Death Valley, California:
Sitting in the sun of the Mojave Desert, Death Valley is the lowest, driest, and hottest area in North America. Not only does this vast National Park get down to 282 below sea level, but it can get above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the Summer.
Suggested Driving Route From Las Vegas:
Because most of you will be coming to Death Valley from Las Vegas here is the best route to see all of the best sights. If you happen to be visiting from California instead, by all means do this Death Valley route in reverse.
The route that we prefer is to start by taking Highway 95 North for 68 miles and stopping at the blue roadside marker for where the U.S. Government started doing Nuclear Bomb testing here in Feb 1951. Nuclear tests had been moved here from New Mexico in 1951 as Area 51 started to served as a secret base for testing aircraft. Further off Highway 95 is the road of Mercury which leads to both Frenchman Flats and the Yucca Valley where most of the test happened. They area was bombed over 200 times with Nuclear weapons before they were forced to move testing underground. The test ended up being a tourist attraction as the test times would be published and people would line up in Vegas to watch as the blasts were visible 90 miles away. Today the area looks like a regular moonscape and the largest crater can be viewed in person on a monthly tour run by the U.S. Energy Department. Historical finds in the flats show the area was inhabited as long ago as 7,500 B.C.
The the 120 miles to Beatty then take Highway 374 for 4 miles West to the ghost town of Rhyolite. Rhyolite has a number of great abandoned western buildings, but the main attraction is the outdoor Goldwell Museum. Goldwell features an early 1900’s home and many huge sculptures set in a desert landscape. One of our favorite sculptures is the towering pink Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevadawhich is a part pop art and part lego standing naked lady. Other favorites are hollow plaster ghost capes riding a bike and a reenactment of The Last Supper. The Museum is open 24/7 with free admission and a souvenir shop is also open Monday-Saturday from 10am-4pm.
Although you are right next to Death Valley in Rhyolite, resist the temptation and jump back onto Highway 95 to the North another 31 miles to Highway 267, also known as Scotty’s Castle Road. After 26 miles on Highway 267, you will not only finally be in Death Valley, but will be at the doorstep of Scotty’s Castle which the road is named after. The Castle was built during the roaring 20’s over a desert oasis by the wealthy Albert Mussey Johnson as a vacation home. As the depression hit Johnson and his friend Cowboy Scotty built a series of tunnels under the Castle and made it almost self-sufficient. Since Johnson wasn’t around much, Scott told locals that he had built the Castle with money from his secret mine and a legend was born. You can step right back into the 30’s with a tour of the Castle’s interiors or step it up a notch and tour the Underground Tunnels. During the tours you will learn about the innovative uses of technology that allowed Scotty’s Castle to be nearly self-sufficient.
Near Scotty’s Castle you should also hit up 600 foot deep Ubehebe Crater located right off the road just miles from the Castle. The huge Crater was formed by a volcanic eruption in the early 1700’s. If you want to hike around the crater you can hike 1.5 miles around the rim or hike down to the bottom of the caldera Straight South of the Ubehebe Crater 26 miles down a dirt washboard road is the hidden gem of Death Valley called the Racetrack. Many visitors never get to the Racetrack because the road requires a higher rise vehicle, but it is rewarding. The road is lines with Joshua Trees which are Yuccas that can grow 30 feet tall and finishes at the unusually Racetrack. The large dried lake bed has a bunch of rocks with tracks behind them like the rocks have been moving. This is weird since the lake bed is flat but scientists think it is because when the tiny amount of annual rain hits the hard dirt it creates a thin layer of slippy mud on which wind can blow the rocks and create track lines.
Heading across Death Valley you’ll get to Stovepipe Wells after about 45 miles which brings you down to Sea Level. On your way to Stovepipe Wells there are some cool sand dunes you can hike out onto right when you come to Hwy 190. Just 11 miles past Stovepipe is the entrance to Marble Canyon which is a unique marble slot canyon you can hike it. Marble Canyon is unique because most slot canyons are softer sandstone carved by the wind and not extremely hard marble.
Leaving Stovepipe and heading past Furnace Creek, which is 25 miles away, you’ll take Badwater Road to a cool collection of sights. Heading to the furthest away of these sights first and back tracking you’ll find yourself at Badwater Basin 11 miles from Furnace Creek. Badwater Basin is famous not only for being the lowest spot in North America at 282 feet below sea level but also for its incredibly huge salt flat. Take your photo at the roadside elevation marker and walk out onto the salt flats. You can walk out onto the unbelievably huge salt water flat and there is parking right at Badwater. Don’t go out on the flat in really hot water as it basically cooks and reflects rays back that can be really bad for your eyes and skin. Starting your backtrack, you’ll quick come to the dirt road for the Natural Bridge on your right. The 1.5 mile long dirt road is washboard, but not bad to drive and ends at a hiking trail head. After a 1/2 mile long flat hike you’ll come to a massive archway going over the hiking path.
Leaving the Natural Bridge, you’ll continue to backtrack and stop off at the salt pool road to the right which leads you to the Devil’s Golf Course. The Golf Course is an immense area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. So incredibly serrated that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” The road to the golf course is a little rough but only un-driveable right after a rain, which is rare in Death Valley. Just past the Golf course
After getting back to Furnace Creek, it’s about 118 miles back to Las Vegas.