Death Valley National Park is one of the most impressive—and bleakest—spots in North America. Though extending into Nevada, the vast majority of Death Valley is in California and is easily accessed on well-paved roads from east, west and south. The park begins 140 mi/225 km northeast of Los Angeles.
It gets very hot in this mountainous desert (on summer days, up to 130 F/54 C), but you can see a wide variety of beautiful and unique scenery. In the mild and warm winter months—temperatures drop below 100 F/38 C mid-October to mid-April—it's much more comfortable and enjoyable: Freshwater springs bubble up in places, and the sun plays on the deep reds, purples and golds in the canyon rocks. Among the activities available are scenic drives, hiking, Jeep-trail excursions, camping, interpretive exhibits, guided tours, picnicking, horseback riding and even golf (at Furnace Creek).
Be sure to visit Badwater Basin at 282 ft/86 m below sea level, the lowest elevation in the world. It marks the starting point for the Badwater Ultramarathon, held annually in July. This 135-mi/217 km ultramarathon claims to be the most extreme and demanding foot race in the world, as it covers three mountain ranges, and runners face temperatures up to 130 F/54 C. http://www.badwater.com.
Burned Wagons Point marks the place in the desert where settlers heading to California burned their cumbersome wagons and headed on through the desert on foot. Scotty's Castle is an unusual palatial home built by a wealthy Chicagoan as a vacation retreat and later named after the builder's friend, an 1800s prospector and teller of tall tales who lived there for many years.
Other areas not to miss are Artists' Palette Drive (for multicolored cliffs), Ubehebe Crater (an extinct volcanic crater), Zabriskie Point (a great spot to watch the sunset), Dante's View (at 5,475 ft/1,660m, the highest viewpoint in Death Valley, good for sunrise), Devil's Golf Course (rugged salt formations), Mesquite Dunes and Golden Canyon (a narrow canyon good for hiking).
Death Valley's mysterious "Racetrack" is off the beaten path—20 mi/32 km beyond Ubehebe Crater by sand and gravel road—but worth the trip for oddity seekers. It's a sun-blistered playa (dry lake bed) strewn with stones that slither across the surface under extremely rare conditions—you can see the tracks of their movement in the dried mud. No one has actually witnessed the rocks moving, however, or knows why they would move. The terrain is completely flat, but is prone to gale-force winds that could move the stones after rains make the mud slick. Jeeps can be rented from Farabee's Jeep Rental. http://www.farabeesjeeprentals.com.
The more remote regions also have several impressive things to see: Eureka Dunes, California's tallest; Darwin Falls in the Panamint Valley; and Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest.
Lodging, camping and meals within the park are available in the Furnace Creek area and in the hamlet of Stovepipe Wells. If you're in the Death Valley Junction area, don't miss the Amargosa Opera House, just south of the park, where proprietor Marta Becket performs original dance pantomimes (October-April only—advance reservations are a good idea). http://www.amargosa-opera-house.com.
Don't take any chances with a partially full gas tank; remember to stop for gas before you approach the park and again when you depart. http://www.nps.gov/deva/index.htm.
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