Death Valley

I don’t know about you but I cringe every year as my birthday approaches and it has nothing to do with age, my age is peachy. The challenge lies in the idea that I’m supposed to enjoy an easy, celebratory emotion but this usually proves elusive. For anyone with loved ones far away or those simply struggling with complicated emotions around a birthday and uncomfortable with being in the limelight for their day, I feel ya. The birthday culture is beautiful for many and I love feting others but my personal desire is to observe mine in what can best be described as a step-away so this year I joyfully stepped away, even eschewing technology. *There is no cell service in Panamint so I checked in with my guy when I was near Furnace Creek where the service is rock solid.

Steps away from my campsite was the eclectic desert floor

Death Valley might’ve been considered an ironic choice for a birthday and equally ironic would also have been my decision to make this a solo sojourn but I was aching for some alone and unplug time. Time to just hike, think, write, read, and stare out at a sunrise or sunset and most of all, have no pressing agenda. I would not suggest that this is for everyone but I hope travelers will take this trip info and morph it into what works best for them.

My budget for three nights was $200 total and this included gas, camping, park fees, food, and alcohol. And here’s how it went.

I embarked on a leisurely departure from Los Angeles and drove out Highway #395 toward the desert with stops along the way to photograph the outrageous wildflowers that blanketed the hills.

My choice for camping was Panamint Springs, located an hour west of Death Valley. After a look online, I had a feeling that this place, billed as the Panamint Springs Resort, would be the antithesis of a resort, more like a rough around the edges, hippie/dirt bike commune and it was – think Hunter S. Thompson and Road Warrior mixed in with National Lampoon’s Vacation.

It is here that I want to give an overview so that you book and stay in a place compatible for your quest. Panamint is short on glitzy show and long on character and heart and the showers are free and hot but at the other end of the spectrum, in the heart of Death Valley, resides the luxurious Furnace Creek with $200+ per night resort rooms and these ARE RESORT, complete with a golf course. You can also book tours in enormous, air-conditioned buses BUT and I do mean a powerful BUT, I observed the tour buses stopping at the points of interest in profoundly the WRONG TIMES of the day and I cannot stand for someone to pay a fortune to travel, only to arrive and realize the vision they’ve discovered via online photography is severely lacking. *Note: Free camping is available nearer to the heart of Death Valley, however, it is dispersed. I chose the $10 a night version as it came with free showers, water, firepits, and flush toilets as well as small store, restaurant and bar.

Throughout this write-up, I’ll explain the times of day I visited certain areas and you might want to take this opportunity to note that three days in Death Valley is good to shoot for. Sunrise and sunset are the pristine moments and it is hard to be several places at once for this magical time.

I stayed all three nights at Panamint’s campground for $10 per night (they do also offer motel rooms). Wind in Death Valley is a consideration and somewhat of a wild card. I had two nights of wind (10 mph) and a night of perfect stillness. All three nights were temperate and allowed for night campfire weather. The days were in the 80s and pleasantly breezy (I was there in mid March). The Panamint campground was filled with a crowd mainly made up of folks out to ride dirt bikes but the energy was chill and calm and the bikes were not loud as they weren’t driven much in the campground area. Everyone seemed to be headed out farther and only using the campground as their hub. I lucked into meeting two fellow travelers camping adjacent to me and enjoyed swapping stories and sharing communal campfires all three nights (this made the firewood consumption cost-friendly but bring from home like I did and my new cronies did as Panamint wood is $$$$).

These are images from the Panamint Camping area and directly east of it.


All told, I spent two days in the more central area of Death Valley due to the sunrise/sunset quest. My first morning had me sunrising on the road from Panamint to the Mesquite Dunes at Stovepipe Wells. I had a breakfast of bagel w/ peanut butter, apple, and coffee at the Dunes so as to catch them in the early morning light. The dunes offer up stunning shadows and friendly temps EARLY and LATE but midday they flatten out visually and get very hot literally. *Note the photo w/ the teeny-tiny people to get a perspective on the vastness of this incredible place.

Mesquite Dunes 2
Early morning means cooler temps and no footprints

In springtime, look for pockets in the sand with little flowers and glitter deposited inside. Desert fairyland.

Dune flowers 2 Dune flowers

After the dunes, I headed to Badwater which is also a good sunrise point, however, I’d seen sunrise here on a previous trip so this was a lovely revisit and early enough that it was still a quick, cool stop-off before heading over for a very easy and short hike to Natural Bridge and this IS a good midday spot in temperate weather. The rock formations offer the gift of shade and the day I visited, also ponied up a cool breeze. *Note that the actual amount of water at Badwater can vary greatly in a short amount of time.

