Camping in Death Valley- taste the nature in the lowest spot of the USA

Camping in Death Valley- taste the nature in the lowest spot of the USA

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Spending the night under the black vastness of space filled by the Milky Way and beyond it is a fantastic experience. But to feel it better, you have to try it in a far-from-civilization place, on a grassland or a desert, far from any sound or light noise. There are many such places on the Earth, but let’s focus on one of them, the famous Death Valley. And let’s see how is it to experience camping in Death Valley!

Some geography

Let’s open the satellite map of the Earth, and focus on the southwestern part of the United States! What we can see is a yellowish area, surrounded by green color along the Pacific Coast, the mountains on the north, and gradually turning green toward the middle of the US in the east, and Mexico in the south.

This yellowish area, unevenly filled by isolated local green spots is called the North American Desert. It is divided into several “sub-deserts”, including the 3 deserts of California (the Great Basin, Colorado, and Mojave), each with its own features. The most attractive of them is Mojave Desert, shared between the states of California, Nevada, and a bit of Arizona.

If you haven’t been there, don’t imagine “Sahara-type” deserts like a sea of sand with drifting dunes (although there are some). Here the deserts are xeric type- just dry and arid mountainous lands with some bush, dry grass, or just naked rocks and stones.

North American Desert
Somewhere in the North American Desert

Mojave Desert

Mojave is the smallest and the driest of all deserts in the area. In fact, this is the driest place in the US, and one of the driest places in the Americas. That means clear and cloudless air almost the whole year round, at least in most of the desert. Yes, it causes hot days and cold nights, with significant temperature differences, but at the same time, it provides excellent conditions for watching the stars at night.

This desert is relatively high in altitude, with some mountains scattered around it. But it keeps a special gem- a place that is different than any other part of Mojave, unique for the whole of North America. This is the Death Valley, a place where you can feel on another planet!

About Death Valley

You can see it on a physical map, like a long and narrow scar on the Earth’s surface, different than anything else around. It is a trench, about 170 km (105 mi) long and about 15 km (9-10 mi) wide.

The surrounding terrain is between 1000 (3200 ft) and 3000 m (9800 ft) altitude high. And only here, the Earth’s crust suddenly “sinks” to 58 m (190 ft) below sea level- the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.

Here, in its lowest point, on July 10, 1913, was measured the highest recorded temperature on Earth ever- 134 °F (56.7 °C) at Furnace Creek.

In the past, there was an ancient salt lake, called Lake Manly. Today it is gone, but its bottom still remained as a flat salty surface, creating an unreal landscape, surrounded by the nearby dry mountains.

Only these basic details make camping in Death Valley a fantastic way to spend the night. But of course, there is much more, along with the adventures you can enjoy during the whole day.

Death Valley- the hottest spot on the Earth
Death Valley- the hottest spot on the Earth

Death Valley National Park

So, let’s zoom the map in and look at the Death Valley in detail. The whole area of the valley and its surrounding mountains, as well as some neighboring minor valleys, are included in the Death Valley National Park. That means that it is a protected area, at the same time specially arranged for tourists, with its specific regulations.

So, can you camp in such a territory? Definitely yes! But let’s first see the geographical details of Death Valley.

Geography of the Death Valley NP

As you can see, the main feature in the national park is the Death Valley itself. There are several sections and points along its length. In the north is the Mesquite Flat Dunes- a flat place with a mini sand desert that is prolonged to the north until Grapevine, and Last Chance Canyon.

South of it is Furnace Creek- the hottest point on the Earth. Furnace Creek station is located at the point where the side valley with the same name joins the main Death Valley.

Further south is the lowest point in North America, called Badwater Flats. This is the most epic point in the whole Death Valley National Park- a flat surface of salt, slightly segmented into “pools”, and beside it- a bumpy field of stony remnants, called Devil’s Golf Course.

Finally, the Death Valley extends to its southern end between the desolated Owlshead Mountains and the Black Mountains. But the boundaries of the national park extend much further beyond.

Badwater Flats
Badwater Flats- the lowest spot in North America

Around the Death Valley

East of the valley is Amargosa Range- a mountain range divided into two sub-ranges by a side valley called Furnace Creek. The highest peak in Amargosa, located in the northern sub-range is called Grapevine Peak (8738 ft/2663 m), rising more than 2 km over the bottom of the Death Valley.

