Both of us had been to Death Valley as little kids with vague memories. Most all we remembered was, it was a desert, nothing really there and it was HOT! Really, really HOT!
I had been seeing photographers here and there and on my Instagram feed occasionally. As a photographer I love landscapes and really enjoy unusual landscapes like in Thailand and Portugal. Since Death Valley is just a few hours away and we pass the highways into the valley at a least a couple times a year, we decided to make a weekend of it. Boy! What a surprise. Death Valley is a MAJOR tourist destination these days. Who knew?
Death Valley Statistics
Death Valley is officially the hottest place on Earth. Death Valley holds the record hottest air temperature of 134 degrees F or 57 Celsius. For 5 days in July 1913 Death Valley endured temperatures hotter than anywhere in the world. That record stands today.
During the summer months Death Valley regularly experiences temperatures rising to 120 F (49 C), nights remaining in the 100s. With Global Warming a concern it is expected that temperatures will rise even further.
Death Valley is also the driest place in the United States. The average rainfall is less than 2 inches, and some years there is no rain at all. The evaporation rate is faster than the amount of moisture that falls at the rate of 75 times greater. During the summer months a human can lose as much as 2 gallons of water just sitting in the shade.
Death Valley holds many records so there is more. At the heart of Death Valley is Bad Water Basin which is 282 feet below sea level. That’s not a record for the world, but it is the lowest point in North America. We’ll tell you more about Bad Water Basin in a minute.
Death Valley Landscapes
Death Valley is a geologist’s dream and I guess I’m a little bit of a geology geek. I like rocks ok? One of the first things that really caught my eye was the beautifully colored layers that could be seen on the mountains. But these were different. The layers were very distinct. The layers had been broken and shoved up in a sort of zig-zag pattern. I could only imagine how the earth must have shook at the moment in order to cause the earth’s crust to shift like that.
There are mounds and hills that are colored from white, to pink, and various shades of brown reminding me of Neapolitan ice cream.
While there isn’t much natural vegetation in the valley itself, there is more than I remember as a child and it fits beautifully into the landscape.
Death Valley A Major Tourist Attraction
While Death Valley has much to offer in the way of unusual landscapes and lots of hot air, we never thought of Death Valley as a major tourist attraction. Lived most of our lives in California and the desert is something all Californians know well. It’s almost impossible to get from one destination to another unless you drive straight up the coast that you don’t have to drive through the desert. Palm Springs is one of the few desert locations where even Californians love visiting.
Death Valley isn’t one of those places that Californians tend to go though. However it is extremely popular with those traveling from other countries like those in Northern Europe who find 72 F a heat wave. They have never seen the desert let alone a place the can almost double the heat produced in their heat wave.
It’s not even like these visitors come during our winter months when the temps are in the 70s or 80s in the valley. Instead they come by the bus loads every single day during the blazing hot summer! Death Valley heat is a crazy unusual experience for them.
There are tours that include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas & Death Valley! They don’t always stay overnight, but they do fill the valley by the hordes during the summer months which all Californians totally avoid. Again, who knew?
Where To Stay in Death Valley
There are just 2 hotels in Death Valley and they are not inexpensive. One is the Inn at Death Valley and the other is the Ranch at Death Valley. Both are owned by the same company & together they are the Oasis at Death Valley. In the busiest season for hotels is during the winter months and overnight is gonna cost you.
The Inn at Death Valley is beautiful and is the most expensive of the 2 hotels. The Inn on the weekend will set you back according to Hotels.com about $454 a night. We had breakfast there after having watched the sunrise over the valley. The Chillachelas were excellent and enormous enough to share.
We stayed at the Ranch at Death Valley. It was the least expensive but will still set you back about $254 a weekend night. We had lunch at the Ranch before we were able to check in and were very pleased. We sat on the patio in the shade, very nice. The food at the restaurant was very good. After lunch we went to the lobby to check in and the lobby was beautiful and the staff was very friendly.
Things took a turn from there. We drove down the nice driveway flanked on either side by the restaurant and gift shop on one side and the hotel lobby on the other. Then past the little Borax museum and into an area that began to look disheveled and run down. Kind of like a construction zone. We got to our building which was way at the end of the road, but on the golf course so we tried to remain positive. The building was old, the landscape was a mess & mostly dead. The room was furnished older, it was clean, but the view onto the golf course was mostly dead grass (this is the desert though, so I don’t know).
I won’t lie, this was disappointing. That night we walked from our room to the restaurant, about a 5 min walk across the property. We had an even closer look at the area. It was not good.
The lighting was terrible so we walked along the blocks of hotel buildings for some light. The sidewalks were cracked, chunks missing, pieces lifted. Dead landscape everywhere, just dirt in front of each room. The parking lot bumpers were all askew, the pavement was all cracked, dead palm fronds everywhere. The hotel staff tiny house accommodations were just across from the rooms, hidden only by a low fence.
We felt as if we were in some tiny, tired and run down old desert motel in the middle of nowhere (ok, we were kind of in the middle of nowhere) paying $250 a night. I wouldn’t have given this place more than 3 stars and had planned on doing so. Very disappointed.
Thankfully for the Ranch we ate breakfast at, the Inn. It was there that we found out the 2 hotels were connected and that the Ranch was in the midst of major renovations. There were beautiful plans on display at the Inn of what the Ranch is soon to look like and it will be very nice.
