Death Valley Road Trip – Two Nights in Death Valley

Mesquite flat sand dunes

Story Highlights

Why Death Valley – again? – Excellent question! We’d seen a lot of sights, and even did a quick hike, on an excursion out and back from Las Vegas just last December. But I didn’t get to see the sand dunes or do any star gazing in the dark night sky of Death Valley National Park. So with a great weather forecast and a girlfriend who said “why not?”, before you knew it we left the hubbies home and were off on a quick mid-week road trip to Death Valley.

Road Trip Day 1

There are only a few places to stay inside the Death Valley National Park, and the Stovepipe Wells Village motel turned out to be the perfect place for our 2 nights. But more on that later, first – getting there.

It’s a 5+ hour drive point to point from San Diego up US-395 to Stovepipe Wells, but this route takes you right by the fascinating geological formations of Trona Pinnacles, a terrific tiny detour to break up the drive with something besides a stop for gas.

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles were designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1968 to preserve one of North America’s most outstanding examples of tufa tower formation. These unusual formations have made the perfect other-worldly backdrop to many hit sci-fi movies and films, as well as car commercials – as many as 30 a year! The pinnacles rise from the floor of a huge basin that was once an ancient lakebed.

Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinnacles

Over 500 of these tufa (calcium carbonate) spires are spread out over a 14 square mile area across the Searles Lake basin. The pinnacles range in size from small coral-like boulders to several that top out at over 140 feet tall.

Trona Pinnacles

Bizarre landscape of the Trona Pinnacles

It’s mind-boggling to think that these pinnacles were formed underwater between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago when this area (called Searles Lake) was a link in a chain of interconnected lakes flowing from Owens Valley to Death Valley.

In the Pleistocene (the Ice Age), the basin was under 640 feet of water!

Trona Pinnacles

A walk among the Pinnacles; 20-mule team wagon; Campers camping among the pinnacles

The Pinnacles are fascinating to see and walk around, but oh the lucky campers – the sky at night here is supposed to be spectacular.

Fun Facts:

  • The dry lakebed of Searles Lake holds one half of the natural elements known to man – that includes trona, a mineral that gives this place it’s name.
  • Searles lakebed has been commercially mined since John Searles discovered borax here in 1862.
  • Today borax and potash from the area can be found in everything from fiberglass to fertilizer.
  • Back in the 1800’s, borax was hauled from the Searles lakebed to Los Angeles by wagons using 20-mule teams.

Tip: Trona Pinnacles isn’t in Death Valley, it’s on BLM land about 1.5 hours from Stovepipe Wells Village. A high clearance vehicle probably isn’t necessary but makes the rough road much easier to zip the 5 miles down to the site. There’s a pit toilet at the site and you can camp here.

Trona Pinnacles

Camping among the pinnacles

Star Gazing in Death Valley – One of the Largest Dark Sky Parks

Stovepipe Wells Village is a tiny place, you don’t have to go far to escape the lights at night to do some star gazing, and the perfect place was just a couple of miles down the road at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

I’ve never seen so many stars – so many that we could only pick out Orion and the Big Dipper among the immense field of brilliant stars. The Milky Way was unbelievable. Looking out into the infinite Universe beneath this glittery night sky tends to make you speak in hushed tones.

Tip: Check the sunset and moonrise calendars to make sure you do your stargazing before the moon comes up…and bring lawn chairs!

Tip: The parking lot at the dunes was perfectly dark for us to sit on the bumper and gaze upward, but photographers with tripods go a little ways out into the dunes to get away from the occasional car light on the road or parking lot.

What? No photo? Nope, I didn’t even try on either of our 2 nights stargazing – it was too awesome to attempt with my equipment, but the wonder of this amazing dark night sky is something I’ll never forget.

Road Trip Day 2

Death Valley is a big place, to see the main sights in a short time you’ll be doing a lot of driving. Our first stop of the day was a hike out to the tallest dune at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

The first glimpse of the fantastic Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes from the direction of Stovepipe Wells is just – Wow!

Sand Dunes

Mesquite flat sand dunes in the distance, from a stop along the road

The tallest dunes rise 100 feet above Mesquite Flat, and a hike from the parking lot to the tallest of the dunes is about a mile. Don’t underestimate how long that mile will take you though, walking up and down through sand dunes is quite a different experience than your normal hike on terra firma.

Sand Dunes

Mesquite flat sand dunes walking the ridge

Tip: If you have kids, this will probably be their favorite stop! Climbing peaks, running through soft sand and rolling down dunes, the families were having a ball playing in this unique place. Heck, the dunes were my favorite stop on this Death Valley day.

Sand Dunes

Mesquite flat tallest dunes, see the people on each peak?

