Death Valley Daze – An Afternoon in Death Valley

Death Valley sunset

Story Highlights

Death Valley map

Death Valley map

Death Valley – an evocative name for the hottest, driest and lowest of the U.S. National Parks and of course I wanted to see it. With a week in Las Vegas we decided we’d just do the 2 hour drive there and back – and the driving around Death Valley – rather than spend a night.

On one of the shortest days of the year a sightseeing trip to and from Death Valley makes a very full day. We didn’t get to see everything in this huge National Park but we managed quite a few fascinating sights, a short hike and a fabulous sunset from a spectacular viewpoint.

First stop – the Furnace Creek visitor Center for a map and advice on what to do in 4-5 hours. With route in hand, we set off for the sights down Death Valley.

Devil’s Golf Course

20 minutes south of the Visitor’s Center and down a short dirt road, the Devil’s Golf Course is called that because “only the devil could play golf on such rough links”. The huge area has huge mounds of eroded rock salt with salt crystals on the interesting topography.

Devils Golf Course

Devil’s Golf Course

Badwater Basin

One day an old timer and his mule were traversing the immense inhospitable Death Valley. Seeing a spring, he urged his mule to drink but the animal wasn’t having anything to do with it. Calling it Badwater, the name stuck and so we have Badwater Basin today – the name for an immense salt basin that is 282 feet below sea level!

Badwater Basin

Entrance into Badwater Basin

The crusty salt formations have been tramped down by countless feet out to the basin, giving it the impression of walking on a snowy path.

Badwater Basin

Snowy white Salt of Badwater Basin

The salt basin is protected, you can taste it but not take a chunk for yourself. What? That’s right, you can lick it but you can’t break off a chunk.

Salt waves of Badwater Basin

Salt waves of Badwater Basin

It’s a fantastic sight to see the salt formations of Badwater Basin, left behind from water that temporarily formed and making it look like a frothy frozen-in-time sea.

Fun Facts:

  • Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level (85.5 meters)
  • In order to have exposed land below sea level you have to have an extremely dry climate – in wet climates the low areas fill with water and overflow to the sea.
  • Death Valley wasn’t created by erosion, it was dropped to these depths by movement of the earth’s crust
  • The second lowest place in the Western Hemisphere is also in California – the Salton Sea
  • Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America.

Artists Drive

The one way rolling, winding Artists Drive at the foot of the hills is scenic with different colored volcanic sediment that decorate areas of the slopes. You can’t take vehicles longer than 25 feet on this road and after driving the steep dips and rises and sharp turns I completely understand why!

Artists drive

Artists drive

You can stop at turnouts along the road, but don’t miss the turnoff to Artists Palette, the most colorful spot on the drive.

Artists Palette

Artists Palette Scenic stop

Fun Fact: More than 5 million years ago volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals that were changed over time by heat, water and other minerals into the broad strokes of pastel color painted onto the landscape.

I was happy to be able to drive Artists Drive, and our December timing was perfect – the drive is closing starting January 2 until the middle of March.

Golden Canyon

Always looking for a fun hike, I’d checked out Golden Canyon in advance and thought it worked for a quick hour long hike…we walked the canyon 30 minutes in and back out. But we’ve been spoiled by hiking Sedona only a couple of months before and, with only an afternoon in Death Valley, this is the stop I should have skipped.

Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon

Zabriskie Point

Our next stop was out of Death Valley to the famous viewpoint Zabriskie Point. From this view you can look down into the canyons and see the hike we’d just done in Golden Canyon. At the easy to get to viewpoint there are fascinating information plaques about Borax mining in Death Valley and a historic pic of the Twenty Mule Team wagon that was used to transport the borax out of Death Valley.

Zabriskie Point

Manly Beacon from Zabriskie Point, with the Red Cathedral on the right

Some of the fascinating formations at Zabriskie Point are the dark peaks of the volcanic activity that have pushed up through the golden landscape.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

Dante’s View

A half hour drive from Zabriskie Point, Dante’s view was our last stop on this Death Valley day.

Dantes View

Death Valley Dante’s View

The view of all of Death Valley laid out before you is simply spectacular with the salt basin of Badwater Basin looking like a frozen ice plateau far below in the shadows of the Panamint Mountains.

Whirlwind Death Valley Day

Our Death Valley day had a lot of driving, but it was worth it! If I were to do it again in one afternoon, I’d skip the Golden Canyon hike in favor of the history at the Harmony Borax Works not far from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

How about you? Would you visit Death Valley in a day?

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  1. Joella (Rovingjo)

    I am definitely adding this to my must see when in Vegas in September. I think I may have a bit more daylight then so hoping I can start a bit further north in the park and see the Dunes before doing the loop in a similar fashion as you did. It will be a long day but I think it will be worth it. Thanks for this sample itinerary it really helps with my planning.
    Joella (Rovingjo) recently posted…A New York City Break – Two and a Half Days in the Big AppleMy Profile

    1. Rebecca

      Too bad we didn’t get up an out earlier to see the dunes, but I’d decided in advance that it was going to be too much for one day, especially on one of the shortest days of the year! We probably would have had time if we hadn’t done the hike. Oh well, always nice to leave something new to return to. It will probably still be hot in Death Valley in September so keep your plans flexible.
      Rebecca recently posted…7 Nights in Fascinating SplitMy Profile

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