A weekend in Death Valley

Flat landscape at sunset, taken from a bare dirt parking lot. Mountains in the background fade into the sunset

In April 2023 we planned a 2-night trip to Death Valley. We had some other things to do in Socal so we just tacked this on to the beginning of the trip.

Originally we were going to camp there for a night, and stay in a hotel for the other night, but when we saw how hot the weather was going to be (highs around 100, lows in the 80s) decided to just do a hotel. We stayed at the Stovepipe Wells hotel. It was a nice and simple room. Every room had a window AC unit and they sounded like they were working very hard. It was a good thing we didn't camp and instead had a cool room to go to in the middle of the day (and at night). Stovepipe Wells Village also has a restaurant, swimming pool, general store, and gas station.

Stovepipe Wells is fairly central in the park and right next to Mesquite Dunes. Furnace Creek is a little closer to more of the park highlights. The Inn at Furnace Creek is a historic inn and seems to be fancier than the one at Stovepipe Wells.


Death Valley is large and desolate. Looking down from a high point, it looks like a massive flat of land surrounded by mountains.

In terms of the visiting experience, it's one of those parks that has a handful of really interesting landmarks but in between it's just flat and brown and dirt. The landscape is not really pretty, but it is interesting. It's not the type of place you want to stay in too long. It's a little unsettling. The little hotel villages look like outposts in an uninhabitable space.

The landmarks are also really far apart, so it's a lot of driving. It is very remote and large but once in the park most landmarks aren't too far away from Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek, both of which have gas stations. That being said, I've never been to the farther out areas of the park (such as Ubehebe Crater), or any of the dirt roads. It would be fun to come back some time with the right kind of car and drive some of the dirt roads. In particular, I want to visit Racetrack Playa and Eureka Dunes.


Day 1

Death Valley is about an 8 hour drive from the Bay Area. We reached Stovepipe Wells at maybe 5pm. It was still very hot. Apparently there had been a power outage at the hotel front desk, and we had to check in with a paper form and they had fans running everywhere. Our hotel room had a little window AC unit. We figured we would try to go somewhere for sunset. Dantes View ended up being too far, so we went to Zabriskie Point, about a 30 minute drive away.

Gradient mountains. Brown at the top, then a tan layer in the middle, and beige white dirt at the front.
Sunset over Zabriskie Point

Sunrise would technically be a better time because at sunset these rocks were all backlit. The hills and valleys on the other side looked quite nice, though.

Afterward there was still a bit of daylight remaining and it was cooler so we went to Harmony Borax Works.

Sunset pink clouds with harmony borax train car on display
Harmony Borax Works
Ryan lying on the ground in front of the train car

Day 2

We planned to get up at 6am to see the sunset and then go back to sleep, but when we got up, the air was so cool that we figured we should take advantage of this time and head to Mesquite Dunes early.

Blue mountains orange sky sunrise
View right outside the hotel
Hazy orange sky sunrise with little cabin in the foreground
Silhouette of Ryan taking a picture of the sunrise

It was a good thing we left so early because by the time we got out of Mesquite Dunes at 8am it was already getting hot.

Footsteps on the top of a dune ridge. The dunes have deep shadows.

Our goal was just to get to what looked like the tallest dune. The hike is listed as 2 miles, which felt accurate for the walk to the highest dune.

Tiny two people walking up the ridge of a dune.

It was still early but it was getting hot and it was nice every time we got to walk in the shadow of the dunes.

Kind of dirty salt flats, the middle pathway is all smoothed out from walking; some people are there. Mountains in the back have some snow.

The next stop was Badwater Basin. I thought this would be a good place to go during the day because I thought there wouldn't be much walking, but there was a little more walking than I expected.

The white salt was very bright and I wished I had brought my sunglasses.

Another picture of the salt flats, you can see the somewhat hexagonal formations, the snow capped mountain is in the back, and no one is in the frame

There was a clear trodden path starting out from the lot where the salt had been stamped flat. The salt near the parking lot was all brown. We had to walk out a bit before the salt polygons were visible.

