Rock Bottom

Despite its ominous name, Death Valley draws quite the crowds year-round, even during the searing summer temperature’s that are infamous at the landmark.
Death Valley, California, is the hottest, driest and lowest point in North America, with the standing hottest recorded temperature on earth at 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913. While some try to avoid the heat, other visitors specifically plan a trip during the summer to experience the soul-sucking rays of sunshine that give the park its name.
Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states, encompassing 5,270 square miles. Explorers heading up from the Tri-state will likely enter the park at its eastern junction to Furnace Creek.
Springtime is ideal for making a trip, as the temperatures are moderate throughout the area. With enough yearly rain, there are occasional wildflower bursts in the park during spring as well.
In a place commonly regarded for desolation, guests are surprised to find there is a unique beauty and several breathtaking viewpoints. Despite popular belief, there is also life in the valley. Bighorn sheep, bobcats, foxes, reptiles, rabbits, birds and more can be spotted in the park.
Another feature visitors may not expect, but could see, is water. Rain does fall in the valley and during heavy rainfall flooding occurs, making temporary lakes as the hard salt flats cannot soak up moisture quickly. The rain washes minerals from the mountainsides down to the basin, and as the dry climate eventually evaporates the pools, the salt is left behind.
The majority is just sodium chloride, or table salt, crusted into geometric patterns forming a vast bed of snowy looking shapes at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in America at 282 feet below sea level.
Badwater Basin is the must-see stop within the park. It is found 17 miles down Badwater Road, just over a mile from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. There is ample parking, so visitors can stop and walk out onto the salt flats, which seem nearly endless. The expanse of white crystals is beautiful in its own right, and if you walk far enough into the basin away from the crowds, the open valley is quite peaceful.
Death Valley is a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest level awarded by the International Dark Sky Association, meaning it is ideal for stargazing. The valley gives an unobstructed view of the stars at night, with minimal light pollution. Badwater Basin is a unique spot within the park to admire the night sky.
There are several other worthy stops along Badwater Road, including Devil’s Golf Course. While there is a playable course within the park, this isn’t where you’ll be teeing off. Devil’s Golf Course is a rugged expanse of jagged salt formations, caused by salty water rising up from underlying mud. Because it is at a higher elevation than Badwater Basin, there is no floodwater to wash over these formations, leaving them rough and brown from dirt. This stop got its name from a 1934 National Park Service guidebook to Death Valley that stated, “only the devil could play golf” on this surface.
Another notable point off of Badwater Road is Artist’s Palette, which lies along a one-way loop, so hit this stop on your way back to the main road from Badwater Basin. This section of the park is known by the pastel hues of pink and green brushed across the mountainside, much like squirts of paint on a palette. The different colors emerge through erosion and oxidation of the volcanic ash that is left behind.
There are a few other stops along Badwater Road, which is well marked with signs pointing in the direction of different viewpoints. If you have enough time, you can hike the Natural Bridge Trail or the Golden Canyon Trail along this road.
Dante’s View is another sight that cannot be missed. Although it is the only vantage point down Furnace Creek Wash Road, the 26-mile roundtrip drive from the highway is completely worth it. This viewpoint in the Black Mountains stands 5,500 feet high, towering over Badwater Basin. From here, the salt flats look like a plain of snow. The climb in elevation comes with a drop in temperature, which could be around 20 degrees less than temps at the basin. Expect Dante’s View to be chilly and often very windy.
There are numerous offshoots throughout the park to drive, hike and explore, like Zabriskie Point, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Echo Canyon and several others. If you have time, you can visit Scotty’s Castle at the north entrance or Panamint Springs to the west, but staying in the southeastern region of the valley still gives visitors plenty of opportunities to view the interesting landscape from unique vantage points.
Furnace Creek is where guests will find the most signs of life, with a visitors’ center, golf course, gas station, several campgrounds and The Ranch at Death Valley.
Farabee’s Jeep Rentals is located next to the center, offering vehicles that can handle the more rugged and remote parts of the park for extra exploration.
Furnace Creek Stables within The Ranch offers guided horseback trail rides, as well as carriage and wagon rides. Call 760-614-1018 for more information.
The Ranch and The Inn at Death Valley are collectively known as The Oasis, a burst of life and luxury in the barren desert, where natural spring-fed pools emerge and palm trees grow. The Inn, originally built in 1927, is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. It offers lush grounds, a lavish pool area, tennis courts, a spa, fitness center and restaurant.