On the west, the Death Valley is surrounded by another mountain range- Panamint. It is also divided into two sub-ranges, divided by Emigrant and Wildrose canyons. But here, the highest peak is located in the southern sub-range. It is called Telescope Peak (11049 ft/3368 m) and it rises more than 3 km over the lowest point of the Death Valley- the highest point in the Death Valley National Park.

Finally, there is an area in the northwest beyond the Panamint Range that consists of several other smaller mountains and valleys- Last Chance Range, Saline Range, Nelson Range, Darwin Plateau, as well as Eureka Valley, Saline Valley, and the northern part of Panamint Valley.

All of these geographical features offer fantastic landscapes during the daytime and otherworldly mystery at the night.

How the Death Valley National Park is arranged?

Death Valley National Park is one of the largest in the USA. Is it populated? Are there cities or villages in the park?

Yes, there is a local population, but it lives only in three residential areas. No cities in the park. In fact, currently, there are just a little more than 500 people constantly living there. They live in several communities there- Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Timbisha Shoshone Village, and Cow Creek. All the other people who you can meet there are tourists and the national park service workers.

Besides these settlements, there are several hotels and resorts, some restaurants, a museum, a visitor center, ranger stations, and other facilities at various points in the national park, serving visitors. And along with these- there are also several campsites, scattered in a large empty area.

A road in Death Valley
A road in Death Valley

Where can you go camping in Death Valley National Park?

So, where you can go camping in such a wild place that is arranged in this way? You have two options- campgrounds and backcountry.

Campgrounds

There are 9 official campgrounds in Death Valley National Park, located in various spots. Some of them are established on the lowest parts of the Death Valley, and others- in the high mountains surrounding the valley. In this way, you can enjoy different types of landscapes and views, as well as different types of weather.

Let’s see where these campgrounds are and what can you experience there.

Furnace Creek campgrounds

There are three campgrounds at Furnace Creek. Two of them- Furnace Creek and Sunset are on the flat bottom of the valley, at 196 ft below sea level. The first one is open all year round and it is the best-arranged of all, while the second can be used only from fall through spring. Here you can install your tents and RVs on dry ground with some bush.

And the third campground at Furnace Creek is Texas Springs- established on the height (on a flat terrace) above the settlement at the sea level, again open from fall through spring. Here you can watch this part of the valley from above.

Stovepipe Wells Campground

It is located at Stovepipe Wells settlement, at sea level, on another flat surface, north of Tucki Mountain. The landscape is similar- a flat sandy ground with some bush, at the edge of the valley bottom. Again, it is open only from fall to spring.

Mesquite Spring Campground

This campground is located further north, at 1800 ft (560 m) above sea level. This time, the place is not so flat, but on a slight slope, covered by some bush. There are no settlements nearby, but only Grapevine Ranger Station and two interesting sights- Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater. The campground is open all year round.

Mesquite Dunes
Mesquite Dunes

Emigrant Campground

This is a small campground, only for tents, located west of Tucki Mountain, at 2100 ft (660 m) above sea level. The landscape is again similar, with stunning panoramic views of the valley to the north and the mountains on both sides. It is open all year round.

Wildrose Campground

Now we are higher in the mountains. This campground is established at 4100 ft (1270 m) above sea level, northwest of Telescope Peak, in a side valley (called Wildrose) that descends to the larger Panamint Valley. Again, the area is covered by bush, but here is much cooler than in the campgrounds above. It is open all year round.

Thorndike and Mahogany Flat Campgrounds

These are the highest campgrounds in the national park. They can be reached from the same road that comes from Wildrose Campground. Thorndike is established at 7400 ft (2290 m), and Mahogany Flat- at 8200 ft (2470 m) above sea level. The distance between them is a bit more than a mile (about 2 km), on the north slopes of Rogers Peak.

Here is much cooler than at the bottom of Death Valley. The landscape is greener, with more bush and low mountain forests. The weather is also much wetter. For this reason, these campgrounds are open in the opposite seasons- from spring through fall only. They are reachable only by high clearance vehicles.

Besides these, there are several more campgrounds in the Death Valley National Park that are “non-official”. All of them are located in the northwestern part of the park, not in the Death Valley itself.

Homestake Dry Campground

It is a small campground, located at 3800 ft (1155 m) in Racetrack Valley, south of Ubehebe Peak. It is reachable from Grapevine Ranger Station, but only by high clearance vehicles. The landscape is bushy and dry, and in general, this is a remote place in the wilderness, offering a great experience for people who want to be “far from the world”.

