Visiting Death Valley

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Visiting Death Valley

Lots of people have pages about Death Valley, and I guess I'm one of them. On this page I want to touch on some highlights and give an overview for people who haven't visited yet. This isn't an exhaustive listing of everything there is to do and see there, but I hope you can get a sense of the basic layout and a couple of useful landmarks for planning your trip with paper maps and other sites. Obviously, the National Park Service site on Death Valley is a huge resource.

Attention: there is no gas at Scotty's Castle.
The Park Service reports "Equipment failure."
The nearest gas is available at Stovepipe Wells (45 miles),
Furnace Creek (53 miles), Beatty, Nevada (60 miles) and
Tonopah, Nevada (80 miles).
Still true on 4/4/2009. Check this Park Service page.

Much of what I'm writing here is from the perspective of motorcycling and camping. That's why there's an emphasis on where to get gas, notes on camping, and what roads you should go on (because they're fun) or avoid (because they're rough).

Most of the places I'm describing here are all on paved roads, or just off them via short, well-groomed, hard-packed dirt roads leading to parking areas. I'll mention dirt and gravel roads when they come into play.

Getting There

Where is Death Valley? It's in east-central California. The "Death Valley Region" is the triangle north of I-15, east of US395, and west of the California/Nevada border.

If you are coming from the west and you have some time, take the scenic route out of Bakersfield: California highway 178 up through Kern Canyon to Lake Isabella, then over Walker Pass and down into Ridgecrest.

Ridgecrest is the last city you'll see for a while, so stock up if there's anything you still need to buy.

You leave Ridgecrest to the east and then turn north toward Trona. That's when you're really entering the wilderness: long distances with no cars, no settlements, not much of anything but more nothing. Trona is a town built for a chemical processing plant where they extract minerals from the desert. You can see as you pass through that there used to be more businesses than there are, but you can still get gas and groceries there.

The nothingness really gets going once you leave Trona going north. You go up and over a pass and come down in Panamint Valley. The valleys here run north-south, and if this isn't quite as desolate and spectacular as Death Valley, they could still have called it Not Feeling At All Well Valley.

If you're a little adventurous you can take the right fork on this road toward Wildrose. On the map below, this is at the letter "D" in "Death Valley National Park." The road gets rough and if it's rained it could be impassible. You go up over a higher pass and do some more interesting up-down-and-around driving. You also go past Wildrose Campground, which is at a higher elevation than the campgrounds in the Valley and therefore nicer in warm weather. The road might be marked as dirt on your map but there are only a few short areas where the pavement is actually gone. The alternative is to stay on Panamint Valley Road and not take the Wildrose turnoff.

The road north from Wildrose to CA190 is very good, not dirt at all. There is no problem accessing Wildrose from that direction if you want.

Whether or not you take the Wildrose road, you'll reach CA190 if you go north far enough. If you turn left/west, you'll reach Panamint Springs Resort - marker 7 on the map below. There is a gas station, hotel, and restaurant. I don't know much about that place except that you can get gas 24 hours if they remembered to leave the pumps enabled and you have a credit card.

To enter the park from the west, go east on CA190.

Basic Geography and Landmarks

Death Valley runs roughly north-south with one major highway, CA190, cutting across the middle. There are nine major places I use to find my way around Death Valley - five inside and four outside. They're all marked with the corresponding numbers on this map:

  1. Stovepipe Wells (west center)
  2. North Highway Junction (east center)
  3. Scotty's Castle (north)
  4. Furnace Creek (heading south)
  5. Badwater (more south)

    Outside the Park:
  6. Trona (west and south)
  7. Panamint Springs Resort (west)
  8. Beatty, Nevada (northeast)
  9. Shoshone and Tecopa Hot Springs (south)

Find all of these on a map and you should be able to follow the descriptions below very easily. The place I call "North Highway Junction" isn't called that on paper maps, but it's the place where CA190, North Highway, and Daylight Pass Road come together at the east center area of the park.

Entering from the west: Stovepipe Wells

Shortly after entering from the west on CA190, you reach Stovepipe Wells (marker 1 on my map above) with a hotel, restaurant, gas station, and convenience store, plus camping. Even before you get there, though, there's an easy hiking opportunity called Mosaic Canyon. You can park and walk a short way or a long way into this canyon and get an early look at what the canyons of Death Valley are all about.

A short way east on CA190 from Stovepipe Wells is an area with some very accessible sand dunes. There are signs and wide spots in the road where you can park. There's nothing there but dunes and more dunes, but it can be fun to climb up and slide down the sandy hills. Not a huge draw for me, but in a group you can bring dune-sleds and ropes and have a lot of fun with it.

Ten miles east of Stovepipe Wells is a three-way junction that I call "North Highway Junction," marker 2 on my map. You can go north on North Highway to Scotty's Castle; east to take Daylight Pass to Beatty, Nevada; or south to stay on 190 toward Badwater. We'll cover those destinations one by one.

