Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Death Valley National Park for 48 Hours

The hubby and I love to #OptOutside around the Thanksgiving holiday. As you may or may not know, we're both from Michigan and our families still live there. The extra day or two we get off work isn't a ton of time to let us to fly back to the Midwest, so we've had a tradition of camping for the long weekend. In most recent years we've turned the trip into a Friendsgiving, but this year our friends had things going on so we were on our own to explore. At the beginning of 2021 we were supposed to go to Death Valley with the hubby's dad but a COVID resurgence forced us to cancel the trip. Since we had never been and had it on radar for a while, we figured this would be the perfect time to hit up the desert and see what it had to offer. As like with all my recaps, I'll share what we did (and whether we'd recommend others do the same) - but take it with a grain of salt sand {get it, since it's the desert ;)} because what works for us may or may not be your jam. 

We decided to leave after I got off work on Tuesday (both of us had Wednesday through Sunday off). Our campground reservation in Death Valley wasn't until Wednesday, so Tuesday night we were planning to stay at a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground. We had a bit more traffic than we were expecting (we were hoping we would beat the travel rush that we assumed would be driving on Wednesday), but we were still able to make it to Fossil Falls at a decent hour. 

Obviously this picture was taking on Wednesday morning after we woke up - it was pitch dark when we rolled in on Tuesday night ;)

As far as we could tell, we had the area to ourselves. There wasn't much to the campground - a few fire rings, a pit toilet, but views for as far as the eyes could see ;) This isn't a destination type location, but it was perfect for what we needed. 

Not too shabby, eh?

Wednesday morning we woke up, made breakfast and hit the road so we could explore Death Valley National Park

The hubby likes playing around with the panoramic feature. He was thrilled he captured me (twice), his shadow and the truck.

As with most of our trips, we had done a fair amount of research beforehand. We set up a little itinerary of what we wanted to see and in which order we should tackle things (so we were doing the ones in the same vicinity and cutting down drive time). Since this was our first time to Death Valley we weren't sure how long each of our stops would take, but tried to leave plenty of wiggle room in case we came across things that weren't on our list that looked interesting. #FlexibilityIsKey


In case you didn't know, Death Valley National Park is touted as the hottest, driest and lowest National Park. It is also HUGE with almost 3.4 MILLION ACRES of federally designated wilderness in its boundaries! It's the largest National Park outside of the state of Alaska (and the fifth largest overall). As I'm sure you can imagine, we barely even skimmed the surface while we were visiting, but we did try to hit as many of the must-see (highly recommended) locations as possible.


Our first stop on the way to our campground was something we MUST do at all parks we go to - take a picture at the sign!

I appreciate they included the Timbisha Shoshone, who have been keepers and protectors of this land for hundreds of years, on the sign.

After the hubby snapped my picture (there were no cars as far as we could see and we didn't have a tripod of any sort, so we didn't get a shot of us together, but the hubby's good with Photoshop so could always make one if we need/ want it in the future ;)), we made our way to next stop - Star Wars Canyon. I was really hoping that it was called that because they filmed some of movies there, but alas that was not the case. It earned the nickname Star Wars Canyon (its real name is Rainbow Canyon) due to the technical flight maneuvers done there. This section of the park is actually one of the largest military aircraft training areas in the United States. [The hubby was bummed we didn't see any planes fly through.]

The lighting wasn't the best, but I could see where it gets the name Rainbow Canyon.

Next up we were headed to our first hike of the trip - Darwin Falls. The hike was only about two miles round trip, but it was pretty awesome because you wouldn't expect there to be a waterfall in the middle of this huge desert! It was this little oasis tucked away from the rest of the park and you totally could have driven by if you didn't know it was there. 

There was even a bit of fall color on the hike - SCORE!

(Note: Most pet owners probably are well aware of this fact, but National Parks are not pet friendly... We were able to bring Walt on the trip because the temps were cool enough that he could chillax in the trailer while we went to explore.)

At this point it was getting later in the day so we figured we'd head to our campsite. On the way we did stop by the Harmony Borax Works loop. It is a short walk around one of Death Valley's first borax operation. (Borax, called "white gold of the desert", ranked as one of the valley's most profitable minerals.) The mining site is where 20-Mule Team wagons began their grueling 165-mile journey to the Mojave Railroad Depot. (I would've skipped this, but the hubby enjoyed it.) 

