Death Valley National Park (2/59)

Our visit to Death Valley National Park began with a scenic drive up CA-127 through expansive, sweeping California desert scenery. We then connected with CA-190 near the border of Nevada to head west into the park towards Furnace Creek, one of the park’s main areas of population.

We arrived at Sunset Campground sometime late morning, which was basically a spacious gravel parking lot with water and dump available. This essentially became our base of operations during our Death Valley visit. At this point, we were so excited to be visiting another National Park (and only our second), so we decided to jump in the Jeep and do some light exploring immediately after setting up the rig.

We knew that there were a number of the park’s more well-known sights all within less than thirty minutes of the Furnace Creek area, and the majority of these were essentially drive-ups, with no hiking required. Since we knew we would mostly be driving, we packed up all three furry pals for the ride.

We began this first escapade through the park with Dante’s View, a 5,476-foot viewpoint terrace that offers panoramic views north over the majority of the valley. It was a very clear early April day, so visibility was perfect. Geographically, this spot was a logical first stop, but afterward, we felt that seeing the park from that enormous, macro perspective was the ideal way to begin our visit.

After taking in Dante’s View, we returned around Mt. Perry back towards Furnace Creek and Badwater Road, which took us directly to Badwater Basin. Along the way, we diverted for a quick drive through Twenty-Mule Team Canyon to get a closer look at the badlands, via a mild off-road drive.

After the short Twenty-Mule drive, we continued around Mt. Perry to Badwater Road. The drive down Badwater Road itself was amazing. On Badwater Road, you are in the valley, driving along the east side. The road is situated in the foothills at a slight elevation above the valley floor, which makes for amazing views of the salt flats and other geologic features which cover the valley floor. We were so amazed by the 360-degree beauty surrounding us.

Our next stop was Badwater Basin itself. Probably the most renowned and celebrated feature of Death Valley, Badwater Basin is a flat area that lies at 282 ft below sea level and is the lowest point in North America. Inconsequentially, Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US (14,505 ft), is only 84.6 miles away. (Oh, California…)

The basin is characterized by and well known for the dry, cracked texture of the salt deposits which span its surface.

After a short walk out to experience the views from the valley floor, we returned the way we had come down Badwater Road.

Our next stop, not far from the basin, was Devil’s Golf Course. This area is characterized by large, complicated salt deposit formations which resemble a field of small boulders. It was pretty quiet when we stopped, so we decided to let the furry pals wander through the boulders with us. (Max was popular with some of the tourists)

After we had our share of salt boulders, we again returned back along Badwater Toad towards Furnace Creek, this time diverting off to Artist’s Drive. Offering scenic views through portions of the badlands around Mt. Perry, Artist’s Drive derives its name from the vibrant colors that can be seen in portions of the rock layer along and around the road. We planned to arrive at sunset for the best light to view the colored rock. Our planning worked out well, and the drive did not disappoint. It was a great way to end our first day in Death Valley.

After Artist’s Drive, on the way back to our rig, I began hearing a squealing sound in the Jeep originating, from what I could tell, around the area of the fan belt. Once we were back at the rig, I popped the hood for a quick inspection, and sure enough, I could see that the bearing in the idler pulley on the fan belt system had fallen apart. Thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, I was able to have a new pulley delivered to the Furnace Creek Post Office, across the street from our campground, in two days for $18. We kept our driving to a minimum for the next day, and the problem was solved smoothly.

Side note: this idler pulley issue combined with what I thought was a cooling issue at the time (turned out to be a jumpy gauge sending unit later), resulted in us not taking Wendy for the 40-mile roundtrip off-road drive to the Racetrack. Because of these two issues, we thought it was wiser not to risk a possible breakdown on the long off-road trip. This is actually the reason why Death Valley was our first, and so far only, postcard photo that was not taken at the actual scene. We were super bummed about missing The Racetrack, but we prefer to be safe rather than sorry. We will definitely be back to see “The Racetrack” and take the correct postcard photos, though.

The next morning, I headed out for some hiking on the Desolation Canyon trail, bringing my little white wolf along with me, while Sam stayed back to pack some orders. (All Trails had the trail marked as being dog-friendly, but after the hike, I learned that Luna was not allowed on the trail – oops).

Since it was an early morning in April, the weather was very comfortable for us. It was a very fun hike with a few small scramble sections. The “summit” at the end of the trail overlooked portions of the Artist’s Drive area that we had seen by car the day before. Luna and I both had a great time.

The following day, Sam and I both set out for a morning hike, this time to the Natural Bridge trail. The trail wound through a generously wide canyon with steep vertical walls and below the trail’s namesake, a large arch or “natural bridge.” At the time of day that we were hiking, the valley was nearly entirely shadowed, so it was an even more comfortable hike than the day before.

