Death Valley is known for the isolation and the stark nothingness of being. It contains the lowest place in the US and constantly ends up with the hottest record temperatures. Dry, dusty, hot, rocky. Umm… so why would you want to go? Well, because these things make it quite unique, there are a lot of really pretty views, and, of course, this is where they filmed Tatooine for Star Wars. That last was my main reason for wanting to see the park, but really the other reasons are good too. It is however a harsh place. High season is winter, where the temperatures are far less likely to burn you to a crisp where you stand. We were there in September and it was still quite hot and dry. We stayed outside the main part of the park in Panamint Springs. These are our experiences.
Panamint Springs “near but not in” Death Valley
Pros of Panamint Springs
Panamint is 1000 feet above Sea Level and just on the edge of the park boundary. It doesn’t suffer the record heat of the valley itself, but don’t be fooled that it is comfortable in the afternoon of scorching sun. Nighttime though is pleasant. We had a nice breeze through our camper tent for the two nights we were there for some of our nicest sleeps of the trip.
There is more infrastructure (if only barely) here than in the park direct, if you aren’t staying in one of the bigger hotels there.
Cons of Panamint Springs
It is not in the park directly. What you gain in potential heat reduction, you have to pay for in driving. It is 45minutes at least to the first set of sites inside the park. The entrance road to the park is a long steep climb followed by a long steep descent. Given the symmetry of mountains, this same thing you have to deal with on the way out. Make sure you have enough gas (though we found the gas station at Stovepipe Wells to have cheaper gas).
Review – Panamint Springs Campground
The Campground check-in is at the gas station. In late September, the campground wasn’t super busy, so we got our pick of spots. The one we were given was on the “viewing edge” of the campground and looked out toward Death Valley (which is actually beyond the mountains you can see, but there is plenty of nothingness between you and the mountains to remind you what is lurking there.) It was an amazing spot to stargaze. Even with some bits of light pollution from the gas station across the street, the Milky Way was still perfectly visible.
The campground is composed of gravel and stones, so it isn’t super sandy. Occasional trees break up the gravel, but do little to provide shade in the middle of the heat.
The bathroom building was decent. Finally we were out of bear country, so there was hot water and soap in the lit bathroom. The camp wifi even reached the building (most of the time). Due to the extreme heat baking the poor building all day, it was still quite steamy in the evening. (Sauna anyone?!) The showers were just curtains from the main sink area, so not as much privacy as we had seen in other places. Nor any hooks to hang things. Thankfully it wasn’t super busy, so I had a nice shower all to myself one evening. A couple of extra little buildings (think outhouse but way way nicer) scattered around the property allowed for easier nighttime elimination.
We didn’t stay in them, but they had very interesting looking “tent cabins”. Essentially a tent shape with wooden floor and two cots. I would totally recommend staying at Panamint Springs when visiting the area.
Review Food Options
The Panamint Springs area had a restaurant with a full menu and a Gas Station with gas station selection of food and snacks. We picked up food in Ridgecrest on our drive in, but ate one meal at the restaurant too. I had some chili which was pretty nice and we split fries. This is a pit stop for bus tours, so the food offering at the restaurant was pretty decent despite the isolation of it. The gas station apparently doesn’t have a license to carry beer, but the restaurant can sell some of their craft selection in cans to take away though.
Inside the park, we struggled to find food. The Stovepipe Wells gas station was amazingly nice. The selection was still mostly gas station style, but had a lot of drinks (cold lemonade tastes ever so much better when it is that much hotter outside) and a nice selection of other things. Also we found that their gas was cheaper than at Panamint or Furnace Creek. There are a handful of hotels which presumably had restaurants, but several were under construction and we couldn’t find info on others.
Athough the Furnace Creek Visitor Center has a case with sandwiches, the selection looked small and there are signs on all the seats denying access to those with food. It is such a shame too, as an umbrella’d cafe would have been really nice there. We ended up eating in our car trying to survive the heat behind a car windshield cover while we scarfed PBnJ.
Bring food with you, unless you verify that your hotel has an open restaurant.
Sightseeing and hunting womprats in our T-16
Ok, so I don’t have a T-16, nor did I see any womprats (presumably hunted to extinction), but definitely found some really unique sights and some shots from the movie that were easy to identify.
Death Valley National Park is absolutely huge. There is a main east west road that comes over the mountains from Panamint in the west, to Stovepipe Wells, past the dunes, meeting the north-south road, then breaking off to head toward Las Vegas. The north-south road has Furnace Creek about where the two roads meet. South of the split lies the artist’s palette stop and ending at badwater basin. The north split heads out toward the racetrack. Since the heat is so oppressive, both for humans and machinery, make sure you plan your journey. Know what you want to see and how long it will take to reach it. You don’t want to get stuck without gas, water, food, or get lost.
