The highlights of our four-day stay in Death Valley (Graphic: Cortney Cassidy)
When I told people I was about to camp in Death Valley, I was surprised by how many of them thought I might die there. On the first day’s hike, I briefly wondered if they were right.
Walking a grueling incline near an abandoned mine in the Funeral Mountains, separated from humanity and with no shade to protect us, my friend Doug joked, “These miners’ ghosts must be asking, ‘Why the hell are you doing this on purpose?’”
And that’s Death Valley for you. It takes a certain masochism to experience the park as it’s meant to be seen. But torture yourself just a little, take a few extra steps, and you’ll be rewarded with a combination of natural and historical wonders that no place on Earth can match: gorgeous sand dunes sculpted by wind; a dried-up lakebed named the Racetrack for its power to move rocks; ghost towns from a failed mining rush; a medley of rock layers rising thousands of feet, telling a visual history that goes back millions of years; and so much more.
Death Valley has the power to move rocks on flat ground. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Don’t be scared off by Goth-like names such as Devil’s Corn Field, Badwater Basin, and Hell’s Gate — for all the harshness, there is a hard-fought, fragile beauty here that will present itself if you look for it.
As I explain the strenuous Death Valley camping trip that Doug and I took, I’ll try to clear up some misconceptions about the place. For instance, it’s not all desert; you need to prepare for the cold as much as the heat. And if you go in the cooler fall months as we did, you won’t be risking your life outdoors — at least not that much.
Make sure to stop by Teakettle Junction while you’re in Death Valley. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The plan: Four full days of exploring some of Death Valley National Park’s best and most challenging sites, including: mesmerizing views from atop the secluded Chloride Cliff; some rock climbing within the geological marvel that is Fall Canyon; and the otherworldly Racetrack Playa, with its moving rocks. We went in early November, when the heat isn’t as face-meltingly hostile (This is where the world’s hottest temperature ever was recorded: 134 degrees Fahrenheit.)
We had three rules the entire time, in this order:
- Be safe.
- Have fun.
- Accomplish our goals.
Our No. 1 goal: Be safe. Even around dangerous high explosives in the Big Bell Mine. (There are no longer explosives there.) (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The campers: Me and my friend Doug Heinz, driving from San Francisco about 11 hours away. I’d never been to Death Valley, but Doug went there 10 years ago.
The car: A Subaru Outback from my local City Rent-a-Car. A four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle is mandatory for Death Valley, and this one performed admirably on surfaces that could scarcely be called roads. Big props to the rental company for not charging us a cleaning fee even though we returned the SUV with enough dirt caked on to write a poem on it.
The planning: Death Valley is not a place to show up unprepared — there’s no cell reception or Wi-Fi anywhere — so you’ll want to keep a detailed packing list, and plan your route before you arrive. Thankfully, Doug founded a trip-planning tool called PathWrangler, of which he’s CEO, for that exact purpose, complete with our gear list and our map with detailed pinpoints. We also used the definitive guide on the park: Hiking Death Valley by Michel Digonnet. Far from just a hiking guide, it explains in great detail the park’s terrain and colorful history.
Day 1: A full day’s drive, a full plate of barbecue, and a full moon
(Graphic: Cortney Cassidy)
I don’t advise getting to Death Valley the way we did if time is a factor — you’re better off flying to Las Vegas, where it’s just a two-hour drive away. But what you lose in time, you gain in mountain scenery by driving from the Bay Area as we did.
The weather will help you to determine how you get there and how long it might take to get through. We couldn’t take the shorter Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park because it was closed, but fortunately Sonora Pass was up and running despite recent snow.
A photo op while taking Sonora Pass to Death Valley (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
You’re unlikely to be bored winding your way up the Sierra Nevada to a peak of 9,624 feet — views of snowcapped peaks and the Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe forests are all around and warrant stopping your car for pictures.
Later on the 395 freeway, the terrain varies throughout the drive into volcanic Owens Valley and past the once-proud Mono Lake, which is now a sad casualty of the California water wars — its salt deposits are worth seeing up close.
The salt deposits of Mono Lake (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
All this driving will work up an appetite, but you can solve this problem with ease in the town of Bishop, about two hours away from Death Valley. Holy Smoke Texas Style BBQ is a must-stop restaurant if you’re anywhere near the area, and it’s where many Sierra climbers replenish their calories.
