Death Valley, a park whose name is the epitome of warning, with record setting heat and an abundance of Devil’s references, but in the winter it’s a different story. When the temperatures drop and staying in the sun for more than 20 minutes is physically possible, the park’s vivacity is on full display in an almost heavenly tapestry of natural colors and curves. From wildlife sightings to the extraordinary displays of natural terrain, the cooler weather allows the opportunity to take it all in.
At some point in my past I know I drove through Death Valley, snapped a few photos and kept driving through, probably driven out by 120+ degree weather no doubt. This time around however Death Valley was the destination for our next camping adventure and we were set on seeing the sights, experiencing the hikes and checking off yet another National Park for our camping escapades.
Another one-night camping adventure meant a mapped-out route and a list of To-Dos to get the most out of a quick turn-around trip. We headed into the park via Jubilee Pass, where as a side note I saw my first tarantula! He was crossing the road as we were driving, and from the safety of our truck I was able to see the details of each of his furry legs as he lifted and stretched one after the other to make his way across the asphalt. Amazing in the sense of the detail and size of this creature, it ultimately left me freaked out and completely okay if I never see another one in my life from any distance.
Our first official stop in Death Valley was to check out the Ashford Mills Ruins. Hiking down below the long-abandoned mill and taking in the expansive views all around was breathtaking. There’s something about being surrounded by natural landscape as far as the eye can see in every direction that makes you feel so small and I found myself just taking it all in, in complete awe of nature, a humbling experience I never grow tired of having.
What is a Death Valley trip without visiting the lowest elevation? Next up on our itinerary was the famous Badwater Basin and experiencing the lowest elevation on the continent at 282 feet below sea level! We parked in the lot and walked out onto the vast salt flats, which became more and more awe inspiring the further we walked and the less foot traffic they experienced, as there were more deposited geometric salt patterns that made their appearance underfoot.
After being pleasantly surprised that we had avoided the tourist rush at Badwater Basin, we embarked on our first dirt road expedition up to the Natural Bright trailhead, because honestly…what camping trip is complete without hiking some mountains and traversing the natural landscape!? The sun’s heat was a bit intense, making me realize this park’s hikes would be impossible in any other season, as we made our way entirely uphill on the trail, but the result was worth it. A remarkable stone structured bridge and deep-set dry waterfall routes carved out of the canyon walls and a breathtaking view to the bottom. Add in some fun rock scrambling opportunities and this turned out to be a perfect little hike to introduce us to the canyons and hills of the Death Valley landscape, and also the perfect parking lot for a tailgate lunch stop.
Next up was probably one of my favorite stops of the day, the route there allowed me to enjoy some dirt road driving on Salt Pool Road, and though it first appeared like we were headed to the middle of the desert with nothing but distant views to admire, the Devil’s Golf Course soon began forming as we drove up to the parking lot and the sight was unbelievable. I walked out through the golf course a little way and was fascinated by the natural jagged salt spire formations that stretched out as far as the eye can see. Before we arrived to Death Valley, we did some research and for this location we read that if you listen closely you may be able to hear the sounds of tiny pops and pings as billions of tiny salt crystals burst apart from expanding and contracting in the heat. Now, when I read something that says “you may be able to…” I tend to assume that the chances of actually experiencing said phenomena is unlikely, which is why it was really exciting and quite amazing that those little ping and pop sounds were constant and much louder than I expected. Of all the places we had seen so far in the day, and although I’m not entirely sure why, this was the main thrill of the day for me, the location, the salt formations, the sounds, it was a location that thrilled me to experience.
Following the attraction of the Devil’s Golf Course would have been a difficult task had it not been for the scenic loop we chose to finish off our first day in the park. Making our way to Furnace Creek, we took the Artist’s Drive loop, making two stops to hike around Artist’s Palate and enjoy the colors and views of the valley below. Regardless of where we stopped, the views were incredible. Seeing and hiking amongst hills saturated in pastel shades of pink, purple, green, blue and yellow was awe-inspiring, and proved no wonder as to why the area was named as it was. I can’t find the words to truly explain how incredible it is to be hiking between purple and green hills knowing that the pigments are completely natural works of art. It is proof that nature is truly remarkable.
