Death Valley and Sequoia National Parks
After a brief stop in Las Vegas and a night at the Luxor (fun fact, the 6th tallest Pyramid in the world) we headed out west towards California. Our wallets lighter from a night of unsuccessful gambling and our bodies lighter from constant sweating in the 105 degree heat, we anxiously looked forward to the opportunity to sweat even more. We were headed towards the hottest spot in North America: Death Valley.
126 miles from Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park straddles the Nevada-California border. Home of North America’s record for both the hottest temperature (134 °F) and the lowest elevation ( 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin), Death Valley is almost alien in both its appearance and characteristics. Don’t worry, we’ll get more into aliens later. Home to scenes from Star Wars and real-life fighter jet tests, Death Valley is really unlike any other place in the country.
We started out early in the morning from Las Vegas, Alex once again sleeping on the floor due to losing the nightly rock-paper-scissors competition to determine who got to sleep in the two beds. After stocking up on the traditional road trip fuel – sunflower seeds and mints – we started north west on US-95. Centered between the Amargosa mountains to the north and the Amargosa desert to the south, our route took us through a climate that we hadn’t experienced before. Flat desert stretched as far as we could see with hills dotting the landscape to our right. As we soon realized, we would be traveling right along the southern edge of the Nellis Air Force Range, home to the legendary Area-51. Spotting both a predator drone practicing take off and landings on an airstrip only a hundred yards away and an “Area 51 Alien Center” sign on the side of the highway, we were instantly intrigued by what ‘alien’ opportunities might pop up along our route.
Cruising down the highway at the near limitless desert speeds (while Laj slept in the back as usual) Alex & Eric decided no road trip would truly be complete without stopping at an Alien Center along the way. Pulling in after a few hours of travel, the building looked promising.
However, further investigation revealed that the Alien Center was really no more than a glorified gas station. The mysteries of Area 51 would need to wait and be unlocked another time, Death Valley called for us in the distance and we headed on our way. But first, we did what any road-trip trio would do:
Back on the road again we easily reached speeds of 90 mph and were passed non-stop by other, more experienced, desert highway drivers. Starving from lack of gambling winnings in Vegas, we turned our attention to another important aspect of our trip – finding a good place to eat.
Our drive down US-95 was incredibly remote. A few small towns dotted the landscape, but mostly nothing but sand and rock on either side. A few hours from Las Vegas we reached Beatty, NV – population 1010 – the largest town we’d come across on this stretch. Surrounded by the mining ghost towns of Ryholite, Bullfrog, and Gold Center, Beatty was exactly as we imagined a small desert town would be.
We stopped at Mel’s Diner – which again looked exactly as we expected a desert town diner would. Fueling up on traditional diner food, with Eric searching in vain for a milkshake and Alex drinking five cups of coffee, we headed out towards Death Valley.
Now, we had long ago made the decision to stop anywhere cool or interesting along our drives – which we all believe to be a key principal of road trips in general. Whether it was the burning hot sun or lack of water, we made two crucial errors in Beatty. First, unlike at any other point on our trip, we skipped stopping at Beatty’s only bar – the Sourdough Saloon. Second, we also skipped exploring any of the old mining ghost towns surrounding Beatty. We regret both of these disastrous decisions to this day. When you’re planning your next trip, keep this lesson in mind. Even the professionals (us) make mistakes.
The entrance to Death Valley National Park was only fifteen minutes or so from Beatty. However, our destination was the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, about an hour away. Entering Death Valley we were greeted by views of the countryside unlike anything we had ever seen before. The landscape seemed almost like the surface of the moon – stretching out flat in front of us with mountains rising on either side. The Bug Slayer reached great speeds on the straight stretches of road and we pulled into the Visitor Center in no time.
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is a great starting point for the rest of your Death Valley journey. Inside the Visitor Center is a 3D topographical map of the park in addition to the usual paper maps available. We decided we needed to explore the famous Badwater Basin – the lowest elevation in North America. Outside the Visitor Center is a large display of the current temperature, a pretty cool way to show off what kind of heat you survived in the park. For us it was 120 degrees. What made this especially wild was the temperature swing we’d experienced so far. It was nearly 100 degrees hotter at Death Valley than our snow camp in Tetons.
Of course don’t forget to fill up your water bottles before leaving – there are very few sites with available water throughout the park.