A slice of Texas on the way to Death Valley: Holy Smoke Texas Style BBQ (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Holy Smoke is run by a married couple, Texas expats who serve large portions of artfully smoked meat. We fortified ourselves with brisket and ribs and took turns topping them with sauce that ranges in hotness from mild to ghost pepper.
The disadvantage to driving in November is that you’ll be in the dark through some lonely stretches before you pull into Death Valley, but we were in luck: A full moon illuminated the way as we reached our home for the next three nights: Stovepipe Wells campsite. Pitching a tent and starting a fire was a snap in the moonlight.
The full moon gave us some decent lighting at the campground. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Surrounded by retired RV enthusiasts, we celebrated our arrival by uncorking one of the wine bottles we brought and keeping warm by the fire pit (it got into the 40s at night out there).
Day 2: The frustrating journey to Chloride Cliff and Big Bell Mine
Doug at the grill before we took on the Chloride Cliffs (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
I normally despise waking up at 6 a.m. — in Death Valley, though, it gave me an adrenaline rush. In the morning chill we cooked eggs and made coffee on the portable propane grill that Doug brought, admiring the view of the sun rising in the east and the moon setting over the Funeral Mountains to the west.
The first item on our agenda was driving to the Funeral Mountains, then hiking the secluded Chloride Cliff until reaching the even more secluded and abandoned Big Bell Mine.
Our patience and bodies were tested throughout this day, but we were ready for it. We fueled up in the morning with a hearty breakfast while packing ample water and snacks — we advise taking all your day’s water needs with you from Stovepipe Wells, because you’re unlikely to find it elsewhere in the park. Then we gunned down the desert freeway in the Subaru at speeds I shouldn’t detail here while blasting Metallica’s Seek & Destroy (video below). This park does know how to set the mood.
Your mood may get tested on the freeway as you try to find the unmarked Monarch Canyon Road that leads to the ghost town of Chloride City — it’s the shortest but rockiest way to access the cliffs. By the time we had overshot it not once, but twice, curses flew.
It’s no easy drive getting to Chloride City. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
We finally saw the road near the 10-mile marker and began an arduous 5.4-mile drive. There’s a reason why few people who even know about the road will attempt driving on it — the journey sucks. We had to drive slowly for 30 minutes over hard dirt and uneven bedrock. Getting over some of the humps took more than one try. Don’t even attempt this without a high-clearance four-wheel drive or you’ll soon be shopping for a new car.
But the excitement upon finding the lonely wooden sign for Chloride Cliffs Road is so worth it. A mile away we began our hike at an old, bullet-hole-ridden water tank.
Where the Chloride Cliff hike begins (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
In the Chloride Cliff area, prepare to step through one of Death Valley’s first communities — an ore-mining town that was founded in 1871 and struggled to prosper until being abandoned for good around 1940. Marvel at the hazards the miners suffered, bringing pack mules from 180 miles away in San Bernardino with no local source for food or supplies, all in the relentless heat.
Our challenge wasn’t quite as grueling, but it wasn’t easy either: We had to hike 1.7 miles to the Big Bell Mine, with 1,600 feet of elevation change each way and no shade in about 80-degree weather. Yes, we did this voluntarily.
The almost-100-year-old remains of Lane Mill (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Why were we in this wasteland, and why put ourselves through such steep terrain? First, because the downhill hike to the Big Bell Mine is littered with history. You can still see vintage landmarks up close, such as abandoned “Cousin Jack” cabins from the early 1900s and the remains of Lane Mill, from circa 1916, with corroded metal and rotting wood.
Also, the sweeping views of Death Valley from Chloride Cliff at over 5,200 feet high are possibly the best in the whole park. You can see all the way to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States, and the white, salty surface of the Devil’s Golf Course makes for a peculiar panorama.
The view from Chloride Cliff. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The arid landscape might remind you of Star Wars Episode IV, where Luke and Obi-Wan gaze toward Mos Eisley Spaceport on Tatooine (yes, I’m a fan). That’s because we were just a stone’s throw from where the scene was shot in the Black Mountains.
Watch out for mining holes like this up there. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Be sure to watch where you’re going, though, because around the crest you’ll be stepping around some large holes in the ground where the miners once worked. Need we remind you there’s no civilization or cell reception here?
