It goes without saying that Death Valley National Park is not for the faint of heart, this is a land of extremes. However, in a way, the entire park itself is a hidden gem. Its extreme conditions (it's the hottest, driest, and lowest park in America) also means extreme beauty. From its Wild West history to its natural features to the little-known and somber stories of those imprisoned in internment camps during WWII, Death Valley is well worth the adventure.
Some tips for visiting Death Valley National Park:
-The extreme temperatures here are no joke. It experiences the widest range of temperatures, from below freezing at night to triple digits during the day, of anywhere else in the country. It even holds the record for hottest temperature ever reported! Definitely avoid visiting in the summer, when scorching heat (and little shade) make it almost dangerous, and make sure to pack lots of sunscreen, water, warm sweaters and blankets.
-Always be alert to your surroundings. Dangerous abandoned mine shafts, snakes, flash floods, wild burros (for real), and heat can be deceptively dangerous.
-Make sure your car is in tip-top shape before driving here, and top off your gas often. There aren't a lot of places to stop off in the desert, and you definitely don't want to be stranded out here.
-The remote location, relative low levels of light pollution and lack of trees and mountains give Death Valley some of the country's best stargazing. Bring binoculars or a telescope if you have them, but you can still see way more than normal with your naked eye.
Not far away from Death Valley National Park is a sobering piece of American History that is often forgotten. In 1942, after Pearl Harbor, the US government ordered the relocation and detainment of 110,000 Japanese Americans, most were native-born citizens, and the rest were prevented from obtaining citizenship by law, in internment camps such as Manzanar National Historic Site. Men, women, and children were forced from their homes into poorly-built barracks in the Death Valley desert, where they were subjected to the extreme heat and cold, crammed into small "apartments" inside the buildings with no privacy. The camp was roped off by barbed wire, and they were forbidden to leave. Rations were kept tight, and they were put to work for meager pay. As a result, Manzanar saw protests by the Japanese-Americans, some of which even turned deadly.
Despite the incredibly unjust conditions at Manzanar and other camps, those inside bonded together to start sports leagues, plant gardens, start a newspaper, raise hogs and chickens, make their own tofu, and more. There's a touching memorial at the cemetery, which is often draped in strings of origami. Bring along something to leave at the memorial for yourself, and make sure to spend time hearing the stories of those who were imprisoned here at the visitor center.
Artist's Drive and Palette is a gorgeous rock outcropping that gets its crazy colors from volcanic debris, cemented gravel, and deposits of other material (although imagining that it’s a literal paint palate is more fun). You can reach it by hiking or, if you’re so inclined, by car.
The vast desert of Death Valley may not be good for growing anything, or even sustaining life at all, but there was something valuable to be found in the arid plains: borax. It's not quite as epic as gold, but this useful mineral (found in detergents, cosmetics, enamel and more) was discovered in the area in the early 1880's, and a few hubs of borax mining popped up, like Harmony Borax Works. Of course, they weren't long for this world. The extreme temperatures weren't prime for the borax to crystallize, and most closed within 10 years. You can still visit the ruins, though!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the easiest dunes in the park to access, and they're the only ones that allow sandboarding! While shorter than the Eureka Dunes, they're broader, covering more area, and the region's mesquite trees have anchored the sand into place.
Imagine walking through a field of sand dunes in an arid landscape, and experiencing an almost-unbelievable phenomenon: singing sand. Alright, maybe it's more like a boom or a squeak or a dull roar, depending on the conditions, but in some places in the desert, sand can actually emit a 450 hertz frequency that can actually be quite loud, and sometimes even physically felt. The best place to hear singing sand in Death Valley National Park is at Eureka Dunes. The dunes are only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, but they're the tallest in California (and maybe the entire country), reaching up to 680 feet tall. They're located in a remote basin in the north end of the park. If you climb to the top of them and shuffle your way down, you can hear the distinctive sound: the National Park Service describes it as sounding like "the bass note of a pipe organ or the distant drone of an airplane."
If you're in need of a filling breakfast or lunch, then make your way to Alabama Hills Cafe. Huge portions of fresh-made grub (burgers, giant sandwiches, skilled, omelettes, and the like), along with homemade pie and bread are all worth ordering, and are usually enough to feed two starving customers.
Ballarat is a strange little ghost town with hippie-ish vibes that makes it well worth a visit. A former mining town established in 1897, it peaked and was on the decline by 1917. Ballarat's most notable moments happened after it was already a ghost town, though. In the 1960's, the notorious Manson Family moved onto a ranch nearby and left some graffiti in town, and parts of the movie "Easy Rider" were filmed here as well.
Then visit Racetrack Playa and witness the mysterious Sailing Stones. The rocks at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley move all on their own. Scientists know that for sure, you can even see the trails they leave behind. What remains a mystery is exactly how the stones do it, the more imaginative explanations involve aliens, while others theorize that magnets might somehow be involved. Current studies point to a phenomena that has ice floes forming around the rocks at night under specific conditions, which helps them slide along the desert floor as the wind pushes them. But, when it's all said and done, no one has actually seen the rocks move on their own. Oh, and if you do visit, don't steal the Sailing Stones (which researchers have named things like "Karen" and "Nancy")...it's illegal, and it hinders important research!
Scotty's Castle doesn't look like it belongs in the desert wasteland of Death Valley, and begs the question why would anyone build a castle in the middle of nowhere? It was built in the 1920's by a wealthy businessman named Albert Johnson for his friend Scotty, who Johnson met when Scotty conned him into backing a fake mining company. Scotty was something of a legend in his day, starting off life as a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, and his high-profile arrest and ensuing trial garnered some attention. The castle today has been meticulously preserved, so if you want a break from the dusty Western ghost town thing, stop by for a taste of the Roaring 1920s!
Badwater Basin is known for 3 things: first, there’s a spring-fed pool of water (which is undrinkable, and therefore bad, hence the name). Second, there are salt flats, which cover 200 miles. They’re the largest protected salt flats in the world, and they have a funky, hexagonal honeycomb shape. Lastly, Badwater Basin is the lowest point (i.e. below sea level) in North America.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the park, and not too far away is Dante's View, one of the higher points in the park. Located on Coffin Peak, in the Black Mountains. It's a great place to see the valley stretched out below you.
The best time to visit Death Valley National Park: The temperatures vary vastly, since it's the hottest place in America, with summer temperatures in the 100+ degree range being common, and winter temperatures falling down to below freezing at night. Still not extreme enough for you? It's also the driest place in America. It sees less than 2 inches of rain on average per year. Moral of the story? Visit in the winter, when temps are usually around 60-70 degrees...and pack sunscreen and water. Lots and lots of sunscreen and water.