Traversing Trails: Death Valley National Park

Traversing Trails: Death Valley National Park

Traversing Trails: Death Valley National Park

By Rachael Medina November 03, 2019

Rolling dunes, salt flats, and rugged badlands dot the landscape of the hottest place on earth. The horizon is met with the burning rays of the sun, but it is at nightfall that Death Valley shines the brightest; the Milky Way glimmers against the all-encompassing darkness, and hundreds of stars appear in the country’s largest “Gold Tier” Dark Sky National Park. Though the name may suggest otherwise—and while you shouldn’t expect to see fall foliage here—Death Valley National Park sustains plenty of life and is best seen during the cooler months of autumn. 

Located about an hour and a half east of Mount Whitney and the John Muir Trail, between Sequoia National Park and the California-Nevada border, Death Valley National Park has intrigued visitors for centuries. Because it is the driest, hottest, and lowest  national park—as well as the home of the lowest elevation point on the continent at Badwater Basin—there is a lot to love about this land. 

What You Need to Know Before Hiking in Death Valley National Park

The conditions in Death Valley National Park can change extremely quickly. While October sees highs around 90 degrees, November experiences an average high of 77 degrees. 

Though there are endless opportunities for hiking in Death Valley National Park, the warm conditions can prove dangerous if precautions are not taken. Plan your trip between November and March for the coolest temperatures, but always be ready for anything. Snow-capped hills, flash floods, and heat waves are all representative of the weather patterns here, meaning anything can happen in the fall. 

Weather

It is tempting to go on vacation during the summer months, but when it comes to Death Valley (where the average temperatures are consistently above 100 degrees from May through September), the fall and winter months are more pleasant times to visit. While the weather in Death Valley can be unpredictable, average November temperatures tend to reach a high of 77 degrees and a low of 48 degrees. 

Fees

The entrance fees help to protect the wild landscape and renovate damaged property within these federal lands. Whether you plan to visit for a single day or for a week at a time, make sure to pay your dues, and do your best to leave no trace. 

Weekly Passes 

  • Vehicle and passengers: $30
  • Motorcycles : $25
  • Individual on bicycle or foot: $15


Lifetime
Passes

  • Interagency Lifetime Senior Pass (62 years old and up): $80
  • Interagency Lifetime Access Pass (U.S. citizens with disabilities): Free


Annual
Passes

  • Death Valley Annual Pass: $55
  • Interagency Annual Pass: $80
  • Interagency Annual Senior Pass (62 years old and up): $20
  • Interagency Annual Military Pass (active duty and dependents): Free


What to Bring to Death Valley National Park

Since many of the campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis during this time of year, preparing for a vacation in Death Valley National Park primarily requires proper packing. 
  • Hiking boots
  • Light layers of long-sleeved clothing
  • Fleece sweatshirt or other warm layers
  • Whistle
  • LED headlamp (and extra batteries)
  • Bear canisters (for the burros, not bears)
  • A California-made backpack
  • Three-season tent
  • Light sleeping bag
  • Mineral sunscreen
  • At least 1 gallon of water per person per day
  • Freeze-dried and dehydrated foods
  • California-made snacks and energy bars
  • Detailed map of Death Valley and the surrounding areas
  • Compass
  • Annual pass or cash to pay for a seven-day pass
  • Firewood or camp stove*


*Note: Fires are not allowed during the summer months or during high fire danger at Mahogany Flat, Thorndike, and Wildrose Campgrounds. Additionally, all of the vegetation in the park is protected, so bring or buy firewood (available at the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells General Stores); make a charcoal fire in the National Park Service firepits; or use a gas-burning stove or grill while in Death Valley National Park.

