Death Valley, California

Death Valley is one of the largest, and most amazing national parks in eastern California. With 3.4 million acres of wilderness and extreme geology, there's much to see and experience.

death valley

First and foremost, be aware that the park is not Oasis Valley, or Lover's Valley. It is DEATH Valley because of the extreme environmental conditions. Here you will find the hottest, the driest, and the lowest location in all of North America. The highest recorded temperature was in Furnace Creek: it was 134°F (56.7°C). Typically, there is about 1.5 inches of rainfall per year. In some years it does not rain at all for the entire year! In terms of elevation, Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the lowest location in North America: it is 282 feet (86.0 m) below sea level. So, don't think that it will be a pleasant walk in the park. It's Death Valley in all its glory!

Things to do:

There is much to see in Death Valley so expect to spend at least 2 or 3 days to drive through and hit the major attractions. You will need more time if you wish to do extensive hiking, exploring, and camping. This web page is far from complete (so much to see!) but new information will be added after each visit.So far you can read about:

mosaic canyon

Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon is sometimes called a natural geological museum. here you will find layers of sediment rock, marble wallfaces, high platforms, narrow slots, and wind & water carved paths. It is a beauty not to be missed.

From Stovepile Wells Village, head west for about 2 miles. Turnoff for Mosaic Canyon will be on the left (south). Drive along a gravel road and park when the road ends. Although there is no defined trail, the natural contours of this canyon will lead the way. You can take an easy walk and enter for one mile, or you can go in as far as 4 miles. There are no facilities here so stock up on water and necessities at the Stovepipe market.

mosaic canyon

mosaic canyon

At the foot of the trail you will find loose rocks, pebbles and gravel. These were deposited here after years of erosion. A 1/4 mile into the canyon, the landscape changes dramatically. The path curves and weaves through a slot-canyon with high marble walls; open areas scoured clean by flash floods; blocks of dolomite in step-like formation, and high platforms.

Though the canyon walls are high, they are easy to climb due to angled slabs of rock layers: these form natural ledges where one can wedge ones feet. Be careful though, sometimes going up is easier than coming down.

mosaic canyon
mosaic canyon
Resting in the shade....
mosaic canyon
after a scramble....
mosaic canyon
up the side of a rock face.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

The Mesquite Sand Dunes are a MUST see. This series of sand dunes is relatively close to the road making it easy access and kid friendly. Here you will also find bathrooms. There are no other facilities other than the great outdoors, but Stovepipe Wells Village (food and lodging) is only 2.5 miles west.

mesquite sand dunes Mesquite Sand Dunes as seen from the parking lot.

The Mesquite San Dunes were formed by erosion of the Cottonwood Mountains located just north and northwest. Wind and time broke the mountain rocks into sand particles. Prevailing winds then pushed the sand particles which collect themselves into 150-feet-high dunes.

mesquite sand dunes It's easier to walk along the crest of the dunes.

There is no designated trail: simply pick a dune peak and start walking. Keep your shoes on while you are near the parking lot since there are prickly plants (mesquite and Creosote bush). However the further you go, the smoother and softer the ground will be. Some people bring sleds and slide down the sides of the dunes.

mesquite sand dunes As the day wanes, the sun casts shadows and bathes the sand dunes in a evening glow. Only footprints are left as a testimony of human presence.

The dunes look fabulous at any time of the day but they are spectacular during sun set. At a low angle, the sun creates stunning shadows and contours. Hollywood has even made use these sand dunes by filming movies here. The sand dune scenes in the original Star Wars was filmed here. In fact, the largest dune peak is named Star Dune. Despite changes in shape and movement of sand particles, Star Dune will likely remain the largest dune since it is where wind currents (and blowing sand) converge.

mesquite sand dunes mesquite sand dunes
The wind pushes sand particles into ripples, a characteristic small-scale geomorphic phenomena. Footprints of a different type is a testimony of desert wildlife.

Location: just east of Stovepipe Wells; along highway 190, on the north side of the street. Can't miss it.

artists drive
Artist's Drive and Artist's Palette

Artist's Drive is renown for the beautiful colors found on the surface of the rock face. These colors come from the oxidation of salts and minerals embedded in the mountainside. Strong sunlight tends to wash out the colors, thus it is best to visit this site early in the morning or late in the day when the sun is not so intense.

