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.
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?
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.
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.