This morning we enjoyed an early hike on the Natural Bridge trail. The earliness was out of practicality due to the mid day heat here, but we found that it was actually a brilliant time to be out. The early morning light was moody and dramatic in the desert canyon of the trail. Plus, we also enjoyed the lack of crowds. ? . The hike itself was quite amazing. The natural bridge is, of course, an impressive sight, but we found that the remainder of the trail also had much to offer. The volcanic walls of the canyon featured amazing veins of multi colored rock and ore. We climbed up one dry waterfall section which was textured with such varieties of color that it looked as if it had been painted with a brush. We're looking forward to seeing the rest of the wonders that @deathvalleynps has to offer in the next few days! ~B

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The trail came to an abrupt end at a 25-30 ft vertical dry waterfall. I attempted to free-solo climb it in my oafy hiking boots just because I have a consuming curiosity about “what’s around the next corner.” I quickly realized about halfway up that it would be too risky and I should head back down while I could. Overall, this was a very enjoyable hike.

After finishing our hike, we traveled the remaining distance down Badwater Road to spend more time at Badwater Basin. This time, we walked a good distance out into the valley to take in the 360-degree views and trekked beyond the tracks of the average tourists.

We had fun taking tons of photos, including the obligatory lying down photo.

The next day attended to work and installed the new idler pulley in the Jeep, in the earlier portion of the day. We set out to explore around 5 pm, so we got a bit of a late start. It was evening by the time we set out, and we made our first stop at Zabriskie Point. An overlook upon the badlands of the Mt. Perry area from the east side of the range, Zabriskie point offers more great sights of the park. Since it is an overlook that is just off the road, it is well worth a quick stop.

Next, we traveled about forty minutes north on CA-190 to check out the Mesquite Sand Dunes. For whatever reason, I am particularly drawn to sand dunes and find them to be incredibly fascinating as geographic features. The Mesquite Sand Dunes did not disappoint.

Okay, last Death Valley post! (for now ?)… . Our last full day in Death Valley was mostly waiting for a car part to arrive! We experienced an issue with our Cherokee Thursday morning, and Brendan quickly found the culprit part. Thanks to technology and the age of Amazon, we were able to have a new part delivered next-day shipping! We waited for it all day, and it had still not arrived by 3:30 PM on Friday. Since the post office in Death Valley was closing at 4, Bren went there to stalk the UPS guy and retrieve the part. It arrived right at 3:50 pm! He quickly came back to the RV and switched out the part (can anyone say expert mechanic?!), and we were on our way to continue exploring! . We arrived at the dunes around 6pm, and I tried to convince Bren that we did not have enough daylight left to get to the biggest dunes and back. He somehow convinced me that we did, and I'm so glad we squeezed in this little hike! Next trip to Death Valley, we'll head up to see the northern dunes, which are reportedly much larger. ☺️?? ~S

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I haven’t yet mentioned, but the weather on this day was much different than the previous days of our visit, as it was very windy and overcast. Due to our late start, by the time we reached the dunes, the sun was setting. We had about 45 minutes of light left to make the short hike out to explore amongst the dunes. The setting sun, combined with the overcast sky created the most spectacular, moody light during our exploration of the dunes. We quickly made our way out and climbed up to the top of one of the larger dunes to take in the views. For me, the combination of the incredible, low light and the majesty of the dunes, created an otherworldly experience…

After savoring the dunes until the sun was gone, we made our way back to the Jeep and realized that all the adventure had left us famished. We made our way a few more minutes up the road to the small populated area of Stovepipe Wells to end off the day with a plate of nachos and a couple of Coronas at the saloon.

The following day, we checked out of Sunset Campground and made our way west on CA-190 to exit the park on the west side towards CA-395 where we planned to make a return stop at the Alabama Hills area. Before leaving the park, we planned to make two more stops along the way: Darwin Falls, and Father Crowley Overlook.

The first of these two stops, Darwin Falls, was a short hike to a beautiful desert oasis waterfall. Obviously, we couldn’t pass that up.

The short, 1.5(ish?) mile trail was enjoyable and very interesting as it was fascinating to witness the dry, rocky, desert canyon landscape gradually turn green and alive with growth as we neared the fall, to the point where we eventually found ourselves walking through a small patch of woods before reaching the fall.

Prior to our hike, I had read that there were more falls accessible via a short scramble up around the side of the lower fall. Having to experience as much as possible, I made the short climb up to see the other falls. However, I was so glad I did and it was very worth the extra effort. Beyond the small lower fall, was a much larger multi-step fall which fell from a height of 200 ft or so into several small, tight canyon pools. Since it was challenging to reach, there was no one else present. I was even able to climb up and around these falls to catch a view from their direct point of descent. This still remains one of my top waterfall experiences.

After experiencing the falls, we returned to the rig and continued west on CA-190 to make our last Death Valley stop at Father Crowley’s Overlook. As another off-the-road vista point, Father Crowley Overlook provides onlookers with a majestic view deep into the valleys of the northwestern regions of the park, which are distinctly different in appearance from the central and southeastern areas.

We absolutely loved our experience at Death Valley National Park, and would gladly return in the future, especially since the park still has much more to offer that we didn’t see during our first visit.

Got any fun, funny, thrilling or meaningful stories from Death Valley of your own? We’d love to hear them in the comments!

About Brendan Binger

Brendan BingerI’m Brendan, the other 50% of Life Among Pines, and a self-taught designer and marketer. I enjoy the singular privilege of waking up each day to spend my time doing what I love. Recently, I have been applying my time towards growing my freshly founded web design and digital marketing agency: Quarry Design Group. When not working, you can find me riding triple fins or seven-plys, face down in the pages of a new book, or exploring the wilderness of the US.