How to survive Death Valley

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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How to survive Death Valley
Question: What kind of info do you have on Death Valley?

Willis Thomas
[email protected]

Death Valley National Park:
Can you say sizzling?

Adventure Adviser: First off, it's hot. Dang hot. But don't let that minor detail put a wrench in your plan to explore parts of this 2-million-acre swath of dusty, cactus- and coyote-infested desert-cum-national-park in southeastern California. Go in winter--peak season is November through April for obvious reasons--or brave the scorching summer heat in an air-conditioned car and save your hiking for as close to dawn as possible. Spring is best for wildflowers and late fall is usually manageable, temperature-wise. Don't expect much rain. With an average rainfall of a measly 1.75 inches per year, Death Valley National Park is one of the driest places in the country. Surprisingly, though, some streams run year-round and there's even a 15-acre lake within the national park boundary.

Bonus claim to fame: Death Valley is home to Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 280 feet below sea level.

Admission to the park will cost you the standard $5 per car, and the main visitor center at Furnace Creek (619-786-2331) has a decent selection of books, maps, and backcountry information. Probably the most strenuous hike in the park is the seven-mile slog from Mahogany Flat Campground, at the head of Wildrose Canyon, to the summit of 11,049-foot Telescope Peak. From there you'll get a jaw-dropping view of both the highest point and lowest points in the contiguous United States--Mount Whitney and Badwater. Best months to make the ascent are May, June, and October. During the winter, you'll need to be prepared for snow and ice climbing at higher elevations.

Other notable day hikes include treks through side canyons like Mosaic, Titus, and Narrow Bridge canyons, or head to higher elevations like 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak (about eight miles round-trip) or old mining areas like Chloride City and the Keane Wonder Mine. The park operates nine drive-in campgrounds, and the first-come, first-served sites go for about $6 a night. Only Furnace Creek Campground takes reservations in advance; call the park for more details.

To ditch the car-camping masses, head into the backcountry where camping is free and legal, as long as you're at least a mile from the nearest road and a quarter-mile from any water. Be sure to register at the visitor center's backcountry desk before heading out. There's also a handful of lodge- and motel-style accommodations in and around the park, if tenting's not your scene. Book a cabin at the Furnace Creek Ranch ($50-$70 per night; 619-786-2345) or an upscale room at the elegant Furnace Creek Inn Resort ($225 per night; 619-786-2361). Both places offer heat-relief in the form of large swimming pools and plenty of shade trees.

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