Those with an artists eye will distinguish splashes of lemon yellow, periwinkle blue, sea green, and salmon pink. As shown below, the landscape is barren and surreal.

artists drive

Getting there: from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, go south on Badwater Road for about 10 miles. Turnoff to Artist's Drive will be on the left, it is a one-way, paved road that winds and dips through hills. Quite a pleasant drive.

artists drive

This attraction is pretty much a drive-through; there are pull-outs where you may park your car and take a few pictures but there are no designated hiking trails or facilities.

Devil's Golf Course

The Devil's Golf Course is a bizarre landscape of jagged salt sculptures. Two thousand years ago, this area was the site of a lake; the water has long evaporated and only the rock salts remain. The ground is so coarsely textured and crunchy that only the Devil would play golf here, thus the name Devil's Golf Course.

devil's Golf Course

This site has a small parking lot but there is no designated walkway or hiking trail. Visitors are permitted to enter onto the salt encrusted areas. Caution is advised since the ground is uneven and the edges of the crystallized salt formations are sharp.

Devil's Golf Course is higher in elevation, thus it does not get flooded as in the case of Badwater Basin. The salt formations do not dissolve and recrystallize repeatedly. Instead sun, heat, & wind carve the salt layers into spirals, pockets, and peaks.

Getting there: Devil's Golf Course is 15 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Take Badwater Rd southbound, then turn right onto a gravel road and proceed for 1.3 miles. This road is closed after the rains.

This site is certainly interesting in a Gothic sort of way. It's a great place to take photos but other than that, there is not much else to see or do. One cannot wander far into the rough terrain, there are no bathrooms or facilities, it is not child friendly.

Please be advised that the Devil's Golf Course is NOT a real golf course. There is a real golf course in the Furnace Creek Ranch.

devil's Golf Course

devil's Golf Course

devil's Golf Course

Badwater Basin Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. It is 282 feet below sea level. To understand what this means, look towards the east. Facing the Badwater Basin is Black Mountain and on the side of the mountain is a place-marker indicating the location of "sea level". It's pretty high up!

Badwater Basin

History: Two or three thousand years ago, this basin was a lake 30-feet (10 m) in depth. Over time uncharted, the water evaporated leaving a thick layer of salt and a few patches of salty water. The salt found in this salt flat is the same as ordinary table salt (sodium cloride).

During the winter you might see a small pond but in the summer, you will only see a few isolated puddles.

Badwater Basin
Salt flat pockmarked with puddles of briny water.

Badwater Basin

The "flooding" (annual rainfall = 1.5 inches) of the salt basin causes the salt to dissolve. Subsequent evaporation of the water causes the salt to recrystallize as a white, shimmery layer; it's so clean that it almost looks like packed snow.

Badwater Basin is equipped to receive tourist. Here you will find a parking lot, a boardwalk, information plaques, and bathrooms.

At designated areas, tourists should stay on the board walk so as to preserve the unique habitat which is home to the tiny and rare Badwater Snail. Though small, the ponds & puddles contain water that is 4 times as salty as the water in the great oceans.

Badwater Basin

Crossbar Cafe & Saloon and the Cafe C'est Si Bon
Location: Hwy. 127, Shoshone, California

Crowbar Cafe

We took highway 190 east to exit Death Valley. After a few days of desert wilderness we came upon a cute little diner called the Crossbar Cafe & Saloon. I highly recommend it. The food was good and fresh. The decor is fabulously "Old West" with all kinds of historic paraphernalia. Price is reasonable and it's just great to have a decent sit-down meal after visiting Death Valley.

Service is somewhat rustic - it almost seems like you are in the Old West. A bit of a wait to get your food, but once it comes, it's good eating. Wonderful milk shakes! But no espresso drinks, for that just go to the next shop over...

Cafe C'est Si Bon

A few yards away is an eclectic cafe called
Cafe C'Est Si Bon (translation: It's So Good Coffee). It is true: the coffee is so good, but the interesting thing here is the style of the cafe. It appears to be the owner's house converted into a cafe mixed with a healthy serving of New Age karma.

You can sit outside on weathered patio furniture, or you can sit inside on one of his old-linen-style covered tables. All around is a distinct hippie feel with yoga magazines, holistic books, belly dancing apparel, and local artwork.

There's more outside: take a moment to wander around the sculpture garden. Some installations seem to be in the processes of being created. Old "49er" liquor bottle are stacked along side welded metal work: it's part art and part junk yard. It is very interesting and the owner is so nice and accommodating. We didn't eat here but apparently the food is quite good (and organic too!). Check out his web site.