Badwater sunrise

The Artist’s Palette drive is lovely but I would suggest late afternoon for optimal viewing. This trip I did not take the drive, choosing instead to head back to Panamint and hit up a local for directions to the Panamint Dunes hike. Finding the unmarked road to the dunes proved a little tricky so feel free to utilize these directions and note that (hilariously) the turnoff’s only sign is one that warns to not drive off road. The road is dirt, not paved as I was told, and is 1.7 miles east of the highway #178 turnoff to Ridgecrest and on the north side of highway #190 (you will be able to see the dunes way off in the distance). Drive 5.4 miles down the dirt road, it ends at a gravel parking area. The hike is 6-8 miles R/T. Beware of the need for water and the onset of dark – I had plenty of water but lacked a headlamp and with no moon, the desert goes completely noir FAST.  *The Mesquite Dunes are much more impressive visually than Panamint but if you wish for solitude, the Panamint Dunes had me hiking the entire thing and never encountering a soul. Best time for any of the dunes is morning or evening, I hiked Panamint at five pm.

Dunes 6

On your drive in to the hike, check out the ghosts of desert past along the way.

FullSizeRender (2) Desert cars

The following day I was up at five am and headed to Zebriskie Point to catch sunrise and I can’t stress enough that this is the only way to see this beauty. Be prepared to have company – as in a large number of photographers – but it’s worth the crowd factor. Mother Nature’s show lasts thirty minutes max so get there on time (before sunrise) and consider positioning yourself on the dirt mound in front of the paved viewing area as this is the front row. On the day I was there, my fellow travelers were quiet and just contentedly awaiting the sunrise.

Right before sunrise

After sunrise transitioned to brighter overhead light, I headed to Dante’s View and caught a short hike in the coolness of 5,000 plus elevation. *This view is also most likely better at sunrise.

Dante's View
View from Dante’s View

At the completion of my time in the main valley area, I returned to Panamint and after grabbing a freebie hot shower, kicked back on the deck at the restaurant and bar overlooking highway #190 and the desert campground. The restaurant/bar beer and food proved not necessarily on a dime but this was my splurge so I can very much vouch for the chili with onions and cheese and the Scotch ale called Five Wee Bells. Sitting with my notebook and jotting down thoughts, finishing a Joan Didion book, and just basking in the vast space encouraged an equally vast peace and solitude.

5 wee bells
Five Wee Bells, a book, and a journal

I wish I could say that the magical infusion of desert energy stayed put or that it set me on some new mystical path but in reality, the second I hit Los Angeles the “life stuff” returned. So what did Death Valley do for me? Gave me time to think and to also realize that it’s time to regroup, shed unnecessary minutia, and look to more sojourns into the wild.

#190 toward Panamint
This road calls me back

**I am aware that EXACT $$ specifics help so here ya go and I didn’t fudge so my total was $221 for 3 nights for everything.

Gas (approx. 630 miles traveled, 30/34 mpg and average $3.50 a gallon)  – $75  *Gas is very HIGH in Panamint so I gassed at Stovepipe Wells.

Camping 3 nts $30 total AND Death Valley Park Fee $20 for a week

Food from home $50 (this included a bottle of Jameson for $19) and I brought fresh pita, olives, hummus, split pea w/ ham soup (my staple), apples, peanut butter, bagels, coffee, 1/2&1/2, sausage, and chicken that I had roasted in the oven at home and then refrigerated. *Keep alcohol consumption very conservative as the desert has a tendency to dehydrate. I drank tons of water and tea.

Eating out only occurred twice and these were my birthday splurges. Breakfast at Furnace Creek $20 w/ tip and Dinner at Panamint $21 total for a cup of chili and a large Scotch ale. I also spent $2 on a coffee on the way home and $3 on a coke at the Panamint General Store.

Per usual, I want to state that the rough around the edges experience that I find joyful is not everyone’s bag of tricks so please know that if you seek out the funky and the offbeat, most likely it will come without luxury but I’m here to say I found absolute fulfillment in a getaway sans tour busses and imported palm trees. The dirt bike crowd proved stellar companions and I will be following their sassy lead on future trips.

**If you want a luxury Death Valley experience or are splurging and I’m talking over $200 a night for a room, the Furnace Creek Resort offers golf etc and very swank rooms.

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