A Guide To: Death Valley National Park, CA
Holding the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded at 134 °F, it’s no wonder why they call it “Death Valley". Situated east of the Sierra Nevada and in-between the Great Basin and Mojave deserts, this is truly a land of extremes. It’s one of the most extreme environments on earth with an average rainfall of less than three inches, and in true death valley fashion some years have actually received none. However, despite its record droughts a great diversity of life manages to survive in valley; like an occasional wildflower seen sprouting through the ground, or a hidden lush oasis harboring tiny fish and refuge for wildlife.
Just before Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I set out to explore this land of extremes and the good folks over at Fireside Provisions supplied the meals. They are a meal delivery service that not only caters to campers and those who love the outdoors, but those who also enjoy a good meal. They ship pre-portioned meals from their San Francisco headquarters straight to your door! Finally, the days of eating a boring and typical hotdog or hamburger are now over. As soon as we received our package it was time to explore!
WHERE TO STAY
Death Valley National Park has nine campgrounds, which doesn't include some of the privately owned campgrounds that also reside in the park. Depending on when you're visiting, some campgrounds will be closed for the season so make sure to check in advance. All campgrounds in Death Valley are first come, first serve (except for Furnace Creek from October through April).
We didn't want to worry about finding a campground the day of arrival, so we booked a campsite with Panamint Springs Resort prior to the trip. They are located on the western end of Death Valley National Park, and offer incredible views of distant sand dunes and the soaring panamint mountain range... oh and they have a bar and free showers, what's not love?
For a place as diverse as Death Valley, it was important for my wife and I to have a list of sights that we wanted to see. Which for a place like Death Valley can be a bit tricky... especially when you have sand dunes, craters and slot canyons to choose from. But I'm happy with what we chose, and here's how we tackled it.
We set out from Los Angeles around 8:00 AM and arrived just before noon to set up camp at Panamint Springs Resort. After setting up our tent, we headed towards the Stovepipe Wells Village area to hike through Mosaic Canyon.
Located 1/4 of a mile west of Stovepipe Wells Village, it's a two mile gravel access road leading to the parking area. From there it was just a short walk into the canyon narrows, where the surrounding rock walls are made up of smooth, water-polished marble. We were both in awe of how incredibly smooth the walls were. Mosaic Canyon is considered a geological wonder, and as part of the National Park System, all of its features are protected by law... so rock collecting is prohibited!
Before dinner, we drove to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for a stroll during golden hour. At first glance it seemed like our plans would have to wait as clouds started to gather right over the dunes. The wind was picking up and sand was blowing everywhere... nevertheless, we got out of our car and ventured into the sandstorm.
There wasn't one person in sight, which for being one of the parks most popular attractions was astonishing. After a while, the clouds began to clear and the wind started to calm. The mixture between late afternoon light and ripples in the sand was quite the sight to see.
We woke up at sunrise to prepare for a full day of exploring, beginning with an easy hike around the rim of Ubehebe Crater. So we headed towards the northern end of the park known as Scotty's Castle.
It was about an hour from our campsite, reminding us why Death Valley is the fifth largest national park in the United States. The drive led us through colorful canyons, desolate badlands, shifting sand dunes, and sprawling mountains. Once there, you can enjoy a view of the massive crater right from the parking area, or like us you can hike down or around it. Word to the wise - walking up a steep gravel hill can be difficult.
Next, we explored the opposite side of the park at Furnace Creek, where many of the popular landmarks are located. Zabriskie Point is one of the parks most famous sites and a popular sunrise and sunset viewing location, however it's nonetheless spectacular during midday. To see a spectacular view of these eroded and colorful badlands, it's just a short walk uphill from the parking area.
The Devil's Golf Course is an immense area of sharply, eroded salt crystal formations as far as the eye can see. It is said that this area is so jagged that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” Just make sure to watch your step, because a slip and fall on these rocks can result in some serious damage.
Once done exploring the Devil's Golf Course we then headed towards the lowest point in North America, the infamous Badwater Basin. This part of the park sits at 282 feet below sea level, creating a surreal landscape of vast salt flats. These salt flats cover nearly 200 square miles, and is among the largest protected salt flats in the world. With this comes extreme heat and dryness, so just make sure that you have plenty of water and sunscreen.
