Length of stay:1 day
Visited: January 2023
Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. It’s the lowest point in North America and is considered one of the driest places in the world. It also holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded on the surface of the Earth. Only the hardiest of plants and animals can withstand this harsh environment.
On our way back to Las Vegas from our road trip through southern Utah, we decided to spend the last full day of our vacation in Death Valley. It was a bit out of the way, but we figured what better time to visit one of the hottest places in the world than in the middle of winter.
Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. As such there are multiple access points. We entered through the east near the Death Valley Junction and headed towards Dante’s View. Here there is an overlook at the crest of the Black Mountains that provides sweeping views above the salt flats.
It was a bit of a drive to get to Dante’s View. From the parking lot, there’s a viewing area along the rim and a series of signs that provided more information about the geology of the area. This is also a short trail along the ridge that leads to another nice viewpoint.
We hopped back in the car and drove to Zabriskie Point. There’s a short trail from the parking lot that leads to a viewpoint overlooking the badlands. Million of years ago this place was once full of water. The golden colours of the badlands were layers of sand and silt that settled to the bottom of an ancient lake. The brown stripes of colour in the rocks came from periodic volcanic eruptions of lava, ash and hot mud that landed into the lake.
We then went to the Devils Golf Course, which required driving on a gravel road. It was in pretty good condition. From the parking lot it’s a choose your own adventure to explore the crystalized salt formations. The rock salts were deposited by ancient salt lakes and have been shaped by the wind and rain. The salt continues to be deposited by recurrent floods through the valley.
Our next stop was at the Natural Bridge Canyon (1.6km round trip, rated moderate). There is a short trail through the wash that leads to a natural bridge between the canyon walls. To get to the trailhead required driving down another gravel road. Except this one was in real rough shape with lots of potholes and large rocks. We contemplated turning around, but were worried that we’d get stuck. There were a few cars in the parking lot, which gave us hope, so we just took it nice and slow.
We then headed to Badwater Basin. At 86m (or 282 feet) below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America. There’s a path along a short boardwalk that then passes through the salt flats to salt polygons. It wasn’t clear where the path ends, so it became another choose your own adventure with people wandering around the salt flats.
This area was once a lake, which eventually evaporated, leaving behind an accumulation of sediment and salt. Today, interesting geometric shapes and patterns form on the salt water as groundwater seeps up through the concentrated salt deposits and evaporates.
On the drive back to the visitor center, we went along Arists Drive, a scenic drive that is 14.5km one-way. The paved road passes colourful hills, many of which looked like different flavours of ice cream like chocolate, vanilla, caramel, strawberry and mint. There were a couple of spots to stop and pull over to get a better view of the landscape. Besides providing nice views of the colourful terrain, the drive itself was quite adventurous with lots of twists and turns in and around the hills.
Next up was Harmony Borax Works. There’s a short path (0.6km loop, rated easy) that passes a historic processing ruins of borax, which was one of the most profitable resources mined in the park. Along the path there’s a series of storyboards that provided more information about borax and the history of Harmony Borax Works, one of Death Valley’s first borax operations which operated from 1883 to 1888.
It was getting late in the day, but we made one last stop at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which showcases a different habitat in the park. There is no clear path through the sand dunes. We didn’t spend much time here as it was starting to get dark. And we had no interest in getting our hiking boots full of sand.
From there we started the long drive out of the park and headed back towards Las Vegas.