Death Valley is often referred to a land of extremes. While it does have one of the most extreme environments on earth, it is full of life. For centuries the Timbisha Shoshone people have lived here and calling their land “Death Valley” has often irritated them. They found the valley to be anything but a death-sentence. To them, the valley flourishes with diversity of life; from wildflowers to wildlife and can be enjoyed if you are smart about it. We spent three days exploring the park and enjoyed exploring all over, we easily could have spent a full week!
Things to Know Before You Go
- Bring a Map! It is very difficult to receive a cell signal when you are in the park so be prepared. Make sure to tell someone when you are going so someone knows were you were can can send help if you need it. We downloaded the TomTom app that uses GPS even when there is no signal.
- There are Limited Services. Places to refill water bottles, go to the restroom, get gas, and eat are few and far between. Pack plenty of water, healthy snacks, and a few emergency items for your car in case you get stranded. One or two people die in Death Valley National Park each year; often the result of not being prepared.
- Make Sure Your Car is in Top Shape. Death Valley is the biggest National Park in the U.S. So you will be driving from site to site, often on gravel roads. Last thing you want is for your car to break down or to get a flat with no plan in the middle of the desert with no cell reception. So check your tires, oil, coolant, ect and you’ll be prepared.
- You are in the Wilderness. When out and about, remember you are visiting the wilderness, the place home to many animals. Death Valley National Park has rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other creatures. Be wary and do not place your hands or feet where you can’t see them and wear closed shoes at all times (even on the sand dunes).
- You are Visitors to the Timbisha Shoshone Reservation. Parts of the park territory are dedicated back to the original owners: the Timbisha Shoshone. 300 acres of their land are located within the park, and if you want to learn more you can visit the territory to learn more in their museum or get some amazing Indian Tacos!
Death Valley National Park is roughly 6 hours from my home, 2 hours from Las Vegas, 5 hours from Los Angeles and 9 hours from San Francisco. Going there can seem a bit out of the way, but you can pair it with trips exploring nearby National Parks: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, or Mojave Preserve, or even Yosemite if you are willing to venture north.
Where We Stayed
We are not a camping family, and there are not a lot of places to stay in Death Valley National Park or nearby that is economical. We stayed in Motel 6 in Beatty,NV; about a 30 minute drive from the center of the park which worked for us. The room was average, but was nicely located near many shops and gas so it made exploring the town easy for us on foot.
If YOU are a camping family, there are nine campgrounds to choose from in Death Valley National Park. Furnace Creek Campground, is located directly behind the visitors center; it is the most popular and requires a reservation. Depending on when you’re visiting, some campgrounds will be closed, so make sure to check in advance. All campgrounds in Death Valley are first come, first serve!
What We Saw
Coming in from the West, we drove through Panamint Springs towards Stovepipe Wells Village. From there you take a two-mile gravel road to the parking lot; then it’s a short walk into the canyon. The rock walls are smooth and polished dolomite from years of repeated flash floods. But it’s not all smooth, it is called Mosaic Canyon due to the tiny fragmented rock suck together decorating the ground and walls.
We didn’t go too far into the canyon as there are lots of rocks to climb around to continue going. We scrambled over the Boulder Jam (about 1.5 miles in) when we decided to head back.
If you continue on if you want but you have to crawl between the boulders in order to gain access to the next hidden bypass narrows.
Total Time: 2 hours
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The sand dunes are a popular spot for everyone, especially kids. Let them go nuts! You can “choose your own path” as there is no right or wrong place to go and you can walk out as far as you want. The sand is soft and small, great for rolling down the hills, but a bit tiring walking from dune to dune as it shifts under your feet.
The sand dunes are a lot like an illusion–looking closer than they actually are. We had a full day planned and didn’t go out too far but we did walk straightish out for about 30 mins and the dunes never seemed to get closer!
Total Time: 1 hour
Not Accessible for everyone, but can be viewed from the parking lot.
