From Badwater to Borax: Visiting Death Valley

After a brief, but neon-tastic stay in Las Vegas, we hit the road early, en route to Death Valley National Park. Having never been to Death Valley, we envisioned the area to look like the pictures most often associated with the park, Badwater Basin and the Racetrack Playa. To our surprise, Death Valley was so much more than just the lowest place in North America and hundreds of miles of desert basin, it was desolate stretches of road with vistas that rivaled some of the most popular parks; and mountains, so many more mountains than we ever imagined. There are a number of not-to-miss sites in Death Valley, and during our brief stay we were able to explore a good bit of the park. Unfortunately, some of the “Must See Highlights” and other areas of the park were closed (Artist’s Drive, Scotty’s Castle) or inaccessible due to snow (Titus Canyon Road) during our stay, so it looks like we’ll just have to plan to visit again. Darn.

How to Get There: California State Route 178/Jubilee Pass Road
Let us preface this section by stating that there are multiple ways to access Death Valley National Park, but if you want striking backdrops and a road so empty that you can set your camera down in the middle of it and take a dozen shots, we suggest coming in via California State Route 178/Jubilee Pass Road. The most popular way to access the park is to head to either end of the park and hop on California State Route 190, the main east-west road through the park. Not that it isn’t a beautiful drive into or out of the park (we left via that route), but it does not provide the dramatic views and pure desolation of SR 178. If you’ve traveling from Vegas, instead of heading to Death Valley Junction, be sure to take that left turn in Pahrump, and head west on Nevada SR 372 / California SR 178. Just north of the sleepy town of Shoshone (great sign photo-op!), you’ll turn left onto SR 178 and the next 55 or so miles are yours to enjoy, possibly all by yourself! There are wide open expanses of little more than dirt and creosote bushes, and it isn’t long before you start to see mountains, beautifully stark with the shades of reds, oranges, and browns that you expect to encounter in the desert. Crest the top of Jubilee Pass, at a whopping 1,293 feet (forgive us- we live at 6,200 feet, so we find a “pass” with an elevation below 1,300 a bit humorous), and you’ll be greeted by snow-capped mountains. Not at all what we expected, but so striking that it didn’t take long to come to the realization that Death Valley was one of the most beautiful national parks we’d visited. Be sure to stop for the obligatory entrance sign photo, as well as the opportunity to stretch your legs and take in more of the views at the Ashford Mill Ruins, before continuing on to see how low you can go at Badwater Basin.

What to See: Badwater Basin
Death Valley is famous for being the home of the hottest temperature, though there is some scientific dispute over the validity, ever recorded on earth- 134 degrees Fahrenheit on July 10, 1913. Seeing as that’s really, really hot, we suggest visiting in the winter. For reference, we visited the park at the beginning of February and it was still 80 degrees during the day. As with any national park, there are a number of cool roads to drive, vistas to overlook, and hikes in which to explore the desolate beauty that is Death Valley. If you only have time for one stop, be sure to visit Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America (and – it’s almost hard to believe – only 84 miles from the highest point in the contiguous U.S., Mt. Whitney). As you stand in a huge basin with mountains on all sides, it’s a difficult to comprehend that you are actually standing almost 300 feet below sea level. In addition to a great photo op with the sign, you can hike about a mile out to the edge of the 200-square mile salt flat that is the basin. It’s not a dog-friendly hike, so be sure that if you hike it’s on a cooler day when your furry friend is safe and comfortable in car. It was too warm for us to leave Finley, so we took advantage of the photo op and moved on to a dog-friendly hike!

What to Do: Hike Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road
Most National Parks don’t allow dogs off the road or outside of campgrounds, but there are the occasional gems that can be found. Not far from the Visitor’s Center and the Oasis at Death Valley (known until very recently as Furnace Creek Resort) is Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road. While both of us are too young to remember actually seeing it for sale in stores, we are both familiar with the once ubiquitous cleaning product, 20 Mule Team Borax. Excited because it allowed us to pull some random knowledge from the depths of our brains; we were especially tickled to be exploring the road when we learned that 20 Mule Team Borax was named for the teams of eighteen mules and two horses that moved borax more than 160 miles from the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley to the railroad near the town of Mojave. While the teams didn’t actually travel along this particular road, it is still a stunningly visual experience not to be missed, whether or not your furry friend is along for the ride.