Guidelines for Surviving in Death Valley

With the intense heat, little shade, and dry climate of Death Valley, staying hydrated and being prepared are particularly important.
  • Drink at least one gallon of water per day
  • Stay on designated trails and roads
  • Tell someone where you are going
  • Start your hikes before 10 a.m. (the hottest part of the day is between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.)
  • Wear light, long-sleeved clothing 
  • Bring extra layers of clothing to shield yourself from the sun and accommodate cooler mountain temperatures
  • Wear hiking boots
  • Bring sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses
  • Always take a first-aid kit with you
  • Carry a detailed map, trail description (available at the Death Valley Visitor Center), and a compass  
  • Never rely solely on GPS or cell service (both are spotty and may lead you off paved roads)
  • Avoid canyons during rain storms, and be prepared to move to higher ground during storms and floods
  • Never place your hands or feet where you can’t see; rattlesnakes, scorpios, and black widow spiders are common and hide in these cracks
  • Do not enter mine tunnels or shafts
  • Do not take anything from the park that you did not bring in
  • Do not feed the wildlife


Preparing to Hike in Death Valley National Park

There are endless trails to explore throughout Death Valley National Park, but because the vegetation and animals throughout the park are all protected, it's incredibly important to stay on the designated trails. 

While the drive from Mount Whitney to the park only takes about an hour and a half, when it comes to hiking, the extreme temperatures require an early start. Even with the cooler temperatures in the fall and winter months, it is safer to head out before 10 a.m. If time permits, make the drive over the day before your adventures are set to begin, and stay at the Wildrose Campground or Emigrant Campground. 

Whichever campground you choose, try to arrive early in the day; Emigrant Campground has only 10 camping spots while Wildrose Campground has 23—all of which are free but are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Should these two options fail, there are hundreds of other campsites located within the park, at Stovepipe Wells Campground and Furnace Creek Campground. 

In addition to camping, Death Valley lodging includes a few hotels and resorts—such as The Ranch at Death Valley and The Oasis at Death Valley—if roughing it isn’t your thing. While they offer more luxurious experiences, these getaways also require about an hour-and-a-half drive through the national park to reach the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, where our hike begins. But if spots like Zabriskie Point, Artist’s Palette, and Badwater Basin are on your to-do list, these hotels offer better access than the aforementioned campgrounds, making them a viable alternative. 

When you’re ready to hit the trail, make your way down Emigrant Canyon Road, past the 100-foot Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and follow the curve in the road as it turns into Wood Canyon Road (unless you stay at Wildrose Campground, in which case you will already be on Wood Canyon Road). From here, follow the road as it travels southeast. When you come across the graveled Charcoal Kiln Road, turn onto it, and drive just over two miles until you arrive at the parking lot to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.  

These kilns were once used to produce charcoal (by charring wood and other organic materials) for use in two smelters near the lead-silver mines of the Modock Consolidated Mining Company. This company was based in San Francisco and was incorporated by a few men, including William Randolph Hearst’s father, George Hearst. Because the kilns are thought to have only been used for two years between 1877 and 1879, the structures appear in incredible condition to this day.

After taking a look around, continue on to the 8.4-mile out-and-back Wildrose Peak trail tucked just to the left of the kilns. Shaded with pinyon pines and juniper trees, this well-defined trail might make you forget you’re in Death Valley. Less than two miles in, your efforts reward you with vistas of the valley floor before the switchbacks greet you for the next few miles. Arriving above the treeline is your indicator that you’ve nearly made it and only a quarter mile remains before the return trip. From here, the views are unobstructed. Take in the panoramic scenes of the Mojave Desert as the mountain ranges undulate along the horizon. When the sky is clear, it’s possible to see both the highest and lowest points on the continent; look west toward the 14,505-foot Mount Whitney and east toward the Badwater Basin, nestled 282 feet below sea level. These breathtaking views are more than enough to occupy your mind on the 4.2-mile hike back down the mountain.

The vistas available throughout Death Valley feel more like paintings than real-life landscapes. While it adds weight to your hikes, a camera is essential to capturing the stunning beauty of the park.

Though the day could easily end here, make time for stargazing like no other. Because of its Dark Sky National Park distinction, Death Valley is one of the best places to take in the night sky without fear of light pollution. Drive out to Harmony Borax Works or Badwater Basin for good vistas, or head to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for unbelievable, unobstructed views as the stars melt into the horizon.

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