Home » 2007 Cross Country Road Trip

Death Valley National Park, CA

Friday, July 20, 2007 - 10:00am by Lolo
272 miles and 6 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay


Lolo at Zabriski Point OverlookLolo at Zabriski Point OverlookI don’t think we were all approaching Death Valley with the proper level of enthusiasm that it deserved. Lake Mead’s oppressive heat had drained us, and as far as the boys were concerned, Death Valley was going to be a Lake Mead, minus the lake—not a very appealing thought at that moment.

We entered Death Valley from the east on Route 190 and made our first stop at Zabriskie Point, which according to the guide book was one of the most spectacular overlooks in the park. I had a hard time convincing the men to get out of the air-conditioned RV to climb up the steep hill to the viewpoint, but I knew they wouldn't stay behind for too long. They just wanted to make sure I knew how miserable they were. The thermometer on the dashboard read 120°F. Even though they wouldn’t admit it, I think we all felt that the view of the colorful badlands of Golden Canyon was definitely well worth it. I walked out on the actual point so Herb could take my picture. The boys were too cranky to follow.

Scotty's Castle courtyardScotty's Castle courtyardWe continued on to the Furnace Creek area where we were surprised to see some greenery and tall palm tress—very different from the rest of Death Valley. There is a beautiful, and quite pricey, resort here complete with an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, and spring-fed swimming pools.

After a brief stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we headed onto the North Highway for the 50-mile drive to Scotty’s Castle, one of the most popular attractions in Death Valley. The drive north took us through some very desolate but beautiful scenery, with desert stretching to the west and mountains rising to the east. Along the way we saw some of Death Valley’s renowned alluvial fans, which are these beautiful and colorful fan-like piles of debris that funnel out of the mountains and spill out across the valley.

About 40 miles into the drive, we noticed that we were being followed. A small coyote, with panting tongue, was running alongside our RV. Whenever we slowed down it did, and whenever we sped up, it followed suit. We couldn’t understand how he could keep up that pace in the heat. Later when we told a ranger about the coyote, she explained that he was looking for a handout and that they were often quite clever at achieving this. I felt kind of badly that we didn’t give him anything for his efforts, but then again, we know that feeding wildlife in the parks is not a very wise thing to do.

Death Valley sand duneDeath Valley sand duneScotty’s Castle was definitely very cool and worth the extra drive. It’s also located at a higher elevation than the rest of the Valley, so the heat was a little less oppressive. I must say that on the approach it was pretty odd to see a Moorish Castle rise out of an otherwise empty and unhospitable landscape.

The tours themselves are given by park rangers dressed in 1930s clothing who greet you at the door as if you are one of Scotty’s guests. I won’t give it away, but the tales of how this unlikely castle came to be were definitely very entertaining and intriguing. In fact, Scotty never really owned the castle at all. The one-hour tour is a definite must for anyone visiting Death Valley.

Since it was getting late and the men were still a bit cranky from the heat, we decided not to make the side trip to the Ubehebe Crater, but to head straight back down the North Highway to Stovepipe Wells where we planned to camp for the night.

Stovepipe Wells gas pumps - AJGStovepipe Wells gas pumps - AJGBack in March when I was planning this trip I had called the Stovepipe Wells campground to make sure that they were open in July (as it is the off season) and to ask whether reservations were necessary. I didn’t realize at the time why the gentleman on the phone sounded so amused by my questions, but when we pulled into the village of Stovepipe Wells on this July afternoon, I realized how foolish my second question was. The campground, which was quite large—I think over 200 sites—was totally empty. The only other inhabitant was a bedraggled-looking raven with its mouth open, gasping for air in an attempt to regulate its body temperature. I think he was the campground host.

Check-in was at the small motel across the road, and the nice woman behind the counter gave us the premier site #6 (one of the 15 with electric) and told us that we were welcome to use the motel pool. I knew where I would be spending the evening.

There wasn’t that much to the village, but it actually was quite nice and compact. Besides the campground and the motel, there was a general store, a saloon, and a restaurant—pretty much all a tired tourist needed after a long hot day out on the desert..

