Lost in Death Valley
February 28, 2013 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Driving from Vegas to Death Valley and back on a day trip. GPS or no GPS?

We'll follow one of these routes (.pdf) but as we're both city dwellers unused to driving in huge wide open spaces, I'm concerned that missing a turning might lead us to be hopelessly lost in a pretty unhospitable atmosphere.

Is paying extra to rent a car with GPS worthwhile, given that, if we get lost, we might be seriously lost in a desert miles from the nearest town? Or are the roads so clearly signposted that it's hard to get lost.
posted by essexjan to Travel & Transportation around Death Valley, CA (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's not like there's hundreds of roads from which to choose. You're not likely to go off-road, are you? The signs are pretty clear, you can get a better map from Rand McNally or AAA, and you should be fine.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:26 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would say GPS. My bf and I drove from Vegas to Death Valley, and we got lost. There's no cell reception for a good part of the drive, so we couldn't rely on our smartphones, either.
posted by inertia at 4:30 PM on February 28, 2013

I think that getting lost is unlikely, but I'd carry a GPS so that you always know where the nearest gas station is. Or if you REALLY don't want to spend the extra money, do some research on the internet and mark the gas stations on your paper map.
posted by tinymegalo at 4:32 PM on February 28, 2013

Ha. I was just going to pop in here and say not to rely on a GPS for gas stations, stores and the like in the desert. Hopelessly out of date and inaccurate in my experience. Not to mention stuff isn't always open.

Then again I was also going to say there's no way you could get lost but apparently people do!
posted by fshgrl at 4:35 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

No, don't go offroad:
posted by doncoyote at 4:37 PM on February 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

If you miss a turn, there'll likely be nothing beyond it for miles - as Ideefixe hints at, the roads shown on the map, outside of Vegas and Pahrump, are pretty much the only paved roads out there. I haven't gone into Death Valley, but I have gone up US95, and it's pretty empty. From what I remember, roads leading to Death Valley were well marked Personally, I would be OK with the map you've linked to and judicious use of my odometer. If you're not totally confident in your sense of direction, a GPS may be worth the peace of mind though.
posted by LionIndex at 4:47 PM on February 28, 2013

GPS, but don't leave pavement and turn on the "breadcrumbs" feature. This will leave a line wherever you go. If you feel lost, you can always turn around and go back to where you came from.

Also, if you hear yourself saying "the GPS says this dirt road is a shortcut" stop and backtrack.
posted by The Deej at 4:52 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Death by GPS, which is about tourists following their roads marked on their GPS that aren't actually roads in Death Valley. The article recommends "A good map, a compass and, in case of trouble, plenty of water."
posted by jamaro at 4:52 PM on February 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

The main roads of Death Valley are well-traveled and well-marked and are not risky as long as you're responsible. Read your map and the signposts, keep your gas tank up, don't drive at night, don't go off road, and you'll have nothing to worry about.
posted by switchsonic at 4:58 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stay on the main roads. You'll be fine. They're well marked. Switchsonic has said all the rest, as have others. Having driven through there several times and seen the main attractions, I can tell you they are easy to find and it's not that difficult to stay safe.

I'm surprised no one has said take a cooler with lots of liquids and some snacks. Not because you'll be stuck in the desert (although if you had a flat or a breakdown, it might be sometime before your AAA shows up) but, because you'll be saving your wallet--costs for drinks and snacks were outrageous last time we drove through. Go in a well-maintained vehicle, have good antifreeze, and if you're paranoid, take water for the radiator.

Have fun. With luck, there will be spring flowers--and that is a sight you will never forget. Quite a contrast with high summer in DV.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:18 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Somehow we managed to do it in the early 90's and not die, with two kids and no A/C. You'll be fine.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:20 PM on February 28, 2013

Also, if you hear yourself saying "the GPS says this dirt road is a shortcut" stop and backtrack.

This. It's not difficult driving - I did it as a solo first time visitor to the US, and there's not really anything to boast about doing so, even in July. But the consequences for poor decisions are really severe. Carry water - a few dollars for a few gallons really isn't going to hurt - and stick on the roads. Gas is rare, so fill up when you can.

You'll have seen these safety briefings and they're really all you need to know. Sadly, we've managed to make car accidents the leading cause of death in one of the world's most inhospitable places, so more than anything else, drive safe.

Enjoy it, it's (quite literally) awesome.
posted by cromagnon at 5:26 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did this last month and while we had GPS on our cell phones we didn't need it - the main roads are clearly marked and you won't be leaving pavement. Carrying water and snacks is a good idea. Hardest turn to find was the state highway turnoff in Parhrump and it wasn't hard - HUGE sign before it for the Furnace Creek Inn. Carry a map. It's a beautiful drive and only a couple hours.
posted by leslies at 5:58 PM on February 28, 2013

Yeah just pick up a park map once you are there and they have all of the up to date information, including which roads are unpaved. Some of the roads back to telescope peak and wildrose needs 4x4 (especially if wet), but there are many cool sights that are purely on pavement, and those roads are a whole mountain range over from where you would be coming in. The other unpaved roads are up in the Northern half of the park and are usually closed until well into summer.

The park itself is quite LONG, and since the park encompasses two valleys, there is a mountain range in the middle that you have to drive parallel to and then up and parallel to on the other side, and you would have to drive like a hundred plus miles once inside the park to see everything on the southern half alone. I would just enter through Parumph and Shoshone, and then drive north on Badwater and stay in that valley. That section has the lowest point in the US and the Zabriski Point and lots of other really famous spots. You really would have a hard time getting lost in that area too since it is very well signed.

