We rented a 4x4 and took a day trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley. It was like being on another planet, and I recommend it to anyone traveling in the winter months (to avoid the oppressive heat in the summer)
by Carmen on December 29, 2008
Heading South in Death Valley toward what seems like the ends of the earth, you’ll end up at, well, perhaps the end of the earth. Yet another winding road snakes its way up a peak, your ears popping along the path, to take you to perhaps one of the best Death Valley views, Dante’s View. As you stand atop a small mountain, looking down, you’ll see salt flats that extend as far as the eye can see, surrounded by mountain peaks. You can get a bird’s eye view of some of the other sights that Death Valley has to offer, some that you’ve seen already, some that you didn’t know were an option. Of course, the photo ops here are numerous, but since we arrived at the end of our day, we got to see the sky change colors behind the mountains as sun set on our Death Valley exploration. Unlike Badwater, which is way below sea level, this is one of the higher points in Death Valley, at a whopping 5000+ feet. This being December, and the sun that provided our heat was going away, it was quite a chilly experience, with the wind whipping through the light jackets that we’d worn for the day. The view from the parking lot would be sufficient, but there are several paths and walkways that you can follow to get even more views. I think the optimum photo time here would be in the morning, as the sun would be behind you, and not casting shadows on the view. However, the sunset was a sight to see, and I’m glad we chose to make the stop before heading out of the park and back to the neon lights of Las Vegas.
In the Southern end of Death Valley National Park, there are quite a few lookout points, and one of the most visited and photographed is Zabriskie’s Point. There is a parking area (and primitive bathroom facilities, and by that I mean a toilet covering a hole in the ground and no sink) at the base of this steep hill. Yet again I find myself on vacation climbing to the top of something for a view. However, at the top of this peak there was no disappointment. I was quite sure that I had been transported to the moon, or maybe Mars, as I looked out across the strange and fascinating landscape. Images of a Bugs Bunny cartoon came to mind, or some kind of sand monsters in a cult movie coming to get me. I’ not sure how the writers of a Death Valley guidebook, or even the blurbs on the map they give you as you pay to enter could accurately describe anything in Death Valley to someone who had never experienced it. There are few things to compare the features to – on earth anyway. It was late in the day when we arrived here, and the sun was casting some rays onto the rocks, allowing the landscape to show off it’s finest hues. Golds, reds, and tans danced in the light, preparing for what must be a dark, dark night in the desert. The photos we got here are almost unbelievable. My favorite, however, is one of us walking back down to our car, with the sun to our back, casting extremely long shadows onto the magnificent rock faces. The views here are definitely worth the steep, but short, climb to the top.
I’m not sure if we’re adventurers or just crazy, but when we looked up a route into Death Valley from Las Vegas, we saw a "short cut" into the Northern part of Death Valley called Titus Canyon Road. We read about this "short cut" on several tour company Web sites that operate out of Las Vegas, and they described it as a unique experience with spectacular scenery that cuts through a canyon pass. Well, they mis-described it, and I’m not even sure I can do it justice myself, but I’ll give it a try. We left Las Vegas, headed North on the I-95, made a quick stop-over in the very small town of Beatty, and then turned left on the 374. Now, normal people would’ve continued on the 374 into Death Valley, but not us. We turned right onto Titus Canyon Road. We did stop for a moment as our 4x4 vehicle (I wouldn’t take this road in a car if I was you) began to shake us around like a blender. We considered whether we should back up and take the paved route – but then, what would life be without a few off-road adventures? So, after taking our photo with the Death Valley National Park sign, we headed off down the VERY rough road. Now, when I think "short cut" I think it will take us less time to reach our destination. That’s not the case here. This short cut may be shorter in distance, but takes focused driving and lots of pausing for potholes. It winds up – and then down – the mountains into the canyon. However, the highlight of this path is reaching the canyon floor. The road is one-way, thank goodness, so you don’t have to worry about coming face-first up against an oncoming vehicle. So you can drive the road, which is flanked by the canyon walls, with more enjoyment for the scenery. It’s like something out of a James Bond movie – perhaps a good motorcycle chase that ends with the bad guys careening out of control into the sheer rock slopes. It was perhaps one of the coolest drives I’d ever been on, despite the mauling that the road had heaped on me. At the end of the canyon, there is a parking lot, where people can drive from the other direction and park to walk into the canyon. So you may have to keep an eye out for pedestrians near the end of your journey. After the parking lot, another mile or so dumps you out onto the 190, which runs North and South through Death Valley and is – oh yeah – paved! Your butt never felt so relieved to see asphalt. Get it? Ass-phalt? So, if you have a 4x4, a strong constitution and a hearty sense of adventure, this is a very interesting way to enter into Death Valley.
