Living Free In Death Valley

Living Free In Death Valley

“What are you doing this weekend?” a co-worker asked.
“Heading to Death Valley!” I enthusiastically replied.
“Really, is there anything cool to do in Death Valley?”

Friday after work we filled the Element with gas, jugs of water, and food for our adventure. Brittany and I headed out of town just as work traffic was picking up. It was going to be a long, slow drive, but it would be worth it.

Death Valley is the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America. Luckily, the heat in January would not be like it was when I crewed Luis and Mauricio’s run through the desert in July, when it topped out at 130 degrees! Our temperatures would be a bit more mild, 80 during the day, 50 at night, and even a chance of rain.

We inched our way toward the desert as the sun set over the California coastline. After 5 hours of driving we turned left onto Highway 190 and into Death Valley National Park. We had our sights set on Emigrant Campground, a first-come, first-serve free campsite in the park. We pulled in as the rain started falling, backed into one an open space and sat under the awning of the rear hatch to share a few beers while looking out over the sprawling desert floor and cloud soaked sky.

Living Free In Death Valley
Emigrant Campsite in Death Valley

It rained all night but we were able to leave the rear hatch open and we woke up to a slight drizzle and cloudy skies, but a beautiful view from bed. Death Valley gets an average of 2 inches of precipitation each year, so it was an amazing experience to be in the driest place in North America in the rain. We weren’t going to let the damp forecast ruin our trip though, so we packed camp and headed out to explore the valley.

The first place we stopped was not exactly planned, but as soon as we rounded the corner and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes came into view Brittany shrieked, “Sand Dunes, let’s go climb them!” The dunes are more than 100 feet tall and we traversed about a mile across them to reach Star Dune, the tallest in the series. From the top we had a 360 degree view of the valley and we sat to take it all in. These dunes are pretty recognizable as they were used as a film set for Star Wars.

On top of the world (or at least the dunes). Death Valley
On top of the world (or at least the dunes).

Once we had our fill of the view we needed to get back across the dunes and to the car. We could hike along the winding crest of the dunes…or…we could just run straight down the steepest side and hang on for dear life. I chose the fun way down, built up my courage, positioned Brittany as my photographer, gave a big yell, and flung myself down the side of the mountain. My legs moved furiously, Luna’s kicking up sand, trying my best to keep them beneath my body as I descended the 100+ foot tall dune. By the end of my run I was still upright and Brittany was merely a spec at the top of the mound. Her initial plan was to take the safe way down and meet me at the other end, but I yelled back up the hill and talked her into taking the plunge. She inched forward, slide on her behind a bit, but eventually stood up and started running downhill, shouting and laughing with excitement. We both sat at the bottom of the dune, panting and looking back up at two tracks of footprints down the steep incline.

Getting down the dunes the fun way. Death Valley
Getting down the dunes the fun way.

We crossed several more lines of dunes and ran down the steep sides every chance we got. Back at the car we emptied sand from our sandals and clothes, but somehow seemed to still drag at least a bucket full into the car, uh, I mean house.

From the sand dunes we drove an hour north through the valley to visit Scotty’s Castle, a huge mansion built in the 1920’s for a gold prospector in Death Valley, paid for by his millionaire friend. We didn’t tour the inside of the house, but we walked around the property and visited the hill where Death Valley Scotty and his dog Windy are buried.

Next we drove a few miles west to see Ubehebe Crater, a volcanic crater that is half a mile wide and almost 800 feet deep. We hiked around the rim to see deep inside before I laced up my running shoes and barreled down to walls the see what it looked like from the bottom. I was able to bomb down in 3 minutes, but the long climb out took 15+ minutes and I finally emerged dripping in sweat.

We returned south, heading toward the Badwater Basin to look around. Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation point in North America, sitting 282 feet below sea level. The basin floor is a sheet of white, made up of almost pure table salt. We parked and walked out to the basin, feeling the salt crunch under our feet, and trying to find a place to lick the ground where one of the thousands of tourists before us may not have already stuck their tongue.

Badwater Basin - 282 feet below sea level
Badwater Basin – 282 feet below sea level

After eating more salt than we probably needed to we drove to the top of Dante’s View, 5,500 feet above sea level and almost directly on top of the Badwater Basin. We made it up the mountain road just in time to see the sun dip below Telescope Peak across the valley. We sat and watched as the sunset magically changed the colors of the barren mountain walls, but the desert weather kicked in and as soon as the light faded a frigid wind blew us back to the car and to lower elevations for our overnight camp.

The first stop was The Ranch at Furnace Creek for burgers and beer. The bar was packed for the awards ceremony of the Death Valley Marathon and Half Marathon. Thank goodness I didn’t know about it, I might have registered! We found a table and enjoyed the evening before driving out in the dark to find a campsite in the Texas Springs campground. We parked, set up the bed, and watched as a coyote scavenged for food in nearby campsites. We pulled out our sleeping bags and laid them flat on the picnic table to watch the stars shimmer in the pitch black sky. We left the rear hatch open again and slept all night with the soft breeze of the valley blowing through our home.

