Visiting Death Valley National Park (DVNP) was never one of my dream destinations. I can’t think of too many individuals who would be enthralled by the thought of visiting a place called Death Valley though, I am sure, there would be a select few who would be infatuated by such a macabre sounding destination. So in my quest to visit all of the national parks, it never got to the top of my bucket list of parks to visit until I had only 10 parks left to set my foot in and spend a few hours or a few days. Virtually all of the parks I have visited astonish me with their striking beauty and uniqueness. So the decision was made…2022.
This land of extremes (hottest, driest, lowest place in North America according to then DVNP Guide) ranks 16th in attendance of the 63 National Parks so I guess its name is not necessary a STOP or Do Not Enter sign. It got 1.1 million visitors in 2021. Even the Badlands NP in South Dakota numbers #28, with a name that might frighten off the high-anxiety crowd. DVNP is the largest National Park in the United States, NOT counting those in Alaska. The hottest recorded temperatures on Earth have been at Death Valley. The perfect combo of sand and rocks (which make up the vast majority of the desert floor) radiate a large amount of heat: hot air is trapped in the valley bordered by high mountain ranges, and a low average rainfall (two inches vs 10 in most global deserts.)
A bit of background information: What’s in a name? A large group of emigrants from Salt Lake City heading to the California gold fields were lost in this valley in the mid-1800s. The group broke up trying different routes, but two families with children had patiently remained, waiting for scouts to save them. Only one man had perished during their long wait, but as this group made their way west over the mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving the valley its morbid name once they made their way out. Probably naming it that while in there might have been considered bad luck… if it already wasn’t bad enough.
For some reason, I feel compelled to talk about death in Death Valley. It is by no means the most dangerous national park. One might imagine it would record a record number of deaths given the desolation and extremes of temperatures. These have occurred but tend to garner more press attention that the fact that more deaths occur because of car crashes than heat. There are long stretches of paved roads which might just encourage some drivers to envision themselves on a drag strip and decide to set a personal speed record. Currently it is ranked around 10 in recorded deaths per capita national park visitation. All too soon though, and the current emerging trend that causes many park deaths, will be deaths from falls that occur as a result of taking selfies near treacherous terrain. I must admit I did a few of those but not too near the edge! Note my moments of sanity when taking selfies below on stable solid ground…and on that note, I shall move on from this grim topic to one a little less moribund.
Upon approaching the boundary of Death Valley National Park the sculptured hills and terrains and its natural beauty, uniqueness, vastness began to emerge. It was clear that many surprises awaited us. Around every bend was a different palette of colors on a landscape of mountains, undulating hills, canyons, and salt flats… After taking the requisite photo in front of the DVNP sign we headed towards the Furnace Creek Area and The Ranch at Death Valley where we would be staying for three nights.
Hotel options are scarce in and near Death Valley (more so with so many entrances still closed off). I was excited however about our stay at the Ranch. From a macrovision standpoint The Ranch at Death Valley was lovely and the resort facilities plentiful, but upon approaching the 700 building, where out room was located, via some confusing one way streets, it appeared much more like a very ordinary looking older two-story motel with our room on the second floor. We climbed the well worn stairs, which took us into the well worn and stained carpeted dark hallway. The room, somewhat rough at the edges, was adequate until the toilet would not stop emitting a screeching sound, the shower knob fell off in my hand making it quite challenging to regulate the water temperature, the garbage was not emptied for the entire three day stay, AND even worse, no restocking of the coffee packets, bad coffee that they are. The roster of services we received at check-in so stated that there would be no in room services during ones stay. Now I understand that with inflation hotel prices have gone up, eco-friendly hotels no longer change sheets and towels every day, but for $245.00 per night I should not have to service my own room. With the absurd room prices and food prices here, I would just about be spending my entire month Social Severity check for three days, “servicing “ my own sleep and food needs.
