The drive to Death Valley National Park is a lot like you might imagine it: long, straight, flat sections of pavement with seemingly no end in sight. Although this description might sound pretty awful, it is actually a spectacular and worthwhile drive. The desert valleys are vast and expansive, there are few signs of industrial life (or any life at all), and the mountain passes are treacherous and exciting.
On our early morning drive to Death Valley National Park, we were anxious about securing a campsite at the first-come-first-served Furnace Creek Campground– the only campground open in the park while we were there. With each passing mile, the potential disappointment grew.
Along the route, we passed through a fascinating, run-down little town called Trona. It was one of the only places to get gas before prices skyrocketed within park boundaries. It was also a good place to grab a quick breakfast. I did a little research on Trona (because dilapidated buildings are one of my favourite aesthetics) and learned that Trona is a company town that had been slowly dying for years when a massive earthquake struck in 2019 that wreaked a lot of havoc, including shutting down the high school. Trona is named for its main industry: trona mining. The little town has become infamous for its all-dirt football field and golf course– the soil in the area cannot grow grass. If Trona wasn’t the gateway to Death Valley, I suspect it would be even more desolate.
After passing the sign for Death Valley National Park, the highway quickly starts twisting and climbing– a rapid elevation gain and then a winding drop of about 5000 feet. We passed through a little village called Stovepipe Wells and made our way to Furnace Creek Campground to find it completely… empty! To say we were relieved is an understatement. We set up camp at site #62 which is more private than most, close to the bathrooms and has a gorgeous mountain view.
We made a quick Visitor Centre stop to grab a map and get our bearings. It had been drizzling rain, and we overheard a park ranger say that this was the first rain since December 2021– the irony of two Newfies dragging the rain to Death Valley is too much.
We decided to start off our official day of sightseeing with Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. We were able to walk on the salt flats (yup, table salt) and saw a sign on the mountainside that marked sea level which helped us conceptualize that we were walking on a dried-up lakebed (Lake Manly).
Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette were our next stops. These are beautiful sections of mountains where the oxidization of metals and minerals in the rocks left us with an array of colours on the cliff-faces– blues, greens, browns, and reds.
Next, we made our way to Zabriskie Point and took in the awe-inspiring vistas. It was truly more than our eyes could communicate to our brains.
Finally, we made our way to the remains of the Harmony Borax Refinery, where we saw how borax was harvested and refined in Death Valley by Chinese labourers in the 1880s (and a giant wagon circa. Little House on the Prairie).
Fun fact: Death Valley is literally the hottest place ever recorded on Earth– in 1913 it hit 57 degrees Celcius.
Once we had had our fair share of striking landscapes and fascinating history, we made our way to The Ranch at Death Valley Resort, a gorgeous resort that neighboured our campground. With green grass and rows of palm trees, it reminded me more of the Caribbean than the desert. Here, we perused the shops and treated ourselves to overpriced ice cream cones. We were able to spend $14 USD each to get a pool and shower pass. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of the whole trip. We ended up spending the entire evening flaked on pool chairs, drinking cold beers, reading, soaking up the hot sun, and taking a couple of dips in the pool. It was lovely.
It was at this point that eath Valley claimed my sandals– the glue melted right off and they fell apart. One less thing to carry home in my backpack.
The air stayed hot into the night. We hung our bathing suits and towels out to dry, drank up the last of our booze, and reflected on our trip– tomorrow we were heading back to LA. We cooked a yummy spaghetti with meat sauce and watched the sun go down over the mountains. We lid in the back of the van with the windows, sunroof, and hatch open, watching the stars. The night sky in Death Valley is unreal because there is no light pollution (it’s a Gold Tier Dark Sky Preserve). We saw some falling stars but didn’t know what to wish for– we had everything we needed at that moment.
That was the most peaceful sleep of the whole trip. We slept with the windows open and a gentle breeze drifted through all night. We had a slow morning with no real itinerary for our day. Our only stop on the way out of Death Valley National Park was at the Mesquite Sand Dunes, where it had been raining the day before. Today, it was hot and sunny. The sand was already scalding. We took a few photos, goofed around a little, then hit the road. We were Los Angeles bound with only one night left in the Golden State. The wild donkeys bid us adieu.