A Weekend in Death Valley

When I first told people that I was planning a trip to Death Valley, I was met with a lot of questions. Mainly, why? You might be wondering the same thing, and I guess I can understand that, though it’s got such a cool name that I honestly think the question kind of answers itself.

Well, to start, it’s a national park and I’d really love to see all of those. But I also really like the desert. It’s such a unique landscape and the life there (yes, there is life in Death Valley) has evolved in really interesting ways in order to survive. It feels very undiscovered, and I’m super into that.

Ben and I decided to visit over Thanksgiving weekend of 2017. We figured the cooler weather would allow us to hike and explore without dropping dead, and going over a long weekend gave us a little more time there. We opted to leave Friday morning, which gave us 3 days total.

DAY 1:

Our first stop was Zabriskie Point. This is one of the first places you see once you enter the park, and after a 5ish hour drive it felt like a no brainer. We didn’t spend a ton of time here, but it’s got a great view that you don’t really have to work for.

Next, we decided to check out the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They’re a bit of a drive, and trudging through the sand is 1000%  easier said than done, but damn is this place cool. We didn’t follow any sort of a guide here, and instead just walked out to the most dramatic looking dune, then turned back once the sun started setting because we really weren’t trying to get lost or bit by some kind of a venomous night snake before seeing the rest of the park.

Since our hotel was nearby, we ended up going back to Zabriskie Point that night to try our hand at astrophotography. This was a pretty amateurish attempt, but photos just don’t do the night sky here justice, and I would imagine that’d hold true for even the most seasoned photographer.

DAY 2:

The next morning, we drove over to Badwater Basin. This is one of the more iconic spots in Death Valley, so we planned to get there early to avoid crowds and check out the sunrise. Turns out we valued our sleep more than we valued seeing the sunrise. We did manage to catch the end of it as we were leaving our hotel, and we still had Badwater Basin to ourselves so it worked out alright.

Even if you’re not familiar with Death Valley, you’ve probably seen this place before. It’s a popular spot for nature photographers and I’m pretty sure one of the planets in the last Star Wars movie was inspired by it, if not actually shot there. It might look like the ground is covered in snow, but NAH – that’s salt. The basin has become a salty wonderland because of thousands of years of flooding followed by evaporation. The salt crystals then end up spreading into the hexagonal shapes you see here as a result of repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles. Oh, it’s also the lowest point in North America. SCIENCE!

Next up was Devil’s Golf Course and Artist’s Drive. Devil’s Golf Course is really just a picture spot because the salt formations are far too jagged to safely maneuver. Artist’s Drive is a popular drive that takes you by the multicolored mountains aptly referred to as Artist’s Palette.

By this point, we’d actually seen a lot of the spots we’d had on our list, and it was still probably only 10am. Since it wasn’t too hot, this seemed like a good time to go on a hike. We went with Mosaic Canyon, which is a 4 mile hike where you can see and feel the erosion on the rocks. I think a lot of people are afraid to hike in Death Valley because of its reputation for, well, death. That’s fine with me as it kept crowds to a minimum.

After our hike we set out for Rhyolite, NV to scope out a ghost town. We happened upon the Goldwell Open Air Museum, which was full of spooky bike stealing ghosts and other bizarre art.

Goldwell was straight up right next to the ghost town, which contained things like a house made of bottles and the remains of a bank that actually looked like it could’ve been pretty legit in its prime.

Death Valley is a weird place, but Rhyolite added a more manmade element of weirdness that complemented the park nicely. That said, it’s about an hour outside of the park so if you’re short on time or just want to see the park’s highlights it might not be for you.

On our way back to our hotel, we spotted a snowy looking area (this was actually just more salt) with a great view of the sunset so we pulled over to check it out. Death Valley (and every national park I’ve ever been to) is rife with these and sometimes the best views end up being the ones that aren’t named or publicized, so I’m a big fan of stopping when you see something you like.

DAY 3: 

I’m sorry, but day 3 is a lie. We’d originally planned to go for a hike in the morning before heading home, but we ended up seeing so much on days 1 and 2 that we didn’t feel like we needed to. Obviously it would’ve been nice, but the Thanksgiving prior we’d driven to Zion National Park and what should’ve been a 7 hour drive home ended up taking us 16, so we were terrified of that happening again. The drive home ended up taking about 6 hours, so we totally could’ve stayed a little bit longer, but it’s all good!

Have you been to Death Valley National Park? If so, what was your favorite thing you saw or did?

*Note: Under normal circumstances I’d write a little something about food, but the food in Death Valley is trash, so instead I’ll just caution you to bring your own if at all possible.

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