Now that I am on a rant, I will grouse about the food options. There is not much competition around, so guess they hope to capture your whole paycheck. The main restaurant “The Last Kind Words Saloon” had a nice American menu with not so nice prices. We checked that off as an option as the cheapest dinner dish was a pesto pasta for $41.00. Now at the pool bar I could get a $21.00 deli sandwich, $14.00 crudite, or $15.00 chips and salsa. I wonder if I could have asked them to deliver some chips and salsa from the Saloon as over there they were only $10.00. Nope not dining here. Since our room was convenient to the golf course, I considered that option and the 19th hole Bar and grill had a $19.00 Back Nine Burger or a $16.00 Divit Dog. NO! Next, the Ranch 1849 Restaurant Buffet (all you can eat ) looked like the best bargain for $34.00 until we cruised it and one look at the well done veggies, dried out meats, salad concoctions that rivaled our compost bucket in the kitchen screamed NO! I thought perhaps the food had been sitting there since 1849. Succinctly put, it was some of the crappiest looking food I have seen since I gave up going to crappy buffets years ago. I didn’t even bother to check out the Inn Dining Room at the Oasis of Death Valley on the ritzier end of town since the chef would not post a dinner menu online…But I have been told that “my trip is not complete without a meal in the beautiful and historic Inn Dining Room, especially true now that this restaurant has undergone a major redesign.” I think I can live with that! http://(https://www.xanterra.com/stories/the-inn-at-death-valley-desert-dining-dream/)
The last two options were The Ice Cream Parlor or buying something at the General Store. Now I could go for ice-cream but really!!! @ $7.00 for a single scoop. They did have what I consider a kids menu (hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese) at the adult prices of $18.00-$22.00. All hail to the winner: the General Store. It’s not that I can’t afford these restaurant meals. But, I prefer not to be held hostage by closed roads and the relative remoteness of the park (which I could avoid by choosing perhaps a long drive out of the park and back up to Beatty). With the price of gas, I could drop the $75.00 on a rib eye steak and save time and energy. BUT mostly I prefer not to be at the mercy of the wealthy billionaire owner of Xanterra that operates the Death Valley Hotels and restaurant concessions . So it was a cold meal as one of those tiny motel microwaves are NOT provided in the rooms. So $36.00 bought us 2 yogurts, two sandwiches, a bag of cranberry crunch for our dinner and breakfast and pint of milk for morning coffee I have learned that if you lace the coffee colored water coming out of the motel pots with a half packet of Starbuck’s via, you get a pretty decent cup of coffee.
Skip ahead if you are not interest in some background for my pique, displeasure, grudge, irritation, resentment etc!! The Inn, and the associated Ranch, Restaurants and Retail are owned by Xanterra and not operated by the federal government. Three of four lodges in Death Valley are privately owned and not subject to national park oversight. Most room rates and food prices at these facilities do not have to be approved by the National Park Service Companies. Xanterra, I am about 99% sure, paid for the $100 million-dollar renaissance at the end of 2018 of The Oasis at Death Valley ( to win bids parks concessionaires are required to spend more of their own money for improvements and new buildings). Xanterra Travel Collection is a privately owned American park and resort management company controlled by entertainment magnate Philip Anschutz. Denver-based billionaire Anschutz. “You don’t come to Death Valley because abundant life flourishes here. Which is exactly why an oasis in the middle of it is so special. Only here can you enjoy two distinct hotel experiences that have undergone a $100 million renaissance – the historic, serene, and peaceful Four Diamond Inn at Death Valley and the family-friendly, adventure-focused Ranch at Death Valley – the energetic epicenter of this True American Oasis located in Death Valley National Park. The Oasis at Death Valley in Furnace Creek is situated in a lush oasis surrounded by the vast and arid desert of Death Valley National Park —https://www.oasisatdeathvalley.com/ . I definitely missed the boat as I thought I was coming to Death Valley to experience the vast desert and its natural wonders not a man-made oasis.
Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch /Badlands Loop
The sunrise was splendid on our first morning, dressing out the mountains in mauves and pinks, and viewed from our hotel balcony. After our Starbuck’s laced brown water, it was time to think HIKE! Read on if you hanker a hike up a huge gold-toned monolith. This might just be the hike for you OR read on because you are loving reading about Tasia’s and my adventures on this DVNP trek. Daughter Tasia was in charge of researching and choosing the hikes we would include on our Death Valley “itinerary.” She opted for some of the more popular moderate hikes given that they seemed to match my hiking abilities and are popular for obvious reasons. Golden Canyon was termed a must-do-hike by many a visitor to Death Valley National Park. This mix-and-match set of trails, which initially cuts through the many shades of the brilliant yellow-gold barren eroded land of Gold Canyon, connects to the other trails of Red Cathedral, Zabriskie Point, and Gower Gulch making this a perfect choice for our first DVNP hiking adventure. What fit the bill for us was a loop starting at Golden Canyon. I am a hiker who likes to get the tougher and uphill part of the hike over with first – but I can say this now, though I definitely did not know that when we started out. We proceeded to the Badlands Loop, and returned via Gower Gulch for 5.7 miles.
The Golden Canyon where R2D2 got zapped by Jawas, was on the wider side as a road once went through the canyon but was knocked out in 1976 by a rainstorm. I kept looking for the “footprints” of good old R2D2, who had lumbered about but none were to be found in Tatooine Canyon. They were probably scoured by the winds in the passageways in this canyon. The high canyon walls are made up of golden sandstone and red mudstone walls. Waves of reddish brown mudstone appeared as the foreground for the peaks of the Red Cathedral shortly after entering the canyon. What was quite striking during this first hike is the bareness of the hills, mostly devoid of vegetation.
We followed the Gower Gulch Trail that forks near the base of the “shark fin” shaped Manly Beacon (this towering pinnacle was named for William Manly, one of the ’49er pioneers who slogged though the area and actually lived to tell about it). I found it challenging as, at times, a very narrow path cliffside, and the few steepish ascends and descends (mostly up to Manly Beacon). Leaving the wide, rocky canyon behind we walked among the light yellow mudstone hills. Here, the path narrows and winds up and up around Manly Beacon for a 180 degree view. The panoramas heading up to Manly Beacon and of course on top are quite exceptional. I was prompted to turn around for a peek-a-boo look (and photo) about every 150 feet getting an even better view of the Badwater Basin and Panamint Mounts across the basin. I found the hike challenging as, at times, a very narrow path cliffside, and the few steepish ascends and descends (mostly up to Manly Beacon).
Beyond Manly Beacon, the trail descends mudstone slopes towards Gower Gulch. But first we opted to take the Badlands Loop Trail traversing a myriad of undulating, fluted, grooved, rutted, conical, and domed mudstone hills arrayed in many shades such as goldenrod, wheat, banana, beige, buff, fawn, vanilla, sand, taupe, brown, cinnamon, mandarin, rust… This area is classic badlands (defined as deeply eroded barren fantastically formed hills ). It was quite a sweet experience of complete immersion in a very surreal arid terrain.
The Badlands Loop eventually descended into Gower Gulch, a wide loose gravel filled wash which had no defined trail and we basically enjoyed wandering down the steady downhill and eventually out of the mountains. I was awed by the array of color from oxidized volcanic mineral deposits in the sediments on the walls of Gower Gulch . The wash passes several Borax (called the “white gold “ of miners) mines.
When we neared the terminus there was a tall dry falls to negotiate a path down and then the grand finale of some slick rock chutes of polished stone through the narrows of lower Gower Gulch. You are thus delivered into the expansive sweep of Death Valley and the final traverse, mostly flat, to the trail head parking lot. On my, what a halcyon morning we had !
Would love to have joined you for this one. Outstanding pictures! What a landscape!