If, as you are driving through Death Valley, you wonder why you keep seeing signs that indicate your sea level, it’s because one of the main attractions in Death Valley is Badwater Basin. Here, you’ll find the lowest sea level point in the U.S. (and North America.)Badwater Road stretches out in front of you like a long, flat scene out of a movie. To your left are mountains, to your right are rock formations. It takes a lot of discipline to maintain your focus on the road, because there’s just so much to see. However, when you read the end of the paved part of Badwater Road, you’ll find yourself facing a stretch of salty land with a little salty oasis of water. As you pull into a space in the large parking area, take a moment to look behind you and find the sign hidden in the rocks that indicates just how far below sea level you really are. If you find yourself in need of some flavor, perhaps you’ll want to take some of the salt that covers the dry lake bed. The area got its name thanks to the "bad water" that is found here. It’s not poisoned or "bad", it’s just really salty, to where even the mules didn’t want to drink it. The salt forms as the water evaporates (when it rains, which isn’t often, it forms a thin cover, and then evaporates quickly) the salt forms in these hexagonal shapes. It’s like being on an entirely different planet, it’s so different than anything you’ve ever seen in your backyard.This location was definitely one of the highlights of our trip into Death Valley.
As we were driving from the North end of Death Valley towards the Southern attractions, we were amazed at the mile-after-mile views of a landscape that couldn’t be at all earthly. Were we in California or on the moon?There is no better example of the "walking on the moon" feeling than turning off on the short, rocky road that leads to the Devil’s Golf Course (if only the Police song had come on the XM radio in our rental at just the moment we pulled in). This area stretches toward the horizon, and features salt formations that rise up off the valley floor, jutting sharply towards the huge mountains in the distance. There used to be water here some time in the very distant past, and thanks to the insane weather conditions (they don’t call it Death Valley for nothin’) the water evaporated, leaving behind the salt and minerals that now form "golf-ball" like formations. I found them to look less like golf balls and more like bowling balls, but it’s all in your viewpoint I suppose. The road to Devil’s Golf Course was a bit bumpy, but nothing like what we’d experienced earlier on Titus Canyon Road, and it was a short 2- or 3-minute drive into a round-about parking area. A posted sign tells you all about the salt formations and how the area came into being.It’s a wonderful photo op, however, BE VERY CAREFUL when walking in or around the salt formations. They are as sharp as glass, and a fall here would not be a bleeding-free occurrence. Leave your clubs at home, because there are no greens here, but the whites and reds of the landscape will certainly leave you breathless.
The Northern end of Death Valley probably holds less tourist appeal than the southern end, that seems littered with scenic views and salt flats. Our original goal in entering on the North side was to make the 26-mile trek from the main road, past the Ubehebe Crater to the Racetrack Playa. This is where the infamous "moving rocks" exist, not really moving when you can actively see them, but leaving behind dirt trails to let you know that they, indeed, did move. No one knows the reason that they move, even tracking them via GPS with no clues. The road to Racetrack Playa is not known for its smooth ride. When we stopped at the Scotty’s Castle visitors’ center, we talked to the park ranger about our intentions. Her first question was whether we had a full-size spare. (We did.) She asked if we were driving a rental (we were) because our rental agreement might be void if we attacked the road. She also said that the very bumpy Titus Canyon pass, which we just spent the last hour-and-a-bumpy-half was the BEST kept off-road road in Death Valley. Yikes!Undeterred, we stopped in at the Scotty’s Castle shop for a bathroom break and some lunch snacks. The guy running the store also cautioned us against heading to the Racetrack. It was 2 p.m., and he warned us that the rangers don’t patrol back there, it would take us an hour in and an hour out, and there was a big winter storm a’ comin’. OKAY! We got the message. We gave up our quest to see the moving rocks. DAMN YOU ROCKS!So while we were up there on the North end of nothingness, we decided on the consolation prize of just stopping at the entrance to Racetrack Road, the Ubehebe Crater.It turned out not to be so much of a consolation prize, but a fascinating look into the depths of a volcanic crater. As with most of Death Valley, it was like standing on the edge of a moonscape. It stretches over a half-mile, and it’s over 700 feet down. With the wind whipping around us (and brrr, was it ever cold) we worked very hard to get some good photos without being blown into the gaping hole in the earth. Other hardier tourists than ourselves hiked down into the great hole, and less insane tourists hiked the edge. At 2000 years old, it’s a relative new-comer to the Death Valley landscape. There’s plenty of parking here, and lots of photo ops. As we turned away from the Racetrack Road, we mourned our loss of not seeing the moving rocks, but were greeted by a lone coyote, who was not at all afraid of us and seemed very put out that we didn’t throw our lunch out the window to him. So, it turns out, we were happy with our visit to the North part of Death Valley, and then headed south with the other tourists.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009