The Devil’s Cornfield
A fun little stopover is in the Devil’s Cornfield. Located right by the Sand Dunes is sandy area where the arrowweed plants there look like piles of corn after it has been harvested.
Total Time: 30 mins
Pronounced (yoo-be-hee-be), the Ubehebe Crater was a favorite for the whole family. Located about an hour from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.
There are three main hiking paths:
- One, 3 miles long, that goes all the way around the crater rim.
- Two, a steep 700 ft elevation down into the crater. My hubby and son went down into the crater and were huffing and puffing their way out. The loose gravel makes the climb out a bit difficult but definitely do-able.
- Three, a mile walk to the right uphill that leads to a smaller crater known as Little Hebe. The hike to Little Hebe is not particularly difficult, however it is uphill most of the way. If you are visiting in summer, and it is extremely hot, you will probably want to stay away.
Even if you are not a fan of hiking, you can simply pull up in your car at the parking lot and take a look. It is an amazing, 2000 year old specimen of geology. Once at the crater, you can enjoy the view right from the parking area, or you can take a hike down into it or around it.
Total Time: 2 hrs
Accessible from parking lot
Possibly our most ambitious site was to the Racetrack to see the famous “Death Valley moving rocks”—one of the most mystifying natural occurrences in the world. You may have heard of them? Located in a dried up lake bed are rocks that seem to have trails behind them as if they have moved. Scientists are still trying to figure out this phenomenon.
Getting to the Racetrack is about two hours from Ubehebe Crater, and is easy and not so easy to get too. You REALLY have to want to get there to do it. The road is rough and filled with gravel, big and small rocks, and rippled clay soil, making for a very bumpy-slow drive uphill gaining about 3,500 feet in altitude. Our SUV has high clearance and all wheel-drive, but not 4×4 or heavy duty tires, so it took us driving 10-20 mph very carefully down the 30 mile shared road to the racetrack.
Do NOT attempt to see the racetrack unless your vehicle is capable. We ran across a few people that attempted the road and needed help turning around only a mile or two down the road.
The drive however was my favorite part of our whole trip in Death Valley. You are deep in the parks wilderness, and here you can pull over anytime to admire the beautiful scenery of the mountains, plants, and spot wildlife. If you park and get out, it is SO QUIET, you can hear your heartbeat! We stopped a few times as we saw lots of wildlife: jackrabbits, hawks eating dinner, roadrunners, and a lone coyote!
At about the 20 mile mark, take a few minutes rest at Teakettle Junction. If you are in emergency straights there is water (bottled) left in the kettles for visitors. Sign your name, leave some new water for the next visitor, or if you really planned ahead, leave your own kettle!
Once we arrived at the Racetrack, we eagerly went exploring for the moving rocks and….we were disappointed. Maybe it was because we were at the Racetrack around 1 PM under direct sun, or maybe the better trails were further away; but we walked all over that dried lake bed and didn’t find any rocks that looked like the ones in photographs. I did see a lot of “cheater” rocks that people arranged. You’ll find big rocks next to smaller trails or car tracks with a rock placed in the middle making it look like a trail. There are trails with no rocks at either end, it goes on…Now it’s not to say there are none, I did find some! And that was very exciting! However they were not as impressive as the pictures others had taken made them look.
So what can I do? I think the best thing visitors can do is get the word out. We want visitors on the Racetrack to be respectful of this unique place and avoid completely ruining a good thing.
Total Time: 6 hours (4 hours driving)
Accessible for everyone
One of the parks most famous sites and a thus, very popular. No where besides the Visitor Center did we see so many people. To see the view just take a short walk uphill from the parking area. The best place to take photos though is on the dirt mound below the overlook point.
Total Time: 30 mins
Accessible for everyone.
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.
Right as you come down from the parking lot, you are greeted with a boardwalk that takes you to a small pond. Yes a pond! With life! A “snail” lives in the salty pond.