Cloud Formation and Night Sky

While driving just outside of Death Valley, we came upon these unusual shaped cloud formations. These lenticular clouds tend to form above mountain ranges. Despite popular belief, these clouds are not UFOs nor do they hide UFOs. Lenticular clouds occur when wind passes up one side of the mountain and comes down the other side of the mountain. If the temperature is cold enough at the top of the mountain, the moisture in the air will condense into flat (lens-shaped) clouds. When more wind and moisture blows through, the clouds stack one upon another forming pancake like stacks.

Death Valley is considered one of the best national parks for stargazing. The dark and relatively cloudless skies give astronomers a clear view of the heavenly bodies. However, professional and amateur astronomers are complaining about the light pollution emanating from Las Vegas. Death Valley is answering the threat by hoping to be the "first official dark-sky national park".

clouds Death Valley
Lenticular clouds near Shoshone, the Gateway to Death Valley.

Death Valley sky
The night sky as seen from the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley.
The Milky Way is visible as an arc in the center.


As surprising as it may sound, there are quite a few tenacious plants, animals and insects which can survive the extreme conditions of Death Valley. These include your usual desert suspects: coyotes, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widow spiders, bees, and wasps.

Noteworthy are the unique species of pupfish and snails which are only found in the high salt-content waters of this area.

Many animals are nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) so as to avoid the daytime heat.

We saw this coyote at the side of the road at the eastern rim of the national park. Other animals include, ravens, roadrunners, ground squirrels, lizards, and iguana. Very rarely, you might see bighorn sheep in the mountains.

Desert holly and pickleweed persist in this valley despite the heat, the aridity, and the high salt-content of the soil.

There are, in fact, over 1000 kinds of plants which live within the park. These include cacti, endemic plants (that grow only in Death Valley and no where else), and desert annuals.

Plants have special features allowing them to survive the desert heat. Some plants have deep-reaching root systems or specialized leaves and stems which minimize evaporation.

Wildflowers persist by remaining as seeds for most of the year. When the rains come, the seeds quickly sprout, grow, bloom, and go back to seed again before the desert heat returns. In some years when the conditions are perfect, wildflowers bloom to give fields of color.

[Top: Photo of Calthaleaf Phacelia by Dawn Endico;
Bottom: Photo of an unidentified Asteraceae by Mila Zinkova

death valley
death valley
death valley


Death Valley is a National Park located in eastern California; it is approximately 3,000 sq mi (7,800 km2) in size. The west side is bordered by the Sierra Nevada mountains and, more specifically, by the Panamint Mountain Range. The east side is bordered by the Amargosa Mountain Range and the state of Nevada. The northern end is bordered by the Sylvania Mountains while the south side is bordered by the Owlshead Mountains. These steep mountain ranges create a valley with extreme temperatures and a unique environment. Indeed, some call it a natural geological museum.


Death Valley is about 350 miles northeast of San Diego. It will take about 7 hours to get there; and longer if you take breaks or if there is heavy traffic. There are a few highways which crisscross Death Valley. Choose your path according to the site you wish to see.

  • Highway 267 takes you to Scotty's Castle at the northern end of the park;
  • Highway 190 cross in a west-east direction near the midpoint of the park. This takes you to Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek area;
  • Highway 178 crisscrosses the southern end of the park; and
  • Smaller gravel and dirt roads take you to sites of interest.

death valley

Entering the east side of DV: From San Diego, go north on I-15 for about 250 miles. Turn north (left) onto highway CA-127 and go north for about 85 miles. Turn left onto Highway CA-190 and go east to enter the national park.

The city of Shoshone is noted as the southern Gateway into Death Valley. With a popularion of 50 people, this is a really small town. Here will find a motel (mixed reviews), a post office, a gas station, a restaurant, and a coffee house. It is essentially your last stop to get gas and supplies before entering into the Furnace Creek area of Death Valley.

death valley

Entering the west side of DV: From San Diego, go north on highway I-15 for about 120 miles. Merge onto highway US-395 and continue north for about 145 miles. Turn right (east) onto highway CA-190 and enter the park.

Lone Pine is a nice little town at the west entrance of Death Valley. If you wish, you may stay overnight here or use this stop to stock-up on supplies before embarking upon your journey. With a population of less than 2000 people, this "frontier" town relies heavily on tourism. The main through-way is peppered with hotels, motels, restaurants and eateries.

Many travelers rest here since it is along the way to/from major attractions such as Mount Whitney, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Mammoth Mountain, Yosemite National Park, and of course, Death Valley. Lone Pine gives you a fabulous view of Mount Whitney (Mount Whitney being the highest mountain in the lower 48 states).

mount whitney
A view of Mount Whitney from the Comfort Inn at Lone Pine. Enlarge