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Driving Death Valley National Park in California

120’F in the lowest spot in North America ~ is it worth it?

I have a love the desert – the heat, the barren and flat terrain, scenic mountain passes, Joshua Tree, Sagebrush and tumbleweed, and miles and miles of flat deserted landscapes as far as the eye can see. I traveled 350 miles over 8 hours, enjoying every mile of this stark terrain adventure – uber-satisfying to my desert love.

mountains, deserts, deserted !!When I first considered driving from Vegas to Death Valley, I conjured pioneer wagon trains navigating the mountain passes and arriving at the heat mirage flats with the blistering heat. I sensed the cowboys protecting the wagon trains watching for outlaws hiding in the mountain crevices – scenario’s coming alive from movie images of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Roy Rogers.

Death Valley has long held a mystical draw for me, given those old westerns watched with my dad, from the geological offerings (I love rocks) and the intense desert heat. There’s so much to see in this inhospitable wonder and given the chance – I plunged in (pardon the pun).

A one-day trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley

Trip details: Las Vegas to Death Valley mapped, approx. 340 miles round-trip, full day

Park fees: $25 per vehicle for a 7-day pass (gate entrances and/or visitor centers)             

Stage 1 – Entrance to the Badlands (approx. 2.5 hours)

Date trees at the China Ranch Date FarmThe road trip began heading west out of Vegas to Tecopa, California (approx. 1.5 hours). Enjoy a rest stop at the China Ranch Date Farm for some fresh dates and snacks at their modest gift shop before heading through Shoshone and Death Valley Junction to your first stretch-your-legs photo stop at the picturesque badlands (Zabriskie Point – end of Stage 1 approx. 2.5 hours from Vegas).

Drink in the desertscapes and endless vista’s, your views include bone-dry spillways (a contradiction of purpose in the desert), mountain passes and visions of cowboy ambushes from old western movies, craggy mountain peaks and mountain ranges framing endless panoramas of desert to mountains – a visual geological treat. With names like Wounded Horse Trail, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Dante’s View Road, Funeral Mountain, you’ll get a sense – very quickly – of the harshness of this desert passageway.

the badlands terrain of Death ValleyYou’ll quickly notice the decent into Death Valley from Death Valley Junction – a 2000 ft. elevation drop. Ahead is the lower plain of the valley as the road winds the few thousand feet to the heart of Death Valley. The colorful, erosive badlands at Zabriskie Point offer your first taste of this harsh, alien terrain with the salt flat plains in the distance.

Stage 2 – Death Valley Salt Flats (approx. 1.5 hours)

Badwater Basin - lowest point in North AmericaThe salt flat plateau grounds the floor of Death Valley. Already below sea level, Furnace Creek is a rare spot of civilization – the restaurant, gas station, campground and 2 resorts – Furnace Creek Resort and The Inn at Death Valley – serve as the gateway to Death Valley National Park. Stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum, the park’s main outpost and host to Death Valley's cultural and natural history. While here, my suggestion is to top up your gas as you still have another 200 miles of driving before heading back to Las Vegas.

the Salt Flats at Badwater BasinBadwater Basin is the bottom depth of Death Valley and lowest point in North America at -282 ft. below sea level. Flanked by the Amargosa Mountain Range on the east and the Panamint Mountain Range on the west, the enclosed basin (a 150 north-south mile trough) and arid Mojave desert environment are perfect conditions for creating this massive 200 mi2 salt flat. Consider the sheltered basin and the overhead sun blasting the protected area, it should be no surprise Death Valley has easily reached record high temperatures. I was there in August and the temperature at Badwater Basin reached 120’F (50’C) – yikes!

add red and it's just like a martian landscapeDriving this Badwater Rd in the summer heat was a treat – the blinding white of the salt flats, the shimmering mirage from the radiating heat, and various Death Valley interest points towards Badwater Basin like Artists Drive, Natural bridge, and Devils Golf Course. Seeing Badwater Basin was the goal and to walk out a half-mile+ on the salt flats in 120’F temps a challenge and a joy. For interest, at the parking for Badwater Basin, if you look upwards on the cliff wall about 280 feet, you’ll see a marker delineating the actual ocean sea level – noting how far below sea level the area is. Driving this basin landscape was like what I imagine the surface of Mars looks like, minus the tinged Martian red.

Stage 3 – Rising out of the Basin to a ghost town (approx. 1.5 hours)

Driving the flat Death Valley Basin and rising up to pass through the Amargosa Mountain Range sits Death Valley’s eastern access, eerily called the naked sculpture - Lady Desert: Venus of NevadaHells Gate – due it’s higher elevation view opening up to the desolate beauty of the Death Valley basin and salt flats. Climb to 4300 ft. on the pass as the long horizon-stretching road of the Amargosa desert stretches in front of you. Dust tornado’s and blowing tumbleweed are common sights of this wide plain.

A dusty side road guides you to the modern ghost town of Ryholite, Nevada (from the gold rush excitement of 1905-1915). Drive slowly through the eerie remnants of the town (building framing of the bank, train station, abandoned caboose and some mining homes) and circle back to the Goldwell Open Air Museum & Artist Residency. Take time to enjoy the eclectic art exhibits – Albert Szukalski's ghostly Last Supper Albert Szukalski’s ghostly Last Supper tableau and other wraith-like installments (likely in epitaph to the ghost town of Ryholite), the 25’ naked pink lego sculpture Lady Desert: Venus of Nevada, the steel Prospector and Penguin, a circular stone labyrinth among others – an odd but very interesting juxtaposition of art in the depth of the Nevada desertscape.

Final Stage – the Nellis Air Force Range to Las Vegas (approx. 2 hours)

Exiting Rhyolite, notice the mining process dismantling Ladd Mountain as you head back to Hwy 374 – a curious sight. Aside from an optional stop in Beatty for supplies and refreshments, the 2-hour return drive to Las Vegas takes you along the length of the Nellis Air Force Range and the Nevada Test Site home to AREA 51. Let your mind wander to the other-worldly possibilities of what’s hidden in those mountains and watch for mysterious aircraft being test-flown.

Surviving a day in Death Valley

Depending on the time of the year, the extreme temperatures of Death Valley can be a real hazard if you’re unprepared. These tips will help you avoid becoming a rescue mission:

  • never know what to expect in the desertEnsure you have a full tank of gas (it’s very expensive and there are very few options between Las Vegas and Beatty – I saw one)
  • Pack a lunch and snacks – depending on your route the options are limited
  • Bring an extra few large water bottles of water to replenish
  • Hat and sunscreen in high season
  • Leave early to minimize exposure to the heat
  • Wear appropriate footwear for hiking any terrain or walking the Salt Flats (think scorpions, tarantula’s and snakes)

A few other sights you may want to include on your tour through Death Valley

And take a stroll through the movies to see what movies were filmed in Death Valley.

On my next Vegas visit? Road trip to Area 51 and the Great Basin of Nevada!

Have you visited Death Valley before? What was the draw for you and what did you most enjoy. Drop a comment below and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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