A Day in Death Valley
I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams...
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This day tour was something that I was very much looking forward to on my trip to Vegas! Although I almost changed my mind about going after a friend questioned 'why would you want to go there, it's in the middle of nowhere and it's far too hot!?'...It turned out that this friend had rented a car and aimlessly drove out to Death Valley with no plan of where to visit. They had thus not seen some of the most popular and spectacular scenery that can be found in Death Valley. Also, they visited in the middle of the summer when the heat is at its most extreme temperatures! If you intend to drive to Death Valley then a bit of research and planning should be made to get the most out of your trip. For me, coming from Ireland where we are surrounded by greenery and small mountains, the landscape of Death Valley was completely different than my usual surroundings so I found it quite a sight to behold! If you are familiar with a vast desert environment then you will likely not be as impressed as I was with a trip here. The vastness, colors, and landscape found in the desert was something that I had never experienced before; especially on such a large scale!
DAY TOURS FROM VEGAS
I discovered Death Valley through a picture of the beautiful and colorful landscape found at 'Artists Palette' and it was due to this picture that I investigated and decided to book a day trip to Death Valley. One huge disappointment for me was the fact that the tour I took (Vegas Desert Tours) did not end up stopping, or, passing by Artists Palette...even though the main picture on their website is of Artists Palette!! I think this is quite misleading and should not be featured as their main picture if it is not included as part of the tour 😢 Also, we did not stop at Ubehebe Crater or Scotty's Castle (which are listed under the locations visited on their website). After going on the tour I read that Scotty's Castle was shut at the time and so it was understandable that we didn't visit here, however, it would have been nice to have known this before booking and paying for the tour. I found that a lot of the tours to Death Valley will list a large number of locations on their itinerary but then be careful to state that not all locations may happen on the day. The tour I took changed the leaving time to half an hour earlier than advertised online and I was only advised of this the day before the tour...I was not impressed with this either! 😴
The tour was looong. It included so many stop-off points that people seemed quite jaded by the end of the day. You definitely got your moneys worth for a day with the tour guide as he remained enthusiastic and eager for the full day, however, it was quite tiring by the end of the tour and I think people were keen to get home for a proper feed that evening. I would advise you to bring some snacks with you on the day - there was quite a large lunch included with our tour but we had this early in the day and so, by the end of the day, everyone was getting very hungry as there was not really anywhere to buy more food throughout the day. Our guide was great and very flexible with pulling the bus in and stopping whenever he spotted something interesting (flowers, animals, etc.). The tour was expensive (I paid $214.90), however, I was late booking so a cheaper one that I was hoping to book (it had received great reviews too) was already booked up for the dates when I was visiting 😢
OVERVIEW OF DEATH VALLEY
Though it's very close to Vegas, Death Valley is actually located in California in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert. It is one of the hottest places in the world along with deserts in the Middle East. Though disputed as factual due to errors found in the reading, the World Meteorological Organization states that the highest registered air temperature on Earth was 56.7 °C (134.1 °F) in Furnace Creek Ranch (Death Valley) on July 10, 1913. Even if this reading is omitted as false, it still comes in joint second as the highest recorded air temperature at 54.0 °C (129.2 °F) on June 20, 2013, as well as Mitribah, Kuwait on July 21, 2016. Saying this, when I visited during April it was not unbearably hot. Mid-summer is when the heat is at peak and tours don't even run during mid-summer months.
Even though it's named Death Valley, parts of the Valley actually contains a great diversity of life and nature. The extremeness of the environment makes for interesting locations to visit; from seeing the snow peaks during winter, a multitude of wildflowers in bloom in autumn to the beautiful sunset colors on the mountains during summer months.
