From Page, AZ, we drove back down through Las Vegas and up 95 to Amargosa Valley, turning left towards a Casino/Hotel/RV Park a few yards from the Nevada/California border. Home base for our visit to Death Valley for a few days. From there it was only a short drive to 190 at Death Valley Junction and then a slow descent into the otherworldly desolation of the park.
Driving down 190 towards Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
The Drive down 190 into the valley has several interesting areas but most of them did not have names that I could find. But I think they’re interesting enough in their own right to call them out. The road continues with a constant slow grade that seems gentle but was hell on our transmission for some reason. But if we kept the right speed/gear combination we could make it back out without overheating the transmission fluid. The first thing you’ll run into is the park sign with a decent area to pull off and take a picture.
This area is part of the Amargosa Range, an ancient lakebed that dried up 5 million years ago. As the mountains to the west began to rise, the area became more arid and the water disappeared, leaving exposed sediment composed of lake mud, gravel from the nearby mountains, and ash and lava from the lava fields active at that time. As the area began to tilt with the rise of the mountains, the erosion that created these badlands began to occur. The black areas often capping peaks and rises is volcanic rock which erodes much slower than the sediment and helps create these badland formations.
Area just past Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road
Soon after, you pass Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road, a reference to the old borax mines in the valley and the borax brand of the Twenty Mule Team, the mule team used to move the borax from the mine out of the valley. I was completely unaware of this history but Katy was excited because of it’s history involving the National Parks Service head that once worked there.
The area here is an interesting series of dry tan mud canyons and washes. I guess you’d call these badlands. I thought exploring the valleys was interesting. We just pulled over on the shoulder and walked around.
Zabriske Point is the first attraction you’ll come across, named for unsurprisingly some rich white guy, Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, vice-president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 1900s. There’s a parking lot and a short trail to a peak with great views of the badlands here. There’s an enormous expanse of loose rock canyon wash leading down to a main canyon valley that continues on through to the Badwater Basin area. Along with easily accessible peaks that ring the valley. You could spend a couple days just exploring this area. Katy hiked the long loop trail there while I decided to just hike down to the valley and explore the formations a bit on my own.
This area is deceptively deep and if you look closely in many of the photos you can see tiny hikers down in the valley. We watched the sun set here one night and came back another for hiking in the day.
Views from Zabrisky Point down into the badlands and canyon valley.
Hiking into the valley below, views from the bottom.
The area just before Furnace Creek Inn
Continuing down 190 the landscape changes again and you’re treated to a series of rock formations with green dominant layers and interesting washouts forming hoodoos and strange shapes. The flats here are carved up with veins of this toxic looking creek that I can’t find a name for. It may be the higher point of Furnace Creek or another tributary to it. But I was surprised to find water down here in such a desert hellscape.
Just past Furnace Creek Inn, the road continues to the visitor’s center but just to the left you’ll find a junction to Badwater Road, leading in to the basin. You’ll also see a sign indicating that you are at sea level. The two main attractions along this road are Artist’s Drive and the salt flats of Badwater Basin, I highly recommend seeing both.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the North America at 282 feet below sea level and the salt flats cover over 200 square miles, mostly comprised of regular table salt along with calcite, gypsum, and borax. There’s a parking lot at the far end where you can walk out on the flats. The ground here is flat and pure white where the people walk, out and out forever until the people look like tiny dots in the distance. Really cool looking.
Artists Drive Loop and Artist’s Palette
Half way between the turn off and the Badwater Basin parking area you’ll see the Artists Drive loop road to the left. It’s narrow and one way, 9 miles long, and restricted to vehicles under 25 feet. You’ll pass the exit first, the entrance is further along towards the basin. This area was very interesting. The road winds up into colorful canyons with a few places to pull off and go exploring. The main attraction is the Artist’s Palette area with a huge canyon and a section of rocks with bright colors that you can climb around on. The area is pretty big so save some energy. The road then winds down into a series of tight turns and interesting formations and then back on the main road. I think it would be fine for most cars but our RV struggled with the hills.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
If you keep driving on 190 you’ll reach the visitor’s center. And then if you continue on you’ll eventually hit a junction near Stovepipe Wells where 190 turns left. There are a few dune areas but the most popular is the Mesquite Flats Dunes area near Stovepipe Wells named for the mesquite trees that grow there. Only one percent of the park is covered in sand but these areas are still pretty vast and fun to walk around on. The highest dune here is around 100ft with spectacular views of the mountains that surround the area. The floor of the valley is comprised of cracked clay from an ancient lakebed which is visible in some places.
Ed PhillipsMay 14, 2021 at 6:42 pm
Hello Daniel. I love what you are doing. I am a hiker / scrambler and particularly enjoy hiking in rocky desert areas. You are living out some of my dreams. I usually carry a Nikon D90 DSLR with a versatile 70 mm – 300mm zoom with a 1.4X converter in my pocket. I also like to use a polarizing filter. That’s about as much equipment as I can carry in addition to all the water you need in these area. Can you say something about your equipment and how you use it? Joshua Tree is now in my bucket list thanks to you. I have a son living in Albuquerque. There are so many places to see in NM. Can’t wait for the all-clear on the pandemic so I can get out there to visit. Keep up the great work!