The next morning we woke up to no rain. The clouds had moved on and it looked to be a sunny day. We packed camp quickly and headed back south on Badwater Basin Road to explore side treks that we drove by the previous day.

The first stop was Natural Bridge Canyon. A 15 minute walk from the parking area lead us to the Natural Bridge that has been formed by years of sparse, but powerful, flash floods roaring down the canyon.

Natural Bridge in Death Valley
Natural Bridge in Death Valley

Next we drove through Artist’s Drive, a 3 mile long road, cut into the face of the Black Mountains, named for the vibrant colors of the rocks caused by oxidation of different metals. The view of Artist’s Palette exposes reds, pinks, and yellows from iron salts, greens from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and purple from manganese. We stopped to take in the colors and make PB&J’s before moving on to our next hike.

On top of the Death Valley Badlands
On top of the Death Valley Badlands

A few miles up the road we pulled off at the Gold Canyon Trail and set off on foot. The trail would typically lead to Zabriskie Point, but the lookout was fenced off for reconstruction. Instead, we hiked to the Red Cathedral, explored several side canyons, and climbed some of the mudstone slopes that compressed softly under our feet. From the top we looked around at the badlands area of Death Valley, a truly breathtaking view.

Yoga in the Badlands
Yoga in the Badlands
Running in the Badlands
Running in the Badlands

Next we drove to the trailhead of Mosaic Canyon. The trail looks normal at the start, but less than a quarter mile from the parking area the canyon narrows to a dramatically deep slot cut into the mountainside. Smooth polished marble walls line the winding trail through beautiful passages. We hiked above the slot canyon a bit and then headed back to the car. It was Sunday afternoon and Monday morning I’d need to be back in my office in Santa Barbara. It was time to move west.

Brittany in Mosaic Canyon
Brittany in Mosaic Canyon

We had purchased a sandwich to share before hiking Mosaic Canyon and before leaving the trailhead we split it for lunch. A very thrifty raven inched its way toward us in hopes of a free meal. It showed no fear, and actually seemed a lot more daring and confident than we liked. I started having visions of the movie “The Birds”. We climbed in the car and I ate the sandwich as I drove back to the highway. I had the window down, sandwich in hand, when I noticed a shadow to my left. It was the raven. Midflight it dove at me as I was driving and eating. The first pass was several feet above the car, but the second pass was much closer. Holy crap! This raven means business! The windows went up and the raven followed us for the next 2 miles, occasionally stopping a moment to rest, but always swooping down right next to the driver’s side window, eying my sandwich.

Very determined raven chasing my lunch.
A very determined raven chasing my lunch.

Brittany had a bit of a different wildlife experience. As we climbed the mountain pass out of the valley I spotted a few moving shadows in the distance. They turned out to be wild burros. Brittany was ecstatic. Later we learned that the National Parks system is investing a massive amount of funds to get these wild donkeys, which are not native to Death Valley, out of the park, even spending $400,000 in the 1980’s to build a “burro-proof” fence along 32 miles of the park borders. It didn’t work.

Later we stopped at Father Crowley Point and I was looking out over the valley when Brittany spotted another burro. Before I had time to turn around she had grabbed her camera and was running to see her new friend. She inched her way forward until the burro reared back and started hee-hawing at her. Brittany tuned and did a dead sprint back to the car. She jumped in, panting, saying “Ahhh man…I really just wanted to pet him!”

Brittany trying to make friends with the burro
Brittany trying to make friends with the burro

Our last stop of the Death Valley adventure was in Lone Pine, at the base of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. We drove up and down the main drag (which didn’t take long), and settled on a burger joint for dinner. We sat in a near empty room, wondering why everyone was crowded around tables in the back corner. Then we remembered, it was Super Bowl Sunday. Who was playing? We didn’t much care, we had just spent a weekend in a beautiful and unique place. When all was said and done, the trip from Santa Barbara to Death Valley, driving around to hit the main “to-do’s”, and returning home racked up nearly 1,000 miles in just over 2 days. A lot of windshield time, but a great adventure and another great story of this adventure we call life.

Sunset in Lone Pine. The Mountains Are Calling...
Sunset in Lone Pine. The Mountains Are Calling…


  1. Enjoyed the Death Valley visit. Brought back good memories. Been there twice and really enjoyed it. Hiking alone in DV I met a LA Sierra Club group who really gave me a hard time for hiking solo in DV. Another wonderful place in this country of ours.

    1. Thanks Mamaw B! We loved Death Valley, looking forward to getting back and exploring more away from the most popular spots! Happy Hiking!

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