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A Thrilling 6 Hours in Death Valley: A Survivor’s Recount

Why Death Valley?

Yup, that was my first question when Michelle said hey we should go to Death Valley from Las Vegas, NV. After she convinced me to cancel our plans for a nice steakhouse dinner at Peter Luger, I began to do my research and was excited. I figured with the 4+ hour drive home, we only had 6 hours in Death Valley. Thank you Earth Trekkers for a great guide to Death Valley! We decided to get closer to Death Valley and made our way northwest towards Amargosa Valley on the border of Nevada and California. Our drive took us past the elusive Area 51 where all you could see from the Highway 95 was the closed village of Mercury.

Unveiling the Wonders of the Desert

Welcome to Death Valley, a land of extremes and beauty! This travel guide is for the adventurous soul looking to soak in the magnificence of one of America’s most unique national parks in a whirlwind 6-hour tour. Our journey begins at the Longstreet Inn and Casino, a comfortable base camp for your adventure.

Quick Facts About Death Valley

  1. Location: Death Valley National Park straddles eastern California and Nevada.
  2. Size: It covers approximately 3.4 million acres, making it the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
  3. Lowest Point: The park contains Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and #8 lowest point on Earth!
  4. Climate Extremes: Death Valley is known for being the hottest and driest place in North America. The highest air temperature ever recorded on Earth, 134°F (56.7°C), was documented at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913.
  5. Diverse Landscapes: The park’s terrain includes salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, and mountains.
  6. Wildlife: Despite its harsh environment, the park is home to diverse wildlife adapted to the extreme conditions, including bighorn sheep, coyotes, and numerous species of reptiles and birds.
  7. Geological Features: Notable geological features include the Racetrack Playa, known for its mysterious moving rocks, and the colorful Artist’s Palette.
  8. No Cell Service: There’s absolutely no cellular network service in the gigantic park so download your maps prior to leaving.
  9. Best Time to Visit: January due to the mild weather (average temp in mid 60’s) and low rainfall.
Death Valley NP

A Brief History of Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park, a land of extremes and stark beauty, has a history as dramatic and diverse as its landscape. Located in Eastern California and extending into Nevada, it’s the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States. Let’s delve into the fascinating past of this unique wilderness.

Prehistoric Times and Native Inhabitants

The history of Death Valley spans thousands of years, beginning with its original inhabitants. The Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans have lived in the Death Valley area for at least the past millennium. They traversed this harsh landscape, skillfully adapting to its extreme conditions and managing its scarce resources.

European Exploration and Naming

The valley received its ominous name during the California Gold Rush of 1849. A group of European-Americans looking for a shortcut to the gold fields in California became trapped in the valley. Despite facing severe hardships, only one of their group died here, but as they finally found their way out, one of them turned back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” and the name stuck.

Borax and Mining

The 1880s saw a boom in Death Valley with the discovery of borax deposits. The famous “20-mule teams” were used to transport this “white gold” out of the valley, a feat that became synonymous with the region’s history. Although the borax mining operations were short-lived, they left an indelible mark on the valley’s history and are celebrated in the park to this day.

Establishing the National Monument and Park

Death Valley was declared a national monument in 1933, largely due to the efforts of conservationists who recognized its unique geological features, its wildlife, and its historical significance. The area was significantly expanded and re-designated as a national park in 1994 under the Desert Protection Act. This act added nearly 1.3 million acres to the park, making it the largest national park in the contiguous United States.

Cultural and Recreational Significance

Over the years, Death Valley has also become a cultural icon, featured in countless films, documentaries, and books. It attracts visitors from around the world who come to see its otherworldly landscapes, to experience its extreme climate, and to explore its rich history.

Famous Movies Filmed at Death Valley

  1. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983): The park’s otherworldly terrain was used to depict the planet Tatooine. Notable locations include Artist’s Palette, Golden Canyon, and Dante’s View.
  2. Grease (1978): The iconic race scene in “Grease” was filmed in Death Valley’s dry lake bed.
  3. Spartacus (1960): Directed by Stanley Kubrick, some scenes of this epic historical drama were shot in Death Valley.
  4. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964): This science fiction film used the rugged and barren landscapes of Death Valley to represent the Martian surface.
  5. Zabriskie Point (1970): Named after a location in Death Valley, this film prominently features the park’s landscapes.

Top Things to Do for a Death Valley Day Trip

1. Start of Your 6 Hours in Death Valley

Kick off your day with a hearty breakfast at the Longstreet Inn. Make sure you fill up gas at the onsite gas station and ensure your car is ready to go. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen! While there is a restaurant at The Oasis Inn, you won’t have time for that with 6 hours in Death Valley. The clock shows 9:00am, let’s get going!

