater Road, the first thing one will see is:
The Devil’s Golf Course/Secret Saline Pools: The Devil’s Golf Course is seventeen miles South of Furnace Creek, and is an area of unique crystal formations in the middle of Death Valley. Among these formations are secret saline pools that open and close that can only be found by the observant and astute visitor.
Badwater: This location is the park’s most visited spot, as it is the lowest spot in the continental United States at -282 feet, and is also regularly the hottest spot in North America as it is in the middle of Death Valley. The parking area has a great photo opportunity of a sign at Sea Level and great opportunities for people to walk out on the hardpan of Death Valley to experience its desolation and record heat. Badwater is a short distance from the Devil’s Golf Course, and is seventeen and a half miles south of Furnace Creek.
Ashford Mill: The Ashford Mill is the remains of further mining activity in the park, although it is not as well preserved as other structures. It is located twenty-seven miles to the south of Badwater, along Badwater Road.
Dante’s View/Dante’s Benchmark: The best and most easily accessible view of Death Valley is from Dante’s View, which is located off of Dante’s View Road (twenty four miles South of Furnace Creek, past Death Valley Junction). The viewpoint is accessible to all, and has great views of Death Valley. The “peak”(benchmark), is a short hike from the parking area.
Shorty’s Mine: This hike is named in honor of another of Death Valley’s legendary inhabitants, Shorty Borden, and is substantially more difficult than many of the hikes in the park. Visitors must ascend a 4WD access road up Hanaupah Canyon by either foot or car, before continuing on into the canyon proper on foot. After a short distance, visitors will find where Shorty Borden lived and mined, and will also find a year-round source of water. This hike is located off of the West Side Road, which splits from the Badwater Road just south of Furnace Creek.
Shorty’s Well Traverse: For the hardy, Death Valley also has the hardest, most impossible climb in North America, the Shorty’s Well Traverse, which leaves Badwater Basin at -280 feet, and ascends off-trail to the summit of Telescope Peak through Hanaupah Canyon. While this trek is a goal for many mountaineers, it should only be attempted by experienced hikers and mountaineers due to its many difficulties.
Northern Region (Rhyolite, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater and Racetrack Playa)
As mentioned above, slightly past the Mesquite Flat Sand dunes, the 190 splits, with the road heading down toward Furnace Creek, and the park’s southern areas. For parties wishing to see the far northern parts of the park, the road heads up to Scotty’s Castle, the Ubehebe Crater, and eventually to the Racetrack Playa. The northern portion of the park is not as visited as the other areas as it is remote, but it is worth a visit to see some interesting features. Because of the flash floods of 2015, the road north of Daylight Pass is currently washed out and closed. Correspondingly, Scotty’s Castle, and the Ubehebe Crater remain closed to public access. The National Park Service estimates that these areas will be open to visitation in 2019, once a new road is built in 2018. Correspondingly, much of the below information is for future reference. From the 190 junction the first thing one will see is:
Daylight Pass Road/Rhyolite: This road is one of the eastern entrances to the park, and heads up and over Hell’s Gate and Daylight Pass (Elevation 4,316 feet) in the Funeral Mountains. Once one crosses Daylight Pass from California, they will find themselves in Nevada (but still in Death Valley National Park). From this point, the visitor will find themselves on Highway 374, heading toward Beatty, Nevada. From Death Valley, however, there is something more worthwhile to visit than Beatty: Rhyolite, Nevada.
If you’ve never heard of Rhyolite, you’re not alone, but nothing exemplifies the boom-and-bust nature of mining like this town, which in 1904 has a population of 4,000 people, and in 1924, was abandoned. Today, it is well known as a well-preserved ghost town, and is also rumored to be haunted. While it is off the beaten path, it is worth taking the twenty-six mile one way drive to it over the Daylight Pass.
Scotty’s Castle: From the 190 junction, Scotty’s Castle is located thirty-six miles to the North along Scotty’s Castle Road. The castle was actually the home to Albert Johnson, and Walter Scott was its most infamous resident, but that is just one of the many facts and legends surrounding the castle. The castle can only be visited with an approved NPS guide, and tours – when the castle is open, occur on a regular basis.
Ubehebe Crater: One of the remnants of Death Valley’s volcanic past, the crater is actually a Maar Volcano – something that was created by a giant gas and steam explosion. While the crater can be viewed from the overlook, the best way to experience it is to walk down to the cracked mud bottom it has left behind. This trek, while short, is quite strenuous, and should not be undertaken during the extreme heat of summer. The Crater is located five miles to the North of the Grapevine Ranger Station in the park.
Racetrack Playa: While many portions of the park are famous, the most infamous is the Racetrack Playa, with its mysterious moving rocks. The only thing more difficult than determining how the rocks move is getting there, as the road to the Racetrack leaves from the Ubehebe Crater, and is 4WD access only.
While this guide is a great place to start one’s exploration of Death Valley, it is not the definitive guide, because the best thing about Death Valley is that once one has seen all of these spots, there are even more off-trail and off-the-beaten path locations to experience. If you’ve got suggestions or comments on this list, be sure to discuss them in the comments below, so other people can also potentially experience them.