Stovepipe Wells General Store - AJGStovepipe Wells General Store - AJGThe pool was just what we needed. We did notice that everyone else hanging out at the pool was European, which is something we often find when visiting the National Parks in the West. We had heard that Americans usually only come to Death Valley in the winter—I now know why—but Europeans come here in summer to experience the essence of Death Valley, which is its extreme heat. The hotter the better. Well, they must have been very happy.

If we had more time to spend in Death Valley, there definitely would have been a lot of other stops I would have liked to make, like Badwater (just to say I had been at the lowest and hottest place in the U.S.), the Ubehebe Crater, and the infamous Racetrack, where rocks mysteriously move on their own. Maybe next time, but certainly not in July again.

The next morning, we took a ranger’s advice and headed towards Yosemite via the west entrance of the park, where the drive was said to be spectacular—and it was. Little did we know at the time that we would be making an unscheduled stop in the town of Lone Pine where we would become far too familiar with the NAPA Auto Parts staff. I’ll explain in the next stop.


Scotty's CastleScotty's CastleIn 1994, the Desert Protection Act added an additional 1.2 million acres to Death Valley National Monument and upgraded its status to National Park, making it the largest national park outside of Alaska. The park is located on the eastern border of a remote section of California with some small portions extending into Nevada. Despite its remoteness, it is one of the most highly visited parks in the national park systems. Many of these visitors come all the way from Europe and Japan to experience the extremes of this stunningly beautiful desert.

Death Valley received its name from the unfortunate forty-niners who were forced to cross the burning sands here in order to avoid the severe snowstorns in the nearby Sierra Nevada on their way to the California Gold Rush. Many perished along the way, and those that survived remembered it as a place of suffering and death. The current names of many of the places in Death Valley reflect its harshness: Dead Man Pass, Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Hell’s Gate, Devil’s Golf Course, Starvation Canyon, etc.

Lazy Daze at Stovepipe Wells Campground - AJGLazy Daze at Stovepipe Wells Campground - AJGThe valley itself is over 130 miles long, but only about 12 miles wide, flanked on both sides by unvegetated reddish mountains. From an elevation of about 3,300 feet in the north, the land slopes steadily downward to an elevation of 279 feet below sea level at Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere. In fact, 70 miles of the desert floor is below sea level, accounting for its extremely high termperatures, which can exceed 130°F in summer.

In many ways, not much about the valley has changed since the pioneers first crossed here. Its intense heat, frigid cold, and the driest air imaginable still make it one of the most inhospitable locations on earth. However, today’s visitors can enjoy Death Valley and see most of its highlights from the comfort of their air conditioned cars and stay in comfortable, and even luxurious, hotel rooms at night.

The park is criss-crossed by a network of roads, ranging form washboard dirt ones to paved, well-maintained highways, making the most popular destinations quite accessible. The Furnace Creek Visitor Center, near the center of the park, is a great place to get oriented and to begin an exploration of Death Valley. This greenness of this area is a surprise to most visitors who come to the park expecting to see nothing but miles and miles of sand. Fed by warm springs, this area is a verdant oasis with palm trees as tall as 50 feet. There are also two world-class resorts here: the elegant Furnace Creek Inn and the more down-to-earth Furnace Creek Ranch.

Highlights traveling south from Furnace Creek on Route 190

  • About 5 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is Zabriskie Point, one of the most spectacular overlooks in the park. A short walk uphill from the parking lot brings you to a panoramic view of Golden Canyon and the surrounding vibrantly colored badlands. The views are particularly stunning in the lowlight of early morning or late afternoon.
  • Another 1.5 miles down the highway s the turnout for Twenty-Mule Team Canyon road, a one-way dirt road that rejoins the highway in 2.7 miles. The road winds through Twenty-Mule Team Canyon with close-up views of the same colorful badlands seen from Zabriskie Point. RVs and trailers are not allowed on this road.
  • 4.5 miles further south on 190 is a turnoff for Dante’s View (restricted to vehicles less than 25 feet). The road to Dante’s View climbs steeply to an overlook 5,000 feet above the valley floor, where the temperatures average 20° F cooler than in the valley. From this viewpoint, which most consider the most breathtaking in the park, one can see the lowest point (Badwater) and the highest point (Telescope Peak) in the park.