The hubby loves reading all of the signs ;)

After getting our learn on, it was time to hit up our campsite. We stayed at Furnace Creek and liked the grounds well enough. There isn't a ton of privacy (it reminded us more of an RV park than a campground because it was more or less just a large parking lot), but we weren't planning on spending a ton of time there so it worked fine for a couple nights.

Walt was stoked to get out of the truck and lay in the sun for a bit.

Like I mentioned, the National Parks don't want your pets out and about, but thankfully they are welcomed with open arms (well, as long as they are on leashes and picked up after of course) at the campgrounds. We still had to get in our doggy mile walk (Walt's on a streak of at least one mile per day for almost 100 days now {he was almost to 1,000 but we had to reset it when he got a ding a few months back}). We explored the Furnace Creek area and checked out the resort grounds next door. There was even a cool little walk-through area where you could learn about some of the old mining machinery.

Look at how GIANT this wheel is!

Let's just say that when the sun goes down (which happens so early these days) it gets COLD in the desert. We made some ramen for dinner, sat by the campfire for a while and then climbed into our nice warm sleeping bags for the night.

With so much of California under fire restrictions when we normally
go camping, it was nice to be able to have an actual campfire again.

Ry was playing with his phone's nighttime camera option... 

Thursday morning we woke up to a beautiful (albeit chilly) morning and were excited to tackle a day full of exploring. Up first was a hiking the Mosaic Canyon Trail. In total it ended up being a little over four miles (although, with the canyon walls, my GPS might have been a little off). It's an out and back hike through polished marble narrows that have some pretty unique color patterns. I wouldn't call them slot canyons, but some of the paths got fairly narrow and we did have to do some rock scrambling once we got further into the canyon. I thought it was a great way to start the day!

The trail was easy to follow, but if we were ever in doubt there were "markers" {like the cairns or rock arrows} for us to follow.

In the shade of the canyon walls it was still rather chilly.

Most of the trail was pretty easy and groomed.

After hiking about the canyons we were off to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I'll be honest, sand dunes don't thrill me... Maybe it's because we live by the beach and see sand all the time, maybe it's because walking in the sand is hard, maybe it's because sand gets everywhere, maybe I was hangry, but whatever the reason I wasn't too excited about this stop. 

The hubby found it fascinating though... The things we do for those we love ;)

I wasn't expecting much from our next pit stop, the Devil's Golf Course, but I thought it was one of the cooler stops of the day. It was named after a line in the 1934 National Park Service guide book which said “Only the devil could play golf” on its surface, due to a rough texture from the large salt crystal formations. I told the hubby it reminded me of the dirty snow that plows push to the side of the road (although that's probably a midwest description that some of you might not get ;)). 

See what I mean about looking like dirty snow left over on the side of the road or pushed in piles in a parking lot?!

Although it was cool to look at it was VERY hard, sharp and pokey so you had to be careful.

It was like coral made of salt. Pretty cool if you ask me!

Next up on the docket was heading to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America - 282 ft (86 m) below sea level. (It is also the start of Badwater - "the world's toughest footrace".) I'll be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed. There are pictures of the salt flats with super awesome polygon patterns, but when we got there they were all pretty trampled over. 

It's pretty wild to know that 135 miles away is the HIGHEST point in the continental US (Mount Whitney)

This stop was more something to cross off the list, not something that was super awesome in our opinions...

Badwater Basin was the end of the road (there were many roads or areas of the park that were closed, so depending on when you travel to Death Valley this may not be the case), so we chucked a U'ey and made our way back towards the campground. On the way we checked out the Artist Drive, which is a nine mile scenic loop. We jumped out of the truck for a quick look at the Artist Palette, multi-hued hills caused by metal oxidation. (I'm sure the time of day, sky conditions, etc all impact how bright and vivid the colors on the rocks are.) It was cool to see, but I wouldn't drive out of my way for it. 

The different colors are due to different metals deposited from the volcanoes in the area.

The last stop of the afternoon was Dante's View. This viewpoint is 5,475 feet above Death Valley and gives you a glimpse of how expansive the area is. Just like with most things, my crappy iPhone 8 photo does not do the view justice. (I would also say being there for sunrise or sunset would probably be pretty magical as well... maybe next time ;))

Often times when you hear "desert" you think sand, flat and boring, but this area is anything but that!

We really jammed a lot into the day (and, even still, never felt like we were rushing around or jumping from thing to thing too quickly), so called it quits and made our way back to the campground to rest up and get our grub on. The day before I had grabbed some postcards to send to family and friends, so once we parked the truck and got Walt suited up for his doggy mile we walked over to the nearby post office so I could get them on their merry little way. #SnailMailIsTheBest

Letter writing is a dying art but I love to do it as frequently as possible!

