From Las Vegas
Death Valley is most conveniently reached from Las Vegas. From there, it is a 2 1/2-hour drive.
The approximately 300-mile drive to Death Valley from Bakersfield begins with a ride through oil fields and orange groves and is freeway the first part of the way. Then as you turn off into the desert it becomes two-lane highway. The highway becomes more and more lonely and desolate as you travel closer to Death Valley, and you definitely need a good map to avoid getting lost. The roads are not clearly marked and they go on forever. Just like in the movies. (Some people will do anything to get a little warm weather.)
In the town of Mojave it is wise to make sure your gas tank is full and to lay in supplies and make potty visits. It is the last easy opportunity. At one point on our trip in my daughter exclaimed from the back seat, "This desert's hell-a-big!"
I was glad we were traveling during daylight. Cars leaving the area were speeding like bats out of hell, and I'm sure it would not have been a highway to heaven at night.
Except for the town of Trona, where a huge Kerr-McGee chemical plant (the company referred to in the movie “Silkwood”) spews smelly unknowns into the air, the route in has magnificently scenic sections. The stretch of Highway 178 after Trona through the striking red earth and green vegetation of the Panamint Mountains is unexpectedly gorgeous. And the scenery encountered on the descent into the valley is stunning. But it was here, in the Panamint Mountains, that crazed murderer Charles Manson and his followers were arrested in 1969.
Located as it is in a remote eastern section of the central part of our state, I imagine many people never do get here. Because getting here takes perseverance--just as it did in the mid-1800s when gold-seekers, looking for a shortcut to the gold fields, headed in. Of course, they had a lot more trouble getting out. Hence the name. (It is said that in the winter of 1849 twenty-seven wagons full of miners went in. Only one came out.)
When we drove here, we seemed to be the only car going in. We opted not to turn on the music and ruin the mesmerizing mood of the majestic mountains. When we drove out, on the road to Vegas, I observe that “the weather is like one long hot flash.”
From the San Francisco Bay Area
From the San Francisco Bay Area via Highway 5, it is a five- to six-hour drive to Bakersfield. Because it is another five- hour drive from there to Death Valley, and because we had a kid in the back seat, when I did this drive I arranged for a rest and recuperation overnight stop in Bakersfield.
Death Valley is the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in the U.S. It is claimed that the sun shines every day here and that it almost never rains.
October through May is considered to be the temperate season. As might be expected, the best weather occurs during the winter. When I visited in late December, it was in the 60s and 70s and cool and windy enough to require a jacket during the day. The evenings were downright cold. Towards spring it gets warmer, and many people like to visit then because the desert flowers are reputed to bloom profusely. European and Japanese tourists seem to favor summer visits, when the temperature in July averages 116 degrees but can reach 140 degrees! Apparently they get a thrill out of experiencing and surviving the perverse weather.
WHAT TO DO
Three nights with two full days of sightseeing is an adequate visit. One or two more days is better if you want to slow down and take it easy. Fewer days just isn't enough to experience the valley. And it's good to remember that it is so far in and so far out and so hard to reach that, most likely, you'll never get this way again.
First Day: North End of Park
●We began with a stop at the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This pleasant 1/2-mile walk occurs on a boardwalk and introduces some of the flora and fauna of the area.
●After, we did the rather long but scenic drive up (literally--it is situated at 3,000 feet) to Scotty's Castle. When we arrived, there was a two-hour wait to get in. Out in the middle of nowhere.
So we filled the time by visiting the nearby volcanic Ubehebe Crater. There my husband and daughter ran all the way down into its center and then climbed slowly back out again. From the rim, buffeted by the wind, I watched.
Though I wasn't expecting much, the castle tour proved worth the wait. Built in the 1920s, it featured careful finishing and an assortment of beautiful Spanish tiles. It is intriguing to contemplate how this feat might have been accomplished.
●On the long drive back, we detoured at the Sand Dunes for a bit of frolicking. These are large dunes, and it would be easy to spend a whole day among them.
●That evening we went to the Visitor Center for a ranger talk. On the way back to our room, we stopped to view the brilliant night sky. What a sight! It's said that the clearest skies in the world occur here and in the Himalayas. They are truly magnificent.
