Death Valley

Notes by piero scaruffi | Other California attraction | Other California hikes | Photos


Contrary to common belief, Death Valley is not just a desert with the lowest depression in the American continent. There are waterfalls (Darwin Falls). There is a very high mountain (Telescope Peak). The desert has spectacular Sand Dunes (including Eureka Sand Dunes, the tallest in the northern emisphere).

The highest mountains are: Telescope Peak (and its sub-peaks Bennett Peak and Rogers Peak), Sentinel Peak (and its subpeak Porter Peak), Wildrose Peak (13.5 kms from the Charcoal Kilns on a regular trail), Tin Mountain (off Race Track Rd), Grapevine Peak (near Phinney Canyon, technically in Nevada), and Dry Mountain (off Race Track Rd).

California's highway 395 parallels the park from north to south, while California's highway 190 crosses the park from east to west. West of the park in California, SR 178 passes through Ridgecrest and Trona on its way north to a junction with 190. East of the park in Nevada, highway 95 parallels the park from north to south with connecting highways at Scotty's Junction (SR267), Beatty (SR 374), and Lathrop Wells (SR 373).

Eureka Sand Dunes cannot be reached from Death Valley proper. It requires driving north of Death Valley, to Bishop. The sand dunes that are located near Stovepipe Wells are much smaller, although no less fascinating.

My photos

Before you venture out on dirt roads, read Driving on Death Valley's dirt roads.

Main attractions:
  • Ubehebe Crater. You can run (or roll) down to the bottom (in literally a few minutes), but coming back up is not trivial (sandy, steep, last time took me 26').
  • Sunset at Dante's View (south of Zabriskie Point)
  • Zabriskie Point, one of the classic views of the desert
  • Badwater, south of Furnace Creek (lowest point in the USA), although there isn't much
  • Artist Drive, near Badwater
  • Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon
  • Titus Canyon
  • Marble Canyon. See this page
  • Darwin Falls (near Panamint on highway 190). Yes, there are waterfalls in Death Valley, but of course they can be seen only in winter and early spring. The (unmarked) turnoff is 1 km northwest from the Panamint Springs resort (first dirt road on your left if you are coming from the resort). After about 4 kms, there is a parking lot on the right hand-side (and a sign "4WD only" on the road). Park and walk down to the creek bed, then turn left and follow the creek up into the canyon. The hike itself is only about 1.5 kms to the end of the canyon, where the first waterfall is. About 20m before that waterfall, one can climb up the rocks on the left. Climb straight up and you should intersect a use trail. That use trail takes both to the top and to the bottom of the second (much more spectacular) waterfall.
  • Sand Dunes. The most popular are near Stovepipe Wells (in the center of Death Valley), but the tallest (in the whole of North America) are the Eureka Sand Dunes. They can only be reached via a dirt road from the north. The Panamint Sand Dunes can only be reached by hiking (from the Lake Hill Rd in Panamint Springs).
  • A relatively short hike goes from Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point (ideally via Red Cathedral) and it's one of the best to get the feeling of why Death Valley is called "death" valley. It is about 2kms to Red Cathedral. Use trails lead up the rocks (not terribly safe, but great views). Retrace your steps on the trail to stop number 10. That is the trailhead to Zabriskie Point (4 kms, well marked).
  • March to May is the peak blooming season for desert wildflowers, especially around Jubilee Pass (e.g., Shoreline Butte and Ashford Mill), on 178 west of Shoshone, and Daylight Pass, on highway 374 east of Stovepipe Wells (see this page and this article). Flowers can usually be seen in the spring also along highway 190 near the Furnace Creek Inn.
  • Moving stones of the "Race Track/ Playa" (40kms south of Ubehebe Crater on a rough dirt road or 56kms north of highway 190 via Hunter Mountains if you have a high-clearance vehicle). These stones make groves as they are moved by the wind in a flat area, and some of the stones are really big. Most people get to the Race Track Playa from Ubehebe Crater. Calculate a speed of 20km/h. Thus it takes about 1.5 hours from Ubehebe Crater to the Teakettle Junction (the last place where you are allowed to camp before the Race Track itself) and about 20 minutes (10kms) from the fork to the Playa. The Playa is a giant white valley, worth seeing regardless of the stones. See this page if you'd rather hike there.
  • Telescope Peak (3,367m high), but it requires three/four hours of hiking (See the hikes)
  • See also the hikes
    Man-made attractions:
  • Charcoal Kilns on the way to Telescope Peak
  • Furnace Creek Inn (a luxury hotel open till mid May, sunday brunch from 11am till 2pm, $28 in 2006 and reservations required 760-786-2345)
  • Scotty's Castle
  • Several ghost towns, notably Panamint City, but reachable only via a long hike. See the hiking page.
  • Rhyolite ghost town: Rhyolite was the largest town in the Death Valley area during the mining boom of the early 1900's. Included among the ruins are a house built completely of bottles, a train depot, jail, two story schoolhouse, and the ruins of a three story bank building.
  • Scotty's Castle: Born Walter Scott in 1872, Scotty started his career as a cowboy on a Nevada ranch and as a cowboy with the Wild West show, before striking it rich with gold prospecting. He never really found any gold, but convinced magnate Albert Johnson to build a huge mansion which became a popular hotel during the Depression.
  • Death Valley hikes


    Weather forecast

    As of 2014: there is no cell phone signal in Death Valley except at the Furnace Creek visitor center; and there is no Internet except at Stovepipe Wells, near the action described below (and inside the Furnace Creek resort if you are a guest).

