Have the time of your life in Death Valley, America’s hottest, driest national park
- Just two hours from Las Vegas, Death Valley makes for a fantastic day trip
- The temperature regularly hits 40C and there’s ‘eye-popping life everywhere’
- Any Death Valley trip should begin at Zabriskie Point, says Mike MacEacheran
A roadrunner lazes in front of me without as much as a meep meep. Even the tumbleweed doesn’t have the energy to drift across the desert landscape. And yet here I am, in the middle of America’s hottest, driest national park, out for a stroll like a mad dog in the sun.
Just two hours from Las Vegas, Death Valley makes for a fantastic day trip. But why would anyone want to come to a place where the temperature regularly hits 40C and where there are rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders?
The funny thing about Death Valley is there’s eye-popping life everywhere – and I’m here to prove it. The national park is now celebrating its 25th year and it’s easier than ever to discover its incredible wilderness.
Spectacular wilderness: Walkers look tiny against the vastness of Zabriskie Point
Since my arrival, I’ve been hiking, bird-watching, canyoning and stargazing.
There are multiple excuses to get outside, be it on a guided ranger tour, a jeep safari, nature ramble, or in the saddle.
Any Death Valley trip should begin at Zabriskie Point. The pinchyourself panorama is the trailhead for a five-mile loop into Golden Canyon, a lunar-like excursion into rocky folds rendered extraordinary by volcanic activity. Star Wars was filmed here in 1978, and if you know your sci-fi you’ll recognise where C-3PO and R2-D2 clunked around in the desert.
Many visitors mistakenly arrive around mid-morning, only to see the bright red warning signs: ‘Stop: Extreme Heat Danger. Walking after 10am not recommended.’ Instead, set your alarm early and watch the sun rise – it’s a joyous, spectacular sight. Death Valley sprawls across 3.4 million acres, and with few roads anywhere, entry-level micro-adventures are compulsory. At Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 280ft below sea level, there’s nothing else for it but to park your vehicle and continue by foot.
You may wonder why the basin is such a big deal until you stride out across the exposed salt flat.
The national park is now celebrating its 25th year and it’s easier than ever to discover its incredible wilderness. Pictured is Funeral Mountains
Silently impressive, the bleachedwhite plain is made of almost extraterrestrial salt formations that spill like treacle from its tin.
Considering the midday heat, check into the spruced-up Inn at Death Valley and spend the afternoons watching shadows shift in the sun from the spring-fed pool.
Wonderfully remote, recently refurbished to the tune of £140 million and with more than a whiff of old Hollywood glamour, it’s California’s most stylish new resort and spa. In the elegant saloon, you’ll find sepia photos of previous guests: Clark Gable, John Wayne, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart.
The food in Death Valley is an unexpected highlight. Local favourites are campfire quesadillas (£15) and chicken pot pie (£20) served in a skillet at The Last Kind Words Saloon at Furnace Creek.
History-lovers will get their fix at the outdoor Borax Museum, which tells the story of mining communities which tried to conquer this unfathomable land in the early 1900s.
All that is left, apart from the mule team wagons and equipment relics, are the names they left behind on the map: Coffin Canyon, Deadman Pass and the Funeral Mountains.
A final afternoon in the desert should really be spent walking to the top of Dante’s Peak for a view of gigantic alluvial fans and sun-battered hills that stretch for ever.
The temperature regularly hits 40C. Pictured is a Death Valley warning sign
Like the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu or the Colosseum in Rome, Death Valley has a beauty that comes from its decay.
It can be found in the eroding badlands and mud basins. In the mountains that lie on their side as if surrendering to the heat.
After a fashion, it upgrades the landscape from wasteland to wonderland. And you’ll leave feeling more alive than ever.