Despite its forbidding name, Death Valley isn’t a desolate wasteland. The otherworldly landscape intrigues with charms that are both subtle and severe—immense, colorful volcanic craters; layered, water-carved canyons; silky sand dunes; and a radiating heat that seems three-dimensional. Even when the park fills with visitors pursuing spring wildflowers, the vast emptiness swallows sound and light, and opens a path to restful silence, joyous starry skies, and unending wonder about the planet’s origins.
Even the traces of man astound: Indian petroglyphs, ghost towns, and two immense borax wagons—37 tons full—which were pulled from the mines to the railroad, 10 days away, by 20-mule teams.
Our hottest, driest, and lowest national park also is one of the coolest places to explore.
On the Way
At the tiny town of Baker, the intersection of Interstate 15 and Route 127 gives you the option to head north to Death Valley National Park, or south into the Mojave National Preserve. In a southwest corner of the preserve, about eight miles past the 1924 Kelso Depot, climb the towering Kelso Dunes to hear the famous “booming” sand, an acoustic anomaly.
President Herbert Hoover established the area as Death Valley Monument in 1933, and Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman expanded the acreage.
985,000 in 2012; March and April are busiest if there are wildflowers; December is least-crowded.
The fifth-largest, with 5,259 square miles, or 5½ times the size of Orange County.
$20 for a seven-day vehicle permit.
Entering the park from the west along Route 190 allows you to make a clockwise loop that covers most of the park highlights in a two-day auto trip.
What to Pack
Water, and more water, fresh fruit and vegetables, and snacks. And Purell, because pit bathrooms don’t have sinks.
The breakfast buffet at Stovepipe Wells’ Toll Road Restaurant offers the park’s freshest and best food options with eggs, potatoes, sausage, pastries, and oatmeal. The motel’s Badwater Saloon has root beer on tap.
Surrounded by palm trees and stone walls, the 1927 Furnace Creek Inn is a four-star boutique hotel that includes a spring-fed pool and the park’s fanciest restaurant.
The Ranch at Furnace Creek offers the best value, location, and services, which include a general store, on-site museum, golf course, gas station, and laundry facilities.
Free to $18 per site per night
Nine campgrounds with 767 sites; reserve at 877-444-6777 or recreation.gov
Though it’s an asphalt parking lot, the Stovepipe Wells RV park offers hookups, and you’ll find ice and snacks at the general store out front.
If roads are open, the Mahogany Flat campground’s 10 campsites at 8,200 feet offer tranquility and lower temps.
At Badwater Salt Flats, crunch across a half-mile trail of salt crystals in a flat, 5-mile wide basin 282 feet below sea level where you can see the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak—the difference is twice the height of the Grand Canyon.
The three-hour, 26-mile Titus Canyon drive is a dirt road that leads to a ghost town, Indian petroglyphs, deep canyons, and volcanic deposits.
Badwater Salt Flats, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, Zabriskie Point.
At the junction of Routes 127 and 190 just outside the park, owner Marta Becket has painted a detailed mural of an audience on the tiny theater of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel.
The endangered Devils Hole pupfish.
Take your pick: scorpions, sidewinders, black widow spiders, and bees.
Those found only within the park include Death Valley and Panamint monkeyflowers, Napkin Ring Buckwheat, Hanaupah Rock Daisy, Golden Carpet, and Eureka Valley Dune Grass.
Basin at 282 feet below sea level, to 11,049-foot Telescope Peak.
From 38 degrees in December, to 116 degrees in July; the highest temperature ever recorded on the planet—134 degrees—took place here July 10, 1913.
Some years none, to less than 2 inches.
Historical Oddity No. 1
The tour of Scotty’s Castle, an elaborate two-story mansion at a far northern oasis, ends with a stop at the 1,121-pipe organ and a player piano that still works.
Historical Oddity No. 2
Scenes from the 1950s TV series “Death Valley Days” were shot here; the park doubled for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine in “Star Wars.”
Historical Oddity No. 3
Q: How many mules were in a 20-mule team that pulled borax wagons 165 miles across Death Valley from the mines to the railroad? A: Just 18; the other two were horses.
Fill your gas tank at every possibility. Distances between gas stations can be as much as 100 miles.
You Know You’re in Death Valley When …
A sign in the bathroom at Scotty’s Castle provides a urine color chart to determine if you’re adequately hydrated.
Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, Death Valley Junction, 760-852-4441, amargosa-opera-house.com
The Ranch at Furnace Creek, Route 190, Death Valley, 760-786-2345, furnacecreekresort.com
Scotty’s Castle, 123 Scotty’s Castle Road, Death Valley, 760-786-2392
Stovepipe Wells Hotel, Route 190, Death Valley, 760-786-2387, escapetodeathvalley.com
Photographs by Arno Gourdol
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.