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A Guide to California’s Death Valley

A Guide to California’s Death Valley
November 12
08:00 2015


7:30 am and rays of sunshine are bursting through the clouds in a brilliant display of light causing the clouds to glow over the deep blue silhouettes of the distant mountains. I can see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes from where I’m sitting on a decrepit, wooden bench by the Stovepipe Wells hotel in Death Valley. The tops of the dunes–some of them rising to almost 100 feet in height–look like the whipped tips of merengue. The dunes look close—close enough to walk to—but I know better than to try and make the trek.

Star Gazing-Death Valley--Photo credit Max Whittaker

Star Gazing-Death Valley–Photo credit Max Whittaker

The idea of life in Death Valley seems a paradox until I look up and notice a small coyote trotting by just feet from my bench. The fox­like animal is slender and looks more endearing than intimidating as I hesitate between running or snapping a photo. That’s the thing about Death Valley – everything about it seems an illusion. At first glance it appears a vast wasteland but it houses untold wonders and contradictions–from the apparent desolation and lack of life when in fact it’s thriving, to the proximity of mountains and dunes that are a perilous distance away.

The 3.4 million acres of Death Valley National Park are so stunning, so utterly awe-­inspiring you can’t help but swell with emotion at the sight of every striped canyon, mountain and rippled sand dune leaving you with the truth that beautiful things do not ask for attention, they simply are just beautiful. From the lowest point in North America, at Badwater Basin, to Dante’s view offering a scenic overlook of the entire valley, Death Valley is a remote yet vibrant destination to visit.

READ: The Insider’s Guide to USA Road Tripping – Route Suggestions

Where to Eat

Your best bet is The Wrangler Buffet at The Ranch at Furnace Creek; The Wrangler is what you’d expect from a tourist-­friendly buffet in the middle of nowhere—a free for all, no frills place with hot meals, a salad bar and standard desserts. While the food isn’t going to earn The Wrangler a Michelin star anytime soon, the meals are classic Americana, wholesome and (above all) filling. When faced with hikes in extreme temperatures that alternate from 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the lowest points to cooler temperatures at the outlooks, the expectations for food become simple: carb­heavy for energy, filling and accompanied by plenty of water.

Where to Stay

I am spending the night at Stovepipe Wells Village. To say that this is a village is an overstatement because Stovepipe is made up of little more than a small hotel and pioneer­style General Store surrounded by miles and miles of desert plains and dunes. Stovepipe Wells is down the street from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and is a perfect location to stay in a part of the world where there are minimal options. The hotel offers an outdoor pool, comfortable rooms, a bar, dining hall and unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains. With no wifi or internet available, Stovepipe Wells is the type of place you go to completely disconnect from the world, revel in beauty and simply enjoy your surroundings fully.

Highway 395 near Lee Vining, California.

Safety Tips

When visiting a destination with the word “death” in the name, it comes as a no brainer that safety is a priority and concern. The valley is known as one of great extremes and is characterized as the hottest, driest and lowest National Park where temperatures shift dramatically and flash floods can happen in an instant. When visiting Death Valley there are a few safety tips to remember:

● Drink plenty of water (at least 4 litres per day)

● Listen to your body when it comes to the temperatures as dehydration and heat strokes can be a real concern. Don’t push yourself past your limit and stay hydrated and cool.

● Don’t rely on technology as service is minimal in Death Valley and you’re more than likely to not have access to the internet. Instead, print out maps and directions in advance and–if possible–always travel with a companion.

● When hiking, it is cooler in temperature to hike at higher elevations versus down in the flat grounds, so avoid the extreme heat and exertion of hiking in the valley.

● Be wary of animals in the area as there are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other creatures that call this place home. The rule of thumb is do not place your hands or feet where you can’t see them and wear closed shoes at all times (even on the sand dunes).

● If driving, focus intently on the roads as one wrong turn can send you careening off a cliff!

READ: The Insider’s Guide to USA Road Tripping – Most Asked Questions

A Guide to California's Death Valley

The Ultimate View at Dante’s View

At 5,000 feet, Dante’s View overlooks the entirety of Death Valley and is near the edge of the Black Mountains, which form the eastern border of the valley. With the peak just a short hike from the parking lot, it’s easy enough to reach Dante’s view and put yourself in the way of unfathomable beauty. It is almost transcendent to sit on the edge of Dante’s view and take in the entirety of Death Valley unfolding below you, from the salt pans creating rippling designs across the valley floor, the banded canyons and rising mountains to the haze from the heat and the monochrome palette of varying shades of brown.

The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395

A Visit to Zabriskie Point

There are certain landscape photographs that circle the internet and look utterly too majestic, too colorful, too perfect to possibly be real. The photos look photoshopped, filtered and touched up; that is until you are standing at the very place the photo was taken and realise some places simply are that surreal. Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is one such place as it overlooks vibrantly colored badlands, a type of terrain made of softer sedimentary rock. The best time to see Zabriskie Point is during sunset or sunrise when the the stripes pop in the sunlight, making the terrain look like a painting.

The Lowest Point in North America: Badwater Basin

Standing at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. It is a salt pan that extends in all directions as far as the eye can see with the white path created by the many footprints of Badwater visitors crushing the salt beneath their sneakers. Badwater is one of those places where photos simply don’t do it justice–salt flats extend in every direction stopping at the edge of the mountain range.

Badwater Basin--Death Valley--Photo credit- Max Whittaker

Badwater Basin–Death Valley–Photo credit- Max Whittaker

Sunset at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the best known dunes in Death Valley (as well as the most accessible). Just minutes from the Stovepipe Wells Village, the sand dunes are best visited around sunrise or sunset when the pastel light paints the mountains and landscape. The sand dunes are like an optical illusion–looking closer than they actually are and easier to navigate than it seems–so it is recommended to stay safe, not wander off and don’t assume that far­ off dune you spotted is just a “10 minute” walk away.

Sunset from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Sunset from Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California

Ten thousand years ago Death Valley was once home to lakes; today it is a dramatic display of canyons, mountains, salt pans and sand dunes. It is a surreal landscape, a testament to earth’s natural beauty, and the type of destination that stays with you long after you’ve gone home.

READ ALSO: The Ultimate California Road Trip: Route 395 and click here for all our cheap flights to California!


About Author

Nikki Vargas

Nikki Vargas

Nikki Vargas is an NYC-based travel journalist with stories in VICE, FOOD & WINE Magazine, The Daily Meal, Matador Network and more. Nikki's blog, The Pin the Map Project, was voted a top 100 travel blog of 2015 and shares travel tips, destination guides, solo travel advice and more. Follow Nikki and her travels on Instagram!


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