7:30 am and I am alone in front of the type of sunrise that makes you believe in heaven. Rays of sunshine burst through the clouds in a brilliant display of light causing the clouds to glow over the deep blue silhouettes of the distant mountains. I can see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes from where I’m sitting on a decrepit, wooden bench by the Stovepipe Wells hotel. The tops of the dunes–some of them rising to almost 100 feet in height–look like the whipped tips of merengue. The dunes look close—close enough to walk to—but I know better than to try and make the trek.
I woke up early to write and watch the sun rise over the mountains—to wax poetic about travel and beauty, to allow my words to transcend the page and capture my surroundings. The idea of life in Death Valley seems a paradox until I look up and notice a small coyote trotting by just feet from my bench. The fox-like animal is slender and looks more endearing than intimidating as I hesitate between running or snapping a photo. As I reach for my Nikon, the coyote scurries away behind the hotel–more alarmed by my presence than I of his. That’s the thing about Death Valley, everything about it seems an illusion. At first glance it appears a vast waste land but it houses untold wonders and contradictions–from the apparent desolation and lack of life when in fact it’s thriving, to the proximity of mountains and dunes that are a perilous distance away.
I can’t help but feel utterly alive here—yet again an odd paradox considering I am in a valley named after death. The 3.4 million acres of Death Valley National Park is so stunning, so utterly awe-inspiring you can’t help but swell with emotion at the sight of every striped canyon, mountain and rippled sand dune leaving you with the truth that beautiful things do not ask for attention, they simply are just beautiful. From the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin to Dante’s view offering a scenic overlook of the entire valley, Death Valley is a remote yet vibrant destination to visit.
Where to Eat
As expected, there are not many options for dining in Death Valley when it comes to eating. Your best bet is The Wrangler Buffet at The Ranch at Furnace Creek; The Wrangler is what you’d expect from a tourist-friendly buffet in the middle of nowhere—a free for all, no frills place with hot meals, a salad bar and standard desserts. While the food isn’t going to earn The Wrangler a Michelin star anytime soon, the meals are classic Americana, wholesome and (above all) filling. When faced with hikes in extreme temperatures that alternate from 100 degrees Fahrenheit at the lowest points to cooler temperatures at the outlooks, the expectations for food become simple: carb-heavy for energy, filling and accompanied by plenty of water.
Where to Stay
I am spending the night at Stovepipe Wells Village in Death Valley, California. To say that this is a village is an overstatement because Stovepipe is made up of little more than a small hotel and pioneer-style General Store surrounded by miles and miles of desert plains and dunes. Stovepipe Wells is down the street from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and is a perfect location to stay in a part of the world where there are minimal options. The hotel offers an outdoor pool (a God send given the high temperatures), comfortable rooms, a bar, dining hall and unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains. With no wifi or internet availble, Stovepipe Wells is the type of place you go to completely disconnect from the world, revel in beauty and simply enjoy your surroundings fully.
What to See: Dante’s View
From the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin to the highest point in Death Valley, at 5,000 feet Dante’s View overlooks the entirety of Death Valley and is near the edge of the Black Mountains, which form the eastern border of the valley. With the peak just a short hike from the parking lot, it’s easy enough to reach Dante’s view and put yourself in the way of unfathomable beauty. It is almost transcendent to sit on the edge of Dante’s view and take in the entirety of Death Valley unfolding below you from the salt pans creating rippling designs across the valley floor, the banded canyons and rising mountains to the haze from the heat and the monochrome palette of varying shades of brown.
There are certain landscape photographs that circle the internet that look utterly too majestic, too colorful, too perfect to possibly be real. The photos look photoshopped, filtered, touched up; that is until you are standing at the very place the photo was taken and realize some places simply are that surreal. Zabriskie Point in Death Valley is one such place as it over looks vibrantly colored badlands, a type of terrain made of softer sedimentary rock. The best time to see Zabriskie Point is during sunset or sunrise when the the stripes pop in the sunlight, making the terrain look like a painting.
Standing at 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. A salt pan extends in all directions as far as the eye can sea, the white path created by the many footprints of Badwater visitors crushing the salt beneath their sneakers. Badwater is one of those places where photos simply don’t do it justice–salt flats extend in every direction stopping at the edge of the mountain range.
Stargazing in Death Valley
Seeing the stars in today’s world can be a difficult feat as the bright lights of big cities eclipse the constellations and make seeing the Milky Way virtually impossible. Death Valley is a prime location to see the stars and is certified as a “Gold Tier” international dark sky by the International Dark Sky Association, which essentially means the night sky retains its darkness with minimal interruption from city lights. The result is a spectacular display of dizzying stars, the Milky Way, star clusters and even distant Andromeda at 2.5 million light years away can be seen with the naked eye. As the locals like to say, “half the park is after dark” so when it comes to Death Valley, the stars and shadows that the moonlight casts on the landscape offers a dramatically different sight than what is seen during the day.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the best known dunes in Death Valley (as well as the most accessible). Just minutes from the Stovepipe Wells Village, the sand dunes are best visited around sunrise or sunset when the pastel light paints the mountains and landscape. The sand dunes are like an optical illusion–looking closer than they actually are and easier to navigate than it seems–so it is recommended to stay safe, not wander off and don’t assume that far-off dune you spotted is just a “10 minute” walk away.
Death Valley Safety Tips
When visiting a destination with the word “Death” in the name, it comes as a no brainer that safety is a priority and concern. Death Valley is a lot like a rose in the sense that it is utterly beautiful but has the capability to hurt you if you’re not careful. The valley is known as one of great extremes and is characterized as the hottest, driest and lowest National Park where temperatures shift dramatically and flash floods can happen in an instant. When visiting Death Valley there are a few safety tips to remember:
- Drink plenty of water (atleast 4 liters per day)
- Listen to your body when it comes to the temperatures as dehydration and heat strokes can be a real concern. Don’t push yourself past your limit and stay hydrated and cool.
- Don’t rely on technology as service is minimal in Death Valley and you’re more than likely to not have access to the internet. Instead, print out maps and directions in advance and–if possible–always travel with a companion.
- When hiking, it is cooler in temperature to hike at higher elevations versus down in the flat grounds so avoid the extreme heat and exertion of hiking in the valley.
- Be wary of animals in the area as there are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other creatures that call this place home. The rule of thumb is do not place your hands or feet where you can’t see them and wear closed shoes at all times (even on the sand dunes).
- If driving, focus intently on the roads as one wrong turn can send you careening off a cliff!
Ten thousand years ago Death Valley was once home to lakes; today it is a dramatic display of canyons, mountains, salt pans and sand dunes. It is a surreal landscape, a testament to earth’s natural beauty, and the type of destination that stays with you long after you’ve boarded your flight home.
Have you traveled to California before? Share your California travel stories, comments, questions and feedback below! For more information visiting Death Valley and its highlights, visit the Death Valley National Park Homepage.
*I visited Route 395 & Death Valley as part of a press trip with Visit California. The Pin the Map Project does not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage, as always all opinions & experiences expressed are my own.