North America, United States
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park on mainland USA with an astonishing 3.4 million acres to its name. Despite its size, however, it is often ignored by potential visitors – let’s face it the name isn’t exactly appealing! It came about in 1849 when emigrants heading for Californian gold fields ended up in this 120 mile long desert and endured two months of “hunger and thirst and an awful silence”. Apparently as they eventually left one of them looked down at the valley and said "Good-bye, Death Valley." The name stuck and today many of us tend to imagine Death Valley as a hot, vast, lifeless landscape where there is very little to do or to see.
Of course, this isn’t actually the case at all – okay Death Valley is incredibly hot for much of the year – it holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded - but visit in the winter or early spring and we are certain that this unexpectedly beautifully coloured place will pleasantly surprise you. For a start, it is anything but lifeless – there are over 1000 types of plants growing here including a number that don’t grow anywhere else on the planet. It is also home to a surprising amount of wildlife – over 350 species of birds inhabit or at least visit the area as well as 51 species of mammals including the desert bighorn, coyote, bobcat, mountain lion, and mule deer. Many of the animals will only emerge at night to avoid the punishing daytime sun.
From October to April, Death Valley is a fantastic hiking location with an incredible range of scenery – colourful badlands, snow-covered peaks, sand dunes and rugged canyons. With 3.4 million acres to explore we can only touch upon what the park has to offer but here are a few places in the park you really shouldn’t miss…
Badwater – an alien and surreal landscape of salt flats, it is the lowest point in North America and is an astonishing sight. Only visit here during the cooler months as you cannot walk on the salt flats when the temperature is high.
Artist’s Drive – a 9 mile road offering an incredibly scenic drive through colourful volcanic and sedimentary hills and rocks. It is a one way road that starts from Badwater Road and can only be driven on in vehicles with lengths of 25 feet or less.
Dante’s View – another driving option, this time to a mountain top over 5000 above Death Valley and providing perhaps the most breathtaking views of any of the park’s viewing points.
Darwin Falls – despite the severe temperatures, this spring-fed waterfall flows throughout the year in a narrow gorge. The walk to the falls, although only one mile, is an exciting one involving several stream crossings and some rock scrambling.
Death Valley is also home to the insanely difficult Badwater Ultramarathon – a 135 mile race across the desert held in July. Yes, at a time when we aren’t even recommending people visit Death Valley because the temperatures are so high, thousands of people come here to run that incredibly long distance across it. Wow.
There are lodgings and restaurants available at resorts within the park; Furnace Creek Ranch and Inn, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs as well as other accommodation and dining options in communities outside of the park’s boundaries. It is also possible to camp inside the park with a number of campgrounds available throughout the park run by the National Park Service as well as privately owned campgrounds in Furnace Creek Ranch and Panamint Springs.
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