Eureka Dunes Dry Campground

This is another very remote campground, established at 2920 ft (890 m) at a small sand mini-desert, called Eureka Dunes. The campground itself is not located on the sands, but north of them. It makes this place different, with a unique landscape.

However, although it is located within the borders of Death Valley National Park, it is reachable (again only by high clearance vehicles) only from Big Pine, without connection to Furnace Creek.

Eureka Dunes
Eureka Dunes

Saline Valley Warm Springs Campground

This is another unique campground, different from all of the others. It is located in the Saline Valley, at 1470 ft (450 m) above sea level, in a very interesting area with a salt lake, sand dunes, and hot springs. This is a former mining site and you can still see some of the mining equipment that remained here from about a century ago.

The campground is remotely connected to Stovepipe Wells, but it is more easily reachable only from Big Pine. And again, you can go there only by high clearance vehicle.

Panamint Springs Resort and Campground

This is a “more-civilized” campground, a part of a resort in Panamint Valley, located at 1935 ft (590 m). Panamint Springs Resort is well-connected by a paved road to Stovepipe Wells and contains not only a campground, but also a motel, a gas station, cabins, and a restaurant.

Backcountry camping

It is allowed! If you want to get wilder, you can give up the comforts of the campsites and camp directly in the wilderness. But it is possible only under some conditions.

You can’t camp directly on some natural phenomena, such as valley bottoms, sand dunes, or salt flats. Also, you can’t do it right beside the road, but at least 1 mile away from the paved and day-use only dirt roads. You can’t do it closer than 100 yards from any water source (which means you have to bring your own water). And finally, you can camp only in previously disturbed areas.

It means that you can go backcountry camping only by high clearance vehicles on some dirt roads, or just by walking and bringing your tent in the wilderness.

Backcountry camping in Death Valley
Backcountry camping in Death Valley

Death Valley camping tips

So, before you go camping in Death Valley, you have to prepare some important details.

Fees and permits

To explore Death Valley National Park, you have to obtain a 7-days pass for 12 USD per person and 25 USD per vehicle. With this pass, you can freely enter and re-enter during one week. There is not a toll-gate at the entrance, but you have to pay it in automatic kiosks that are installed in several places.

Or, you can use the “America The Beautiful, National Parks, and Federal Recreation Pass” for 80 USD that includes Death Valley NP too.

For backcountry camping, it is highly recommendable to obtain a Wilderness/Backcountry Use Permit. With this permit, you can expect a rescue operation if you are in trouble in the wilderness. This permit also includes all the necessary information that you need for such an adventure. You can obtain it from Furnace Creek Visitor Center or Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station.

Seasons

As you can read above, the campgrounds that are open all year round are usually located at the average altitude- not too high and not too low. The exception is only Furnace Creek Campground which is enough arranged even for the extremely hot summers.

So, if you go for backcountry camping, follow this advice- don’t camp at too low altitude during summer and at too high altitude during winter (the latter is more possible, but only with proper equipment, of course).

Here are some more tips:

  • Except for Furnace Creek Campground, where you can make a reservation in advance, camping in all other campgrounds follows “first-come-first-serve”.
  • There are RV hookups in Furnace Creek Campground and around the settlement, in Stovepipe Wells RV Park, as well as in Panamint Springs Resort.
  • Only 8 people and 2 vehicles (or 1 RV with 1 other vehicle) are allowed in the campgrounds. There is an exception only for Furnace Creek Campground. In the backcountry, the limit is 12 people and 4 vehicles.
  • Campfire is allowed, but the stoves and grills must be gas burning. Fire is not allowed in Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flat during summer. Campfires are prohibited in the backcountry (only camp stoves and propane grills are allowed)!
  • You can’t stay longer than 1 month in a campground. In Furnace Creek, the limit is 14 days.
  • Pets must be on a leash, no longer than 6 feet. No more than 4 pets are allowed in the campgrounds. Pets are not allowed in the wilderness!
  • If you go camping backcountry, bring more water, especially in summer!

Death Valley is an amazing place, and camping there is a really great experience, the best way to feel, touch, and taste the nature and geography of the area. This is one of the best spots in the USA where you can escape “far from the civilization”. And although the name of the valley speaks about death, the nature there is full of life!

Get more impressions about camping in Death Valley from the video below:

Check some books about Death Valley, camping in the area, USA national parks and more:

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Everything about camping in Death Valley, the lowest spot in the USA- campgrounds, backcountry camping and more tips. Everything about camping in Death Valley, the lowest spot in the USA- campgrounds, backcountry camping and more tips.

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