Highlights traveling south from Furnace Creek on Badwater Road

  • About 1.8 miles south of the Visitor Center is the turnoff for Badwater Road. 1.5 miles further south on Badwater Road is the parking lot for the popular hike into Golden Canyon. A well-marked nature trail (2 miles RT) leads into the narrow canyon, wedged in by eroded cliffs and the slopes of golden badlands.
  • Back on Badwater Road, continue south past Artist Drive (get that on the way back as it is a one-way road going north). Around 9 miles south of Golden Canyon is the turnoff for the unpaved spur road to Devil’s Golf Course. The road leads to an odd and forbidding landscape created by salt and erosion on a lake bed that dried up 2,000 years ago. The result is a jagged terrain of salty white miniature mountains and spires, less than 2 feet high. The name comes from the feeling that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”
  • About 8 miles south is the Badwater Basin, the hottest and lowest point in Death Valley accessible by car. Surprisingly, its permanent spring-fed pools also make it one of the wettest. Legend says that it got its name from a surveyor whose mule refused to drink it. Although not poisonous, it is similar in composition and taste to Epsom salts. Despite its apparent inhospitableness, it is home to water beetles, insect larvae, and a soft-shelled saltwater snail that slowly adapted to these conditions.
  • Turning back north on Badwater Road towards Furnace Creek, in 8 miles you come to the turnout for the one-way, 9-mile paved Artist Drive, which winds through a colorful display of sedimentary and volcanic rock hidden from the main road. It received its name from the rainbow of colors—red, pink, yellow, orange, and brown—that paint these rocky hills. About half-way through the loop is the parking lot for Artists Palette, one of the most colorful areas along the loop. Artist Drive is restricted to vehicles less than 25 feet.

Highlights traveling north from Furnace Creek on Route 190

  • About 1.7 miles north of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center are the remains of what was once the Harmony Borax Works. Borax, which the prospectors called “white gold,” was once a big business in Death Valley. In the 1880s, Chinese laborers were hired to rake borax “cottonballs” from the valley floor and bring them to the Harmony Borax works to be purified. From there the refined borax was loaded onto the famous twenty-mule team wagons and transported 165 miles across the desert to the train station in Mojave. From there it was shipped to processing plants where it was used to make soaps, disinfectants, and food preservatives. Between 1883 and 1927, more than $30 million worth of borax was produced in Death Valley. A short trail leads past the ruins of the old borax refinery and some outlying buildings. More information on the mining of borax in Death Valley is available in the Borax Museum at the Furnace Creek Ranch.
  • 12 miles further north on 190 is the turnoff for the 1.2 mile gravel road to Salt Creek, home to the famous Death Valley pupfish. When the lake that once covered Death Valley dried up thousands of years ago, the desert pupfish was the only fish that managed to adapt to the harsh conditions here. Isolated from each other in scattered salty pools, springs, and creeks, nine types of pupfish have evolved. A tenth has already become extinct. They are found no place else on earth. The pupfish can often be seen from the short wooden boardwalk nature trail that crisscrosses the stream and marshes.
  • About 21 miles north of the Visitor Center, Highway 190 turns west towards Stovepipe Wells and the west entrance to the park. At this point, you can either continue on 190 or head north on the North Highway another 32 miles to Scotty’s Castle, the major man-made attraction in Death Valley.

Highlights along the North Highway (traveling north)

