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Land of extremesLand of extremes

Death Valley National Park, California and NevadaDeath Valley National Park, California and Nevada

If exploring the lowest, driest, hottest place on earth doesn’t sound like the ideal vacation destination, you haven’t been to Death Valley National Park.

  • Death Valley road. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Death Valley park entrance. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Death Valley Badwater Basin salt flats boardwalk. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Death Valley Badwater Basin salt flats at sunset. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.
  • Death Valley view of the national park looking from the lobby of The Inn at Death Valley, part of The Oasis at Death Valley resort. Photo by MeLinda Schnyder.

Who knew this land of extremes would motivate this very-much-not-a-morning-person to get up well before dawn to witness what sunrise looks like on yellow folded canyon cliffs, wind-swept sand dunes, and salt flats and still want to be out exploring at sunset?

During our visit, two of the park’s most popular tourist sites were closed for renovation, and we still had more to do than our two-day stay allowed. Death Valley National Park straddles the California-Nevada border and is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, with 3.4 million acres or 5,000 square miles. More than 90 percent of its land is officially designated wilderness and not accessible to the typical tourist, yet you’ll still have 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads to access a variety of terrain and interesting sites.

More than any other national park we’ve visited, it is important here to thoroughly plan logistics in advance. Accommodations, gas, and food are all available inside the park but in limited supply. You’ll also need to consult a visitor center to ensure safety on unpaved roads and check for any areas that are closed (Scotty’s Castle, a 1920s-era mansion damaged by a massive 2015 flood, is scheduled to reopen in 2020).

The most convenient way to visit is to fly in to Furnace Creek Airport, owned and managed by the National Park Service, and take the complimentary shuttle 1.5 miles to The Oasis at Death Valley resort inside the park. The Xanterra Travel Collection property has completed $100 million in renovations within the past two years. Stay at the historic 66-room Inn at Death Valley, a AAA four-diamond hotel, or the 224-room, family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley.

The Oasis at Death Valley also has new casitas added during the remodel at The Inn at Death Valley, and there is a campground adjacent to the Ranch at Death Valley and the Death Valley Visitor Center. Guests have access to the resort’s 87-degree spring-fed pools, spa, dining options ranging from upscale to a saloon-themed steakhouse and poolside meals, stables, and the world’s lowest elevation golf course. Golf Digest ranks the 18-hole, par 70, 214-foot-below-sea-level Furnace Creek Golf Course as one of the country’s 50 toughest courses.

From September through May, the resort can arrange an in-park Jeep rental for you to explore the otherworldly landscapes, including several sites that have been cast in movies as doubles for a galaxy far, far away. There’s a reason the rental season is limited: Temperatures in Death Valley often exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, restricting outdoor activity except in the mountains. That doesn’t mean there are no visitors; the park still attracts about 100,000 tourists a month in the hottest months of the year.

The park is open year-round, though the busiest season is in the spring when temperatures range from the 50s to the 80s. Temperatures are reaching the 90s by late April; triple digits start in May. October is when the temperature again drops into the 90s.

We went in February and found midday temperatures were perfect for hiking, though early mornings and evenings were chillier than we expected. Furnace Creek Visitor Center has the sign out front that shows the current temperature, so it’s at least a photo opp. We also enjoyed the museum exhibits inside, asked rangers for hiking trail recommendations, and grabbed sandwiches to go. The second day we were in the park, we had fry bread tacos at the Timbisha Shoshone village, about half a mile from the visitor center.

  • Artist’s Drive, a nine-mile, one-way paved loop. There are a number of places to stop for views or to hike, including Artist’s Palette, which offers one of the most colorful examples of the volcanic and sedimentary hills.
  • Zabriskie Point, a popular sunrise and sunset vantage point because its magnificent panoramic of the multi-colored landscape is a short walk from the parking lot. Several popular hiking trails start here.
  • Ubehebe Crater, a scenic 60-mile drive from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The crater is 600 feet deep and a half-mile wide.
  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon, a 2.7-mile one-way loop on a dirt road, was fine to traverse at slow speeds in our sedan and worth the bumpy ride. Every turn brought a more dramatic view of the badlands.

The destination we were drawn back to, though, was the Badwater Basin salt flats. It’s the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and in a park full of surreal landscapes, this was the most striking for us. Past the Badwater Pool and salty puddles, beyond the boardwalk and the area where foot traffic has crushed the salt formations, you’ll find undisturbed polygon patterns of crusty salt formations as far as the eyes can see. Look back toward the parking lot, and high on the cliff is a sea level marker.

This is the moment when you know you’re in a place like no other in the country.

Death Valley hike from Zabriskie Point. Photo by  MeLinda Schnyder.jpg

MeLinda Schnyder

Aviation and travel writer
MeLinda Schnyder is a writer and editor based in Wichita, Kansas, who frequently writes about travel and aviation. She worked for 12 years in the corporate communications departments for the companies behind the Beechcraft and Cessna brands.
Topics: Travel

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