I am always in search of new adventures, and there are few places I would venture to twice. Top of my list of exceptions, however, is Death Valley. The lunar landscape of the desert is unlike almost anything on earth, and I came back from my trip with some spectacular photos as well as a few tips if you are planning a trip there yourself.
Go in winter. There are pros and cons, weather-wise, to visiting Death Valley in winter. I was there in February 2017, and while I did encounter snow once during my trip, I also didn’t have to deal with the uncomfortably hot summer temperatures. In general, the weather was decent, but there was a great deal of fog and rain in the mountains as the area is known for during this time of year. I was able to work around the rain, and the clouds overhead translated into dramatic skies that made my photos unique. The colder temperatures also meant I did not encounter as many tourists. Temperatures in Death Valley are never going to be that cold, with a winter range between 39 and 82 degrees.
Maps, maps, and more maps. While you won’t have any cell phone reception in Death Valley, you should still be able to use GPS on your phone. This is where having a good map in the car comes in handy. Do not rely on cell phone maps as your phone may give out of juice. An old-school, physical map is a necessary item. I recommend that everyone check in with the ranger station in Furnace Creek when you start your trip. Say hello to the rangers; they are very nice. At the station you can pick up the latest maps of the area and information on what parts of the park are closed. As of right now, Scotty’s Castle is closed until 2020 for repair, and when I was there, several roads were closed due to flooding. The area is prone to flash floods, so have the park rangers identify for you any dangerous areas before you venture out anywhere.
If you are scared of heights, then don’t drive to Panamint Springs. True confession: I am terrified of heights. Also, I pretty much never drive a car. Combine these two on a very scary road from Death Valley to Panamint Springs and you have the makings of a panic attack on the road. The road to Panamint Springs goes along the side of a mountain. There is a railing to protect you from going off the side, but it’s an unnerving drive. I had plans to drive to Panamint Springs, but ended up not making it because I was too scared. The only good part about the drive was that I stopped along the roadway and saw a lone coyote just passing some time. He didn’t mind my presence, or my camera, and I got some beautiful photos of him.
Your car is your safe space. Getting around Death Valley requires you to have your own automobile. Your car is your lifeline as you drive around the park, particularly in some of the out-of-the-way areas. You must have a car with high wheel clearance, meaning a jeep or some other type vehicle. I would also recommend having 4-wheel drive just in case. When I drove up to the charcoal kilns area, the road was not paved. My car had the necessary wheel clearance, and I made it up to the top. Trying to make the same drive in a regular sedan would simply not have been possible, and would have resulted in damage to the car. Make sure that you know how to use 4-wheel drive before you leave the rental car parking lot. While my car came equipped with an owners manual, I was completely unaware of how to use the four-wheel drive, and thank God I did not end up getting stuck. Learn from me, grasshoppers: know everything about your car before you leave the lot.
Think like a Girl Scout, and be prepared. As I said before, your car is your safe space, so make sure you are prepared by packing the car full of necessary supplies. While I wasn’t sure how to use 4-wheel drive, I did make sure that I had plenty of water, snacks, and a blanket inside the car. There was a very real danger of me getting stuck on the side of a mountain, so I made sure that I had everything inside my car ready to go. There is almost no cell phone reception in Death Valley, so if you come encounter a problem with your car, you are screwed. Likewise, make sure you also have some basic elements of car repair accessories with you, including tire filler and a jack. And always, always make sure you have enough gas. Check your tank before you leave, and try and calculate how much gas your entire trip will take. Death Valley can be a very scary place if you aren’t prepared.
Pack your dinner. Staying in Death Valley is a bit like staying on an island. Everything you need is expensive because it has to be shipped in from far away. Make sure that you get enough gas in Pahrump, Nevada, as well as snacks. One thing to note: there’s really no food around the area for miles except at the hotels. If you arrive, like I did, at the Amargosa Opera House after 9 PM, then there are no dinner options. Thank God for beef jerky and peanut butter.
Where are you stay matters. When I visited Death Valley, I stayed in two hotels: the Amargosa Opera House hotel and the Furnace Creek Inn. The Amargosa Opera House hotel is very basic, but quirky. There is no internet in the rooms, and quite frankly, the bathroom wasn’t all that clean. But it was worth a stay just because the building is so unique. When I was there, the owner of the hotel, Marta Becket, had sadly passed away a few days prior. When I walked into the lobby to check in, all of her friends were there for a memorial service. This woman had friends of all variety, and they all looked to be artists of some sort. I wish I had known more about her because she seemed like such an interesting person. (You can read more about her here.) I recommend that everyone stay here one night. But after that, you will want to stay in Furnace Creek. The Furnace Creek Inn is incredibly expensive, but beautiful. Was it worth the $350 a night I paid? Probably not, but it was a wonderful experience and one I don’t regret. The hotel is centrally located and this is the best location to stay in to visit the rest of Death Valley. There is a cheaper hotel in Furnace Creek called the Ranch at Furnace Creek, so if cost is an issue I would stay here. Going back and forth from central Death Valley to the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction was simply a pain. The road is long and not lit at all.
Dress for dinner. Finally, I will leave this tidbit with you. When I stayed at the Furnace Creek Inn , I had dinner one night in the main dining room. Most everyone who goes to Death Valley is dressed like I was, athletic gear and cameras around their neck. Death Valley is not an area where you dress to impress. In the dining room of the Furnace Creek Inn, however, proper dining attire is required and you were not allowed to wear athletic wear. You will be shunned for your leggings.
Places I visited in Death Valley:
- Devils Golf Course
- Dante’s View
- Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge
- Twenty Mule Team Canyon
- Zabriskie Point
- Charcoal kilns
Places I visited, but not worth your time:
- Cathedral Canyon
- Ashford Mills Ruins
- Harmony Borax Works
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Devil’s Cornfield
- Salt Creek
Places I wanted to visit, but couldn’t because of weather:
- Titus Canyon
- Artist’s Drive
- Ubehebe Crater
Where I stayed :
- Amargosa Opera House & Hotel: ($78 per night) Stay here for one night of quirkiness, but only one night
- Furnace Creek Inn (just renamed The Oasis at Death Valley): ($350 per night) Stay here if you can; it’s a, luxurious oasis in the middle of the desert. The hotel is overpriced, but after a hard day of driving and taking photos, you will appreciate the softness of their beds. If you’re looking for more practical place to stay, however, then try the Ranch at Death Valley. Do not stay and either Panamint or Pahrump – both are too far away.
When I visited: February 10-12, 2017
One last bit of advice: don’t do what I did and take a year and a half to edit all of your photos after a magazine comes calling. Take the time to edit a little bit every day, or make it a priority to edit your images when you come back from your trip. Otherwise, you’ll wind up with a catalog full of photos that are wasting away on your computer. Did I mention I’m in the process of editing my Vietnam photos from March?
Coming up in the next blog: Death Valley in black and white
If you would like to see more images from my portfolio, then please visit my website: www.Kelly-Williams.com