  • The drive to Scotty’s Castle on the North Highway is a very scenic one with desert stretching out on the west and mountains rising to the east. About 10 miles north on the North Highway is a pullout with great views of Death Valley’s renowned alluvial fans. These fans are something like an hourglass with debris from the mountains funneling through a narrow opening and spilling out in a wedge shape into the valley. They come in many shapes and sizes. The ones near this viewpoint are smaller and steeper.
  • 25 miles further north in the remote Grapevine Canyon looms the unlikely sight of a Moorish Castle. Construction of what was more officially called Death Valley Ranch was begun in 1922 by Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, whose doctors had advised him to spend more time in a warm, dry climate. However, the mansion is known as Scotty’s Castle, named after Johnson’s unlikely friend, Walter Scott. Walter Scott was a cowboy that had traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1880s before taking up prospecting. Albert Johnson was one of Scotty’s gullible investors in his “secret gold mine” in Death Valley. After several trips west to see the mine, Johnson realized that he was being duped by Scotty. Despite that, Johnson truly enjoyed his new friend and the tall tales he told. Scotty helped Johnson conceive the idea of this vacation villa in Death Valley and lived in it after Johnson’s death.
  • In 1970, Scotty’s Castle was purchased by the National Park Service from the foundation to whom Johnson had willed it. Today the colorful history of the castle is brought to life by rangers dressed in 1930s clothing that welcome you as if you were Scotty’s guests. The one-hour guided tour is excellent, both for its inside look at this unusual mansion as well as for the stories about the eccentricities of the two men that built it. Tours depart every 20 minutes from 9 am to 5 pm. Plan to arrive early because they fill up quickly.
  • About 1.5 miles down Grapevine Canyon heading back south on the North Highway is the turnoff for the 8 mile road to Ubehebe Crater. This half-mile wide, 600-foot deep crater was formed by volcanic explosions several thousand years ago. Dark cinders and volcanic fragments cover the surrounding countryside. From the parking area there is a steep trail up to the crater’s rim. Be prepared to battle some very gusty winds.
  • Because of its remote location, few visitors get to see the famous Death Valley Racetrack, where rocks mysteriously move across the dry lakebed on their own accord. Although no one has actually seen the rocks move, they are known to move because of the trails they leave behind them. After studying the phenomenon for decades, scientists now believe they have solved the mystery. The surface of the lakebed is a fine clay that becomes very slippery when wet. After a rain, heavy winds as high as 70 mph blow the rocks across the slick surface. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is needed to reach the Racetrack, which is 27 miles past Ubehebe Crater on a rough dirt road.

Highlights traveling west along Route 190 from the junction with the North Highway

  • Just west of the junction is the parking area for the surrealistic Devil’s Cornfield. On both sides of the road are odd-looking clumps of brush four to ten feet tall that resemble corn stalks. They are actually arrowweed bushes, whose stems were used by Native Americans to make arrow shafts.
  • A few miles further west on 190, pull over on the shoulder by a roadside display where the Sand Dunes come close to the highway. These are the highest of a 14-square-mile field of dunes. Although there are no trails to follow, hikers are free to roam the dunes on their own. The best time of day to visit the dunes is in the morning or late afternoon when the temperatures are cooler and the lighting is more dramatic.
  • Two miles further west is the village of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley’s first tourist resort. The village actually got its name from an historic site about 5 miles north where an old stovepipe was sunk into the sand to form the shaft of a well. For years this well was used by travelers as a source for water. Around 1926 a developer planned to build a small resort near the well. However, his lumber trucks got stuck in the sand before he could reach it. Rather than unload and reload his trucks, he decided to try and dig a well where they were. They struck water and stayed. That spot is the current location for Stovepipe Wells. Today the village has a motel, general store, saloon, restaurant, and campground.

Campgrounds that will accomodate RVs in Death Valley

  • Furnace Creek Campground (136 sites, no hookups) – located just north of the Visitor Center. Open year round. This is the only park campground that takes reservations.
  • Mesquite Spring Campground (30 sites, no hookups) – located 5 miles south of Scotty’s Castle. Open year round.
  • Panamint Springs Resort (40 sites, 12 hookups) – located 30 miles west of Stovepipe Wells on Route 190. Open year round. This campground is privately operated and takes reservations.
  • Stovepipe Wells Campground (200 sites, 15 hookups) – located in the village of Stovepipe Wells. Open year round.
  • Sunset Campground (1000 sites, no hookups) – located .25 miles east of the Furnace Creek Ranch. Open October through April.
  • Texas Spring Campground (92 sites, no hookups) – located near Sunset Campground. Open October through April.
  • Wildrose Campground (30 sites, no hookups) – located 30 miles south of Stovepipe Wells off the Trona-Wildrose Road. Open year round.

In addition to the park campgrounds, there are two privately-owned campgrounds in the park:

  • Furnace Creek Ranch Campground (26 sites, all full hookups) - located at The Ranch just south of the Visitor Center. Open year round. Guests can enjoy the Ranch’s natural spring-fed swimming pool, shower facility, coin operated laundry, tennis courts, shuffleboard, volleyball, Bocci Ball and basketball court.
  • Panamint Springs Campground (37 sites, 12 full hookups) - located at the western end of Death Valley National Park on Highway 190 in the town of Panamint Springs

Death Valley National Park location map in "high definition"

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