The perception of Death Valley is that it’s hot and desolate.
The hot part is right, at least in the summer, when Death Valley is one of the hottest places on earth. Even in spring, it’s about as hot as many other places are come August, with April and May temperatures ranging from the 70s to just over 100. As for desolation — yes, the landscape is stark. This is a desert, after all. But there’s also a certain beauty to it, a mosaic of colors from the salt flats and sand dunes to the striations of craggy peaks. Some years, stunning wildflowers bloom in spring and early summer, and the National Park Service reports “a pretty decent bloom this spring” thanks to rainfall at higher elevations of the park. “There’s really something for everyone,” said Denise Perkins, director of marketing and sales for Furnace Creek Resort in Death Valley.
“People often think, ‘I can’t tolerate that heat,’ ” she added, “but that kind of heat we’re talking about is not all year.” Death Valley marks its 20th year this year as a national park.
Located about two hours west of Las Vegas along the California-Nevada state line, Death Valley is unique. Part of the Mojave Desert, it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level at the salt flats of Badwater. The valley was formed by parallel fault lines along the mountain ranges on opposite sides of the valley pulling away from each other, creating a trough effect. Shifting fault lines over eons have created a geological theme park of sorts, filled with picturesque canyons, sand dunes, multicolored mountains that rise up to 11,000 feet above the valley and dramatic vistas.
“Something people aren’t aware of are the mountains that surround here,” said Alan van Valkenburg, a ranger at Death Valley National Park. “One of the comments we get most from visitors is that they were surprised how rugged it was here, how beautiful it was here when they were expecting it to be flat and boring.”
The hub of Death Valley is Furnace Creek, where the visitor’s center is located, along with the two properties of Furnace Creek Resort — an upscale Inn and family-oriented Ranch — several restaurants, a grocery store and a golf course.
Perhaps the most popular drive in the park is the 17 miles from Furnace Creek to Badwater, a salt flat that marks the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. To get a sense of how low the spot is, look up at the mountains to the south where a sign shows sea level. Along the road, stop by the Devil’s Golf Course, a unique area where rock salt in the valley has been eroded into jagged spires, then swing through Artist’s Drive, a narrow, one-lane with scenic views of the multiple colors of the mountains to the east. There’s also a short hike to Natural Bridge Canyon off the road. Zabriske Point is the iconic viewpoint in the park — the one where all the sunrise photos are taken — overlooking strangely eroded and multicolored badlands. Dante’s View is a 45-minute drive, but well worth it, offering perhaps the best view of Death Valley from 5,000 feet. To the north, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, is a popular and easily accessible way to see one of the park’s five sand dune areas. A little farther north, there’s the Ubehebe Crater, a deep volcanic crater, and Scotty’s Castle, a Spanish-style mansion built by a wealthy Chicago couple who were duped by a scam prospector named “Death Valley Scotty,” but decided to stay anyway because they liked the area so much. The park also is filled with miles of rugged backcountry, particularly on the peaks above on the west side, and some great hiking areas, including Mosaic Canyon, a narrow stretch of polished marble walls. The night sky is brilliant and clear for stargazing — some people see the Milky Way for the first time in Death Valley. A March 31 update on the park’s website noted colorful spring flowers popping up in various areas of the park, including carpets of yellow flowers south of Badwater, with others blooming along a stretch of Highway 190, in lower Emigrant Canyon and elsewhere. But “even without the bloom, it’s a very, very beautiful place to appreciate in its own right,” Perkins said. “There’s so many reasons to come out here.”
OK, the heat. There’s a reason why it’s called Death Valley, and why places around the park have names like Furnace Creek, Badwater, Dante’s View, the Devil’s Golf Course.
Summertime temperatures in Death Valley routinely climb above 120 degrees. Earth’s hottest temperature ever was recorded here, a whopping 134 degrees in 1913. If you visit from May to October, expect to be hot. The rest of the year, though, it’s moderate, highs between 70 and 80, 40s and 50s during the coldest part of the year. “It really can be miserable in the summer,” van Valkenburg said. “But the rest of the year it’s actually quite nice.”
Death Valley National Park
Furnace Creek Resort: The Inn, carved on the side of a hill overlooking the valley, is an upscale historic hotel while the Ranch is more laidback, sprawling across the valley floor like a small town. Rates at the Ranch, which is open year-round, start at $150, and the Inn, which is typically closed from mid-May to October, start at $350.
Safety tips: A handful of tourists have died in recent years visiting Death Valley. Don’t underestimate the need for bringing water with you. Don’t stay in the sun long. Tell someone at home what your travel plans are, and don’t go off main roads; GPS directions have sometimes led visitors astray.