The last few times I’ve booked a flight from Wichita to Las Vegas I haven’t needed a hotel room, just a rental car to get me out of the city.
I’ve used Wichita Eisenhower National Airport’s direct flight on Southwest as a gateway to two of the country’s most-visited parks – I’ve circled Arizona’s Grand Canyon and explored Zion National Park in Utah with cars rented at McCarran International Airport – and earlier this year I made my first trip to the largest national park in the lower 48 states.
Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border, is two hours west of Vegas’ airport. You’ll feel like you’re much farther away, though, while inside Death Valley, from the lack of phone and internet connectivity to the immensity of the park’s 3.4 million acres or 5,000 square miles and the otherworldly landscapes you’ll see. In fact, several sites have been cast in movies as a double for a galaxy far, far away.
Sunday, April 29 is the final day of National Park Week, an annual reminder from the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to visit the more than 84 million acres of land protected by the National Park System at 417 sites in all 50 states.
While Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska, 91 percent of its land is officially designated wilderness and not accessible to the typical tourist. Still,you’ll have 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads to access a variety of terrain and interesting sites.
More than any other national park we’ve visited, it is important here to thoroughly plan logistics in advance. Accommodations, gas and food are all available inside the park but in limited supply. You’ll also need to consult a visitor center to ensure safety on unpaved roads and check for any areas that are closed. We explored in a sedan, easily filled two days and felt we saw the highlights of the park even though two popular spots were closed. (Dantes View is closed through May for construction and Scotty’s Castle will reopen in 2020.)
Based on what you want to see, however, you might need a vehicle with high clearance and appropriate tires. There are in-park Jeep rentals for backcountry drives available September through May.
There’s a reason the rental season is limited: temperatures in Death Valley National Park often exceed 120 degrees in the summer, restricting outdoor activity except in the mountains. That doesn’t mean there are no visitors, in fact the park still attracts about 100,000 tourists a month in the hottest months of the year. But they likely are there for what they consider the true effect of the hottest, driest and lowest national park.
The park is open year-round and you can always explore via driving. If you want to hike, though, spring and fall are your best options. The busiest season is in the spring when temperatures range from the 50s to the 80s. Temperatures are reaching the 90s by late April, triple digits starting in May. October is when thetemperature again drops into the 90s.
We went in February and found mid-day temperatures were perfect for hiking, though early mornings and evenings were chillier than we expected. We stayedoutside the park because we don’t camp and prices at the Inn at Death Valley did not fit our budget (prices start at $489). There are not many options outside the park either but they are more budget-friendly. We stayed at Longstreet Inn & Casino, in Amargosa Valley, Nevada, for a little over $100 a night. The rooms were basic and there was an on-site restaurant. Note that there was no gas station between there and the park; the inn was about 30 miles from the first stopping point inside Death Valley National Park.
Highlights from our trip:
Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a 2.7-mile one-way loop on a dirt road that was fine to traverse at slow speeds in our sedan and worth the bumpy ride. Every turn brought a more dramatic view of the badlands and we were surprised this drive didn’t get the hype it deserves in guides we’d read before the trip. Zabriskie Point is one of the most talked about spots and for good cause. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to a magnificent panoramic of the multi-colored landscape. We stopped in the morning and late afternoon to see the shifting colors and shadows.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center has the sign out front that shows the current temperature, so it’s at least a photo opp stop. We also enjoyed the museum exhibits inside, consulted with rangers here and grabbed sandwiches to go. The second day we were in the park, we stopped about half a mile from the visitor center to have fry bread tacos at the Timbisha Shoshone village.
Badwater Basin salt flats is another stop you have to make for the photo opp. It’s the lowest point in North America – 282 feet below sea level – and looks surreal with its crusty salt formations. Be sure to look high on the cliff behind you to see the sea level marker.
Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile, one-way loop paved road. There are a number of places to stop for views or to hike, including Artist’s Palette, which offers one of the most colorful examples of the volcanic and sedimentary hills.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the most accessible of the dunes in the park and apopular stop to see what most think of as a desert scene. The tallest at this spot reach 100 feet.
Ubehebe Crater took us the deepest into the park that we would venture. It was about a 60-mile scenic drive from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The crater is 600 feet deep and a half-mile wide. The walk from the parking lot is short to see into the crater; you can also hike around the crater.
Death Valley National Park
Getting there: Fly to Las Vegas, drive two hours west to California-Nevada border
When: open year-round
More info: https://www.nps.gov/deva