9 things I wish I’d known before visiting Death Valley

written by Claire Baxter April 18, 2022
Artists Palette, Death Valley

1. Death Valley is big

It’s obvious if you look at a map, but I didn’t really grasp just how big Death Valley was until I got there. For example, I was at Stovepipe Wells, in the middle of the park, and thought I might pop over and check out Lone Pine, the town just outside the park on the California side. This would have been a 90-minute drive each way. I dropped that idea. For comparison, Death Valley is a little smaller than Wales.

2. Death Valley is really, really hot

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

The similarities with Wales end there. Death Valley is really hot – even when it isn’t summer. I visited in early April, when it was around 22-23 degrees Celsius (73 Fahrenheit) in Las Vegas. I arrived at the park entrance at about 9:30am and my car showed a temperature of 69F/20C, but 45 minutes later when I got down to Badwater Basin (the lowest point in the park) it was already up to 90F/32C. With the sun reflecting off the white salt flats, it felt even hotter. I cannot imagine what I must feel like to be there in the summer.

3. Stay in, or near Death Valley Park

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley

It means you can start your walk early and finish it before 10am! On my trip, I did a day trip from Las Vegas (about 2 hours away) and in hindsight I wish I’d stayed overnight either in the park itself (Stovepipe Wells is a great option) or in one of the nearby towns like Lone Pine (California) or Beatty (Nevada). The early morning and evening light is great for pictures, especially around the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which are also spectacular by moonlight if you happen to be there on a clear night with a full-ish moon. Death Valley is also an International Dark Sky Park.

4. Take a real, old-fashioned paper map

There’s basically no mobile phone coverage in the park so you don’t want to rely on Google Maps. I picked up a map of the park at the entrance, which was fine for navigating around the park, but when it came time to leave and head back to Las Vegas, my phone still didn’t work and I spent about 10 minutes driving along the wrong highway before I came to a sign showing that I was headed for Reno, (that’s the wrong direction, by the way).

5. Take a hat or your brain will cook

I don’t care if you’re not a ‘hat person’ or don’t look good in hats. Please just take one. I don’t usually wear hats either, but at Badwater Basin I could feel my brain being scrambled by the sun. Also: slap on the sunscreen.

6. Take A LOT of water and your own food

You can refill water bottles at the visitor centre in Furnace Creek and the ranger station in Stovepipe Wells, but these are in the middle of the park and there are no refill stations at the trailheads or park entrances. I took two litres with me and was pretty much out by the time I got to Furnace Creek where I could refill. There are restaurants and grocery stores in Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, but who wants to waste precious time indoors? Options for vegetarians or people with dietary requirements were also pretty basic.

7. Allow time for Rhyolite ghost town

Abandoned railway car in Rhyolite

Abandoned railway car in Rhyolite

This is just outside the park, on the Nevada side near the exit to Beatty. I’d planned on making a quick stop there on my way back to Las Vegas, but found it really interesting, and ended up staying about half an hour. Seeing the ruins of this old mining town sticking up in the middle of the desert was strangely beautiful. You can pick up a pamphlet at the Bottle House which shows you what each of the buildings was, and what it used to look like in about 1905 when it was a flourishing gold mining town.

8. Get someone else to drive

Zabriskie Point View, Death Valley

Zabriskie Point View, Death Valley

I missed a lot by self-driving and having to concentrate on the road, rather than being able to stare out the window. There aren’t many places to pull over along the road, and when there are designated pullouts for taking photos, I kept missing them as I was driving too fast to be able to stop at short notice. There were also a couple of roads I didn’t take as they were unpaved and I was worried about taking a rental car down there. This is a definite advantage of taking an Intrepid tour to Death Valley.

9. It’s more beautiful than I expected in my wildest dreams

I was prepared for dry and desolate and vast, but I hadn’t expected Death Valley to be so beautiful. Pictures don’t do it justice. I admit it: half a day was not enough.

All images c/o Claire Baxter.

Visit Death Valley on our San Francisco to Las Vegas tour >

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