    Tourist itinerary

    • Drive to Mojave Desert
    • Camp at Red Rock Canyon
    • Following day:
      • Darwin Falls
      • Stovepipe Wells sand dunes
      • Golden Canyon
      • Artist Drive
      • Badwater
      • Zabriskie Point
      • Dante's View (for sunset)
    • Following day:
      • Mosaic Canyon & Grotto Canyon
      • Drive northwest on 95, then 374 west
      • Rhyolite ghost town
      • Titus Canyon (requires a 4WD)
      • Scotty's Castle
      • Ubehebe Crater
      • Race Track Playa (requires a 4WD)
      • Eureka Sand Dunes
    • Following day:
      • Telescope Peak

    • Mojave Desert: The 1.4 million acre Mojave National Preserve is the geological, ecological, cultural, historical, recreational, and scenic heart of the Mojave Desert.
    • Amargosa Opera House: Each week during the winter season, Marta Becket dances two different programs of original Ballet-Mimes. Call (760) 852-4441 for program dates and times.
    • Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: The 12,736 acre spring-fed wetland and alkaline desert provides habitat for at least 26 types of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Four endemic fishes are currently listed as endangered.
    • Manzanar National Historic Site: Manzanar Relocation Center was one of ten camps at which Japanese-American citizens and Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.
    • The Coso petroglyphs
    • The highest Sierra mountains


    Driving in Death Valley's dirt roads

    Unfortunately, rangers advise tourists to rent expensive gas-sucking 4WD sport utility vehicles. The net effect, besides helping to destroy the planet and de facto making Death Valley a place reserved for rich tourists only, is to cause damage to dirt roads that are already in bad shape. Every now and then the park regrades the roads, but it takes just a handful of SUVs to dislodge big rocks and make deep grooves in the sand, in other words to make them tough for the low-clearance vehicles that the masses drive. That said, many of the popular sights lie on dirt roads that can be driven by low-clearance vehicles. Rangers are not reliable sources of information: they are paid to tell you that your low-clearance car will not make it. Sometimes that is true, sometimes it is blatantly false (sometimes they might not honestly know the current condition of a remote road).
    Of the sights located far away from paved roads, the "Race Track/ Playa" has become the most popular one. The road that begins at Ubehebe Crater is long, tedious, rocky, sandy, and everything else that the rangers will tell you, but i have driven it in regular cars up and down a few times. You don't have to go back in time too many years to remember when it was the other way around: SUVs were a rarity on that road. What has changed between now and then is mainly marketing: car rental companies have been successful in advertising the SUV as "the thing" to do in a place like Death Valley. Low-clearance cars can still make the same journey in pretty much the same time. Factors that increase your chances of getting stuck: a big car overflowing with passengers and luggage; bad tires; poor driving skills.
    I would single out the latter because too many people wildly overestimate their driving skills. If you were a truck driver on the Ladaq-Kashmir route all of your life (and you are still alive), your driving skills are excellent. If you spent your adult life driving in Silicon Valley, you are probably one of the least skilled drivers on the planet. A rule of thumb: if you can't drive a "stick-shift" (manual-transmission) car, you probably have no driving skills at all. That said, lots of people with poor driving skills still make it to Race Track, to Marble Canyon and on many other dirt roads. But it is much better to have a "good" driver (where "good" does not mean that s/he knows all the traffic rules but that s/he actually knows how to drive a car in difficult conditions).


    If you are heading to Death Valley via Bakersfield, there's free camping at Lake Isabella (take Sierra Way, the road from Weldon to Kernville, and look for signs "Recreation Area"). A restaurant i recommend (2013) is Bernardino's in Inyokern (huge cheap Mexican lunch buffet).


    From the Bay Area it is quite a drive, whichever route you pick. Eg:

    In a sign of the continuing decline of the USA, there is no public transportation (not even an old-fashioned bus, let alone a Japanese/European-style bullet train) to this popular destination. If you are a tourist, you need to rent a car or book a super-expensive tour. It is also a sign of how much the USA cares for pollution, greenhouse gases and oil consumption that it forces everybody to drive their own cars to a popular natural attraction and that rangers recommend people (customers?) to rent sport utility vehicles (the worst in terms of gas consumption and pollution).