North of CA190: Scotty's Castle

Scotty's Castle (marker 3 on my map) is the only prominent attraction to the north of CA190. It's a home that was built by some Death Valley historical figures, and it's worth seeing if you have the time. There are guided tours of the preserved interior. There is also a gift shop, restaurant, and there used to be gas but there is no gas at Scotty's Castle. (This info is still current as of April, 2009.) I'd say you should allow 2-3 hours for the tour and a meal there.

On the way north you will pass the mouth of Titus Canyon. On my map above, it's where the black dotted line meets the road between markers 2 and 3. Titus Canyon is a steep-walled, deep, narrow canyon that leads from Nevada into the park by way of a long, one-way (westbound) gravel road. At the west side of the canyon there is a parking lot where you can leave the car and walk into the canyon. The canyon has sheer sides and is quite narrow - barely wider than an automobile in places. The road from the east is for "high-clearance" vehicles, and you should ask locally about conditions before trying it.

Just south of Scotty's Castle there is a turnoff to the west which goes about five miles to Ubehebe Crater. This is a conical hole in the ground, created when magma welled up and reached underground water. The water exploded into steam and formed the crater. Worth the side trip to gawk at if you're already up this way.

Signs in the neighborhood of the crater will refer to Racetrack Valley, which you can get to using the dotted line (unpaved dirt-and-gravel road) leading west and south from marker 3. Racetrack Valley is famous for the rocks with trails behind them, like they're being pushed along by something you can't see. This is an "adventure road": do not take it lightly. Some friends of mine rode their street motorcycles on this road once, and they took many hours to reach civilization again. They reported having about $400 worth of stuff vibrate loose off their bikes. Glad I begged off.

I don't know anything about leaving Death Valley to the northeast past Scotty's Castle.

East to Beatty

If you go east at marker 2 (what I call "North Highway Junction," you'll be headed for Beatty, Nevada (marker 8 on my map) This is a small Nevada town about 25 miles from the junction. There is a casino, a restaurant, hotels and gas and such. Do not speed near Beatty. They collect a lot of revenue from tourists with their speed enforcement.

Just before reaching Beatty you will pass the ghost town of Rhyolite. You can park and walk around to see what's left of the town, with several substantial buildings and ruins. It's marked with plaques and stuff.

I mentioned Titus Canyon before. The one-way westbound gravel road through the canyon starts in Nevada along the road to Beatty. This road requires a "high-clearance vehicle" and you should ask locally about conditions before taking it. There is a ghost town on that road called Leadfield, but I've never been there.

South to Furnace Creek/Indian Village

If you stay on CA190 at "North Highway Junction," you'll be heading south toward Indian Village and Furnace Creek Campground (marker 4 on my map). This is where I've stayed the most when I've visited Death Valley. You can camp, or rent a cabin, or stay in their hotel rooms. Hotel guests can use the swimming pool and some other facilities. This area also has the Death Valley National Park Visitor Center, a post office, a gift shop/camp store, a couple of restaurants and a bar. Also there's a golf course and a stand of palm trees.

Across the street and down the road from the campground/cabin area there is a full-fledged resort hotel, Furnace Creek Resort. I've never been there.

The main highway CA190 turns east to leave the park at Furnace Creek. On the way out there is a turnoff for a road called Furnace Creek Wash and a location called Dante's View, which is definitely worth seeing. From the parking lot there is a long winding ramp of a sidewalk that takes you up to an overlook area. You can look west across the valley and quite a ways north and south. You can also look over a mile straight down: the lowest point in the valley, Badwater, is more than 5500 feet below you.

Instead of leaving the park or going to Dante's View to the east on CA190, you can continue south from Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. This road takes you to Badwater (marker 5 on my map), and some other interesting locations.

On the way south you will see a turnoff to the right/west called Westside Highway. This is unpaved and I don't know what shape it's in; I've never been there. I don't know if it's a Jeep-type unpaved road or if it's manageable in a passenger sedan.

Heading south to Badwater you will pass a location on your left/east called Artist's Palette. This is definitely worth the side trip: there's a short one-way loop road (about 13 miles total) that goes off the main road and up and down some fun hills, then lands you at the namesake spot where unusually colorful rock strata are exposed to view.

Another side trip for a short hike on the way to Badwater is the formation called Natural Bridge. As you might guess from the name, there is a canyon and path that goes under an archway or "bridge" formed in the rock by the erosion patterns.

When you do get to Badwater, you will be at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, or some such distinction: they say it's 282 feet below sea level. There is a wide, shallow pool of water, because all the rain that falls in the Valley (not much) collects there. It's "bad" water because it's too salty and full of minerals to drink. From that spot, be sure to look back across the highway and up the cliffside to see the sign that marks where sea level is, far above your head. Also, look at the top of that cliff to see the overlook called Dante's View (see above) over a mile above you.

