Tips for the best experience:
Plan to spend more than a day here or you just won’t get the full experience. Stay inside the park at one of the resorts – they are top-notch, worth every penny, and so much closer to everything you want to see (book early online). Keep your eye on the weather and dress/pack/plan accordingly or you could face grave consequences. Visit during the week, if possible, to avoid crowds. Always carry several liters of water with you when you go out exploring. Bring your BAM card in case of emergencies!
Every National Park I have visited in this country has taken my breath away. Somehow, the name “Death Valley” never captured my attention as a place I was eager to visit. The name alone made me think I was in for a drab, low, flat, ugly desert scene. It never occurred to me that the coveted title of National Park wouldn’t have been reserved for such underwhelming conditions. I thought maybe it snuck under the radar simply because of its “lowest elevation below sea level in North America” claim to fame. I was so very wrong!
Words can’t truly describe the feeling, but there was a moment while riding into the park for the first time at sunset when I realized how much I had been missing by thinking Death Valley was lesser of a National Park than all the others. Everything under, around and above me was red, pink and orange. It both looked and felt like the whole world was on fire. For a few minutes, I felt like a phoenix, born from ashes and flame, rolling through the twisted canyon on the east end of the park. As the sky darkened, my eyes were fully opened to the immense beauty and wonder of Death Valley. Lesson learned: never ever judge a book by its title.
Admittedly, yes, the heat is a problem for a motorcyclist visiting in late June. Day and night, it felt like I was riding through an oven with no promise of relief in sight. The “death” part of Death Valley is a real thing. What was I thinking? I asked myself that question a few times during my 24-hour visit. However, I wasn’t asking that question because I was miserable. I was asking myself that question because I couldn’t stop and pull over to take pictures whenever I wanted – neither my body nor my camera equipment would have obliged.
I wanted to take photos of everything (literally everything) in the park because every mile was both gorgeous and different than the last. Canyons, mountains, basins, sand dunes, flatlands, craters, an oasis (or was it a mirage?), etc… You name it, I saw it. All I could do was ride around in the 114° swelter with my mouth open in awe. I had to keep moving, there was no stopping to gawk. Thank goodness I brought a hydration pack (more on how I survived the heat in an upcoming story-insert link to “how I survived Death Valley story” here).
Scotty’s Castle Kink
On the West end of the park, the elevation rises and offers a small but welcome temperature drop. With that elevation change comes sprawling dramatic views of the valley below along immaculately paved curves; every rider’s dream. The ride south from Stovepipe Wells to Father Crowley Overlook on CA190 was so breathtaking that the rest of the world faded away for 30 minutes. I managed to regain my composure and pull over for a few quick photos just West of Panamint Springs. As I was struggling to wrap my head around what I had just experienced, I decided at that moment I needed to return and spend an entire week in the park repeating that same journey.
The main reason I wanted to visit the park in the first place was for a few specific photographs. Death Valley is one of the highest-rated dark sky areas in the world. I’m obsessed with the stars and love attempting to photograph the Milky Way. I’m not very good at it but I figured if anywhere could help me produce beautiful images of the night sky, Death Valley would be it. So, from the comfort of my air-conditioned lodge room at the Ranch at Death Valley (aka Furnace Creek Ranch… so enticing, right?), I planned my photography location while eating prosciutto and gouda and drinking San Pellegrino purchased from the oh-so-well-stocked general store. After such a feast and soaking up the cold air for several hours, I reluctantly set-off on another motorcycle adventure at 11:30 p.m.
What is it like to ride at night in Death Valley? The term “pitch black” feels like an understatement. When I left my cozy little oasis, it was 104° and the moon had not yet risen. I was completely enveloped by darkness as I rode 26 miles to my pre-scouted location in Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation on the continent. As the elevation continued to drop, the heat would hit me like a wall each time the temperature went up. I questioned my sanity a few times, but I knew what was waiting for me down the road, so I just kept moving forward.
I was determined to spend the darkest part of the night at Badwater Basin. Soon I was set up on the side of the road with my camera, flashlight, cell phone and the most amazing night sky I had ever seen in my entire life. I spent the next three hours in absolute silence with no interruptions from any living thing, not even another wayward traveler like myself. The only sounds were my feet on the gravel when I walked back and forth to my bike. I only looked down for a few seconds at a time to adjust my camera and check on the images I was capturing. Aside from that, my gaze was focused upwards. The photos were far from perfect, but those three hours was absolute nirvana. The only thing more serene than silence and stars is having arrived there on a motorcycle, alone, in the dark, where no one else dared to go, and when the world told you that you were crazy to even try.
The whole galaxy is mine
Things I would do differently:
Next time, I will park my motorcycle in the shade no matter how far away it is from my hotel room. I underestimated the park’s vast area and would need at least a week to truly explore every corner accessible by motorcycle. I might never return in summer again, but it was nice to feel so secluded – I think I saw 100 other humans the entire two-days I was there. Weather vs. crowds is a give and take for sure. I will be back in winter, and I’ll most likely stay at the Ranch again because it was perfect. Hopefully, I’ll have time to actually get in the natural spring-fed pool instead of just sit beside it for an hour. Oh, and I will take all the photos.