The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley is an almost unfathomable place. The park’s 3.3 million acres /1.34 million hectares encompass mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, mysterious singing rocks, and colorful sandstone canyons. Extremes are the norm: Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C, and average rainfall of 2 inches/5 cm per year. Also extreme are the park’s elevations: Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, rests at 282 feet/86 metres below sea level while Telescope Peak soars to 11,049 feet/3,368 metres. So go high, or go very, very low; get hot, or chill out with amazing desert vistas. Death Valley delivers on every end of the scale.
The historic Inn at Death Valley (formerly known as the Inn at Furnace Creek Resort) was built for roundabout reasons—the Pacific Coast Borax Company financed its construction as a means to save the company’s Death Valley Railroad after the borax business slowed. In the days before cars were common in the desert, many Hollywood stars rode the train to this desert getaway. The railroad didn’t survive the changing times, but this lovely hotel has aged gracefully since 1927.
Designed by a Los Angeles architect who took his inspiration from California’s Spanish missions, the 66-room inn is perched on a hill facing west, its stone patios offering views of Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains. Red tile roofs and stucco walls glow in the afternoon sun; palm trees sway and water fountains burble. Outdoor fireplaces flicker and glow around the edges of the spring-fed swimming pool. Splurges don’t feel much more special than this. If you’re just visiting on a day visit in the park, relax over lunch or afternoon tea in the inn’s restful dining room. A 2017 revamp to the property will include adding 11 two-room casitas, a new wellness center, a new dining room, and more.
The Oasis at Death Valley also offers a budget-minded 244-room property, The Ranch at Death Valley, just down the road.
Every imaginable shade of gold--from orange to apricot to school-bus yellow--is visible in the wrinkled Golden Canyon cliffs, whose folded and eroded layers glow at sunrise and sunset. Pick your favourite perspective: Drive to Zabriskie Point and survey the scene from on high, or see the vibrant beauty up close by hiking in Golden Canyon. For casual sightseers, Zabriskie Point (off Hwy. 190) offers a stunning view of the multi-hued badlands from a 100-yard-long paved trail.
"It’s one of the park’s most photographed viewpoints and a busy spot at sunset."
It’s one of the park’s most photographed viewpoints and a busy spot at sunset. The Golden Canyon hike starts from the opposite side (off Badwater Road, 3.5 miles/5.6 km southeast of the visitor center). It’s a moderate out-and-back of about two miles, which can be extended into 5.5-mile/9-km loop. From the parking area, the trail heads gently uphill through soft canyon walls colourfully banded in yellow, beige, and cream, which signifies the presence of different minerals. Be sure to go the extra few steps to Red Cathedral, a towering cliff coloured red by the weathering of iron-rich rocks.
Appearing like a mirage in the desert, this Spanish-style castle is one of Death Valley’s oddest and most fabled attractions. Built in the 1920s by Chicago insurance executive Albert Johnson, Scotty’s Castle served as a vacation getaway for Johnson and his wife Bessie, but its primary resident was Walter Scott, a gold prospector and cowboy who performed in Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” show. Johnson had invested in Scott’s gold mining schemes and the two became friends. Scott told anyone who would listen that the $2 million castle was built with his gold mining profits.
Although its construction was never finished, the castle is filled with hand-wrought iron and tile, custom-made furniture, and extravagant antiques and tapestries. A highlight is the Chimes Tower, which contains a set of 25 carillon chimes that were set to play on the quarter-hour. The Scotts’ also had a 1,121-pipe theater organ installed in their music room. Its melodies entertained their A-list houseguests—Betty Grable, Will Rogers, and Norman Rockwell. Explore the castle in a one-hour ranger-led tour (underground tunnel tours offered from November through mid-April; less often in summer). Same-day tour tickets are sold at the Scotty's Castle Visitor Center. Reservations are available; be sure to call at least one day in advance.
Mosaic Canyon is one of the scenic highlights of Death Valley, and its marbled narrows are navigable for all ages. The trail shows off plenty of colourful slick rock and polished marble as it winds up a narrow, high-walled canyon. Eons of time and countless flash floods have ground and polished its walls into the kind of marble you might covet for your home’s bathroom tile. Embedded in the walls are vivid examples of Mosaic Breccia, multicoloured rock fragments that look like they’re cemented together. Keep walking to discover smooth walls that narrow and widen, and ultimately end at a dry waterfall.
