Hidden Gems in Death Valley?
April 12, 2008 2:03 PM   Subscribe

What not to miss in Death Valley?

My fiance' and I are spending the 19th-morning of the 22nd in Death Valley. I've been doing hella research on what not to miss, but wondered if anyone had any "secret" spots that are absolutely not to miss. I know about the Opera House, and we're renting a Jeep just so we can go out to the Racetrack. I plan on some classic shots in Rhyolite, and eating Mexican breakfast in that colorful joint in Beatty, NV. And I scheduled this trip to have the full moon set over Manly Beacon as the sun rises. We're staying in Panamint Springs, and are also considering taking a morning trip up to the Alabama Hills and Manzanar. But what am I missing?

I just don't want to come back from a great trip and then hear about something we'd missed. We will have 4 wheel drive (and I'm pretty fairly accomplished, thataway) so rough roads shouldn't be a problem.
posted by notsnot to Travel & Transportation around Death Valley, CA (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
You've focussed in on a lot of very specific spots and scenarios but from my experience driving through there I'd say don't miss the big picture (miss the forest for the trees.) In other words, just lay back and experience the whole so far as possible -- the scale, the feel (sun, wind, underfoot), the smells (if any -- dry places have little smell!). The change of colours through the day. As well as driving from goal to goal, make the journey itself a goal. All very zen and vague I know, but a complementary perspective to your list of "must-sees." And watch for plant and animal life -- you never know where or when you'll see an interesting bird, lizard, insect, or flower. Or interesting rocks. I'm sure you'll have a great time. I love deserts.
posted by binturong at 2:59 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Racetrack is fabulous, but you don't really need a jeep to get there. That said, if you do have a four-wheel drive with high clearance and plenty of water and death-defying four-wheel drives don't terrify you, the Lippincott Mine Road drive (just beyond the Racetrack) that takes you into Saline Valley is spectacular. Terrifying. But spectacular. The 7 mile drive takes about 2.5 hours.
posted by judith at 3:54 PM on April 12, 2008

Also, some of the not-secret spots are also great and worth seeing. If you haven't been before, I recommend Mosaic Canyon, which is an easy hike, but lovely. I haven't looked at temps this year, but when I was there last year at this time, it was well over 100 degrees during the day, making even easy hikes exhausting. And while I would never condone trespassing, the pool at the Furnace Creek Inn is awfully inviting and can be accessed pretty easily from the parking lot.
posted by judith at 3:59 PM on April 12, 2008

I just don't want to come back from a great trip and then hear about something we'd missed.

No need to worry about that. You will come back from your trip and hear about something you missed -- the size of the park almost guarantees that -- but that's just an excuse to return some time.

binturong has good advice. Maybe my favorite memories of the park are rolling out of the tent at dawn and just looking at the amazing, huge mountain ranges bathed in color. The place is huge; I've spent at least 30 days in the park and still don't feel like I've seen everything so don't feel compelled to make a must-see list. If you love it there, you will find your way back eventually.

If we were hanging out talking about this, I'd ask you what you're interested in -- 19th & 20th-century history? Native history? Geology? Geographical extremes? Plant or animal life? Awesome sights? Hiking? Off-roading? There's so much there that if you sould give us a little more insight into your interests that would be a huge help in making suggestions.

Again, whatever tips you do get, don't feel too bad about not making everything on "the list" -- in 3 1/2 days you won't be able to.

The folks at Panamint Springs might be able to help you out with this too -- they've had a message board up for years. It's a great source for local knowledge, especially for the Panamint Range and Saline Valley.

You say you're experienced with off-road driving so consider the following addressed to others who might happen upon this thread. 4WD or no, be aware that the area's unpaved roads can wreak havoc on the tires most rentals (Jeeps included) come with. Where are you renting the Jeep? If it's from the airport,* it'll have street tires and a dedicated rock will find its way through a street tire, no problem (don't ask how I know this.) Regardless, in about 3000 miles of dirt and off-road driving there I've only gotten one flat, so you don't need to write off-road travel off, just be prepared. Carry plenty of Fix-a-Flat (five-six cans -- you can always return 'em if you don't need 'em), supplemented by a good compressor and repair kit. And make sure your spare, jack and lug wrench are all in good working order. And of course, carry plenty of water. If you're thinking about going into seriously remote areas (e.g., Eureka Dunes) bring extra gas as well. You don't want to run out 75 miles from the nearest station. And don't try to make too much speed on the unpaved roads -- the chance of a rock puncture increases exponentially with your speed.