Tip: Morning or late afternoon is a great time for this hike, before the soft sand gets too hot to experience in your bare feet.

Sand Dunes

People walking back to the parking lot from the dunes

Death Valley Daze – Take 2

We visited the other must-see sights in Death Valley – Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View – which, other than the snow on the Panamint Mountains, hadn’t changed much from my post Death Valley Daze – Afternoon in Death Valley in December, so here’s the speedy version:

  • Badwater Basin – huge salt basin and the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level
  • Devil’s Golf Course – huge mounds of rock salt with salt crystals
  • Zabriskie Point – Easy walk to famous views of fascinating formations
  • Dante’s View – Fabulous view over all of Death Valley

Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin

The huge salt basin of Badwater Basin

Devil’s Golf Course

Devils Golf Course

Devil’s Golf Course

Zabriskie Point

The fascinating Furnace Creek Formation – millions of years ago these formations were at the bottom of a lake. Silt and volcanic ash washed into the lake, settling to the bottom and ultimately creating a thick deposit of clay, sandstone and siltstone. These once-level layers were tilted by volcanic activity and pressure to uplift the layers. Rainstorms eroded and exposed the soft rocks into these beautiful formations.

Zabriskie point volcanic formation

Zabriskie point volcanic formation

The black layer across the top of these peaks is lava that oozed out onto the ancient lakebed – now uplifted, it looks like the ridge tips of a dragon hiding underneath the golden wash.

Zabriskie point scenes

Furnace Creek Volcanic formation; Zabriskie Point View; 20-mule team photo transporting Borax out of Gower Gulch below Zabriskie Point

Twenty Mule Team Canyon

A nice detour on the way to Dante’s View is the drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon. A one-way unpaved road, you don’t need a high clearance vehicle but the sharp turns and steep parts make it impassable to long vehicles, buses, RV’s and trailers.

twenty mule team canyon

Twenty mule team canyon

Dante’s View

5,000 feet above Death Valley, a stop to see the entire valley laid out before you is a must on a Death Valley visit.

Death Valley

View of the great salt basin – Badwater Basin – from Dante’s View

Death Valley is slowly sinking, and the Black Mountains you are standing on at Dante’s View are slowly moving to your left as well as rising (don’t worry, too slow to get dizzy!). But the eroding mountains fill the valley before you at about the same rate it sinks.

Fun Fact: Death Valley contains the largest designated wilderness in the United States outside of Alaska. When Death Valley was converted from a National Monument to a National Park in 1994, 3.1 million acres (92% of the park) were established as designated wilderness.

Road Trip Day 3

A quick stop to see what remains of the Harmony Borax Works and we were headed south back to home, this time on US-127 – the other side of Death Valley from the way we came.

Harmony Borax Works

I was fascinated by all this Borax mining in Death Valley and, although there’s not a lot that remains of the borax refinery here, you get all the info you need in a few information placards on the short interpretive trail.

Harmony Borax Works

Harmony Borax Works

Here’s the scoop:

Borates – salt minerals – were deposited in ancient lake beds that uplifted and eroded into the yellow Furnace Creek badlands. Water dissolved the borates and carried them to the Death Valley floor where they recrystallized as borax. Chinese laborers recruited from San Francisco scraped the borax off the salt flats and carried it by wagon to this refinery.

20 mule team wagon

The twenty mule teams were a symbol of the borax industry, pulling loads weighing up to 36 tons

Extremely labor intensive, it seems impossible that they could make a profit, especially since they had to stop in the heat of the summer when Death Valley temperatures were over 120 degrees! Sure enough, the Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888 after only five years of production when the owner William T. Coleman’s financial empire collapsed. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.


Stovepipe Wells Village

Stovepipe Wells Village

Stovepipe Wells Village

A perfect place for a couple of nights, our Deluxe Queen room had super comfortable beds, a mini-fridge for our breakfast and lunch supplies, a terrific slate-tiled shower, a ceiling fan, and an LCDTV. A great little “village”, there’s a restaurant but we ate dinner in the tavern our 2 nights here which suited us perfectly. A huge bonus was the quick drive to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes parking lot for amazing star gazing.

Tip: The gas prices at Stovepipe Wells Village are the cheapest in the park! Fill up here before you go.

Don’t expect to do much more than check your email, WIFI is only available in the central area and it was too slow for anything to do with photos. My T-Mobile cell phone service was fine for texting and voice and that was it. When you’re outside of the service areas of Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek be aware – you’re not going to have any cell service.

Death Valley Road Trip

Although it’s not the shortest drive to and from Death Valley from San Diego, it was so worth it to see the sights I missed the first time around and the incredible stars in that dark night sky – and share it all with a good friend on a fantastic road trip!

How about you? Would you do a quick road trip to Death Valley?

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