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Destination: Death Valley

4/12/17 by Emma Walker

Death Valley holds the distinction of being America’s hottest and driest national park, thanks to just two inches of annual rainfall and summer temperatures reaching as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit. With a low point 282 feet below sea level, it’s also the lowest spot in the country, yet just a stone’s throw from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US. Death Valley sprawls for 3.4 million acres, earning it the status of America’s largest national park outside of Alaska.

Death Valley is a truly unique place, home to sand dunes, gigantic craters, and deep canyons carved by generations of flooding. The valley’s oldest rocks are too warped by time to give scientists much of an idea of the area’s history, but are estimated to be at least 1.7 billion years old. Their younger counterparts are around 500 million years old, and indicate that the entire valley once sat at the bottom of a warm, shallow sea.

The gorgeous mineral deposits of Artist’s Palette are the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago.
The gorgeous mineral deposits of Artist’s Palette are the result of volcanic activity millions of years ago. Paxson Woelber

Movement during Mesozoic Era, between 250 and 65 million years ago, caused the formation of the Sierra Nevada range and led to an upsurge in volcanic activity, the long-ago predecessor of the mineral deposits we know as the Artist’s Palette. As the sea receded, inland saltwater lakes began to form, and as the water evaporated—finally disappearing during the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago—it left behind the enormous 200-square-mile field of salt deposits we see on the valley floor today.

With all these inhospitable distinctions and its violent geologic history, it would be easy to write Death Valley off as desert wasteland. Pay a visit to this incredible landscape, though, and you’ll be itching to get back.

When to Visit Death Valley

Summer temperatures in Death Valley are no joke.
Summer temperatures in Death Valley are no joke. Graeme Maclean

Unsurprisingly, the most important consideration for a trip to Death Valley is the season. Thanks to the park’s incredibly hot temperatures, summer visitors typically spend most of their time in air-conditioned vehicles. Trails at higher elevation are cooler than the valley itself, but still, you’ll get to see more of the park if you wait for cooler temps. Summer here is long: the park is usually too hot for all but the hardiest visitors between May and the end of October.

Fall and winter are pleasantly warm, and skies are generally clear, especially in the autumn. The park’s campgrounds open in the fall, and educational ranger programs are offered. By winter, the park has cooled off considerably, and the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the park’s least crowded time. It’s also perfect timing for aspiring photographers, since the snow-capped peaks up high are a great juxtaposition with the valley and salt flats, not to mention the low-angled winter lighting.

Hands down, the best time to visit Death Valley is in the spring. In addition to warm temps and sunny skies, springtime in Death Valley famously means one thing: wildflowers.

How to See the Wildflowers

If you think deserts are drab, visit Death Valley during the wildflower bloom.
If you think deserts are drab, visit Death Valley during the wildflower bloom. Marc Cooper

It takes just-right conditions to get a perfect bloom in the valley, but when it does happen, it’s incredible. There are three ingredients for a fantastic bloom: regularly spaced rainfall during the winter and early spring, plenty of warmth from the sun, and less wind. When all of this comes together, the valley floor will be covered in pink, purple, white, and gold flowers.

The 2016 super bloom was an exception, but you’ll find some wildflowers in the park every spring.
The 2016 super bloom was an exception, but you’ll find some wildflowers in the park every spring. Marc Cooper

The superbloom of 2016 was more of an exception than the rule, but there are always some wildflowers in the basin. The flowers here are mostly annuals (technically ephemerals), which allows them to survive in the otherwise incredibly harsh conditions found in Death Valley. The timing of the peak blooms varies a bit depending on the elevation, but for the most part: the flowers in the lower elevations and foothills are best from mid-February to mid-April, in the canyons and higher valleys from early April to early May, and on the mountain slopes and in the woodlands from early May to mid-July. All of this, of course, depends on the previous winter’s rainfall.

This should go without saying, but keep in mind that despite the temptation, picking wildflowers in the park is prohibited—Leave No Trace is the law of the land.

What Else to Do

Whether you run the ultra or not, be sure to stop and check out the Badwater Basin.
Whether you run the ultra or not, be sure to stop and check out the Badwater Basin. Always Shooting

Once you’ve experienced the park in bloom, there’s plenty left to explore, especially if you want to take on the challenge of a lifetime. Head to the park in mid-July, when the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, also known as "the world’s toughest footrace," is held. The first organized footrace took place in 1987, and just five runners completed the course that year. The course starts at 279 feet below sea level and runs all the way up to 8,360-foot Whitney Portal. The elevation gain, in combination with the easily 130-degree temperatures, means relatively few ultramarathoners have managed to finish the Badwater. (Note: You do have to both apply and qualify, so start training now for next year!)

For a less intense visit, take on one of the established hiking routes (ranging from easy walks on the flats to difficult adventures to peaks). Many visitors spend their time driving around to see the most interesting spots: Zabriskie Point (the place to go in the park for sunrise or sunset), Twenty Mule Team Canyon through the badlands, the best view of the park from 5,475-foot Dante’s View, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the Badwater Basin.

Whatever your motivation—whether you’re visiting Death Valley for spring blooms, an ultramarathon, or something in between—this vast desert ecosystem is packed with endless adventures. Just don’t forget to bring plenty of water.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.