Dinner was veggie bratwursts with a side of campfire and canned margaritas (Cutwater actually has some yummy ones).

There was a golf course next to the campground, hence all the palm trees ;) 
The hubby said it looked like I was choking Walt... but he was actually
cuddling with me, the picture just looks like I'm forcing him to like me ;)

Originally our game plan was to stay in Death Valley until Saturday morning (which was how long our campsite was reserved for), but we had talked it over and decided that if we could fit everything in (without feeling rushed or like we were missing anything along the way), we would leave on Friday. The main reason for this might seem silly to some of y'all, but the Michigan vs Ohio State game was Saturday morning at 9am. The drive home from Death Valley was probably going to take about 5-6 hours (depending on traffic) so if we wanted to watch the game (DUH) we would've needed to leave super early. We thought that if we crossed off everything we wanted to do by Friday morning we could hit the road Friday afternoon and be home (sleeping in our own bed) Friday night and be ready for the game come Saturday morning. 


Friday morning we woke up with a few last things on our itinerary and the first was a hike around Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch (after breakfast of course ;)). Friday was supposed to be the warmest day of our trip (in the low 70s by midday), so we wanted to get this one done first so that Walt would still be in comfortable and cool temps in the truck (FYI - When I say "in the truck" he is actually in the pop-up trailer portion in the back, just without the lid popped. He has water, a bed, blankets and normally burrows himself in our pillows the whole time we're gone.). This hike was definitely not an "easy" one (there were some very steep ups and downs), but it ended up being my favorite. The Golden Canyon portion is a 3ish mile out and back hike, but we added in the Gower Gulch loop and it made the hike closer to about 5 miles total. The photos might not look like much, but I thought it was a pretty magical place of awesome rocks, canyons and crevices.

Left: Red Cathedrals || Right: We hiked up to the top of the point (and the path is very steep and close to the ledge - EEKS!)

I find the terrain so interesting... but maybe that's just me...
We even found a cave for me to live in if I wanted to stay ;)

The last "hike" we had on our list was to the Natural Bridge. Technically the hike (more of an easy stroll) was about a mile, but the bridge itself is probably only a quarter mile from the parking lot, so we opted to walk to the bridge, check it out and turn back. This was another spot that I thought was just 'ok' (we've seen some "better" bridges and arches on our adventures {how snuddy did that comment sound - yuck!}, but since this wasn't out of the way or a long trek it was fine).

It wasn't hot out yet, but we still do bring water with us on all of our hikes - no matter the distance.

I normally "scold" the hubby for looking at the screen instead of looking
at the camera, so he thought he'd be funny in this one... What a goofball!
We caught some people right at the right time and it looked like we were there alone...
which was NOT the case. It was actually a fairly busy area because it's a quick little hike.

After our morning hikes our final destination to check out was Zabriskie Point. Similar to Dante's View, it's a pretty spectacular spot to check out the badlands below. I'd say that the views were awesome, but it was crowded. It felt like where all of the tour buses stop, let out folks so they can check off "Death Valley" from their list and get back in their traveling city. (Note: I'm not saying there is anything wrong with this type of "exploring", it's just that the hubby and I prefer a little more of the "off the beaten path" type locations, rather than the touristy spots and that's sort of what this felt like.)

The land masses are so fascinating! Hopefully this recap reminds you all that deserts are not just flat spaces of sand!

Once we crossed everything off of our itinerary (there were a few other things we would've liked to see, but were quite the drive to get there, so we opted out of visiting them this go-around), we made lunch in the back of the truck before hitting the road. We were hoping we'd beat some of the holiday traffic, coming home on Friday rather than Saturday or Sunday, but if you've driven from Las Vegas to SoCal, you know that drive ALWAYS has plenty of slow moving cars... Even still we were able to pull into the driveaway and unpack before jumping in the shower and climbing into our nice, warm bed.  

Ignore the Taco Bell packets in the cupholder and just focus on 
how cute Walt is when he's trying to soak up all the sunshine ;)

Although our trip was originally scheduled for a day or so longer, we felt as though we adequately saw everything we wanted within those first 48 hours. Sure, we could've stayed longer (and still enjoyed ourselves, since we love being out in nature), but if all you have is 48 hours to spare, I think you can get in a mighty fine visit to Death Valley National Park.

Have you ever been to Death Valley?

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