2. First Stop: 20 Mule Team Canyon

Just a short drive (30 mins) from Longstreet Inn lies the 20 Mule Team Canyon. Be sure to stop by the Death Valley National Park entrance sign for a quick phot. Here, you’ll experience the stark beauty of the barren landscape. The canyon is named after the teams of mules that once transported borax through this rugged terrain. Take a quick drive through the canyon to admire the multi-hued clay and mudstone hills. This was one of my favorite spots because there’s a bunch of weird hills and the soft mudstone hills was fun to walk on. Our dogs loved running up and down the hills, so much that Jax was done for the entire day.

20 Mule Team Canyon at great way to start you 6 hours in Death Valley

3. Next Up: Zabriskie Point

A must-visit, Zabriskie Point offers one of the most spectacular views in the park. The panorama of golden, rippled hills is a photographer’s dream. Spend a few moments here soaking in the view and capturing memories. It should be about 10:30am when you leave.

Views from Zabriskie Point

4. Onto Furnace Creek Visitor Center

Furnace Creek Visitor Center is your go-to spot for insights into the valley’s history, geology, and wildlife. A quick stop here will provide context to the unique landscape you’re exploring. Don’t forget to grab Junior Ranger booklets and badges for the little ones.

Views of Death Valley from Zabriskie Point

5. A Unique Sight: Devil’s Golf Course

As you continue, make your way to Devil’s Golf Course. This expansive area of jagged salt formations is so serrated that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links”. This was a cool spot to take photos but if you’re running short on time this is the one stop you can skip.

Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley

6. The Lowest Point: Badwater Basin

Try to hit Badwater Basin by noon, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in North America and the 8th lowest point in the entire world. We’re now about halfway through our 6 hours in Death Valley! The 200 square miles of vast salt flats here are a surreal sight. We were lucky to go when there was still water on the “lake” which created a reflection of the entire landscape and sky.

A Day Trip to Death Valley should Always Include Badwater Basin

The name Badwater Basin originated from a surveyor whose donkey refused to drink the water thus coining the term “bad water” which stuck. If you look up the mountain from the parking area you can see a sign that shows where sea level is at. Take time to reflect about where you’re standing on this Death Valley day trip.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park

7. Drive Through Artist’s Palette on Artist’s Drive

At 1:30pm make your way back up to Artist’s Drive, a scenic loop that winds through multi-colored volcanic and sedimentary hills. This is the perfect time to pull out your sandwiches and eat. Artist’s Palette, especially, is a spot where the hills seem painted with an array of colors, a testament to the valley’s diverse mineral content.

Artists Palette

8. Final Stop: Stovepipe Wells

It will take about an hour to get to your final destination of the “6 Hours in Death Valley” tour at Stovepipe Wells. Stovepipe Wells, is an area particularly noted for its proximity to a large dune field known as the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The formation of Stovepipe Wells, both as a location and its nearby dune system, is a result of unique geological and climatic conditions:

  1. Geographic Positioning: Stovepipe Wells is situated in a valley that is below sea level and surrounded by mountains. This geographical positioning is crucial in the formation of the dunes.
  2. Sand Source: The sand that forms the dunes primarily comes from the erosion of canyons and washes in the Death Valley region. This sand is transported by wind and water down into the valley.
  3. Wind Patterns: The sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells are shaped by the wind patterns in Death Valley. The wind in the valley is known to change direction frequently, which contributes to the unique shapes of the dunes.
  4. Natural Barriers: The surrounding mountain ranges act as natural barriers, trapping the sand that is blown into the valley. Over time, this trapped sand accumulates to form the dunes.
  5. Variability of Dunes: The dunes near Stovepipe Wells vary in shape and size, ranging from small ripples to large star-shaped dunes, because of the varying intensity and direction of winds.

If you have room in the car, pack a sled so the kids can go sand dune sledding. It’s a great place to reflect on your journey through this extraordinary landscape.

Finish at Stovepipe Wells to end your Day Trip in Death Valley

Wrapping Up

As your 6-hour whirlwind tour of Death Valley comes to a close, you’ll leave with a deep appreciation for the beauty and extremes of this unique landscape. Remember, Death Valley is extreme, so safety is paramount. Stay hydrated, keep to the designated paths, and most importantly, enjoy the adventure! We went during the winter in early January where the outside temperatures were in the mid 50’s. We were fortunate to have ample cloud coverage for the entirety of our visit through Death Valley National Park but as we made our way to Stovepipe Wells we got a taste of the why they call this place Furnace Creek.

Visiting Death Valley National Park is one of those things I will truly cherish because of the simple fact that we did it. Although it was a long detour way to get home from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, I’m glad we were able to explore one of the only dog friendly National Parks and capture some awesome photos to show the rest of the world why they to should at least do a Death Valley day trip once in their life.

If you have any questions or comments please email me!

20 Mule Team Canyon Mudstone Hills

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