31 August 2015

USA Road Trip | Death Valley

When I imagined Death Valley I always pictured a flat open desert-like landscape. Not an unreasonable expectation from the place that holds the title of the hottest recorded temperature on earth (56.6 degrees celsius) I'm sure you'll agree.

Well in actual fact it's got rocks, mountains and vegetation. Yes, really!
A day was plenty of time to see all we wanted to see within Death Valley and to also to explore Rhyolite, a ghost town just outside of the park. Here's the highlights

Rhyolite

We were approaching Death Valley from Las Vegas so we decided to see a ghost town on the way in. You have a few options to see a ghost town in Death Valley but Rhyolite was the largest in size with a population of 5,000-10,000 plus there is still a few buildings to see and it's probably one of the most accessible too.
The ghost towns exist thanks to the Gold Rush, which occurred in the middle of the 19th century. Towns would literally pop up as people endured the tough climate whilst mining for gold and then once the gold ran out (or the funding) people would leave rather abruptly in search of the next chapter in their lives. 
You don't need long to explore, but it's a cool thing to witness. As you approach the town there is a little box with a print out explaining what each building used to be. Here is a website that is a little more up to date than many of the websites on Rhyolite.

Badwater Basin

This is the lowest point in the USA and the world's largest protected salt flats. You can see in the picture below that I'm pointing to a little white mark which happens to be sea level.
I really thought that the salt flats would look a little like the first photo below, but actually they looked like crusted mud (second photo!). I still don't understand why that is, but either way the novelty is the real appeal.
Photo from NPS

Mesquite Sand Dunes

These sand dunes are the easiest to visit since you don't have to go on any unpaved roads. We didn't get out to explore, but if you do be sure to keep your car in sight. There have been visitors that don't realise how large the dunes are, got hot and confused in the heat and unfortunately die.

They don't look like much, but they are quite big (look at this post from the blog Local Adventurer for great photos)!

Artists Palette

I've saved my favourite part of the park for last. This drive loops out to some really cool rocks. Bear with me... the metals in the rocks oxidise to turn the different colours and it's something that can't really be appreciated from photographs.
Regardless of rock colour, the drive is pretty fun and it's paved so it is kind on the rental car. Like I said, Death Valley is not just a desert!

Useful Info

Top Tips

1. Leave early!

2. Always have your fuel topped up and go easy on the air con.

3. Download the map as a PDF and use the adobe highlight function to select the places you want to stop off at. It also shows you the nearest fuel pumps etc.

4. Unless you're confident, keep hiking to a minimum.

5. Don't take your hire car off road unless you've got a 4X4 and the appropriate insurance.

6. Allow a [long] day to drive to & from the national park and to allow you enough time to see a few things while you're there.

7. Visit Furnace Creek Visitor Centre to get a photograph by the temperature & for tips!

Travel to/from/around Death Valley

Like most places in America this isn't somewhere you can visit independently without a car. Unlike Zion, you'll need your car once you get to the National Park as there is no bus shuttle. You'll be thankful for your car to escape the heat, which I can only compare to opening the oven door.

Make sure you fill up on fuel before you get to the park, as it's limited once you reach the park and the likelihood is you'll need to drive a fair bit the other side to get to your evening accommodation

Stay

If you're doing a road trip the likelihood is that you will visit Death Valley in between visits to Yosemite National Park and Las Vegas. You can stay in the National Park itself or either side of park. We stayed in Bishop a beautiful small town, which was a really great option as the town had plenty of hotels, fuel and some restaurants. Mammoth Lakes is another beautiful option, but there is also there is also Lone Pine, Big Pine and the other small towns along the road. We drove through Beatty a town to the west of the National Park but it looked a little rough round the edges! Rely on reviews to make a judgement about the smaller towns.

Eat

I would take snacks and LOTS of water just in case. Eat a big breakfast before you go and plan a big dinner. There are some options for eating but they're limited and the restaurants on the outskirts weren't that appealing. Put it this way, when we got to 9 o'clock we just got a McDonalds!

Costs

The entrance to the park is $20 but you could also get in for free using the America the Beautiful pass  which I highly recommend if you're visiting a few parks. Once you're in, there is very little to spend your money on besides a few souvenirs at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre.

Ps. Check it out - some of the Star Wars films were filmed in Death Valley!

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