Death Valley offers more than name suggests

Natural Arch. Natural Bridge Canyon offers interesting rock formations including its namesake arch - image: Matt Johanson

A group of would-be gold miners, exhausted, starving, dehydrated and lost in the desert, sent two men for help in 1849. Amazingly, the pair trekked nearly 500 wilderness miles and returned with provisions and water. “Goodbye, Death Valley,” said a survivor while leaving, inspiring the region’s name.  

A different tale introduced me to what became Death Valley National Park in 1977. R2D2 and C3PO trudged hopelessly through endless sand dunes in “Star Wars,” which was filmed here. Hostile Jawas and Tusken Raiders menaced a fictional world. Luke Skywalker couldn’t wait to split even before Storm Troopers murdered his family. 

Of course, the miners, Darth Vader’s kid, and I all pegged this place wrong. Death Valley’s real story disproves its name, namely, the endurance of the Timbisha Shoshone. They resided and thrived here for more than 1,000 years, calling their home Tumpisa, before American expansion pushed them off their home. Death Valley’s name and undeserved reputation as a barren wasteland understandably irks the tribe. 

“If (they) had known our stories and trails, they would have found water and Tumpisa might not be known today as a valley of death,” a tribal member observed of the 1849 Manly party. 

Though I love to get outdoors, it took me decades to actually visit Tumpisa and experience it myself. What I found made me wish I’d gone much sooner. Visitors can enjoy multiple desert hikes and scenic points of interest within a few days. 

Here are a few suggestions, arranged from least to more strenuous. 

Artists Drive provides a look at the marvelously colorful landscape on the western edge of the Black Mountains. A nine-mile drive takes visitors through an explosion of colors, featuring mountains that are red, pink, yellow, green, and purple. There are multiple places to stop and walk around and admire the geology, including the notable Artists Palette, an especially colorful viewpoint. 

Badwater. Visitors find the lowest point of elevation in North America at Badwater Basin – image: Matt Johanson

Badwater Basin, just south of Artists Drive, marks the lowest dry elevation in North America at 279 feet below sea level. Hikers here enjoy a short out-and-back walk on the large salt flat where a lake existed thousands of years ago. Only a shallow pond of very salty water remains, hence the basin’s name. 

Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail shows visitors ruins of a building and a well-preserved 20-mule team wagon (minus the mules). Both stand in memory of an 1880s business venture. Seeing them is worth a short walk off Highway 190 north of Furnace Creek. 

Dantes View. Dantes View boasts one of the finest views in Death Valley – image: Matt Johanson

Dantes View affords one of the most dramatic and rewarding views of Death Valley and terrific sunset photography. Visitors can reach it simply by driving to the end of Dantes View Road. Those slightly more ambitious can hike about a quarter-mile to the north to summit Dantes Peak.

For a slightly longer trek, try Natural Bridge Canyon beside Badwater Road. A path leads up a narrow canyon with high walls, reaching an erosion-formed natural bridge in about a half-mile. Other interesting formations abound. Those who wish can continue another half mile until the canyon ends with a wall of rock, where most turn around for a two-mile outing. 

Visitors could complete any of the preceding outings in an hour or two, and in hot weather, that might be plenty of exercise for a day. But to get an honest workout and beat the heat, consider a higher elevation hike. 

Wildrose Peak. Wildrose Peak offers hikers an eight-mile adventure at heat-beating elevation – image: Matt Johanson

Wildrose Peak in the Panamint Range stands at 9,064 feet. To reach its summit requires an eight-mile round trip outing that climbs 2,600 feet through a forest of pinyon pines and junipers. 

Nearby Telescope Peak marks the park’s highest point at 11,049 feet, requiring a 14-mile round-trip hike from Mahogany Flat Campground.

Charcoal Kiln Road leads to both trailheads, though snow can close it in winter, and the highest portion leading to Mahogany Flat Campground requires a high-clearance vehicle. 

Both summits offer views of both Badwater Basin to the east and Mount Whitney to the west, the lowest and highest points of the continent both visible from the same point. These hikes are high and cool enough to attempt in summer, though fall and spring offer more comfortable temperatures. 

Finally, Furnace Creek’s Visitor Center (which offers water and air conditioning) teaches both the geologic and human history of the park. Visitors read early accounts, wildly inaccurate, describing a “waterless waste” which was “thickly strewn with dead.” However, there’s no disputing the desert’s intense heat. Death Valley holds world records for the hottest air temperature (134 degrees in 1913) and surface temperature (201 degrees in 1972) ever recorded. Exhibits detail the desert’s designation as a national monument in 1933 and as a national park in 1994.

Joshua Tree, Sierras. Joshua trees and views of the scenic Sierra Nevada range add to Death Valley’s ambiance – image: Matt Johanson

Timbisha Shoshone do not celebrate those developments, but the Visitor Center also documents two events that pleased the tribe far more. Timbisha Shoshone won federal recognition in 1983, and secured rights to 7,500 acres of their ancestral homeland in 2000. That historic agreement, decades in the making, marked the first of its kind between an Indigenous tribe and the National Park Service. 

“We never gave up. The Timbisha people are part of our homeland, and it is part of us. We are people of the land,” said Pauline Esteves. 

If you go: Go soon! Fall and winter are ideal seasons to visit. If possible, give yourself several days to look around. With 3,000 square miles, there’s a lot to see; Death Valley is three times as large as Yosemite and 64 times the size of San Francisco. Avoid the summer, don’t rely on cell phone reception, and carry more water than you think you need. 


Matt Johanson authored the new guidebook, California Summits: A Guide To The Best Accessible Peak Experiences in the Golden State. 

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