On the mountain there's a little sign that marks sea level; it's barely visible in the picture.

Dirt, and a view of the immense salt flats of Death Valley. They are kind of swirls of white and some shades of brown.

Next we went to Natural Bridge. There's a short dirt road drive to reach the Natural Bridge parking lot. It's a good (not too bumpy) dirt road. The parking lot has a nice view of the valley. Only one other group was there in the parking lot when we arrived just before 10am. The NPS page says "Hiking not advised after 10am in the summer." It was not even summer and it was barely 10am and it was already too hot.

The hike is about 1 mile round trip with 86 feet of elevation gain.

Natural Bridge

We turned around right after the bridge. I'm not sure how much more trail there is after that.

Information sign in front of Devils Golf Course, which just looks like a bunch of whitish bumpy rocks

Next we went to Devils Golf Course, which barely required any walking. We were unmotivated to explore too much in here.

Looking at the parking lot from the Devils Golf Course, two cars in it. The rocks are blob shaped and covered in dirty salt crystals.

Then we went to Artists Palette, which is a short scenic drive. We stopped at a little turn off because we saw some other people there, but everything can be viewed from the car.

Brown mountains with little splotches of light turquoise and some barely pink sections
Artists Palette

The photo is probably blurred because I accidentally had it on manual focus, but I like it because it makes it look hotter. After this (around 11:30) we went back to the hotel room.

Another dirt parking lot view of the valley
View from the Mosaic Canyon parking lot
Little purple flowers on a tiny plant growing on the gravel floor.
Purple Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata)

At 6pm we finally got ourselves to leave the hotel room to go to Mosaic Canyon. It was less than a 10 minute drive from the hotel. The hike is a 4 mile round trip with 1200 feet of elevation gain.

Mosaic Canyon is a cool hike because much of it goes through a narrow canyon with smooth marble walls. In the narrower sections it's shaded, but at some point the canyon opens up and we were back in the sun.

We turned around at the boulder jam although according to the site you can climb through a hole on the left side and continue a bit farther through the canyon.

A more open spot in Mosaic Canyon, sun flare behind the canyon wall on the left

The sun set as we were walking out of the canyon.

Another parking lot view

We had dinner at the Stovepipe Wells restaurant and later went back to Mesquite Dunes to look at the stars.

We didn't actually hike into the dunes; we just watched from the parking lot. I didn't bring a tripod but the picture (me holding the camera steady at an angle while resting it on some surface) didn't come out too poorly. I think we saw a few meteors too.

Day 3

We didn't have much time today to do things but we wanted to visit a ghost town. It turns out many of the ghost towns in the area either involve a sketchy dirt road drive or a hike, which we didn't have time for, so we settled on Rhyolite.

Little bighorn sheep stuffed animal sitting on the windshield of the car

On the way out we stopped by the visitor center and got a little sheepy stuffed animal from the gift shop.

House with walls made of the ends of blue-green bottles, has a Joshua Tree, a porch, and various stone items in the yard
The bottle house

Rhyolite contains a bottle house, some remains of buildings, and some art installations.

Old fallen apart building with pasty colored walls and big window holes and do not enter sign

After seeing all the old ghost town buildings we looked around the art area. I didn't know what this was at the time, but apparently it is the Goldwell Open Air Museum.

Sculpture of a row of white ghostly hooded people except there is no person only the hood.
Albert Szukalski's Last Supper

These white ghost-like figures are very spooky. Especially spooky in the middle of the desert next to a defunct town.

Another hooded ghost sculpture standing over an old bicycle.

I liked the bike ghost too.

Ryan lying on the mosaic bench thing.

After looking at the art for a little bit, we headed out. To get home we had to drive back through Death Valley.

3 donkeys standing on the road. There is a fourth one a bit behind them on the dirt.
Invasive burros

Along the highway we saw a group of donkeys standing in the middle of the road. Invasive burros are a problem in the Death Valley area.