If you want to see something cool close to town too, Hoover Dam is also a really rad half day trip, especially since they built a new bridge. There is a big visitors center and it is really beautiful.
posted by cakebatter at 6:18 PM on February 28, 2013

FWIW, 35-40 years ago my family and I used to go to the Furnace Creek Inn once in a while and we never got lost. I'm sure road conditions and navigational signs have improved since then and that you'll be fine. If you belong to AAA just get a TripTik.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:12 PM on February 28, 2013

There's only a few roads in Death Valley that you should travel on, you can navigate very well with the brochure they give you. I remember traveling through the area with a gps and having it show the empty desert as being full of roads (not in Death Valley, but nearby in Mohave), probably roads that were planned, but never completed.
posted by 445supermag at 8:04 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I will advocate for absolutely exploring the dirt roads of Death Valley. The Racetrack Playa is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, and it's 27 miles down a pretty well-maintained dirt road (note that the link I posted is an official NPS link - this isn't some secret out-of-the-way place). You will want a 4WD vehicle with high clearance. I've done it several times with map only, no GPS. You will also want a tested/inspected spare tire and lots of spare water, just in case, but that road is very well-traveled and if you run into trouble, you'll likely run into someone within a few hours.

I will recommend against exploring the Lippincott Mine Road that connects Death Valley to Saline Valley unless you are an experienced off-road vehicle enthusiast and prepare very well. It is spectacular and terrifying.
posted by judith at 8:26 PM on February 28, 2013

If you're not accustomed to four-wheeling, I'd recommend against the Racetrack. I mean, I've seen Buicks and Hondas out there, so you don't really need high clearance or four-wheel-drive if you know what you're doing. However, if the road hasn't been graded lately, you'll be mumbling, "Yes, yes, another fanTAStic fucking view. Are we there yet?" while your fiance asks you to please slow down (when you're doing 6 mph) every two minutes, on account of the rough road.

It seems to me as though I've asked a question about DV - look in my history from 2008.Here it is.

As to your main question, if you can read a map--especially if you're gonna have an extra pair of eyes looking for turnoffs--GPS ain't gonna help you more than a map.

It's a big fuckin' park. Truly awesome. Enjoy.

(and if you're coming down from the pass, put the car in lower gear. Don't be tempted to just coast down and see how fast it gets. There's one hump in the road that can send a Civic airborne if you're speeding. Ask me how I know.)
posted by notsnot at 8:50 PM on February 28, 2013

Thanks everyone for your great answers - as always helpful and informative. I was wavering on the side of GPS until I saw the "Death by GPS" answer. Eeep! We weren't planning on going off-road - we'll be in a compact rental vehicle. I'll get a good map and we'll stock up on drinks/snacks. There'll be two of us so there'll be a driver and a navigator (and as an added bonus this means I'll have someone to eat if it all goes horribly wrong ...)
posted by essexjan at 12:49 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it wouldn't *hurt* to have a GPS especially if you are doing in-town/highway driving, just don't rely upon it completely and to the exclusion of what your fresh paper map, eyes, and spidey senses are telling you. I have a GPS unit in my car and it's been very helpful on road trips in finding gas stations and estimating my time of arrival so I don't get anxious about being late but if I relied upon it blindly, I would never be able to go anywhere because it keeps routing my exit in the wrong direction of the one way street I live on. I think of it as a somewhat eccentric but well meaning navigator and weight its advice accordingly.
posted by jamaro at 10:20 AM on March 1, 2013

Driving between Vegas and Death Valley was an issue for me, but I was relying on a map that turned out would be useless: my cell phone. I thought once I had mapped out the route, that my application would have the map in memory and wouldn't need constant cell service. I was wrong. Doing it at night without lights and turning down unsigned roads made it even more interesting. If I had brought a paper map with me, I wouldn't have had a problem.

The NPS Death Valley map is perfect for getting around the valley. You will need a vehicle specifically for this purpose, the washboard roads will ruin a normal rental car. It may be the dessert, but I did drive through a few spots of water at least 8 inches deep. Farabee's Jeep Rental was fantastic. I was able to arrange an outside of business hours pickup (I wanted to head out from Furnace Creek at 4:00a, so I wanted to grab it the night before, but wouldn't make it into the valley until after the closed) and I got an hour long one-on-one with the shop owner who gave me all sorts of useful advice.

Bring water. The shop owner gives you a distress beacon in case something horrible happens (though cautions you it isn't for something like "I twisted my ankle", it's for "I'm dying right now, please send help") and the jeep has a full size spare.

I cannot strongly enough urge you to see Racetrack Playa and other off-the-paved-road locations.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:57 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Follow-up : Thank you all for the advice. We missed the turn at Pahrump and so continued on to the next one - I was expecting to see something signposting the signpost before we actually got to it - you know, letting us know the turn was half a mile away so we could be prepared, but it was suddenly there without warning and we were past it before we knew it.

But we made it via the scenic route and the drive was great. I was pleasantly surprised at the car parks and toilets (albeit they were latrines, but fairly unstinky ones). The only gulp I took was the drive to the Salt Creek, which is over a long, very bumpy and stony track, but it was perfectly passable.

The park was well worth the drive and Zabriskie Point at sunset was memorable.

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by essexjan at 12:19 PM on March 31, 2013

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