It was about 20 minutes (on the aptly named Badwater Road) from the Visitor Center to Badwater Basin. The second we exited the car we knew our plan to complete a hike on the Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail was unlikely. Less than two miles out and back, the trail takes you through the salt flats and offers surreal views of the surrounding landscape. However, do not underestimate the effects of the heat. Twenty minutes out of the car and we’d each basically consumed a gallon of water. It was so hot it was hard to breathe. The start of the trail is covered, for good reason, with several warning signs advising you not to hike after 10 am. Now, we did hike after 10am – but we were prepared with plenty of water and as much sunscreen as we could buy. We walked as far as we deemed necessary and safe to get some views and turned back, stopping on a boardwalk off of the trail to get a glimpse of the lowest point of the Basin. We were not disappointed by the landscape and experience.
Fleeing the burning heat of Badwater Basin to the air conditioned oasis of our rental car, we headed west again towards our next destination: Sequoia National Park. On the way we had one final Death Valley highlight – the Mesquite Flat sand dunes. Some dunes are over 100 feet tall and are the backdrop for several Star Wars scenes. Again, beware of the heat, but you are free to wander the dunes and explore.
Final Thoughts for Death Valley
Death Valley was definitely worth seeing. Unlike the other parks we visited, we didn’t camp and we didn’t really hike. The heat makes a long strenuous hike difficult and potentially dangerous. However, the landscape of Death Valley is like nothing we had ever seen – definitely worth a visit for that alone. If you really want to spend some time exploring or camping, we’d recommend you visit in September when it may be a (little) cooler. Two landmarks we didn’t visit on our trip, but we hear are worth it, are Artist’s Drive and The Racetrack.
Sequoia National Park
Only a 6 hour drive from Death Valley, Sequoia National Park is known for its giant sequoia trees, including General Sherman (the largest tree on earth) and the Giant Forest which includes five of the world’s ten largest trees. Also notable, the west slope of Mount Whitney – the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States – is within Sequoia’s boundary.
Because of our stop in Death Valley, we arrived very late to Sequoia. The winding road up the canyon towards the park entrance felt like it took forever to climb, especially in the pitch black. Coupled with the wind shaking the car, it was an unfortunate night for anyone prone to car sickness. Nevertheless, it was striking to see the first giant sequoia tree looming in the darkness on the side of the road.
We stayed in the Lodgepole Campground, which was relatively packed. Reservations were done through recreation.gov. About a month in advance we received an email saying that our campsite might not be available because of downed trees and the potential danger of more trees falling. Thankfully they cleared our campsite prior to arrival – but the unpredictability of National Parks is always something to keep in mind when planning a trip.
Campsites were close together and the campground was fully booked. If you’re planning a Sequoia trip, advanced reservations will definitely be required. Each site had a spot for campfires, a bear box for food storage, and a picnic table. Thankfully even though we arrived around 9 p.m., our reservation saved our spot. We did have to set up our tents in the dark. The campsite was in a heavily wooded area and we did hear a large four-legged animal breaking branches right next to us as we tried to sleep. Was it a bear? Was it a deer? We’ll never know. Eric especially will never know since he slept through the smashing of tree limbs and us being on the verge of being eaten.
The next morning, glad to have not been eaten, we drove down to the start of the Congress Trail and began a hike through Sequoia’s Giant Forest. The trail was pretty flat and clearly marked. While the hike was short and not particularly strenuous, we did get to see General Sherman, the largest tree in the world. Many other impressive sequoias framed the trail as well. Thankfully we saw almost no other hikers – we started out around 6:30am and definitely would recommend you do the same.
We didn’t stay in Sequoia for much longer. We thought that this, out of all of the parks, needed the least amount of time to explore. The main attraction of Sequoia National Park was seeing the sequoias! They were amazing and worth the experience, but we soon became used to them and were anxious for our next adventure. Seeing them from the top of a peak would have been a great addition – but Yosemite was calling and we didn’t have the time. On our way out however, we did have a classy exit:
Final Thoughts on Sequoia National Park
Compared to our other stops, we spent the least amount of time at these two parks, but we feel they were worth seeing.
We recommend avoiding driving up to Sequoia in the dark. Not only did the countless curves make some of us (Alex) want to constantly throw up, but you’ll likely miss many sequoia sightings. Overall we think seeing General Sherman was worth it – really there is something amazing about the world’s largest tree. If you want to avoid crowds when camping, you may want to opt for a different campsite. However, we did not regret the short amount of time we spent in Sequoia. Yosemite was next and was well worth the anticipation.