After my quick trip to New York, it was back to the desert! Steve and I drove from the Las Vegas airport to Death Valley National Park, back to Las Vegas, back to Death Valley, and then to the Alabama Hills. I’ll share details and photos below!
From Las Vegas we drove to Death Valley to explore the park for a few days. Death Valley is known as one of the hottest places on earth (see the photos below, taken at the visitor center). Luckily it was not unbearably hot this early in the season and we only had temperatures in the upper 90s and low 100s.
Death Valley (Part 1)
On our first day in Death Valley we checked out Zabriskie Point, one of the most famous viewpoints in the park. I heard this spot is best seen at sunrise or sunset, but unfortunately the timing didn’t quite work out for us on this trip. However, the views from the lookout point were stunning and incredibly unique.
We then spent some time at the awesome and informative Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This was one of my favorite national park visitor centers, which is saying a lot since we have been to so many! We really enjoyed all of the informative exhibits and learned a ton about the geology and history of Death Valley.
We also learned how to check your urine for signs of dehydration!
After refilling our water bottles after reading all of the heat and dehydration danger signs, we did the quick 3-mile round trip hike through Mosaic Canyon. While it didn’t offer any stunning views, the canyon was quite enjoyable with a few small but fun rock scrambles. The hike was very peaceful and we only passed a handful of people on the trail.
Since we had gone to the visitor center beforehand, we knew about the extraordinary geology of Mosaic Canyon. The canyon walls are made of two distinct sections of rock that over time had been pushed right up next to each other. One section of rock was formed as recently as 1000 years ago (called breccia) and the other section is from 700 million years ago (called dolomite). Plate tectonics caused the dolomite to be metamorphosed to smooth marble and thrust upward to be pressed right up next to the much younger breccia so you could see two moments in the earth’s history side by side. It was amazing to see this incredible geological history right before our eyes!
We planned to hang out in the van for a few hours in order to hike around the Mesquite Sand Dunes for golden hour and sunset. Unfortunately a huge dust storm appeared out of nowhere and lasted for many hours, including most of sunset. While we waited out the harsh sandy wind, we enjoyed a cold beer at the Badwater Saloon. Just as the sun was setting, we tried our best to check out the sand dunes, but the blowing sand made it hard to enjoy. Needless to say, we didn’t stay too long.
The next day my legs were feeling restless from lack of hiking so we decided to try one of the desert hikes in Death Valley. We chose the Badlands Loop starting from Zabriskie Point. This was a very dry and very hot hike, with heat radiating from the hills of sand around us. We probably should have started first thing in the morning, oops! The hike goes up and down the yellow hills as the trail winds through the badlands. There was almost no shade at all, and after an hour or so of hiking, the heat became quite uncomfortable. We took an extra detour to see the Red Cathedral which, in all honesty, wasn’t too impressive. The whole hike left much to be desired and I don’t know if I’d recommend this one, especially at mid day. If you want to do this hike, I would say it would be better to do at sunrise or sunset where you might find relief from the sun’s powerful rays and also enjoy the scenery better when it is bathed in golden sunlight.
Camping in Death Valley
We had three awesome nights of free camping at Death Valley! Two nights were at a spot called “The Pads” that we found online. It was a large desert clearing just outside of the park with a gravel road and 20 or so dispersed cement slabs. We parked our van on a slab away from others (there were only about 5 other vans and RVs there) and set up our table and stove for a nice mostly-private evening of cooking and relaxing in the great outdoors. We saw one of the most amazing sunsets of all time, shown below. It looked like someone had painted the sky!
The third night we found a free first-come first-served campground inside Death Valley National Park called Emigrant Campground. It had picnic tables and bathrooms with running water! It was pretty awesome that we were able to snag one of the ten camping spots at this prime location, and I can’t believe it was free and didn’t require reservations! What a gem!
Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead
After three days in Death Valley we headed back to Las Vegas to meet up with our friends Jim and Mike, who were in town for a bowling tournament and desert travels! We had a great time walking along the Las Vegas Strip and seeing all of the glamorous and impressive hotels and casinos. We even made a stop in “Venice”!
The next day we all drove out to the Hoover Dam. We didn’t want to pay to take the “Dam Tour”, but we enjoyed walking around, looking at the intricate and historic power infrastructure and the brilliant blue waters below. We also made a lot of dam jokes! It’s a pretty neat spot and super close to Las Vegas.
We then checked out Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado River surrounded by desert mountains. We waded in the wonderfully cool water and my only complaint was the sharp rocks on the bottom. Be sure to wear water shoes if you ever plan to swim here! We grabbed some beers at the brewery in Boulder City and then made our way back to Las Vegas to relax for the evening.
Death Valley (Part 2)
After a nice restful weekend in Las Vegas we drove back through Death Valley to see some final spots before leaving the desert for good. We checked out Badwater Basin and got to stand at the lowest elevation in North America (278 feet below sea level)! It was a really cool spot where you get to walk out onto salt flats surrounded by mountains on all sides deep in the heart of Death Valley. If you look up at the closest rock wall, you can see the sign indicating sea level high above you. What a cool experience!
The last thing we did before leaving Death Valley was the Artist’s Drive. This is a winding, hilly, one-lane road that goes through some of the beautifully multi-colored rocks in the park! This is a neat experience if you want to see some cool geology without doing an actual hike.
Finally out of the desert…
After leaving Death Valley we drove west out of the park and made our way to Lone Pine, CA to explore the Alabama Hills and then Mammoth Lakes. These spots are so amazing that they deserve their own blog post, so more on that later!
We are so excited to be out of the desert and are ready to explore California, the PNW, and eventually the Canadian Rockies! As always, please let me know if you have any recommendations for any of these areas and follow along our adventures on Instagram! Me: @carrieoutdoors Steve: @walasavagephoto Vanlife: @venturethevan