I knew to expect a lot of rocky wasteland in Death Valley. What surprised me was that a lot of the area really does have vegetation. There are trees growing in the dunes. Between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek we drove by a lot of low shrubby looking things, not what you might call majestic, but definitely alive.
This is a 5 mile loop road that leads off from the south split of the main road. There are several stops along the loop. One is little more than a pullout with a steep slope of rock to climb. Views of the mountains and the valley abound.
The top of the loop is the Artist’s Palette itself. The small parking lot has a vault toilet. The Artist’s Palette is a mountainside made of up of different colors of rock. A nice placard talks about what minerals cause what color. Given the footprints people definitely scramble down the steep sandy slope from the parking to walk among the canyons. I might have gotten down it, but would never have made it back.
The other really interesting thing at Artist’s Palette is the rocky flat canyon which was used for bits of R2’s wandering on Tatooine. It is easy to see from the parking lot and feel like a Jawa waiting for a droid. According to this site that I found a lot of the places on, there are more at Artist’s Palette, but it was hot and I was hungry and didn’t want to wander much.
Desolation Canyon and Golden Canyon are in the same section of the park as Artist’s Palette and have signs off the main road.
At the far end of the south split of the road lies the Badwater Basin parking lot. A vault toilet and several handicap ramps lead down to the salt flats. Here is officially the lowest spot in the US. The salt flats near the parking lot have a little decking on them to keep you from disturbing the salt crystals which have taken ages to develop. Beyond it though leads a well trampled path deeper to the salt flats. In the distance, tiny dots represent humans who have wandered out that far. These were braver and heartier souls than I.
I was totally up for going out to see the real salt flats and play around, but really after about 10 minutes of heat, I was ready to get back to the car. It really is that oppressive. Bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. It is definitely a worthwhile sight and I’m happy to have seen it. I was especially happy to get a Slothie on the sign.
Mesquite Dunes – “What a desolate place this.”
Near to Stovepipe Wells are the Mesquite Dunes. A parking lot and vault toilet off the main road mark the spot, and yet given the wide expanses you can definitely see the dunes coming. Given how desolate the area is, it is actually mostly rocky, so this almost random little patch of sandy dunes truly sticks out.
The first few dunes from the parking lot have the namesake mesquite trees growing on them and hundreds of tourist footprints in the sand. Go out a bit further to try to get a nice picture without trees or people to replicate the first few scenes of the droids landing on Tatooine. Be careful to not go too far into the dunes. It really doesn’t look like a huge area, but apparently it does happen that people get lost and die in the dunes unable to see the parking lot.
Stuff we didn’t get to – “I’m not going that way. It is far too rocky.”
We underestimated the driving distance and time from Panamint Springs to the main sights. Things are actually further apart in the park than we expected as well. It is so hot that energy saps quickly too. All of this means that there was a number of things we didn’t manage to get to.
Dante’s View is a peak above the badwater area of the park, which is about 5400 feet above sea level. That means over a mile higher than Badwater that is below sealevel. It is supposed to be an amazing view where you can sometimes see Mt Whitney and Badwater at the same time. At that height, it should be cooler too. However the heat took some toll on our car and we decided to not risk the brakes on the long drive back down. Saves us something for next time.
Racetrack Flat is a part of the park we never planned to get to, but looks amazing. It is the north end of the park and a bit of a drive from the main sights. This is a flat area with boulders in it. However the boulders move about, leaving trails in the dirt. In my reading there are several theories of how they move from wind to weird water interactions, but nothing seemed definite. Just seemed like a neat thing, but too far to try to make on this trip with our limited time.
Golden Valley looked like a nice simple area to go hiking among the rocks. By the time we got back to it driving back from Badwater, I was wilting in the heat and decided to choose food over hiking.
Even though we weren’t inside the park itself, Panamint Springs was still an amazing place to stargaze. Growing up in the suburbs and camping as a youngster, I had certainly seen stars before and the Milky Way a few times. Being out there I saw more than I had ever seen and it was all more clear. There was a little bit of light pollution from the gas station and the headlamps of the cars on the road below our campsite, but putting our back to them we still saw an immense amount of stars. The cool night breeze was pleasant after the heat of the day.
We have a good friend who was an astronomer and who takes amazing pictures. I wish I had asked him ahead of our time in Death Valley, but in talking after we got to Vegas, he recommended a really good app for star watching: Stellarium. It has a lot of features to show different stars, planets, and constellations, as well as a “red mode” to help preserve night vision. I had it for our time in Page and it was great, but there were too many clouds. It would have been amazing during our 2 nights at Death Valley.