One of the directions to go from Badwater is back north to Furnace Creek. One reason to do this is that you will realize you've seen this road before: I think a lot of car commercials are shot here. There is a recognizable long straight stretch of two-lane road extending almost to the vanishing point ahead of you, with mountains on one side and the flat valley on the other.

The other direction to go from Badwater is south. The road hugs the eastern edge of the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains. As far as I know there aren't any actual "sights" down this way, but it's a nice road. Thirty miles south of Badwater, you'll reach Ashford Junction and Jubilee Pass Road, which leaves the park to the southeast, becomes CA178, and heads to the town of Shoshone (marker 9 on my map), 25 miles farther on.

South of the park: Shoshone and Tecopa Hot Springs

Going south, whether you're on Badwater Road and CA178 or you take CA190 to the east and then take CA127 south, you'll reach Shoshone (maker 9 on my map). This is not so much a town as it is a couple of buildings. There is a cafe and a mining museum, and it seems to me there must be something else but I can't remember.

South from Shoshone is Tecopa Hot Springs, and then the town of Tecopa. The Hot Springs are open to the public: they have built a blockhouse with separate men's and women's changing areas, showers, and large tubs that are continuously filled by the hot springs. No bathing suits necessary. I remember seeing a good-sized RV camp across from the hot springs, where it looked like a lot of snowbirds might spend their winters. This implies a nearby gas station and convenience store, at the least.

East of the park: Las Vegas

If you're visiting Death Valley, Las Vegas isn't that far away. I've ridden to Pahrump and Las Vegas as a day trip from my campground at Furnace Creek before.

If you have time and inclination, I've always thought that Red Rock Canyon and Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada looked worth a visit, but I've never been to either one.

Gas Availability

Motorcycles often have small gas tanks - just over a hundred miles on a fill-up, in extreme cases. Death Valley is a big place and there isn't much gas, so traveling takes planning.

Around the park there is gas available in the town of Trona before you get to the park (as you head in from Ridgecrest), at the Panamint Springs Resort to the west of the park on CA190,  in Tecopa to the south, and in Beatty to the east. The pumps at Panamint Springs Resort operate 24 hours: you can use a credit card even if nobody's there. I'm not sure whether Beatty has 24-hour gas.

Inside the park there is gas at Stovepipe Wells and at the Furnace Creek Resort area. None of these is open 24 hours. And that's all. There used to be gas at Scotty's Castle, but due to equipment failure, at least as of March 2008, there is no gas at Scotty's Castle any more.

Distances

Driving times in and around Death Valley can be deceptive: the scale of the place is unfamiliar to most people. The speed limit in the park is probably 50 MPH, but I haven't seen that strictly enforced in the gaps between populated areas. I'd say you're inviting attention if you push it past 65 in the open, and you should keep it close to 50 any time there are other cars or people around.

Here are some rough distances based on the landmarks I've described here. When I say "the junction" in this list, I mean that "North Highway Junction" at marker 2 on my map.

  • Trona to Stovepipe Wells: 70 miles
  • Stovepipe Wells to the junction: 9 miles
  • The junction north to Scotty's Castle: 35 miles
  • The junction east to Rhyolite and Beatty: about 25 miles
  • The junction south to Furnace Creek: 20 miles
  • Furnace Creek east and south to Dante's View: 25 miles
  • Furnace Creek south to Badwater: 20 miles
  • Badwater south and east to Shoshone: 55 miles
  • Shoshone south to Tecopa Hot Springs: 8 miles

A few words of caution

Visiting Death Valley in the summer is not something to take lightly. It can be 115 degrees or more during the day, and that kind of temperature is hard on both man and machine. Stuff melts or gets soft, and parts of your vehicle get too hot to touch. Once I rode through the park in June, and it was 110 at midnight! Bring water for yourself and your car. There are a few water stations around the valley with nonpotable radiator water, but it'll be a long walk to find one if you end up needing it. Also, during the summer months there are fewer visitors, so you can wait a long time for the next car to happen by.

If you haven't spent time in the desert before, you don't know how much water you will need. You will be sweating but it'll evaporate so fast you don't realize it. Drink water even if you don't think you need it. If you actually feel thirsty, you're pretty far gone. Distances are tricky, too: things can look closer than they are. It might seem like you could hike from the car to some interesting spot and back without carrying water, but carry water anyway. Like they say in the Light Infantry, "If you ain't gotta pee, you ain't been drinking enough."

The best times to visit Death Valley are fall, winter, and spring. Even then, though it doesn't rain much in the Valley it does happen. It's even possible to be "blocked in" if the passes to the west get snow, and you'll have to wait for them to clear or leave to the south instead and take the long way home. The overnight lows during those seasons can be anywhere from the 70s to the 40s (F) depending on conditions, so bring appropriate clothing and gear if you camp.

 


This page was last edited April 04, 2009.