*Most agency rental contracts don't allow you to take the car off-pavement, Jeep or no. It's your call whether you want to ignore that (I always have,) but at least spring for a quick wash before you bring it back so if they want to be assholes they don't give you a hard time. And if you wreck it off road the CDW won't apply.
posted by Opposite George at 4:24 PM on April 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Re: Lippincott Mine Road. Serious ass-puckerer. I wouldn't do it without a seriously off-road equipped vehicle that I knew inside and out. Wouldn't do it not part of a caravan, at least the first time. Yes, I am a wimp. But things can turn to shit pretty fast in the middle of nowhere.
posted by Opposite George at 4:27 PM on April 12, 2008

I have never been to Death Valley. If I was headed there I would try to see some Death Valley Pupfish in the wild. There was a great article about Death Valley in National Geographic a few months back which may give you some ideas as well.
posted by kscottz at 4:31 PM on April 12, 2008

The rangers will discourage you from making the run to the racetrack without a high-clearance 4WD, a full spare and a jack to change tires. They claim the biggest problem people have is blowouts. I backed off on this trip mostly becasue I was in a rented trailblazer and I couldn't find the jack for the life of me.

For an easier bit of off-roading try Titus Canyon pass. Good views, good scenery, much more of a rough dirt road than "off-road". Plenty of intersting stops along the way.

Dante's view is a great place for photos and to get a high enough for some heat relief.

There are lots of places just to make quick stops as you drive through the park: Devils Golf Course, Artist's Palatte, Badwater -- all are good stop on a day's tour.

Treat yourself to an excellent meal of the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort.
posted by dzot at 5:02 PM on April 12, 2008

Darwin Falls is one of my favorite stops in Death Valley. It is a short hike to the falls and provides a great escape from the heat.
posted by a22lamia at 5:41 PM on April 12, 2008

Best answer: Have breakfast at The Crowbar, in Shoshone, just south of DV.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 7:06 PM on April 12, 2008

Response by poster: Yeah, Lippincott looks a little too knarly for us, but thanks for the other recommendations!

So how *weird* is the opera house, and staying in the adjoining hotel?
posted by notsnot at 7:29 PM on April 12, 2008

Best answer: So how *weird* is the opera house, and staying in the adjoining hotel?

Well, let's see... a one-woman* pantomime show earnestly performed by an 80+-year-old former Broadway dancer in a resurrected community hall in the middle of barren desert? Where the audience consists of living people and fanciful mural folk? The show is freaking weird all right, like, Fitzcarraldo weird, but something you'll talk about forever.

I've never stayed overnight at the hotel, but that's gotta be freakishly awesomely weird too. Marta had a couple girls working there last time I stopped by several years ago, so at least she's got help. Really, just about any place you stay in the area (save the FCI -- and even then...) is gonna be marginal anyway so you might as well go for it and leave with a couple of stories.

Re: Racetrack Road and the Rangers. It totally depends on the Ranger you talk to and whether the road's been bladed lately as well as recent weather. Some Rangers are less risk-averse than others, and if you let them know you're comfortable with (and prepared for) difficult conditions they might be more honest with you. Also the folks at the deathvalley.com message board should be able to give you a good, rational assessment of current road conditions before you head out.

My experience with the 20-mumble-something mile Racetrack road has usually been that it has been rough but passable even by normal clearance 2WD, and plenty of folks make it out there all the time in regular passenger cars and minivans. Now, the road is usually passable but also often heavily washboarded, so you should go slow or risk a puncture or other damage. Expect about an hour and a half, two hours each way to get out there from Ubehebe, if you take your time. Obviously, one rainstorm can totally change the terms of that equation. I think the gas is still out at Scotty's so be sure your steed is tanked up before you head out.

Anyway, we're talking a good 1/2-day round trip from Stovepipe Wells, so try to get out there if you have the time -- it'll be totally worth it -- but don't feel too bad if you don't make it this time. The rocks will still be there next time, if not exactly in the same spots.

*At least I think she's solo since Tom passed on a few years back. And okay, she sings a number or two but that just adds to the weird.
posted by Opposite George at 4:04 PM on April 13, 2008

Marta's show and her Opera House are definitely a must-see. The show is poignant and her story is an inspiration, and a tribute to the human spirit.

We enjoyed the surreal landscape of Badwater as well -- don't sit down in the salt or it will bleach out your pants.

Rhyolite is amazing. Here is a little suprise we found while exploring in Rhyolite -- a tarantula!!

Tarantula Photos and Video

He was just cruising along - amazing.

Death Valley is full of surprises and there is something new and amazing to see around every corner. Would take a long time to see it all -- anything you miss will just make you want to go back again! Have Fun.
posted by HelloKitty at 12:19 PM on October 15, 2008

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