Would we recommend the Ranch right now? Not so much, but the room was clean and the restaurant was good. It is very busy and you do need a reservation to dine there in the evening. It is right now, much less expensive than the Inn. We decided not to leave a negative review for the Ranch, but instead let you know what the situation there is so you can decide.
How Much Time Do You Need In Death Valley
We arrived inside the park around 10:30 AM on Saturday morning. It’s still about a 30 minute drive into the little town of Furnace Creek from there. Most of the major sites are within 35-40 mins of the hotels in Furnace Creek. Most sort of clumped on the south end of the valley and the sand dunes are to the north. We spent 2 days and the one night there in Death Valley and for us it was plenty. We were ready to leave by about 2:30 PM on the second day.
If you can stay a 3rd day there is a day trip to The Race Track. It’s at The Race Track that you can see the very strange phenomenon of rocks that move across the desert floor leaving a trail all by themselves.
The thing is, the road out there is extremely rugged and cannot be taken in anything less than a serious 4 wheel drive vehicle with tires capable of handling the rocky terrain. You can rent a jeep in Furnace Creek but you must have some idea of how to drive in conditions like that. Once out there you are truly alone and there is NO cell service. If you break down, it could be awhile before anyone finds you.
Always carry plenty of water.
There are also tours that you can take to The Race Track. Some are day trips and some are overnight which sounds like a blast and would love to do that one day.
Top Things To See In Death Valley
I always plan ahead, especially when time is limited in order to set our priorities for what are must sees. Being a photographer, photo ops rate high on my list too. We were going to be there for one sunset and one sunrise. We planned to see them both.
My priorities from a photographer’s perspective were and they are in order of importance are: The Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells for sunset, Zabriskie Point for the sunrise, Badwater Basin in the early morning hours, Dante’s View just after you enter the Death Valley National Park, Twenty Mule Team Canyon and the Artist’s Palette. There’s a few things that you can plug in here and there if you have a few minutes to an hour or so to fill up your time. The Borax Museum is at the Ranch actually turned out to be super interesting. Also the visitors center has some great exhibits and history.
The Sand Dunes of Death Valley
I was really looking forward to photographing these dunes. I have seen some lovely pictures at sunset and wanted to see what I could capture.
If you want to be there for the sunset, there are some things you should know. The most crucial is that the sunset sets about 30 mins before you might expect. Remember it’s Death Valley, it’s surrounded by mountains that block the sun much earlier.
The second thing is that the biggest dune is really far from the parking lot, and there are many, many dunes before you even get to the big one. It’s been a very long time since we’ve walked on a sand dune and let me tell you it’s a lot harder than it looks.
The sand is beautifully soft and you can walk out there barefoot which I recommend that you do. However while a dune is a gentle roll on one side, it’s almost always a steep drop on the other and can be twice the size of slower incline side. It only took a few minutes to realize that there were many dunes increasing in size before actually arriving a the biggest dune there. Truth is very few people made it that far.
We were bummed, but not alone, we didn’t even get close to the big dune. We perched ourselves on top of a dune with a nice view and watched from there.
We had imagined sitting alone on a dune in silence, but as is often the case, there were crowds of people there on the dunes wanting to watch the sunset just like us. So arrive at least 1 hour minimum before sunset so you can even get parking.
Zabriskie Point was a place you want to see at sunrise or possibly sunset. In fact most landscapes tend to photograph better when light is lower on the horizon. Colors tend to get washed out during bright daylight. There is often problems with exposing various parts of a photograph like the sky, the landscape and what might be in the foreground when the sun is high in the sky. During sunrise and sunset the light is not so harsh.
Again, thinking we would be relatively alone at Zabriskie Point, there was at least 50 people who had gotten up even earlier than we had in order to take in the sunrise. Cameras ready, we all stood in the chilly morning air for those few moments of perfection. Not disappointed.
Bad Water Basin
After sunrise, we headed out to Bad Water Basin. It took just about 35 mins from Zabriskie Point, so it was still very early morning and most of the valley was still in the shadows.
Be sure to look up on the mountain wall just above the parking lot where you will see the marker indicating sea level. Yes, you are at the lowest point on the North American continent.
From the observation platform looking out toward the valley you will see the white salt flats. If you can, you really need to walk out there. We walked over a mile. The patterns in the salt get more and more interesting. The contrast between the crystal clear blue sky and the salt flats in the early morning is beautiful.
Please stay on the path. I know it’s tempting to go out to where the patterns in the salt are clearly visible for that perfect Instagram picture, but it really damages the tiny formations that take eons to develop.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon and More
Those were my 3 priorities, but there were other places that are worth seeing if you have the time. The Twenty Mule Team Canyon has history. The canyon is all white, it’s Borax a major cleaning product back in the day. I have read that today it is used in OxiClean.
If you go to see the canyon which is just 5 minutes outside of Furnace Creek, be sure to stop in and see the little museum back in town. It truly was fascinating how ingenious they were back then. Keep in mind they did hall the borax out with big 16 wheelers.
Also if you enter or exit the park from the east side then stop of at Dante’s View. It was about 15 mins off of the main highway. You will get a beautiful view of Death Valley from up high where you can see just how vast it is. Imagine the first explorers who dared to make the first crossing.