Skirting the line between California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park fits perfectly in our world of extremes. It’s the hottest place in North America (134° F), the driest place in North America (1.3 inches of moisture per year), the second lowest point in Western Hemisphere (282 feet below sea level), the largest national park in the contiguous United States, and the greatest range of habitats (from 282 feet below sea level to 11,049 feet above sea level).
The park offers up the unique and unusual, from ancient geology exposed to earth’s activity on the move to playas that hold primeval stories as well as useful minerals, canyons that twist and curve through arid landscapes, and flora and fauna that have learned expedient adaptations to thrive under harsh conditions.
This is a destination for the curious, the hearty and the exuberant, because it requires close inspection and dogged resilience to celebrate the discoveries made in places where few dare to explore.
History of Death Valley National Park
Several Native American cultures inhabited the deserts of Death Valley up to 10,000 years ago when the climate was milder and large game roamed this region. Inland lakes were more plentiful, like Lake Manly, which covered what is the Badwater Basin today. As the temperatures rose and water evaporated, leaving salt, talc, and borate in its place, the human settlements dispersed.
It wasn’t until the California gold rush of 1849 that the first European descendants arrived in the area, and they only stumbled into the valley by accident. Getting lost while looking for a short cut from the Old Spanish Trail, the group of 100 wagons found water but had to eat some of their oxen to survive. They finally abandoned their belongs and transportation and hiked out of the valley, with one member of the group saying “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving this harsh barren landscape an inescapable name that we still use today.
About 40 years later, some enterprising settlers discovered the borate deposits and Death Valley’s first commercial borax operation was created, using 20-mule teams to haul the mineral to Mojave, 165 miles away. At about the same time, two men, Jack Keane and Domingo Etcharren, discovered gold, and thus began a ‘mini gold rush’ to the area. A few towns grew out of this activity, but the gold soon played out, and the communities became the ghost towns of Rhyolite and Skidoo.
By the turn of the century, resorts centered around natural springs were being built in the region, and Death Valley became a popular winter destination.
One stands out today: Scotty’s Castle was constructed by Albert Mussey Johnson as a gift for his bride. However, Johnson had been fooled into investing in non-existent gold mines in Death Valley by a con man named Walter Scott.
Johnson fell in love with the area when he came to visit said ‘mines,’ and knew he was being taken to the cleaners, but didn’t seem to care. He built the enormous home for his wife and let “Scotty” reside there until his death. Walter Scott led everyone to believe that he was the owner of this unique property, and Johnson encouraged the deception. Today the mansion offers tours to park visitors, with rangers dressed in period costumes.
Shortly after Scotty’s Castle was completed almost 2 million acres of the region was set aside as a national monument to protect its unusual landscapes, environment, and wildlife. Finally, in 1994 Death Valley acquired another 1,300,000 acres and was bumped up in status to become a national park.
Why Visit Death Valley National Park in Your RV?
With all the extremes that Death Valley presents, why would you want to visit the park in your RV? Why, the extremes, of course!
Having your home with you as you venture from the lowest spot in the country to desert mountaintops will give you the opportunity to explore each. With a motorhome or travel trailer, you bring along your own shade from the harsh sun, and the option to experience more of the park on your own schedule.
In fact, many RVers decide to stay for long stretches in this unusual land that pushes the boundaries, exploring its many juxtapositions.
Places to Go
Here’s a look at some of the must-visit spots should you travel to this barren land.
This unique structure an elaborate Spanish style mansion was reputedly built in the 1920s by “Death Valley Scotty,” a flamboyant con man who perpetuated the myth that the residence was built with money he made as a gold miner. Take a tour of the property given by rangers in period clothing from the Roaring 20s.
Furnace Creek Visitors Center
When visiting the visitors center, check out the bookstore, collect information, and learn about ranger-led tours. There is a 20-minute film on the park, and ranger talks take place during the winter months of November through April.
Here you can solve the mystery of rocks that move on their own at The Racetrack, a dry lake bed created by evaporation. Rocks from the surrounding hills have fallen onto The Racetrack and mysteriously scrape across the lake bed, leaving a trail of their movements.
Saline Valley Hot Springs
The hot springs are accessible via a tough four-hour drive on brutal backroads or by personal aircraft (landing on the “Chicken Strip”). They have been carved out of the desert, providing a real oasis, complete with palm trees. Being rather rustic, they are not, however, for those who enjoy the creature comforts of a resort.
Things to Do
Here’s a look at all the activities in the park you can partake in should you feel the need.
Because the park is in such a dry climate, it is suggested that hikers carry at least one liter of water for short hikes and at a minimum, one gallon for longer or overnight trips. The most pleasant time of year is from November through March, especially if hiking in the lower elevations. Here are a few of the numerous trails throughout Death Valley National Park:
- Harmony Borax Works
- Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Ubehebe Crater Loop
- Mosaic Canyon
- Panamint Dunes
- Wild Rose Peak
Many visitors opt to see the park on a bicycle, as they are allowed on all public vehicular roads. Considering that there are 785 miles of roadway, there’s a lot of ground to cover!
Death Valley has a large number of bird species that either call the park home or migrate through it. You can try birdwatching to see the ‘birds of a feather’ in places like Salt Creek, Saratoga Spring, and Furnace Creek, where a bird viewing platform awaits.
There are nine official campgrounds inside the national park. Only one of those has 18 sites with full hookups. The rest of the sites are perfect for boondocking or tent camping.
All but two of the campgrounds have water available. Overnight permits for backcountry camping are required from the visitors center, and since Death Valley has been designated as a gold tier night sky, it’s the perfect place to count constellations from your campsite.
When to Visit Death Valley National Park
The park is open year round, but with the highest temperatures in the Western Hemisphere, most tourists choose to visit during the winter season from November through April, avoiding the extreme summer heat. We’d recommend you do the same unless you’re up for an extra-hot challenge.
Where RVers Can Stay
Furnace Creek Campground within the park boundaries has 18 sites with water and electric hookups. Otherwise, the following three privately owned campgrounds can handle motorhomes and travel trailers:
- Stovepipe Wells RV Park – 14 full hookup sites with a swimming pool, general store, restaurant and saloon
- The Ranch at Death Valley – located next to Death Valley Visitor Center, but sites do not have hookups and are back-in only. A golf course is close by, along with a camp store, swimming pool, and shower facilities.
- Panamint Springs Resort – 10 full hookup sites, plus 28 dry sites with a motel and restaurant
Getting to and Around Death Valley National Park
Getting to Death Valley is a piece of cake—follow California Highway 190. It intersects the park from east to west. Once in the park, many roads are paved.
However, if you choose to venture onto dirt roads be aware that sudden storms can wash out roadbeds without much warning. Several of these roads are still closed because of damage incurred during storms in 2015.
Death Valley National Park makes extreme topography and climates thought-provoking, with mysteries like moving rocks at The Racetrack or the endangered Salt Creek pupfish that can withstand water temperatures from 32° F to 116° F and is only found in the park.
We are amazed at the ability of inhabitants past and present to thrive in this severe environment. Sheer joy erupts with rain, as what is normally a stark, monochromatic landscape becomes vibrant with the colors of massive wildflower blooms. It is apparent that Death Valley is anything but deadly … it is alive with life. We just have to look a little closer for it.
Is Death Valley National Park on your list of future locations? Why or why not? Leave a comment below!