Badwater Basin is a popular point as it is the lowest elevation in North America, at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. The lack of nature here was astonishing! Those interested in Geology and Ecology would love this graben environment tour as it includes salt pans and salt flats (especially fascinating at Devils Golf course) and loads of interesting and colorful rock formations along the cliffs. Also, I was surprised to see so many wildflowers around the desert. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable on the ecology of the land and stopped off at times when he spotted interesting and colorful wildflowers. We even spotted some wild burros roaming around and he stopped the bus for us to admire these too. Although we didn't visit Salt Creek (which is a mile-long shallow depression), it's interesting to note its ecology which includes put fish and pickleweed.
We stopped off at the following locations:
(1) DANTE'S VIEW
Located about 25 km south of Furnace Creek, near the edge of Black Mountains, is where you will find Dantes View. Here you can take a short path from the car park and up to the mountain edge where you will discover a great view of the surrounding mountains and you will be overlooking Badwater Basin. It is worth the couple of minute's walk from the car park and along the trek over the valley as it is said to have the best overall views of the southern half of the national park. This location featured in Star Wars.
Considered one of the most spectacular views in Death Valley (though I preferred Zabriskie Point which is more colorful and photogenic), Dantes view offers a stunning view of how vast and lacking growth this area is. From here you will enjoy a view of the valley, Badwater Basin, and even Devils Golf Course in the distance. It's possible to hike further on to gain more views, however, if you are on a day tour then time is likely to be limited. The viewpoint is 5,476 feet in height and, as mentioned, it is looking down onto Badwater Basin which is over 200 feet below sea level. On very clear days, you can see both the highest (Mt Whitney) and lowest (Badwater) points in the contiguous 48 states of the USA.
(2) ZABRISKIE POINT
Both here and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes were my favorite locations that we stopped off at! Zabriskie Point is currently featured as the number two thing to do in Death Valley on TripAdvisor (after Badwater). The erosion in the landscape creates mesmerising repetitive colorful folds and wave-like patterns on the surrounding mountain area which are magnificent to see. The rapid erosion of the mudstone environment is attributed to the rapid and rare rainfall that falls in the area. This viewing point allows you to see a beautiful panoramic view of the surrounding landscape - which is not justified in pictures! This landscape is the result of sediments of the Furnace Creek Lake which dried up 5 million years ago. References to Zabriskie Point have been used in popular culture many times throughout the years.
Views from here include Manly Beacon, with its yellow and orange colored badlands, and views of Red Cathedral. I would love to return here at sunrise or sunset to enjoy the spectacular colors as daylight hits the mountains. I have read that it can be a busy spot at sunset so make sure to arrive early if you wish to set up your camera for some amazing shots of the colors hitting the mountains. From the parking lot, it's a couple of minutes walk up (circa 5 minutes) to the viewing point - which was fine for me but perhaps during the strong summer heat it can be a bit strenuous! The colors are various gold shades such as yellow, orange, burnt brown, and apricot. If the weather permits you could do a hike of Golden Canyon from here.
(3) LUNCH SPOT
Hotels are very limited in Death Valley! We stopped off at The Ranch at Death Valley which is listed as a best seller on Tripadvisor. We were able to sit outside, with our packed lunch provided by the tour company, and enjoy the views from here. I've read reviews that it can be costly to dine here...which makes sense seeing as there is such a lack of competition for dining and accommodation in the area!
(4) DEVILS GOLF COURSE
Most definitely not for playing golf on 😂 Devils Golf Course is composed of natural salt pans which were rocks and thus they form a hard rough texture which is difficult to walk across. The name originated from a National Park Service guide book (1934) which includes a quote saying "Only the devil could play golf" of the area.
Lake Manly was previously located here and halite salt crystal was formed from dissolved minerals after the lake evaporated. The Devils Golf Course is found in Badwater Basin and sits slightly higher than the lowest point at Badwater. In the early 1900s, before Devils Golf Course became protected by the National Park Services, the Pacific Borax Company performed some exploratory work drilling holes into it and found that the mineral deposits extend up to 1000 feet below ground! Watch the below video clip for a 360° view of the area.
