We came home from Death Valley on March 6, just as the novel coronavirus was making itself known. As usual (this was our fourth trip) we found it a great place to visit in February or March. With that in mind, I thought others might need something to look forward to at this time of enforced idleness. So, I’ll tell you of our experiences in that area, and you can make plans for your own trip next year — either real or imagined.
Begin planning by checking out flights to Las Vegas. We’ve flown from Indianapolis or Columbus depending on prices.(This year we paid around $315/round trip out of Indianapolis.) If you take an early flight, you can get into Las Vegas early enough to have time to sight see along the way. We always pick up some food along the way too, because nothing is inexpensive in Death Valley. We met people who picnicked most of their meals by doing a little planning, like taking an extra suitcase with table cloth, a little burner, a pan, etc. Gasoline prices are extremely high, so go back to Pahrump to get gas.
While accommodations within the park are very nice, they are also very expensive unless you camp. This year the rooms at Furnace Creek Ranch right at the Oasis were $240/night. The rooms at the big lodge are much higher. Pahrump, which you will pass through coming from Las Vegas has several chain motels; Beatty, a little north, is another town offering accommodations. We opted to stay in Shoshone Inn ($140/night), Shoshone, which requires about a 45-minute drive to the Visitors’ Center. However, there are many sights within the park before that, so the trip isn’t that bad. Badwater Basin, the Natural Bridge, and the Devil’s Golf Course are all stops along the way. The Oasis is a place that you need to go to if you want maps and information from the park personnel. The places you will want to visit are far apart; Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska. We have found it best to rent a pickup truck for traveling within the park because, while places are easy to reach, only the main roads are paved.
Among the interesting sights you won’t want to miss, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, are: Zimbriskie Point which offers an overview of the desert floor and beautiful views of the beautiful sunrises and/or sunsets; Artists’ Drive, which shows beautiful, but subtle, desert hues; the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, which allow you to walk or play on dunes which are much firmer than the dunes found in Michigan or Indiana; the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail where a boardwalk along a shallow creek allows you to view the pup fish (nearly extinct fish found nowhere else in the world) in March but not in February; Ubehebe Crater, where you can look into a volcano that is a half mile across and 500 feet deep. There are many more places you’ll want to explore, so that’s why it’s good to stop at the Visitors’ Center.
I said that food is something you might want to pick up before getting to the park itself. There are places to eat at the Oasis, though. The Last Kind Word Saloon is a very good place to eat your main meal. There are vending machines with sandwiches available too, as well as some fresh fruit and salads, drinks and ice cream. If you have a small cooler with you, food can be kept for awhile as you tour. Even in February or March, although high temperatures reach into the 70s, the interior of your vehicle will get warm.
Three or four days at Death Valley is usually our limit. There is so much to see outside of the park before going back to Las Vegas that you should allow yourself a day or two extra. The China Date Ranch is only 25 miles from Shoshone and is well-worth visiting; we go there every time to buy dates and hike the trails. Shoshone is an interesting town of 31 people with a motel, the Crow Bar Restaurant, a museum, a gas station/grocery and not much else. The Amargosa Opera House at Death Valley Junction, with an even smaller population, is an interesting stop offering a tour of the opera house and a place to eat a light meal. Rhyolite, an old gold-mining ghost town, is outside Beatty.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, outside of Las Vegas, is a surprising find with its beautiful rock formations and probably the most informational Visitors’ Center I’ve ever visited. If you have more time, a drive to the Valley of Fire State Park, less than 45 minutes from Las Vegas, is well worth your time. In fact, if you have children along or like to hike, it might be the highlight of your entire trip.