Traveler's Checklist: Death Valley National Park

Scotty's Castle and Artists Palette should be two stops on your tour of Death Valley National Park. NPT file photos.

What is it about the hard salt pan, the shifting sand dunes, and the life-threatening temperatures that make Death Valley National Park such a lure with travelers?

Well, for starters the incredible blooms that can colorfully daub the desert landscape come Spring with pinks, oranges, yellows, reds and blues can be intoxicating, and, for Europeans, the searing heat of July and August offers a red badge of courage, if you will. Heck, automakers look forward to those hot days so they can test their latest creations to determine if they have the mettle to be sold.

The Western lore that flows out of Scotty's Castle up in Grapevine Canyon is the stuff of legends, too, and the architecture and design of the "castle" that he and Albert Johnson erected is a sight to see, particularly when you keep in mind where it's located and the time period in which it was built.

To help you get the most out of a visit to this tortuous, unforgiving, blazingly hot, and arid landscape (sense we're trying to send a message with our adjectives?), here is the Traveler's Checklist for touring Death Valley:

* Do not underestimate the heat of the valley. Pack more water than you think one could possibly drink.

* Stay at Furnace Creek. Whether you have the budget for a room at the historic inn with its mission-infuenced decor or a less-expensive motelish room at the ranch across the road, this is a well-located basecamp for touring Death Valley.

* Spend a day to head north to Scotty's Castle, and plan on a side trip to Ubehebe Crater. Though it requires a 53-mile, one-way ride from the intersection of California 190 and California 374 near Stovepipe Wells to visit the castle, this is one stop you shouldn't overlook if you make it all the way to Death Valley. Not only is this Spanish-influenced mansion seemingly out of place in the high desert, but its design seemingly pushed the technological limits of the 1920s. Not only did Albert Johnson see that there was a solar heating system at work, but he also had a Pelton water wheel turbine installed to generate electricity for the place. Too, an evaporative cooling system employed indoor waterfalls and even wet burlap to keep things inside the castle relatively cool on those 100-degree summer days.

As for the crater, it speaks to the volcanic history of this corner of the country. You can either be satisfied with driving to the rim and peering into its maw, or spend the time to hike down to the bottom for a truly unique view back up toward the top.

* Pack more water than you think one could possibly drink.

* Roam the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells. These mountains of sand were created by erosion of the mountains that rim the valley floor. Walking them takes you into a giant sandbox, one complete with pockets of vegetation and intriguing displays of the park's fractured geology. Too, the dunes can hold traces of what slithered or scampered here and there before you. Just time your stroll appropriately -- either very, very early in the morning (I went out at 6 a.m. and temp was already at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so you can well-imagine how high the heat can get at midday in this convection-oven setting), or after the sun has set on an evening that promises a full moon. And don't forget your water, sunblock, and wide-brimmed hat!

* Take a hike. Head up into Golden Canyon, go to Badwater and head out across the salt pan, trek to Natural Bridge, or walk across the colorful landscape that is Artist's Palette. If it's the height of summer and you want a good hike but not the high heat, consider a walk from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns on the way to Wildrose Peak (4.2 miles one way) or the longer, and somewhat more strenuous, 7-mile hike to the top of Telescope Peak, a walk with a 3,000-foot elevational gain along the way to the 11,049-foot summit that offers a great view down to Badwater. Any of these hikes puts in front of your eyes and under your feet one of the most incredible geological displays the country has to offer.

* If you have a rig with good ground clearance, and a strong constitution that doesn't mind a jarring ride, head to the Racetrack in the park's northwestern corner. This is the place where the rocks seemingly have feet that enable them to stroll across the baked playa. It's a sight to see, and if you're a photographer, you'll need to overnight here for the best lighting to capture the tracks laid down by the rocks. Along the way, be sure to stop at Teakettle Junction, another great photo op.

* Pack more water than you think one could possibly drink.

* Head south from Furnace Creek to Badwater. Park your rig, look up along the cliff to the "sea level" marker, and then take a glance out across the salt pan and the sign that says you're 282 feet below sea level. Great photo ops abound here, whether it's of you and that sign or of the reflections to be had in the pools of water that somehow linger.

* Consider yourself a duffer? Play a round at the Furnace Creek Golf Course, which is set 214 feet below sea level. If the setting isn't unusual enough, there's a ramp that allows you to navigate your golf cart up to the bar.

* Zabriskie Point is more than the name of a movie, and not simply the backdrop for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a campy 1964 movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars. It's a great viewpoint down the rumpled ribs of Death Valley. Those "ribs" before you are ridges of colorful sediments that collected on the prehistoric Furnace Creek Lake. Sunsets here can seemingly ignite the landscape, so don't forget your camera.

* Repeat visitors to Death Valley should consider using Panamint Springs Resort as a basecamp on one of those returns. From there you can explore a waterfall in the desert, stroll amid Joshua trees, and journey to Aguereberry Point, which is 1,000 feet higher than Dante's View and provides great views down into the valley of death. The resort also might have the best beer list in Death Valley, with more than 100 beers and ales from the world over.

* Here's an incredible Death Valley factoid: While 95 percent of the 3.4 million acres are protected in roadless wilderness areas, according to the National Park Service, the park has more roads than any other national park, more than 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads. Of course, most of those roads are not suitable for your typical family sedan. But if you like exploring, and you've got both a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive rig and the skills to drive it, Titus Canyon with its rugged scenery, petroglyphs, and even a ghost town along the way is a great way to drop into Death Valley.

* After a long day in the park, back at Furnace Creek a stop at the Corkscrew Saloon, followed by dinner at the Wrangler Steakhouse, can't be beat. Unless, of course, you take a dip in the ranch's pool first.

RESOURCES

For detailed information, visit the Death Valley National Park website. For relevant maps, visit this site.

DEATH VALLEY NATURAL HISTORY ASSOCIATION

The Death Valley Natural History Association is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the natural and cultural history of the Death Valley region in cooperation with government partners.

Comments

I finally made it out to the Racetrack just a few weeks ago and it's the only place I've been to in the national parks that I found the drive not worth it. It wasn't that the area wasn't fascinating, it was the fact that people have destroyed it. Most of the rocks have been stolen and I was just so sad to find a unique area being destroyed by people.

Ranger Holly

I live in Wisconsin, but have been to Death Valley, three times..I did go to the race track..whew..20 miles, one way in first gear..so there and back was a day trip, and not much to see, you do need or should have a all wheel drive with lots of room underneat..I have a 450K+ mile Volvo, it made it, but was not happy with me. I love Death Valley and have been to Scotty's castle a couple time..great tours with era clothes on the tour guide. Staying at Furnace Creek was affordable, barely. But walking in the desert, remember..the desert is alive at night.ha. I will go back and tour more..maybe Barker Ranch might be interesting (house burned though...grrr).

It might be safer to use a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, but I have driven to the Racetrack on five different years with different regular vehicles without any problem (each time taking between 1 hour to 1.5 hours one-way). The last time, I even had a Toyota Sienna. That same vehicle was also used to drive down the Titus Canyon, again without any problems. If the road is washboarded, driving in first gear will not reduce the vibrations. You are actually better off at a more reasonable speed. It could be that I was lucky that the road was recently graded, but what is the probability of that happening five times ?

National Parks images

I agree with Quang-Tuan, although you need to know how to drive a dirt road (don't get high-centered, put your tires on the rock and not your oil pan, etc.). I'm one of those people who actually _does_ run the rental car through the car wash before returning it! But make sure you have a good jack, shovel, and a couple of pieces of 2*8 just in case, and 2 or 3 of those 2.5 gallon drinking water jugs available at supermarkets.