You can actually step inside parts of the Big Bell Mine. Those are old cots on the right. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
You’ll know the Big Bell Mine when you see it — I underestimated just how dramatic a presence it has. The mines have been sealed, but you can still walk pretty far into their shafts. We found old cots stashed away, with various pieces of equipment lying around.
Ruins of a shack, cots, and appliances in the Big Bell Mine area (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
You’ll stumble upon an outhouse, then find a shack with a collapsed metal roof. Nearby are the tracks that were used to transport the ore trucks before they were winched on a cable and dragged down into the milling complex.
The now detached track that leads to the milling area down below (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
I wrote earlier this year about my excitement upon finding the hidden ghost town of Rodney, and this mine was equally thrilling. If someone said they were leading you through a movie set from There Will Be Blood, you’d probably believe them. Its history is almost too good to be true: it was founded in 1904 by a trigger-happy prospector named “Johnnie-Behind-the-Gun” Cyty. He then lost the mine in 1908 during a 12-hour roulette game.
An old wheelbarrow points to the outhouse. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The mine’s structures are rusty but amazingly intact considering they were finally abandoned in 1941. Part of the reason is that they saw little use for many of their years, and they’re too remote for scavengers to move them. The winching pulleys are still dangling overhead, the Mack truck is still stuck in the ground, and the giant cyanide tanks used to strip the ore are just as imposing as they were then.
The machinery used at the mine is remarkably intact despite being abandoned in 1941. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Doug and I scurried up and down the mill and marveled at the old-timey machinery like excited kids around the Christmas tree before sitting down and savoring the view with a snack. We had to be careful, though, not to step on the many rusty nails sticking out. There was a pile of an unknown white substance — bleach, perhaps? — that we didn’t touch, just in case.
The machinery that pulled the winched ore trams to this side of the mill (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Making it all the way down is an unforgettable trip, but there is a sobering reality once you’re ready to leave: the way back up. This is the 1,600-foot, 1.7-mile climb we were looking at.
The Mack truck used to carry the ore is stuck in place for generations. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
It was tougher to enjoy the view on the way back to our car simply because of the extra strain on our already tired bodies. You’ll definitely want to conserve water for this portion — I carried 2 liters for the entire hike.
The long way back up to our ride (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
To give you an idea of how neglected the Chloride Cliffs are as a tourist spot, except for a brief SUV sighting near the access road, we saw absolutely no one there.
The Mesquite Flat Dunes
The dunes at sunset (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
It only makes sense that one of America’s greatest playgrounds should have a sandbox. There are several sand dune locations in Death Valley, but the Mesquite Flat Dunes are the most famous and easiest to reach, just two miles from Stovepipe Wells. Considering the intense morning we had in the Chloride Cliffs, easy sounded good to us as the sun began to set.
The dunes are yet another work of art sculpted by Mother Nature. You have the perfect combination of eroded sediment carried great distances by warm, high-pressure winds reaching 80 mph, in deep valleys between huge mountain ranges, until the sands finally lose their speed and settle exactly here.
(Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
And Star Wars dorks (like me), take note: The scene in Episode IV where R2-D2 rolls in the Tatooine desert, just before he’s captured by Jawas, was shot on these dunes.
The dunes are buttery-smooth in some places, rippled in others, and reach as high as 100 feet. Even though our legs were jelly, we just had to dig our feet into the sand and hike to the tallest parts. It made for a spectacular sunset tableau. I thought I might be able to slide down the dunes as if I were sledding down snow, but as you can see, it didn’t work out that way:
(GIF: Greg Keraghosian)
Day 3: Trying not to fall in Fall Canyon
To see Fall Canyon’s best, you have to make this climb. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
At break of day we drove to Fall Canyon, which I explain in great detail here, including a video demo from Doug on how to make the tricky climb from the lower canyon to explore the magnificent narrows overhead. If I had to give a scariest moment of the whole trip, it was looking down at the descent I had to make, with little to cling onto or place my toes on. Doing this without help would probably have been a bad idea for a guy of my experience.
