A must on the axis San Francisco-Las Vegas, Death Valley is located in eastern California, near the Nevada border. If one day, such a challenging road trip sounds tempting, reserve at least a couple of days for it as there are nearly 1000 km of roads and numerous spots to visit in this national park, whose natural beauty will certainly startle you.
Death Valley is not a desert like all the others. A hell flavored paradise, this part of California is a magnet for daring spirits who want to push their limits and experience something totally different. A road trip through this arid area whose only inhabitants are a few scattered bushes and cactus species, is certainly worth the time and the effort. There are fewer places in this world more isolated, drier and emptier than Death Valley. Although geographically, this constitutes a part of Mojave Desert, both the physical appearance and the climate in Death Valley are very different.
You might think that such an arid area cannot have a rich history. Death Valley's roles have changed along the centuries. Thousands of years ago, when this area constituted the bottom of a huge lake, Death Valley was inhabited by Amerindians. In the 19th century, it was one of the points in the gold seekers' itinerary. In the 60s, Death Valley entered the Hollywood world as Western movies setting.
Nowadays, it is the largest American national park - a popular tourist destination as well as the venue for the toughest competition in the world. Badwater ultra marathon takes place here every year in July. A running track of 217 km, 4000 meters of altitude difference, 50 degrees in the shade, almost 90 degrees at ground level - these are the figures defining this competition that lasts less than 60 hours.
Before you engage on such a challenging road trip, you should know Death Valley National Park is made up of three parties. In the center of the park you will find a chain of mountains surrounding a depression that bears the shape of a bowl. The gentle slopes make a great show of colors because of the different layers of minerals. Steeped in absolute silence and extreme heat, the 300 kilometers long and 32 wide basin remains a prisoner of the mountains.
Another interesting feature is that a great part of the park is below sea level, and this only 123 km away from the second highest peak in North America - Mount Whitney, with its impressive height of 4421 meters and its eternal snows.
Just after leaving Badwater, the path known as the Artist's Drive will take you to Artist's Palette - an area of ravines whose name is explained by the ressemblance with a painter's palette provided by the colors that range from green to dark red. More chromatic tones can be admired ahead, on Devil's Golf Course where the salt dried out turning into large clumps, needles, and hollows. Take the time to admire the lunar landscape and to listen to the crackling sound of salt in the still air of the desert.
Two water streams - a freshwater one (Furnace Creek) and a saltwater one (Salt Creek) cross Death Valley. Only 30 km away from Badwater, Furnace Creek is the only oasis in Death Valley. Here you will find some "normal world" facilities: two hotels, a restaurant, a store, a post and a museum. At Borax Museum you can learn about the methods once used to mine ore and you can admire a nice collection of minerals.
After Furnace Creek, the road splits. One option is to take the mountain road to Las Vegas. The first stop is Zabriskie Point , whose desert landscape will easily be recognized by all Star Wars fans . With its 1700 meters of altitude, Dante's View will seem very pleasant both visually and for its soft cooling winds. The second option is to continue your way through Death Valley up to Lone Pine. A path will lead you, some 200 km further to Whitney Portal (2543 m of altitude). This is also the ending point of the marathon, but only few brave runners reach it every year.
If such a road trip sounds tempting, here are some words of advice:
- The summer heat and the strong sun can become your worst enemies during this road trip. Drink at least four liters of water per day to compensate for the sweating and to avoid dehydration.
- Fill your petrol tank before starting the road trip across of Death Valley National Park because there are only three stations within the whole area and the price is rather prohibitive.
- Pay attention when getting out of your car as the temperature differences can be very high.
- Never leave the paved roads without warning a ranger. If you happen to have car troubles, stay inside the car and wait for a vehicle to pass and call the park rangers.