To me, Death Valley has always been a place of contrasts. A summer visit, which is not advisable, offers Mars-like landscapes with temperatures that can kill in minutes. A winter visit offers stunning experiences with both flora and fauna against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Those contrasts make it one of the most beautiful national parks to visit. The park's close proximity to both Los Angeles and Las Vegas makes it an essential and convenient stop for any visit to the southwestern United States.
A National Treasure
Death Valley National Park may have a forbidding name and reputation, but I've been there many times and never had a bad experience. There are almost endless opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, photography, exploring, and other activities.
How to Get There
There are small airports near Death Valley National Park, but no major airlines service them. Driving from Southern California, we took the 14 Freeway and U.S. 395, then State Route 178, which enters the park. The main highway that travels through the park is California 190. Driving the 300 miles from Los Angeles to the area took us about six hours. Death Valley National Park is also just 135 miles west of Las Vegas, and there are many day tours available. Typical cost for a 10-hour trip from and return to Las Vegas is $250 per person, which includes lunch and bottled water. Most tours do not operate during the summer.
Location and Other Facts
Death Valley, located on the borders of western California and eastern Nevada, is a 3-million-acre land of many contrasts. It contains the lowest, driest, and hottest spots in the U.S. at Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet below sea level. The record summer temperature at its Furnace Creek area has often topped 130 degrees. The park also includes 2-mile-high Telescope Peak, where freezing winter weather often brings heavy mountaintop snow.
Making Visits Memorable
With more than 860,000 visitors every year, Death Valley is a very popular national park. Our favorite place to overnight in our air-conditioned RV is the Furnace Creek Campground during relatively cool May. It requires an early-as-possible, pre-booked reservation, because the facility can get very busy. Weekly entry fees are $20 per vehicle, $10 for individuals, and $40 for an annual pass. The cost for a parking spot and electric hook-up is $18 per night. We had a campsite and fireplace grill and brought our own food and beverages. There are only basic toilet and laundry facilities at the campground. For another $5 daily each, we signed up to take showers and swim in the big pool at the nearby Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.
When we arrived on our latest visit, we were surprised that there had been some recent rainfall in an area that gets less than 2 inches a year. The desert around us was full of blossoming flowers. They included golden primrose, phacelia, and sand verbena. There are many hiking trails in the Furnace Creek area, and park rangers at the visitor center are available for information, suggested routes, and escorting duties.
Our favorite family excursion was always a visit to the Rhyolite ghost town, about 45 minutes from Death Valley's Furnace Creek Visitor's Center. The town was formed shortly after the turn of the 20th century and was abandoned within 10 years. The walls of the old bank are still standing, along with the jail and train depot. It really looks like a Western movie set, and the kids always discover something new.