Going for a hike in Death Valley National Park seems like the worst idea you could possibly imagine. With temps soaring above 140 degrees in the summer and hardly any water available, it doesn’t feel like a place where you should even get out of your car, much less walk around.
In winter, however, the combination of more-forgiving weather and remote wilderness make Death Valley one of the most interesting and challenging hiking destinations in the U.S. Here’s why, where and how you ought to make the trek.
What to see
Darwin Falls: This is one of the best hidden mysteries of the park, a spring-fed waterfall that flows year-round in a narrow gorge. The trip starts west of Panamint Springs on a 2.5-mile unpaved road. Once there, there’s no formal trail; it’s a 1-mile walk with rock scrambling and several stream crossings. The falls run strongest in early spring.
Sand Dunes: Close to the Stovepipe Wells Village hotel and general store, it’s one of the most outstanding sites and most photographed landscapes in the Valley. It’s best viewed during sunrise.
Badwater Basin: A shallow lake surrounded by mountains and rimmed with salt, known to be the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. This area is very hot even in winter.
Other destinations: Harmony Borax Works, Dante’s View, Father Crowley Vista, Ubehebe Crater Loop, Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette (a colorful section of hillside), Zabriskie Point, Natural Bridge and the ghost town of Rhyolite.
Weather and wildlife
During winter, the temperature is more tolerable, but there’s a much better chance of rain. Keep an eye on the weather and stay away from steep canyons due to flash-flood danger.
Scorpions and snakes are present year-round, so watch your step. Mountain lions are purportedly in the area, but sightings are extremely rare.
Route finding can be pretty difficult for inexperienced hikers in Death Valley. The trails are mostly nonexistent, so getting lost is pretty easy. You should be comfortable reading a map and using a compass.
Consider bringing a handheld GPS (though sometimes worthless in canyons), hike in groups and give an itinerary to park rangers and family members. For the truly daring pushing their limits, a satellite phone isn’t out of the question.
When it comes to hydration, there are streams and springs in Death Valley, but they are few and far between. For multi-day and long one-day expeditions, plan on packing in everything you’ll drink and cook with. Even in winter, you’re advised to carry a gallon of water per person per day. It wouldn’t hurt to keep several extra gallons in your car in case of emergencies.
You’re responsible for knowing your own limits. Don’t try to use exposed bypasses or climb steep, dry walls just to get a better view. Don’t out-hike your water supply. Watch your step. Don’t get caught in a flash flood.
The park features nine different campgrounds, several offering hotel accommodations. After a long day of hiking and scorching heat, stop in for a drink and some much needed air-conditioning. If you stay at Stovepipe Wells, they offer guided tours via bus, an astrophotography class and local entertainment on the patio.