No trip to Death Valley would be complete without a visit to Badwater, the lowest point in the North America, which tips the altimeter at 282 feet/86 meters below sea level. Its vast expanse of salt flats and salty puddles were a terrible disappointment to thirsty emigrants who crossed this desert in the 1800s in search of a better life. The salty puddles—which can become large ponds following a big storm, are all that remain of a lake that was more than 600 feet/183 meters deep hundreds of thousands of years ago. All that’s left now is a surreal tract of crunchy salt crystals.
Just down the road from Badwater is the turnoff for Artist’s Drive, a scenic 9-mile/14.5-kilometer road that shows off the colorful hues of the Amargosa Range’s sedimentary hills. If possible, time your visit here for late afternoon, when the artist’s multi-hued palette—pink, mauve, gold, green, lavendar—is the most vivid.
Perhaps as recently as 300 years ago, molten lava came in contact with groundwater, steam pressure built up underground, and the earth exploded in a massive volcanic belch. When the dust settled, a half-mile-wide/.8-kilometre-wide, 600-foot/183-metre-deep crater remained. This colourful hole in the ground with its striped layers of sedimentary soil is easily viewed from the park road, just 5 miles/8 kilometres from Grapevine. To see it more intimately, hike the trail that leads along giant Ubehebe Crater’s southwest rim to several older craters, including Little Hebe. These craters are much smaller, but similar in appearance—mostly black and ash coloured, with eroded walls revealing colourful bands of orange and rust minerals. From the high rim of Ubehebe, look west to see the rumpled ridge of the soberly named Last Chance Range.
Nothing makes a better introduction to Death Valley than a visit to the 100-foot/30-meter-high Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These aren't Death Valley’s tallest sand dunes (those are the Eureka Dunes, which require 4wd to reach)—but they are the most accessible.
"The best time to visit is just before sunrise or around sunset because of the incredible show of color and light."
A walk on these silky, rippled dunes will convince you that you’re someplace far from the familiar. The dunes have no marked trail because of the continually shifting desert sands, so improvise: Make a beeline from the parking lot to the highest sandy ridgeline. How far you wander is completely up to you. The best time to visit is just before sunrise or around sunset because of the incredible show of color and light. Long shadows and soft light make fantastic dune photos. In the early morning, you can spot animal tracks made during the night, especially the tiny footprints of birds and rodents. Full-moon nights on the dunes are spectacular, but night visitors must watch for rattlesnakes, especially in hot months.
Death Valley is full of surprises and oddities, such as the fact that this arid, desolate valley was once part of a massive freshwater lake. A remnant of this lake is found at Salt Creek, where freshwater converted to saltwater as the giant lake dried up about 10,000 years ago. The creek is home to the Salt Creek pupfish, a 2-inch/6.4-cm-long fish that lives nowhere else. As its watery home changed from freshwater to saltwater, the pupfish evolved to survive in its new environment. The fish’s evolutionary change would be roughly the same as if humans decided to drink gasoline instead of water. Not only that, but the pupfish has the ability to survive in water from near-freezing temperatures to almost 108°F/42°C.
A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk trail crosses a wetland of salt grass and pickleweed, tracing the path of Salt Creek. In springtime, peer down into the pools and you may spot the minnow-sized pupfish swimming. In the heat of summer, the fish go dormant. At any time of year, songbirds and great blue herons congregate, and the stream’s salty pools reflect the blue sky and surrounding badlands in their stillness.
Every year, visitors underestimate how hot and dry Death Valley can be, no matter what time of year. Even short, easy walks to Mesquite Flat Dunes and Mosaic Canyon can be fatal if temperature soars above 100°F/38°C. Not only should you always carry plenty of water in your car and in your hiking pack, but you should also avoid exerting yourself during the hottest part of the day. Also, be sure your vehicle is in good mechanical condition and that your fuel tank is full before you begin each day's tour. Within the park, gasoline is sold only at Furnace Creek, Panamint Springs Resort, and Stovepipe Wells Village. Before setting out each day, check your tires, check your gas, and check your water supply. And another thing to keep in mind: cell phone coverage is either spotty or nonexistent, so don’t depend on it to rescue you. Be prepared before you go.