Starting your walk out to the flats, you are soon surrounded by what looks like snow, but it is the salt deposits leftover after evaporation as far as the eye can see. The surface of the flats have a slippery consistency similar to walking on well-packed snow. Be careful when you are walking as one wrong step on a salt mound and you will sprain your ankle. Believe me, because that’s exactly what I did! Loud pop and everything! Good thing the walk back was flat as I hobbled our way back to the car.
Total Time: 2 hours
Accessible for all, use ramp from parking lot. Path gets rougher the further you go out.
The Devil’s Golf Course
Leaving Badwater Basin, and going back North, there is a small sign on the left for a gravel road leading to “The Devil’s Golfcourse”. This area is immense and filled with sharp, 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.
We found a loose “rock” and moved it slightly with our foot and it made a tingling sound. The salt formation makes the strangest sound! Try knocking on the rocks (carefully) and take a listen.
Total Time: 30 mins
Accessible from parking lot.
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.
To me, the drive was more entertaining than the Palette. The rock formations and colors are beautiful and all over. As you drive up and down, winding your way back to the main road, look around at the rocks in red, green, blue, black, purple and more!
Total time: 1 hour.
Accessible to all.
Timbisha Shoshone Museum
I can’t leave talking about Death Valley without giving credits to the people that have made this place their home since 900 AD. I encourage everyone to visit their small museum and learn more about them. Purchase some Indian tacos and strike up a conversation. The Timbisha Shoshone are incredible people that used and respected this land. How they survived and thrived in this area is beyond amazing and they are more then happy to tell you all about it:
Winter in the valley is relatively mild, which allowed them to live in modest conical brush houses, allowing breezes to move through the arrow weed walls. They usually built these homes near mesquite groves, which were natural habitats for small game animals and birds that they hunted to round out their diet. The mesquite trees were crucial to the Timbisha; they harvested the tree’s beans in winter.
In the summer, when the heat was untenable for humans, the Timbisha moved to cooler elevations—the Grapevine Mountains to the northeast or the Panamint Range in the west. They foraged for berries, roots, seeds and pine nuts. They hunted mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot, bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbit, chuckwalla and other small game. They stayed… until the first snowfall, then returned to their winter homes in the valley.
Like other Great Basin tribes, they knew they had to set fire to scrub vegetation in order to clean riparian areas of unwanted plants and stimulate the growth of others, like tobacco, and to increase seed production. They pruned the low branches of the vital mesquite and pinion pine trees so their beans would be easier to harvest. The pruning also protected the mesquite grove from the constant blowing sand, which would collect around low-hanging limbs and form dunes that killed the beans. They pinched the new growth at the tips of each pinion pine branch to stimulate more cone production.
In short, the Timbisha Shoshone… integrated their subsistence hunting and gathering with spiritual practices that honored the mesquite groves and mountains, meadows and springs. They believed they were living in a magical valley, a place of abundance. (1)
What We Ate
Eating out is limited in and near Death Valley. While we always try to eat locally, we did end up eating at Subway, Denny’s, and sandwiches we made from groceries bought at the store. Still…
Located just a few blocks from our Hotel in Beatty, is a local favorite of KC’s Outpost. The service was incredibly friendly and accommodating. We ended up eating here both nights as there are not many places to eat in Beatty. Pricing is average for a touristy town, but the people working there were so friendly. First night we had homemade lasagna and Italian subs. Next night we shared a pizza together outside on the patio.
Timbisha Indian Tacos
Timbisha Indian Taco is probably your best option for lunch while in Death Valley. Here you can order sweet fry bread or fry bread tacos all for a reasonable price. Follow the signs on route from Artist’s Drive back north to Furnace Creek and turn towards Timbisha Indian Village. The restaurant is inside the village, 2-3 min drive from the main road. Just follow the signs for Tacos and Shaved Ice.
NOTE: They are only open Tuesday-Saturday, and they don’t always follow their posted hours.
View All the Places We Visited in Death Valley
- Indian Country Today Staff, “Native Americans Who Found Life in Death Valley”. Published February 4, 2011. https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-americans-who-found-life-in-death-valley/