Second Day: South End of the Park
●After stopping to check out the impressive Oasis at Death Valley inn, we headed out to explore the Furnace Creek area sights.
●Zabriskie Point, well-known because of the Antonioni movie of the same name, provides an overlook of picturesque canyons.
●Farther down the road, we made a wonderful drive along a tight pass through Twenty Mule Team Canyon, stopping for short romps.
●Then we drove back and down to the Devil's Golf Course, where an unusual mix of salt and earth provide an interesting landscape,
and to Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
●Then it was back to the Artists Drive loop and a viewing of the famed multi-colored rocks at Artists Palette. This area reminded me a lot of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland. I suspect whoever designed that ride was inspired by a visit here.
●We made a final stop at the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail for a walk through the canyons.
That night, having secured the necessary tickets in advance at the ranch tour desk, we drove into the teeny, tiny town of Death Valley Junction to view the live performance at the Amargosa Opera House. The story goes that in the late '60s New Yorker Marta Becket visited this ghost town and fell in love with it. She moved out and eventually started performing there. Now, in the interior of her opera house, which she has painted herself with audience murals, she performs an unusual and interesting show combining dance and mime. I'd heard about it for years and found it thrilling to finally see. It is a colorful and memorable experience.
Another place to see
We didn’t make it the 80 miles north to Racetrack Playa, where dolomite stones glide across the dry lake, leaving mysterious trails. These "moving rocks" or “sailing stones” only budge once every few years. Some are just pebbles, others are 700-pound boulders. They move fast along the expansive mudflats, sometimes in straight lines, sometimes move in curves or even complete circles, and sometimes they dramatically change direction. Scientists are baffled about why or how they move, though theories include high winds, mud, ice, or a combination of the three. Oddly, no human has ever witnessed this phenomenon, and the scars on the desert floor are the only proof. (If you go, be aware that you’ll be driving on dirt roads. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended; check on road conditions before you set out. When you reach the interpretive signpost for the Racetrack, walk due east across the playa until you see the tracks of the moving rocks.)
WHERE TO STAY
There aren't a lot of choices regarding where to stay. An outpost motel is located at Stovepipe Wells Village, and there are nine non-reservable campgrounds in the area. A youth hostel with some private rooms is 60 miles from the monument in Tecopa.
The Ranch at Death Valley This is in the main lodging area and consists of comfortable motel rooms. Like the true oasis it is, the ranch is surrounded by tall date palms and greenery--an amazing and welcome sight after the desolate drive in. There are grassy expanses for kids to romp on (get a ground-level room for easy access). Amenities include a pool filled with continuously circulating spring water naturally heated to 84 degrees, two tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a stables, and a playground.
Adjacent is a general store where you can purchase just about anything you might need or have forgotten--even a fashionable child's swimming suit in the middle of winter! The Borax Museum, with its display of interesting local mineral specimens, is also found here, as is an adjoining outdoor display of old mining equipment. Bike rentals are available nearby.
We had dinner in the steak house. As I offered my family a running critique of my meal, it occurred to me how fortunate I was to be eating anything at all. Some of those poor miners who got caught here in the 1800s starved to death. So I quit critiquing and raised my glass of Fetzer Cabernet in a toast to our good fortune, and recommend you do the same. We took the rest of our meals in the informal, moderately-priced cafeteria. It was a great place for families to eat, because there was lots of variety and plenty of things kids like. I haven’t heard so many foreign languages spoken since I was last in Europe. We recognized one friendly Swiss man in several spots by his colorful suspenders.
The Inn at Death Valley Built of adobe bricks in 1927 by the Panamint Indians, this luxury resort is worth a visit, perhaps for a drink or meal, even if you don't stay here. The panoramic view of the valley from the lobby is spectacular, and a stroll in the beautifully landscaped gardens is a delight. Vintage rooms feature brick arched fireplaces and gorgeous bathrooms tiled with tiny 6-sided tiles and colorful trim. Enjoying a refreshing dip under the stars in the hot spring-fed pool on a warm desert night proved to be a trip highlight for me.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2015 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020