Home » 2019 Superbloom

Death Valley National Park, CA

Saturday, April 6, 2019 - 4:15pm by Lolo
245 miles and 6.5 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay


Golden Canyon TrailGolden Canyon TrailWe had been to Death Valley numerous times before, but Herb never seems to get enough of it. He loves everything about it - the heat, the remoteness, the ability to be totally alone (+ me) in a vast pristine expanse, and, of course, the stark beauty of its barrenness.

Despite having been here multiple times, there were still some things on our list of things to do - primarily the hike from Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point, considered the best hike in the Park. We had done the 2-mile Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail in 2014, but had run out of daylight to complete the whole 7-mile Golden Canyon, Zabriskie Point, Gower Gulch loop. Today was the day.

Since the Golden Canyon section of the hike is the most spectacular section of the hike, we decided to do it in reverse, so we would hit it in the golden hour right before sunset. This meant starting off along the trail that ran parallel to Badwater Road for awhile before climbing up through a canyon along gravel-filled wash, which is Gowers Gulch.

Lolo on the Golden Canyon trailLolo on the Golden Canyon trailRather than take a left at the Badlands Loop Trailhead (at 2.3 miles), which would have brought us back over and down into the Golden Canyon for a 4.5-mile loop hike, we continued straight up for another mile and a half to Zabriskie Point, probably the best overlook in the park, where there is a panoramic view of Golden Canyon and the surrounding vibrantly colored badlands.

Most people get to Zabriskie Point via car and then just walk the short distance out to the overlook. We, however, felt that we had truly earned the view, as we gazed down at the canyons and badlands below us that we had traversed to get here.

Unfortunately, you can’t be in every place during the golden hour, and since we didn’t want to be hiking down in the dark, we started our trek down, this time taking the Badlands Loop over towards the Golden Canyon Trail. There were parts of the way down that were a bit sketchy, with loose scree and steep drop-offs, but nothing too precarious.

Golden Canyon TrailGolden Canyon TrailThe most dramatic part of the trail with the biggest expanses and interesting rock formations was the section along the Badlands Loop over to the top of the Golden Canyon Trail. It was just hard to keep my eyes on the trail because the scenery was so beautiful.

We got back to the car with sufficient daylight to find camping for the night. Death Valley, like Carrizo Plains, allows dispersed camping as long as you are a mile away from a main road. The nearest place for us to go was one of the dirt canyon roads off of the West Side Road. Since it was getting late, we chose the first one, Trail Canyon, and drove a bumpy, rocky mile up it towards the canyon. It was a nice sport, and the price was right.

The next morning after our normal morning routine, we headed out to explore more of the park. It’s amazing how my perception of normal was evolving after only my third night sleeping in the back of the same vehicle I take to the grocery store.

Salt hexagons of Badwater BasinSalt hexagons of Badwater BasinOur first stop of the day was Badwater Basin, which at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest, driest, hottest place in North America. A boardwalk leads out across the basin, at the end of which you can continue out onto the salt flats themselves, a surreal, otherworldly highway made of table salt which organizes itself into interconnecting hexagonal honeycombs. These shapes are the result of repeated freezing and thawing and evaporation cycles that gradually push the thin salt crust up into a hexagon, nature’s most efficient shape - even bees know that when they build their honeycombs. You can go on for miles on the salt flats if you choose, all the way to the other side of the Valley, but we chose to go for just a little over a mile before turning back.

On the way back north from Badwater Basin, we took a 1.5-mile bumpy dirt road to the trailhead for the hike to Natural Bridge. From the parking lot, we immediately entered the mouth of a canyon and hiked uphill for about a ½ mile before arriving at our goal, a 50-foot high massive rock that spans the canyon.

Artists DriveArtists DriveContinuing north, we turned off onto the one-way, highly scenic Artists Drive, a 9-mile paved spur road that winds through a colorful display of sedimentary and volcanic rock. We stopped at a viewpoint called Artists Pallet, named for the amazing rainbow of colors – red, pink, yellow, orange and brown – that paint the hills. Unfortunately, it was high noon, not the best time for photography. This would be a great place to come back to at sunset, but that was not in our program for the day.

We skipped the Harmony Borax Works, as we had been there on a recent trip, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the human history of Death Valley, which pretty much the revolves around the mining of borax.

A little further north from the Borax Works is the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a rare chance to see water in Death Valley. It’s not exactly a hike, but more of a pleasant stroll on a mile-long boardwalk. The tiny little creek here is home to the inch-long Salt Creek Pupfish, a hearty little creature that somehow manages to survive these harsh conditions. In past visits, we had not seen any, but this time we were fortunate enough to be here in springtime when they are out and about and looking for a partner (or partners) to breed with.

