Don’t let the name scare you off! Death Valley is one of the largest national parks in North America, and has one of the most adventurous histories in the West. From iconic Wild West stories and movie backdrops to its picturesque desert landscape, Death Valley is definitely worth the visit.
Facts and History
Death Valley National Park is so large that it covers both California and Nevada. Geologically, the park is literally a basin that plunges below sea level making for stark contrasts in the lay of the land. Death Valley is a park of extremes, so you’ll need to plan ahead for some potential safety issues.
Like most national parks, Death Valley’s history begins with North America’s first inhabitants. Native Americans of the Shoshone tribe stayed in the land now known as Death Valley for a few centuries before European settlers arrived. Ironically, Death Valley provided an abundant amount of resources for the Shoshone to survive. Even today, you can see snow on the mountaintops, providing a water source, random torrential downpours bringing up wildflowers, and oases for wildlife and fish.
During the 1800s, travellers of several different ethnicities settled in Death Valley for their own unique reasons. Some of them were in search of ore during the Gold Rush, and some were building roads and train railroads. In 1942, Japanese internment residents were kept in Death Valley for their safety as the tension of World War II heightened. For three months, they lived in old barracks that were used for the Civilian Conservation Corps and helped the National Parks Service Staff maintain the park.
Today, you can still visit some of the old mines that were used during the Gold Rush and a handful of legitimate ghost towns.
Death Valley reaches an enormous 5,300 square miles, but it’s possible for visitors to have a great visit in just one day. In fact, over a million people travel to Death Valley every year for anywhere from one-day visits or week-long stays.
What Is Death Valley Known For?
Death Valley was used for the filming of several blockbuster Hollywood films like Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1980), and Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), and The Twilight Zone television series. If you’re a movie buff, you should definitely check out Lone Pine, Death Valley’s very own movie museum.
The famous and haunting story of the lost ‘49ers also happened in various places throughout Death Valley, and legend says that the national park got its name from this story. In 1849, a group of travelers seeking a new settlement in California disputed over the best route to take west from present-day Salt Lake City, Utah. After several doubts and discouragement, the group split up three times all in an effort to find a shortcut, but not a single member of the party had a reliable map. It is said that one of the last people to find their way out of the vast desert leading into California shouted “Goodbye, Death Valley” as they left, giving the land its name.
What Can You Do At Death Valley?
The desert and mountains provide plenty of opportunities for hiking, backcountry camping, and mountain biking. Due to its desolate nature, Death Valley’s constructed trails with markings and signs are hardly necessary, and most of your hiking is done in the wide open spaces and naturally cut out mountain ridges. This also applies for climbers and mountain bikers.
There are five easy hikes (½ mile – 2 miles), eleven moderate hikes (1 ½ miles – 8 miles), and five difficult hikes (7 miles – 14 miles). If you’re planning on hiking, you need to prioritize your water supply. The best time to do any sort of outdoor activities other than sightseeing is between November and March. Due to its low elevation, Death Valley’s heat can be very dangerous in the summer.
For camping, Death Valley has over 700 miles of backcountry dirt roads and visitors are highly encouraged to set up camp along these paths. You’ll need to follow some simple guidelines like keeping your party under 12 people and 4 vehicles, and parking at least one mile away from paved roads.
Tips For Visiting Death Valley
Outdoor activities aren’t your only options! If you want to visit Death Valley in the summer, but want to stay safe by avoiding the heat, you can still have a memorable experience. Starting with the Visitor Center, you can learn about the history of Death Valley and take a tour of the underground tunnels led by one of the Park Rangers.
For strenuous outdoor activities, try to plan your trip for November through March. If you do any sort of hiking, climbing or biking outside in the summer, wear sun protective clothing, sunscreen, and bring more water than you think you’ll need.
Where Should I Stay When Visiting Death Valley?
Camping in Death Valley is fun because of the night sky. Depending on where you set up camp in the park, you’ll be far away from any source of light pollution, making for a crystal clear night. Keep in mind that the season in which you visit Death Valley will dictate your available camping options. In the summer months, night temperatures can still reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so only a handful of campgrounds will be open.
There are nine campgrounds total in Death Valley, and they are open to RVs, trailer-campers, and tent-campers. For the most part, there isn’t a reservation system and finding a spot is first-come, first-serve. Fees range depending on season, so make sure you plan ahead. If you don’t want to pay a camping fee, camping in the backcountry is always an option.
If you don’t want to camp, there are four resorts located inside the park. Reservations are required for this lodging option, so make sure you call ahead to secure your room.
Is Death Valley Safe?
It seems like an oxymoron, but Death Valley is perfectly safe. As long as you take all necessary precautions to stay hydrated and protect yourself from the sun, you’ll have a great time!
Heat exhaustion is very common among Death Valley visitors. Pay attention to your water and electrolyte intake levels, and listen to your body if you begin to feel dizzy or nauseous. As dangerous as the heat is, more people have died in Death Valley due to car accidents than anything else. Drive on all roads carefully!
Other safety precautions you should take involve staying away from wild animals. You may find lethal creatures like black widow spiders, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and mice and rats. They usually mind their own business, so don’t bother them if you find their dens.
Also, avoid being in a canyon during a rainstorm because flash floods are common, and don’t enter any closed-off abandoned mine shafts.
Plan Your Visit
Death Valley does have an entrance fee; the price depends on how you arrive to the park and how long you’re staying. All passes are week-long.
• Vehicle: $30 for 7 days
• Motorcycle: $25 for 7 days
• Individual (visitor arriving on foot): $15 for 7 days
• Annual pass: $55
Keep in mind that these entrance fees do not include the camping fees. These prices have a wider range and depend on type of camper, and extra amenities.
Death Valley is dog friendly, just make sure you’re paying as much attention to your pet’s hydration and nutrition as you are to yourself. Keep an eye out for signs of heat exhaustion like fatigue and excessive sweating.
Why Is Death Valley Worth Visiting?
Death Valley is worth visiting because it caters to travelers with a wide background of interests. Whether you want to hike or climb on Death Valley’s mountain ridges or camp in the backcountry to see the night sky, your trip will be unforgettable if you plan right!
Overall, plan ahead for entrance and camping fees and bring plenty of water and sunscreen, and you’ll have a great time!
Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit.
She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.