Death Valley — A Nice Surprise

Tod Francis
4 min readNov 17, 2020


We visited Death Valley in late October to break up a trip to UT and are really glad we went there. It is a unique combination of very low desert surrounded by high mountains with 11K ft peaks. One of the really nice surprises was it is very low key compared to other national parks. Very few people anywhere we went, roads were empty, no buses, easy parking and finding camp spots was easy. DV shines at sunrise and sunset as the light gets really interesting with long shadows. It is also much cooler at this time of day than the middle of the days. If short on time, DV can be a good 24 hour experience with an afternoon arrival the first day and afternoon departure the next. It gets really hot there so best to visit in late fall, winter and early spring. Below are a few things we did. There is much more to DV but wanted to pass on our learnings.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes- this was our favorite experience. We went a bit before sunrise to catch the sun coming up from the top of a dune. It was cool, in mid 60’s, and really special. We hiked out about 25–30 minutes to have a view of the big wave sand dune to take photos with morning shadows. You want to arrive early enough to get in position for sunrise. You can take breakfast out with you and eat on the dune. Our morning was perfectly still but I imagine it would be tough with any wind.

Artist Drive — This is a 9 mile loop that is single lane and one way. You drive on an undulating road up to mountains and cut through the rocks in some points. The light hits the rocks after mid-day. I cycled this loop after starting at Badwater and it was a top road ride for unique scenery. The road surface is smooth and very few cars. I finished at Zabriski point where I was picked up. It is a memorable 25 mile ride.

Zabriskie Point — A nice lookout perched up on a point with views of mountains in two directions and very unique sand formations. We hit this at sunset so we could do the dunes at sunrise. Sunset creates dramatic shadows on the features around you.

Badwater — This is the salt flat valley at the lowest point in North America (-238 ft) . It is a short walk (.5 -1 mile)out to the flats. It’s interesting and is a good chance to see this low point

Golden Canyon to Zabriskie point — This is a short hike and gets you into the rock/sand formations. We really liked the short stretch we did and wished we had gone all the way to the point. I would think you would want to hit this before it gets to hot as you are surrounded by reflective surfaces.

Camping — There are several first come first serve camp grounds and parking areas. They are not scenic but we found ours empty. We camped at Stovepipe Wells near the Sand Dunes so we could catch sunrise on the dunes. It is just a big gravel lot to park with decent views of the mountains. There are some nicer tent sites near the back and full RV sites up front. DV also allows dispersed camping off on dirt roads 1 mile from the main paved road (ask for map for dispersed camping at the visitors center). We ran out of time to do this but think it would be great to enjoy the sunset and sunrise from your remote camp spot. Evening temperatures settle down to a comfortable level so you can hang out in the evening and morning.

Lodging — We stayed in our van but noticed The Ranch and a nicer place called The Oasis Inn.

Other spots — There are many places we did not hit due to time constraints. One is the Racetrack which would have been a 3 hr drive. Some places require serious 4x4 driving so check road quality before adventuring off the paved roads.

Cycling — There are hundreds of miles of nice paved roads to ride in Death Valley. This could make for a great winter cycling destination. I really liked the ride I did from Badwater through Artist drive and up to Zabriskie Point. Artist Drive is a one way single lane road that has been recently paved. There are a lot of big climbs in DV. Here is some more info on the climbs in DV.



Tod Francis

Love to adventure; kite surfing, ski touring, mountain biking, and backpacking.