Mating pupfish at Salt CreekMating pupfish at Salt CreekWe actually got to see the courtship ritual, which was quite fascinating. We could tell which ones where the males because they were luminescent blue, to attract the ladies and let them know they were interested and ready to breed. The males were quite territorial and aggressive, chasing other males away from their turf, while simultaneously trying to entice a female into his turf. Once he has lured one in, they cuddle up beside each other, form and s-shape, and start to wiggle. During this wiggle, the female releases an egg and the male releases sperm, which immediately fertilizes the egg. Sometimes, the female hangs around for another round. The fertilized eggs take about 10 days to hatch. A single female typically lays somewhere between 50 and 800 eggs in a single season.

We continued north on Scotty’s Castle Road towards Ubehebe Crater. This is a beautiful stretch of road, with desert views to the west and alluvial fans and mountains to the east. Unfortunately, Scotty’s Castle is still closed from the flood damage it experienced back in 2015, and is not expected to reopen until 2020. Too bad, as that is truly an interesting part of Death Valley’s human history.

Ubehebe Crater RimUbehebe Crater RimHowever, the road was open to Ubehebe Crater, another one of Death Valley’s impressive geological features. The crater is huge - a half-mile wide, 750-feet deep, formed by volcanic explosions several thousand years ago. Last time we were here, we hiked down to the bottom of the crater. The hike back up was pretty exhausting because of the steepness and loose cinders.

Ubehebe is not the only crater in this part of Death Valley. There is a cluster of craters to the south and west of Ubehebe, the largest being Little Hebe Crater.

This time we decided to hike around the rim of the crater, with a short side trip to Little Hebe Crater along the way. The whole hike around the rim, including Little Hebe is 2 ¼ miles. Although most of the rim is level, there are some steep sections, as the west side of the crater is 270 feet higher than the east side. That plus the loose cinders and the drop-offs made it more than just a casual stroll.

Ubehebe Crater RimUbehebe Crater RimFortunately for those that don’t hike, the best view of Ubehebe Crater is actually from the parking lot, where the you see the bright yellow and orange stone of the opposite side is exposed.

The 27-mile dirt road to Death Valley’s famous Racetrack, where rocks mysteriously move across the dry lakebed on their own accord, starts right near the parking lot for Ubehebe Crater, so we figured we would go there to spend the night.

Road conditions seemed a little rougher than the last time we drove it, probably because of the winter storms that had closed so many of the other roads in the park. Still, we were able to move along at a good 20 mph pace.

After 19 miles of incredible natural desert scenery, we came upon a bit of a man-made attraction at Teakettle Junction, where the sign marking the junction of Racetrack and Hunter Mountain is strung with dozens of old teakettles.

Teakettle Junction on way to the RacetrackTeakettle Junction on way to the RacetrackNo one quite knows how this tradition began, but rumor has it that kettles were hung to show early settlers that there was water nearby. Another theory is that it was considered good luck to leave a kettle with a message on or in it for fellow travelers to read. When the number of teakettles get to be too much, Rangers remove them, and the process begins all over again.

For this afternoon, we continued straight for another 6 miles to the Grandstand Parking Area at the northern end of the Racetrack Playa (dry lakebed), which is 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. Rising from the playa is a large, dark outcrop of quartz monzonite, which is actually the tip of a mountain buried long ago by material eroded from the surrounding mountains. It looked like an island in a sea of clay.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t “raced” fast enough to get here. As we walked across the playa towards the Grandstand, the sun dipped behind the mountains, putting it in shadow. So close.

Rock racing Lolo to the GrandstandRock racing Lolo to the GrandstandNo camping is allowed in the parking areas alongside the playa, so we continued on to the primitive campground, just two miles beyond, where there are a half a dozen or so places to camp, only two of which were occupied.

The next morning we drove back out from whence we came and stopped once more to walk out on the playa, this time at the southern end, where most of the “moving” rocks hang out. It was easy to find those that had moved by the tracks they left behind in the clay.

Scientists have been studying this strange rock behavior for decades and think they have finally solved the mystery. The theory is that after a rain, the surface of the playa, which is clay, becomes quite slippery. Accompanying that loss of friction with the strong winds that blow out of the Saline Valley, sometimes as high as 70 mph, and you get a sufficient force to actually move a rock across the slick surface, some of which are as large as 1,000 pounds. Some of them have moved as much as several hundred feet, leaving long tracks behind them showing the direction of their journey.

Mysterious moving rocks of the RacetrackMysterious moving rocks of the RacetrackUsing GPS measurements, scientists have mapped, measured, and even named 162 rocks. Kitty weighs in at 1,275 pounds and is 22 inches tall, while Hannah is a measly 1 pound. Apparently, rocks are female.

We said goodbye to Kitty and Hannah and headed back north on the Racetrack Road. We debate spending another night in Death Valley at Eureka Dunes, but I think we both had had enough of living out of the back of our 4Runner.

Instead we would drive out to Big Pine on Route 395 via the Death Valley / Big Pine Road. Our oldest son and his wife had recently moved to Bishop, just 15 miles north of Big Pine, so we texted them and invited ourselves for the night.


Golden Canyon TrailGolden Canyon TrailIn 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.

The 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.

Golden Canyon TrailGolden Canyon TrailIn 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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