Visiting Death Valley is always an adventure. The first post I wrote for Outside the Limits was about Death Valley and Las Vegas. I flew down to Vegas alone and sped off into the desert for an escape from the city – hence, the name “Outside the (City) Limits,” although “Limits” has evolved to mean many things since then. The trip was liberating from the confines that I found myself in at the time but I remember feeling a little uneasy too, as if I disappeared, no one would find me. I also thought it was hot then… it was April.
First designated as a national monument by Herbert Hoover in 1933, Death Valley didn’t become a national park until 1994. For many years, the valley was mined for a slew of metals and minerals – gold, silver, copper, tungsten, lead, zinc, antimony and borax – up until 2005 when the last mining operation ceased. In 1976, Congress passed the Mining in Parks Act, imposing stricter environmental standards on ongoing mining operations and as such, new mining claims were not permitted from that point on.
Today, Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States and as many people know, the 2nd lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin, is located inside the park, sitting at 282 feet below sea level. The Mojave and Great Basin deserts make up the park so it’s no surprise that Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America. In fact, Death Valley holds the record for the highest recorded temperature of ambient air ever recorded on Earth at 134.1 degrees in 1913.
In recent years, Death Valley continues to hit record-breaking temperatures and thanks to climate change, the temperature seems to just keep going up. In addition to being known for its extreme temperatures, the park was designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984 and a Dark Sky Park in 2013 by the International Dark-Sky Association. Given the valley’s remote location and limited light pollution, the park serves as a perfect place to star gaze and see celestial objects you wouldn’t otherwise see.
During our recent trip, our drive through Death Valley was a bit different than last time. For one, we were traveling in July, often the hottest month of the year. We left the comfort of the Cosmopolitan in Vegas (already insanely hot) and headed towards the park. As we dropped down into the valley at Shoshone and drove past Ashford Junction and Badwater Basin, we watched as the temperature gauge on our SUV continued inching up. Because we were traveling with the dogs, we were limited in what we could do. Dogs are not permitted on the trails and can only be in developed areas inside the park. It was also too hot to stop for any length of time in fear of us all getting heat stroke, so we continued through the valley, enjoying the sights from the safety of our air conditioned car.
- Pet Friendly Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
When we reached Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the temperature read a whopping 126 degrees. As I stepped out of the car to run into the gift shop, the wind hit with an intense wave of heat. It was actually a bit difficult to breath, especially with a mask on, and definitely the hottest temperature I’ve ever been in. Although the gift shop was open, the Visitor Center was closed. A warning posted outside cautioned visitors to avoid hiking after 10 AM and to “travel prepared to survive.” Death Valley is no joke.
After perusing the gift shop, I raced back to the car and we drove 5 minutes to Zabriskie Point. To reach the lookout point, it’s a very short 1/8-mile hike and I was determined to get to the top.
Water bottle in hand, again the heat hit hard. My throat was burning as I puffed up the hill. In total, between hiking up and spending a few minutes at the top, I was probably only outside for less than 10 minutes before running back down to the car.
At that point, given the extreme heat and since we had a long drive ahead of us to Bakersfield, we made our way out of the valley with what we thought was plenty of gas. There’s a point after you pass Stovepipe Wells, heading west, that has a road sign advising drivers to turn off air conditioning for the next 10 miles to avoid overheating. We certainly weren’t going to take the chance, so we turned off the air with the hope that the wind whizzing through the rolled down windows would suffice to cool us off long enough to get to the top.
What we didn’t realize was our SUV was burning a lot more gas due to the high temperature and incline of the hill. We started with a half a tank (normally good for at least 150 miles) and as we slowly gained elevation, the mile tracker on the gas gauge quickly dwindled towards zero. Eventually, the gauge gave up all together and hovered right above empty. Holding our breath, we plowed up the hill, praying that we wouldn’t be stuck in the heat with no gas. The dogs were heavily panting and we were sweating. As we reached the summit, we exhaled with a nervous chuckle and coasted down the other side into Saline Valley to Panamint Springs. There, we rolled into the gas station; a lone skeleton sat in an old prop plane. Eerily silent, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Where were we?
While we would have loved to explore some of the backroads of the park more and surrounding area, it was probably best that we headed out when we did or the story may have turned out quite differently. 🙂 We left Panamint Springs with a full tank of gas once again on our way through another expansive, stark valley, not quite sure what we would come across next. But after all, that’s the fun of it, right? 😉
In the end, the moral is:
1. It’s probably not the best idea to go to Death Valley during the summer but if you want to brave it…
2. Be prepared with a full tank of gas and a lot of water before entering the park.
We’ll definitely plan to visit in the winter next time and stop at all the must see sights below.
If you’d like to read the inaugural post about Death Valley, the link is here.
In the next Park Beat, we’re headed to Capitol Reef National Park.
Top places to see in Death Valley:
- Zabriskie Point
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center
- Badwater Basin
- Artist’s Drive (this is a one way road and goes from south to north)
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Dantes View
- Kean Wonder Mine
- Ubehebe Crater
- Charcoal Kilns
- Father Crowly Vista Point
For a bit more adventurous off roading:
- Racetrack Playa & Moving Rocks
- Eureka Dunes
- Devil’s Golf Course
Also safety warnings at the park can be found here – https://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/safety.htm