Before heading back to our campsite for the evening, we made sure to take the slightly longer route Artist's Drive. This scenic loop takes you through multi-colored volcanic and sedimentary hills. We stopped at Artist's Palette for an incredible view of hills splattered in pastels, which is said to be remarkable in late afternoon light.
In the morning, we got up to catch the sunrise and said farewell to our campsite. Our next adventure would take us just down the road, and along a 2 and a 1/2 mile dirt path to the parking area of Darwin Falls.
Prior to our trip, we had no idea that there was a lush oasis hiding the midst of this unforgiving terrain. This spring-fed waterfall is truly a miracle in the desert, flowing year-round in a narrow gorge. It was a short two mile roundtrip hike to the falls, that involved some rock scrambling and several stream crossings.
Our final stop before driving back towards Los Angeles was Ballarat. This small ghost town lies just outside of the national park, and is ran by its only resident and caretaker Rock Novak.
It was a bit erie as we arrived. There was nobody in sight... and as we parked and got out of our car, all you could hear was the faint sound of an alarm going off. We walked around for a while, and out of nowhere appeared Rock. We talked for a couple of minutes and before departing he made sure to invite us to an event they celebrate in town called Freedom Days, where he emphasized that "anything goes!"
WHAT WE ATE
The Golden Gate | Lunch
After setting up our tent on the first day, we made pita's stuffed with spicy tuna salad. It was the perfect combination of classic flavors, and just the right amount of kick with the added touch of sesame seeds, crumbled nori, and sriracha. This meal was quick and easy to make! All you have to do is combine the pre-portioned ingredients into the bag of tuna and once mixed, fill each pita pocket.
The Souk | Dinner
For dinner, we made a pot of lemon chicken with couscous. It was really fast and easy to make, which was perfect after a long day of exploring. The couscous was full of flavor and very hearty, it also provided us with much needed protein (for even more protein you can add chicken).
Cranberry Couscous Crunch | Breakfast
With a day full of activities ahead of us, we wanted something that would give us the energy and nourishment needed. We made a pot of rolled oats with couscous. It was a quick and easy meal to make, with a nice amount of sweetness from the dried cranberry and apples... oh and brown sugar!
While out and about, I got hungry and did not want to make something that required cooking. I enjoyed my chicken salad wrap on the hood of my car, as I overlooked the Devil's Golf Course. This lunch was a delightful twist on the classic chicken salad warp. It was the perfect blend of textures between creamy and crunchy, brightened up with a pinch of tarragon.
Jambalaya | Dinner
After making it back to our campsite, we were craving something hearty so we made a pot of Jambalaya (meat-lovers or seafood lovers can choose to add Andouille pork sausage or shrimp). It was packed with a ton of flavor and freshness. Jambalaya normally takes a while to make, but Fireside Provisions made it very easy on us by pre-measuring the perfect amount of seasonings. While this meal was cooking we were able to enjoy a glass of wine as the sun began to set.
On our last day, we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise and immediately got started on breakfast. On the menu was a Mexican classic! Being that my wife is a proud Mexican Chef, she was looking forward to this dish since day one. There is no better way to wake up then to the smell of sautéed onions, green bell peppers, garlic and cumin in the air.
Special thanks to our partners, Fireside Provisions, for sponsoring this post. All content and opinions are our own. Thank you for supporting the brands that support The Modern Day Explorer!
DEATH VALLEY TIPS
- We drove more than 200 miles each day, making gas our biggest expense. You'll want to fill up before you enter the park, but gas is available for a premium at Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek, and Panamint Springs (most expensive).
- Free Death Valley guide maps are located throughout the park at gas or ranger stations.
- Freeze your water bottles prior to the trip. It doubles as not only your drinking water, but as a way to keep your food and drinks cold as well. It also last much longer than ice cubes.
- If you frequent national parks and federal recreational lands, consider purchasing an annual pass to save on entrance fees.
- It is illegal to feed wild animals in a national park or monument, a misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine.
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About The Author
In 2015, Founder of TMDE Paul Martinez left a career in sales for a life of exploring. In just a matter of months he had visited over 10 countries, 30 cities, 10 states, countless national parks, taken thousands of photographs, and did a ton of soul-searching. His search uncovered a deep passion for exploration; which he now believes to be the essence of the human spirit, and led to the birth of The Modern Day Explorer. You can follow him on his personal journey by visiting his Instagram, and hopefully continue to support TMDE by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.