In Pursuit of Wildness: Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park in America.
It’s a summer day and I’m filling up my motorcycle gas tank in Baker, CA, when I asked the gas station attendant how hot it is. I’m a bit surprised when he points upwards and says, “The thermometer reads 112 degrees. It’s 134 feet high, the tallest thermometer in the world.” After a dramatic pause, he added, “Death Valley National Park is just that way, and it’s likely to be hotter there, but so worthwhile.”
With a full tank, I bade him farewell and decided to ride into Death Valley National Park on my way back to Three Rivers, CA. I’d never been there before, and Highway 127 led me to Renoville, Shoshone, Badwater, and Furnace Creek. The attendant was right, it was hotter. I crossed the entire park that day but promised myself to return in the spring for a more immersive trip, in order to really appreciate this immense wild landscape.
Spring and that time have come. I am traveling on Highway 395, or the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, to Lone Pine where I’ll camp on my way back to Death Valley National Park. The heavy winter rains have produced an abundance of wildflowers.
At the Lone Pine Campground, I claim campsite #23, which faces the 7,700-foot Nelson Range in Death Valley National Park. The night is quiet, the skies are bright. My fire burns clearly into the night and the stars seem to rest on top of Mount Whitney. A shooting star crosses the entire sky. I wait for another one.
It’s cool at 6 a.m., with little traffic, and I pass dots on the map called Alico, Swansea, and Keeler on the ride toward Panamint Springs. There are just a few gas stations in the park and it’s a good idea to top off your tank. If you have a motorcycle built for dirt, head up toward Wild Rose Campground, about 16 miles from the paved road. It sits at an elevation of 4,100 feet, and there are 23 isolated camp sites (free) with incredible views.
Tonight I’ll camp at sea level at the Texas Spring Campground, near Furnace Creek. All amenities are here, and a campsite is almost guaranteed when arriving before 2 p.m. As I look around, there are other bikers setting up their camps. Be sure to go up to Dante’s View, which sits at 5,478 feet. Up there, you are almost directly above Bad Water, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level.
The wildflowers, after years of drought, are showing their love for the recent rains, and the display is amazing. Death Valley is best seen in the winter months or early spring. Any other time, it will be hot, very hot. I’ve done both, and I much prefer the spring. I always carry two liters of water, two Gatorades, and some food just in case. This is a wild area and you must be prepared. I always carry a lightweight tarp for use as a lean-to shade cover from my bike.
I am surprised by how many motorcycle riders I see. A group from Australia, riding Indian motorcycles they rented in Los Angeles, tell me they’re “heading across Death Valley to Las Vegas for a bit of fun. We just had to see this amazing park for ourselves.”
It is spring in Death Valley National Park, and yesterday it was a cool 70 degrees. Today, the temperature has shot up to 95 degrees in no time. That gas station attendant in Baker was right, it’s normally hotter in Death Valley—but so worthwhile.
Planning a Visit
Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms induce vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and offer refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Vally. This is an enormous national park encompassing over three million acres of designated wilderness and hundreds of miles of backcountry roads. And that spells adventure on a motorcycle.
It is very rare for all campgrounds to fill up in Death Valley: Furnace Creek $20 (136 sites), Sunset $14 (270 sites), Texas Springs $16 (92 sites), Stovepipe Wells $14 (190 sites), and Wildrose is free (23 sites).
GPS devices sometimes give inaccurate directions in this area, so keep a park map handy and pay attention to signs. Some roads are inaccessible in winter. Always carry water.
Facts & Information
Sightseeing, hiking, ranger-led activities, visitor centers and museums, backcountry roads, biking, stargazing, picnicking, camping, birding, and wildflower viewing. Scotty’s Castle is closed until 2019 due to flood damage. Visit the nearby Manzanar National Historic Site.
Death Valley National Park is open year-round and may be visited day or night. Autumn arrives in late October, with warm but pleasant temperatures and clear skies. Winter has cool days, chilly nights. Springtime is the most popular, with warm, sunny days and the possibility of grand displays of wildflowers. Summer begins early and by May the valley is too hot for most visitors.
Twenty dollars per motorcycle: $12 individual/$25 vehicle. All passes are valid for up to seven days. Annual park pass $50.