With the first day’s adventures wrapped up, we set up our camp for the night at Furnace Creek campground and enjoyed the sunset lit mountain views, a well-earned, cold pale ale, and some distant music played from a live concert at the INN, as the stars began to make their appearance overhead.
The next morning, we kicked off the day with a hearty camp breakfast before packing up and heading to the Borax Mill Ruins, a nice warm up hike for the rest of the day. Walkign the grounds and reading of the borax mineral findings that brought some sort of civilization to the area and created the famous “Twenty-Mule Team” transportation, while looking around at the setting, is surreal and to imagine these places at the height of their operation is mindboggling. From the ruins, we loaded up in Roxie and followed the path through Mustard Canyon. This short canyon was so much fun to drive through and there was no question as to how this small canyon got its yellow-hue-inspired name.
The next stop we made was a last-minute decision that turned out to be something we had planned and forgot about. Along a dirt road into the abyss of desert landscape was Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. Although descriptions said it was the site of minor streams along the salt flats, I was happily amazed when these streams were more than a trickle and were actually flowing with some depth and surrounded by the greenery of pickleweed, in a natural oasis of sorts nestled amongst the desert hills. Though we didn’t get to catch sight of the rare pupfish in the pools, it was really neat to see this location and crazy to think that the previous sites we’d seen were all in the same park and only a few miles apart.
Back on the road and a quick pull off just to see and photograph the sights was at the Devil’s Corn Field. Though not as prominent a location as I anticipated, to me if someplace is named after the Devil it should really be otherworldly, however the arrow weed clumps were still a nice scenic spot and the continued humor of naming things after the Devil to entice tourists was entertaining. Pressing forward, we continued on to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, our last and final hike for our Death Valley trip.
Although the highest dune in this location rises only about 100 feet, these sandy hills rolled to cover a vast area. With water packs on, we decided to trek in and over the peaks to enjoy the landscape with less onlookers and footprints breaking the sand, something about hiking out to a distance that you can see the sand without anyone else around sounded breathtaking, and it absolutely was. And no sand dunes trip would be complete without a little photo op, so for this trip BB-8 accompanied us for his close up along the ripples of sandy landscape. While I have hiked in sand before, this was my first official sand dune hike, and the combination of sandy dune fields and floors of polygon-cracked clay from an ancient lakebed were incredible. It all made this hike really fun and I was glad we did this trip in the winter because there is no way I can even imagine hiking out like we did if it was any warmer than it was. After what felt like a long journey back to the parking lot and solid ground, we took a brief tailgate break for a snack and to empty our boots before heading to Stovepipe Wells where we had a tasty but very unnecessarily long lunch at the Toll Road Restaurant. The food was quite good, the draft beer was cold but it took over an hour to get our food of two burgers and fries brought to us, regardless, we enjoyed conversation and though we got back on the road later than we had hoped, we didn’t let the delay ruin the rest of our trip.
After our long lunch we made our way on Daylight Pass Road and through Mud Canyon where we completed our Death Valley trip and headed back across state lines to Nevada. Before completely finalizing our trip however we decided to take a slight detour and check out the Goldwell Open Air Museum, where I finally got to photograph the incredible ghostly sculptures I’ve always wanted to see, and we wandered the ghost town of Rhyolite, taking pictures and reading all about the town’s history.
One of my biggest concerns coming to Death Valley in the winter was that due to perfect weather conditions it would be overly crowded and we’d miss some of the hikes or photo opportunities because the parking lots would be full. Luckily, my concerns never came to fruition and I’m really grateful that we were able to make all the stops we had planned, completed the hikes and took all the pictures without having to dodge excessive crowds, in fact, in some areas the silence and stillness from lack of people just added to the experience of taking in the wonder of expansive landscape.
And so, we concluded another camping trip for the year, the end result leaving us feeling fueled on adventure and ready to experience more hikes.