Camping in Death Valley
Death Valley National Park. Quite a morbid name for a mind boggling place. Nonetheless a name I would not argue with. The full story behind the name is rather interesting and I encourage you to read it. Durning the winter of 1849, a group of pioneers were traveling from Utah to the gold fields of California. The group took a route they been led to believe was a shortcut. That route brought them to what we call today Death Valley. They were trapped in the valley for 3 months resigning themselves to the fate of death before they were rescued. Upon exiting the valley, a member of the group remarked, “Goodbye, Death Valley”. Although only one member of the party perished, all the members of the group had believed that this was their grave.
From the short time I spent in the park it was clear, that Death Valley has quite a collection of stories to tell. But the location itself is arguably even more fascinating. Rattling off a quick few facts to help you, the reader, get an idea why Death Valley is a mind boggling place. Death Valley is the largest National Park outside of Alaska at 5,296 sq mi, or about the size of the state of Connecticut. The park north to south is about 140 miles. Coming from the North, you enter the park at an elevation of about 4,000 ft and descend to the lowest point in the park, which is the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, at an elevation of 282 ft below sea level. Death Valley is also the hottest place in the Western hemisphere with a record temperature of 134 degrees and average highs during the summer blasting the mercury well past 110 degrees Fahrenheit. If these conditions were not harsh enough, the average rainfall in death valley is a paltry 2 inches. The highest recorded annual rainfall in Death Valley is 4.54 inches.
Enough facts about the park. How was the actual experience I had at the park? I managed to convince six of my friends to drive 8 hours down to Death Valley on the weekend of April 1st. Of course, a very reasonable question was asked the morning of the 1st, “Was this all just an elaborate April Fool’s joke?” It was not. Although in fairness to myself, I didn’t fully realize just how far Death Valley was when I was planning this trip. The drive itself although long is relatively enjoyable especially with the green hills of the California Spring. For those unfamiliar with the San Francisco Bay area, the hills and mountains surrounding Silicon Valley are yellow the majority of the year, due to the lack of rain. Every year though right after the winter rains end, there is a few weeks where all the hills are green. Also along the drive we saw multiple trains along the tracks following the high going through the mountains. After driving through these landscapes and down the I-5, we stopped in Ridgecrest, the last city before Death Valley National Park from the western approach. As with my other camping trips, we bought our food for the weekend at the closest city. Unlike other trips though, Ridgecrest was over 2 hours away from the campground and the nearest major city is over 80 miles away.
After getting our groceries for the weekend, we drove to our campground. The portion of the campground we were staying in is laid out in a different manner than usual. Instead of driveways situated next to the tent pad. There was a central parking lot with sites circling the lot. Some of the sites were just off the lot, other was a bit farther out. Our site was on the outer edge of this circle of sites 177 ft from the parking lot with nothing but barren desert beyond it. This meant we had to walk a bit between our cars and the general amenities but we could extend our site out pretty far without bothering anyone. More importantly, we could hide our tents from the sun in foliage about 100 ft from the fire pit for our site. It was amazing to have so much space and privacy at our site. The campground itself was surprisingly quiet as well, with enough people to feel occupied but peaceful distraction-free nights. This was extra fortuitous for us since we had one more car than allotted for our reservation.
We got in just before 7pm on Friday night. A bit late to see anything but still plenty of time to set up camp and then relax around the fire. We quickly realized though that Mother Nature had an adversary for us that night. The wind. The wind made everything twice as difficult! From tents blowing away before we could stake them down to using roasting sticks for sausages because we were afraid that the sausages would be blown off of the grilling grate into the fire. Despite this we were lucky. Just the night before there was winds gusting at 55 mph. On the other hand, a separate concern we had, cold nights, was completely unwarranted. In fact, it was probably the 2 warmest nights I have spent camping!
After a warm and windy night, we shook the sand out of our tents and enjoyed breakfast in the calm morning sun. During check-in in the morning I asked the park ranger staffing the booth about my plan for the day: hike Desolation Canyon, checkout the lowest point, Badwater Basin, checkout Ubehebe Crater, a massive ½ mile wide crater, and finally view the Mesquite Sand Dunes which we had seen on the way into the campground. I was shocked to find out that the distance between two of the planned destinations, both within the park, was about 70 miles and would take us 1.5 hours driving one way! So I shuffled the plans a little and we headed out for Desolation Canyon. People were already complaining that it was hot…
Desolation Canyon is one of the less popular hikes in Death Valley. It is a 5 mile roundtrip hike with a few spots that force you climb up a rock wall to continue. The road to the trailhead itself is barely marked. We actually drove right past it the first time around. We drove in on the short unpaved road to the trailhead and joined the 2 other vehicles parked. I will let the pictures do the talking for the hike. The one thing I will mention though is that the sun was strong and there was no escaping it. Since there are no trees, the only potential for shade is overhangs and narrow parts of the canyon. There were maybe 8 locations where you could stand in the shade. The difference was incredibly noticeable. The hike was amazing from the wide plains approaching the entrance into the canyon to multiple “dry falls”. One of the reasons I picked the hike is I knew my friends and I enjoy hikes with occasional scrambling. This hike had 2 “dry falls” (one 8 ft tall, the second 6 ft tall) that are on the trail and you have to climb. At the end of the hike you get an incredible vista of the surrounding valley and the depth of the canyon you just climbed.
After the hike we continued our drive south to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere. It’s hard to see but overlooking the basin there is a sign 282 ft above the ground proclaiming sea level. Badwater Basin best shows the magic and dullness of Death Valley. The desert landscapes are jaw dropping as you enter the park. You quickly realize though because the land is so flat and barren you can stand in one place and see all there is to see for miles. It’s a 20 minute walk to the center of the basin. My friends asked multiple times along the way, “where are we going? There is nothing more there, we can see that!”
After the hike and the time spent at the basin, the sun was getting to us. It was 97 degrees with full sun and no shade to find reprieve in. We agreed that we deserved and required a cold drink from the bar. But first one last stop! We took Artist’s Drive, a 9 mile one-way scenic drive through a colorful canyon. It is an amazing drive where you feel like a guest in this canyon. About halfway through the scenic drive, you can stop at Artist’s Palette, a beautiful showcase of the different colors of oxidation of the minerals in these canyons.
Surprisingly there is a small bar located in Furnace Creek Ranch, the civilized part of Furnace Creek (the census designated place where the campground resides), in addition to the surprisingly well stocked camp store, a buffet, and a cafe. Unfortunately the bar was inundated with people since it was the only establishment open between lunch and dinner. So our original plan was foiled! We were forced to enjoy our cool beers in the shade near our campsite.
After the heat of the day we never ended up returning to the road to see more, but we did make dinner. To mix things up, I had planned our Saturday dinner to be tacos! A great meal whether or not you are camping.
Saturday night was clear and calm, allowing us to truly enjoy the vibrant night sky the desert offers. We were able to spot multiple constellations and just bask in the sheer number of stars in the night sky. When it came time to turn in, 2 of the 3 tents had decided earlier to remove their rain flys for the night. Even at night, Death Valley was just too warm.
Sunday we woke up a bit earlier to enjoy the desert sunrise. The lack of clouds takes away from the vibrant colorful sunrise one love to see. Nonetheless the sun peeking over the mountains of the valley and the coolness of the morning is incredibly beautiful. That morning we saw multiple rabbits and as we were packing up, we even saw a coyote in the distance! I am sad to say the trip was just too short, we saw maybe 20% of the park even after taking a different route out of the park. Death Valley is spectacular I have see nothing else like it. You truly feel tiny and powerless in Death Valley. I would love to return, although it is difficult to justify with the huge drive.