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The Valley of Mysteries…and Death

Please join us in welcoming Sheri Wallace to The Window Seat. She is the editor of Road Trips for Families.

Death Valley National Park is a land unto itself. An easy weekend road trip from much of California and the Southwest, it got its name without any fatalities, but the harsh and mysterious landscape is so impactful it’s not likely you will ever forget your trip to the park. Famous for the record high temperatures, Death Valley is not only the hottest place in North America, it’s also the lowest and driest.

Spring is an excellent time to visit the park, though many visit during the summer just to experience the searing heat. Don’t forget your camera, the area is a favorite of photographers and you’ll recognize the locations of many movies, including some of the “Star Wars” scenes.

Camping is plentiful throughout the park, but for a weekend road trip, The Inn at Furnace Creek makes an ideal base for day trips. The resort blends modern amenities like a stream-fed swimming pool, spa and excellent dining with historical charm and comfort. Plan to arrive early and relax while planning the rest of the weekend. If you golf, be sure to make reservations to play a round at the Furnace Creek Golf Course. Recognized by “Golf Digest” as one of “America’s 50 Toughest Courses”, the elevation and slightly greater gravity as well as barometric pressure challenges bring golfers from all over the world.

Distances are deceiving in the park, and you’ll want to stop along the way, take scenic loops and just get out an enjoy the park, so avoid the temptation to over schedule, and pick a few highlights to enjoy over a weekend. Don’t miss Scotty’s Castle, otherwise known as Death Valley Ranch. The main house tour is the only way to visit the inside of the home, which is still furnished as it was when it was occupied. The underground tour takes you beneath the home to see some of the engineering and technology used in the home. Tickets are sold for the day of the tour only (no pre-purchase) so allow time in case you have to wait.

Teakettle Junction

While in the northern part of the park, visit Ubehebe Crater, the site of a volcanic eruption. In the news recently, the site has recently been determined by scientists to have been active more recently than previously thought, and may still be active. If your vehicle is equipped for some rough driving, take the time to drive out to The Racetrack by way of Teakettle Junction. One of the great mysteries of the valley, The Racetrack is a dry lake bed where trails of rock movement are clearly visible on the dried surface of the lake. Why the rocks have moved, and continue to move is a mystery, and the visit is well worth the drive. Be sure to allow for at least a four hour round trip from Ubehebe Crater, and while the road is graded, it’s rough and not for the family sedan. Jeep rentals are available at Furnace Creek if you plan to visit The Racetrack, and this area of the park makes for a full day of exploration.

On your way back to Furnace Creek, stops at the Sand Dunes and the Harmony Borax Works are possible, depending on time and whether you want to enjoy the spa or a quick swim before dinner.

South of Furnace Creek, your second day of touring should include Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. If you collect quirky road trip photos, be sure to shoot a picture of the sea level sign on the rocks above the visitor’s overlook. This is also the site of the lowest outhouse in the Western Hemisphere, in case you’re traveling with the family.

There are a number of scenic loops and quick hikes that make for a full day of road tripping this area. Zabriskei Point, Golden Canyon and Artist’s Drive are at the top of the list. Devil’s Golf Course is also a short drive from the main road, and the unpaved road is easily driven in your own vehicle. Dante’s Peak is more than 5000 feet above the valley, and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the park.

Noticeable throughout the park are the lack of crowds often found at other national parks. The energy of the area as well as the opportunity to hike alone in some of the best scenery in the west make any of the options you choose memorable. A little reading about the history of the area on the drive in to the park will add to your appreciation for the pioneers who traveled through the valley on their way to California. If you have an extra day or two, be sure to visit some of the ghost towns and old mining sites in the area, many are surprisingly well preserved. Whether you decide to hike and spend more time in one of the areas or just take a relaxing drive through the highlights of the park, you’ll remember the road trip forever.

Image Credits: “Teakettle Junction” by Sheri Wallace.

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From time to time, the Window Seat publishes articles and blog posts written by guest authors to give you a fresh perspective on the world of travel.

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