One of two dog-friendly hikes in the park, Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road is a 2.8-mile one-way, narrow, dirt road (read: don’t pull your trailer on this one) through some of Death Valley’s dramatic badlands. Meant to be a scenic drive, it can also be hiked so long as you don’t mind stepping aside for the occasional car. Excited to take in some of the scenery and get Finley some exercise, we drove most of the length of the road, found a parking spot along the shoulder, and then set out. Frequently feeling like we’d somehow ended up on the moon or Tatooine, the views were unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Brilliant reds, golden yellows, and warm browns in the rocks and buttes were so engaging, it made it hard to take in everything without worrying that you’d miss some of the gorgeousness. A great way to get some exercise and take in some of the views that make Death Valley one of our most favorite national parks that we’ve visited, this is a drive or hike not to be missed. And in case you were worried, we didn’t come across any sand people.

Where to Stay: Stovepipe Wells Village
With only three options for lodging in Death Valley, it’s not too hard to make a decision. You can opt to stay at the swanky Oasis at Death Valley (which was still named Furnace Creek Resort when we visited) in the middle of the park near the Visitor’s Center, the rustic Panamint Springs Resort located on the western end of the valley, or at the historic Stovepipe Wells Village in the northern part of the valley. Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells are both dog-friendly, so we made our decision based on location in the park. Since 1926, Stovepipe Wells Village has been welcoming visitors to Death Valley. With traditional motel rooms that open to the parking lot- in our opinion, the best kind when traveling with a dog, a restaurant, saloon, gift shop, and general store, it’s a great place to post up for a day or a week. With tons of open land to walk the dog, a shop for those late-night candy cravings, and a roomy, clean, dog-friendly room, we have nothing but great things to say about our stay at Stovepipe Wells. Oh, and the views were pretty sweet too.

Roadside Stop: World’s Tallest Thermometer and Alien Fresh Jerky
Once upon a time, oddly shaped buildingsgigantic statues, and glowing neon signs were the way that motels, restaurants, gas stations, and attractions caught the attention of travelers and got them off the road and into their businesses. Over the years, many of these roadside attractions have met the fate of the bulldozer and wrecking ball, but some still exist. When we travel, we always seek out the remaining pieces of Americana that will be on our path- two great websites for this are Atlas Obscura and Roadside America. Heading south from Death Valley towards Joshua Tree, one of the few oases in the expansively large Mojave Desert is the small of town of Baker. Sitting on I-15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, it is considered the “Gateway to Death Valley”. If you’re not in need of a fill-up or a snack, there is little reason for travelers to exit the interstate and head into Baker. Unless you’re like us and then there are two great reasons to head into town.

The first is the impossible-to-miss gigantic thermometer, the World’s Tallest, in fact. In 1991, a local businessman commissioned Young Electric Sign Co (YESCO), creator of many of Las Vegas’ iconic neon signs, to build a 134-foot tall thermometer. The height was specifically chosen to commemorate the hottest temperature recorded in the U.S., in Death Valley on July 10, 1913 (though some scientists now question the validity of that reading). The thermometer was constructed from 33 tons of steel and had almost 5,000 lamps, and promptly blew over from the strong desert winds. Determined, the businessman had it rebuilt (surely not a cheap endeavor) and filled with concrete to prevent any more issues. We were fortunate that the day we visited it was only 68 degrees…maybe we’ll have to head back in the summer just to get a photo with a high temperature. Then again, maybe not.

If the thermometer doesn’t have enough pull to get you off the road, add to it a visit to Alien Fresh Jerky and there’s no way to resist. A gift shop selling “alien” jerky (which is actually beef, buffalo, alligator and other terrestrial critter jerky), candies, and other touristy knick-knacks, we, of course, bought some snacks for the road. We’re always suckers for kitschy gift shops, but the real draw to Alien Fresh Jerky is the aliens- they are literally everywhere. So many alien photo ops! Even if it’s just to grab a cold drink and snap a few photos of the aliens atop light poles and hanging out on the roof, take a few minutes to make some new little green friends.