Due to its location, this environment allows the salt pan to remain dry and for the weather to wear the mineral deposits into rugged shapes and formations. You can access the area by car (just off Badwater road, not too far from Furnace Creek) and walk across the formations.
(5) BADWATER BASIN
After enjoying the view down onto Badwater Basin from Dante's View earlier in the day, we then drove down to it. Here you are at the lowest point in North America (282 ft (86 m) below sea level) and the area appears lacking in any vegetation. There is a spring located here though it is likely to be dried up during the mid-summer heat. Due to the salts surrounding the spring in the basin, it makes the water undrinkable aka 'bad water'! There are plant and animal life found at the pool, including pickleweed, aquatic insects and the Badwater snail. For someone like me, who is familiar with an environment of greenery and mountains, the view out across Badwater Basin was extraordinary and out of worldly. The vastness and desolation of the space lying ahead of me, which was solely covered in salt flats and lacking vegetation, was something to behold. It looked like how I imagine standing on the moon would be! I walked for so long that I had to turn back to catch the bus. The flatness and salt continue for about 5 miles. It is interesting to note that at certain periods significant rainfall occurs and causes the valley bottom to become flooded. Water will thus cover the salt pans, however, the lake does not last long due to the 150-inch annual evaporation rate.
From the parking lot, you can see a sea-level sign 280 feet above you on an adjacent mountain. This puts perspective on just how low down you are. Once you leave the car park and walk down to the basin it looks like a field of snow lying in front of you, this is the salt from the evaporated water. This high level of salt means that not much life can survive here. Just like at Devils Golf Course, these salt pans are rough and difficult to walk on. The walkway in the middle is clear of the salt though. The large concentration of salt and the flat vastness of the bottom of the valley is a unique viewing point. Visiting around mid-summer months can mean the heat gets very high here so bring plenty of water and try to visit early morning before high heat.
(6) DEVIL'S CORNFIELD
Probably my least favorite spot for the day but I'll still give it a quick mention. 😊 We only stopped off here for about 10 minutes and that is all you would need at this location. It may look similar to a harvest field of corn, however, it is not actually studded with corn 😄 It is composed of lumps of arrow weed which were traditionally used for making arrows, medicinally by Native Americans and as a food source - especially its root for eating.
(7) MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
I found this area so photogenic! It is interesting to note that less than one percent of the desert of Death Valley is covered with dunes so these are a rarity throughout your trip of the desert. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star-shaped. These aren't Death Valley’s tallest dunes (which are found at Eureka Dunes) but they are the most accessible. The highest dune located here is circa 100 feet. These dunes have been used for several films due to the proximity to Hollywood, for example, the Star Wars series. We only had a quick stop off here but that's all that you need. I walked about 5 minutes out onto the field (though you can hike much further across the dunes - important to pack plenty of water if you decide to do this) from the small car park located just off the roadway. I enjoyed the beautiful colors and dune ripples stretching out in front of me and there is a real sense of sereness here. Due to Death Valley National Park being protected as wilderness, off-road vehicle travel is not permitted along these dunes.
On our way back to Vegas we made a quick pit stop (everyone was getting very tired and hungry at this stage) just by Area 51 at 'Area 51 Alien Center'. This is mainly just a cheesy souvenir shop with many alien memorabilia. There is a brothel right next door called Alien Cathouse Brothel 😂 More interesting for me was our drive just before this pit stop where we got to see some air force flying around the Area 51 base where it is said to be a training base (believe this if you will!). You can even tell by my lack of photos for this section how tired I was!! I just wanted food at this stage! It states online that Area 51 Alien Center serves hot food but as we only had a few minutes here we all just grabbed some large bags of crisps and bars to keep us going until we returned to Vegas. In fact, I didn't even see any hot food so perhaps they had finished serving by the time we reached here.
I'm hoping to go to Death Valley again next time I'm in Vegas. Any tips for some different locations to stop-off at next time then please let me know! 😊
Thanks for reading,