The ever-changing rock colors in Fall Canyon (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
The hike was incredible and not to be missed if you’re in Death Valley. But it was also demanding after the hard work we’d put in the day before. On the way back from the narrows we hiked for at least an hour under relentless sun, and I needed a zen master’s focus to not sprain my tired ankles on the deep gravel path.
Playing tourist at Badwater Basin and Artist’s Drive
The hottest (recorded) place on Earth (Photo: Doug Heinz)
Mercifully, the rest of our day was spent driving. Having gone hardcore in solitude up to now, we headed toward that tourist trap known as Badwater Basin. You better believe we took some goofy pictures here, at the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level) and the site of the hottest temperature ever recorded. For us, it was a balmy 88 degrees outside the Subaru.
Taking a rest in Badwater (Photo: Doug Heinz)
It’s not every day you get to lie down on an expanse of table salt — the remains of evaporated water — that stretches for 200 square miles, so I had to do it.
The way to Artist’s Drive (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
From there we did a drive-by of another tourist favorite, Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette. You’ll immediately understand the names’ origin — seen from the face of the Black Mountains, Artist’s Palette is hued in red, turquoise, pink, and yellow thanks to oxidation. It looks like Neapolitan ice cream and makes for some pretty pictures, but we escaped the tourist hordes before long and recuperated the rest of the evening over grilled sausage and wine.
The end of Day 3 (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Day 4: The slow-speed race to the Racetrack
I’ll refer to my slideshow for details about our day trip to the Racetrack and its moving rocks. But if you should find yourself anywhere near Death Valley, a visit to this area is not to be missed. I’ll go out on a limb and call this dry, eerie lakebed the most spectacular part of our road trip.
We couldn’t take enough photos of the Racetrack and its rocks. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
It was about a two-hour drive from Stovepipe Wells, much of it at 20 mph along an unforgiving washboard road that shook us up like a good cocktail. Along the way we marveled at the 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater, which was formed by an explosion of magma an estimated 2,000 years ago; Teakettle Junction, which looks exactly as it sounds with a signpost full of autographed teakettles; and, finally, the many enchanting features of the Racetrack.
Our lonely campsite for the final night: Homestake Dry Camp (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
For our final night, we camped at a desolate site called Homestake Dry Camp; in stark contrast to Stovepipe Wells and its amenities, all we had here was a sketchy-looking porta-potty and a small fire pit, only no wood to start a fire with. We were enveloped in darkness, and I loved the sense of isolation from any modern conveniences. But being blind makes it tough to cook, so we settled for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that night.
We were camping at 3,000 feet, and the temperature reflected that with lows in the high 30s to low 40s — I was layered in long underwear and gloves as we basked in the moonlight at the Racetrack and went to bed at Homestake. Much like with San Francisco, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s always warm here.
Day 5: Leaving Death Valley the most dangerous way we knew how
Unless we wanted to add two hours to our drive back to San Francisco by reversing course toward Stovepipe Wells, there was only one way out of the park: the rocky seven-mile descent down Lippincott Mine Road to Saline Valley Road (see video above), which takes you through Jackass Canyon and into Lone Pine — all of which took us two and a half hours.
This was our scary way out of Death Valley: Lippincott Mine Road. (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
We’d had our share of bumpy drives already with Chloride Cliff and the road to the Racetrack, but Lippincott was the scariest. With Doug as the brave driver and yet more Metallica playing, we had little margin for error down a twisting, narrow path with steep drops to our sides and no guardrails. We also had to drive over some large rocks — I was sure we’d gashed the underside of the Outback at one point. You’ll survive the drive if you’re patient and careful, but this is not a place to be bold. A badly timed mistake could be fatal.
A gorgeous field of Joshua trees in Lee Flat (Photo: Greg Keraghosian)
Once we reached the Saline Valley junction, things got a lot easier and prettier. It included a spectacular field of Joshua trees in Lee Flat, and in Jackass Canyon we saw signs that we had truly left Death Valley: lush trees, a mountain lion’s paw prints, and an F-22 fighter jet whizzing past us.
The parting shot, from Yosemite (Photo: Doug Heinz)
As if we hadn’t lucked out enough on this trip, there was one last good break awaiting us: Tioga Pass was open, which meant we could drive through Yosemite and take some final photographic keepsakes from the trip. When Yosemite is the icing on the cake, you know you’ve had one magnificent cake.