Death Valley in Two Days: Day 1
Updated: Apr 23
It's been a while since we've taken a weekend road trip. March seems like the perfect time to visit the hottest, lowest, and driest location in the United States. We were hoping we'd see some wildflowers in bloom, but they were pretty few and far between. We did see our first Joshua Trees, however, so that was cool.
Death Valley National Park is comprised of 3.4 million acres and we were only going to be there for about 2 days, so we really had to prioritize which sites we wanted to see during our trip planning and figure out what we'd have time for, because it can be hours of driving on rustic dirt roads between landmarks. In all, we drove 355 miles throughout Death Valley National Park in two days.
We packed up the Jeep and left Tahoe in the late afternoon on Thursday, headed south for Tonopah, Nevada, where our first hotel was waiting for us after 4 hours of driving.
On our route, while it was still light out, we briefly stopped at Walker Lake in Hawthorne, Nevada, where we were hoping to spot a desert bighorn sheep.
While taking some photos of Walker Lake...
...I looked up at the rocky ridge across the highway behind us. My eye caught a silhouette of what I thought might be an animal. My husband grabbed the binoculars and I was able to confirm two desert bighorn sheep were standing atop the ridge. They were pretty far away, so we weren't able to get quality photos of them, but here they are:
So, we continued to scan this ridge wondering how many other sheep were camouflaged up there. In all, we were able to count six bighorn sheep! Even though we could only enjoy seeing them through the lens of binoculars, it was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Here's what they look like up close. Their horns grow for life, so they each have varying sizes on their heads.
After that excitement, we drove the remaining 1.5 hours to Tonopah, looking forward to grabbing some dinner and getting to bed early for a pre-dawn start into Death Valley the following day – we still had another 1.5 hours from Tonopah to get to Death Valley.
This was our first time in the small, unincorporated town of Tonopah, with a current population of about 2,000. It was founded in 1900 during the mining boom and sits in the high desert at around 6,000' feet of elevation. My husband choose to book a room at The Belvada Hotel because it had the highest ratings, but I was also thrilled to have stayed in this cool historical building that has existed since 1906 and was originally a bank during the silver mining boom.
From 2017-2020, the building underwent a major renovation. It was beautifully restored and has so much character. The lobby is incredible and even has a repurposed vault-turned-sitting-room.
Our stay here was very short – we rushed out before the sun came up and were on our way to Beatty, Nevada, where we stopped for breakfast and were humored by the wild burros roaming the streets.
Our first Death Valley destination of the day was Titus Canyon, but we stopped at Goldwell Open Air Museum to see The Last Supper art installation on our way there. Though it appears to depict Jesus and his 12 disciples, it's kind of an eerie representation with its likeness to perhaps the Grim Reaper. (Click through a few of the photos below.)
On to Titus Canyon, a drive my husband has been wanting to take for some time, and it did end up being one of this trip's highlights.
The entire road through the canyon is dirt, but there's nothing especially technical about it, aside from being bumpy. The views along the way were awesome. I loved seeing the soil change from dusty dirt to deep red.
It was fun winding through the narrow canyon passages surrounded by massive and tall rock walls.
After we emerged from the 27 miles through Titus Canyon, we got back onto the highway and headed toward the Racetrack Playa, but not without a stop at the famous Teakettle Junction along the way.
A week before our trip, I stopped at a thrift shop and bought myself a teakettle in preparation for this very moment. (Can you tell I was excited?)
Staff who work for the national park say that once there gets to be too many teakettles, they just clear them out and then wait for the next overload. As we were driving the 19 miles on a bumpy dirt road to get to Teakettle Junction, listening to everything in our Jeep shaking and rattling, we were laughing thinking about how noisy it would be to drive in a vehicle carrying a hundred metal teakettles.
While at Teakettle Junction, we met a group of three from Arizona who had flown into Las Vegas and rented a Jeep for the day. After chatting with them a little bit, we learned they were heading to the Racetrack Playa next, as well. We also implored them to make a Lake Tahoe visit, telling them it was busy in the summer but still worth coming for the beauty and all the fun outdoor activities. They said when they come, they'd like to see snow, because her son has never seen it. I understand they travel a lot, so hopefully, they are able to make that happen soon.
Before we left this destination, my husband and I discussed ducking their Jeep, even though it was a rental. We thought giving them an honorary duck might be a fun Death Valley memory for them. So we did. And we've since found out that they also blog about their travels. Here's their informative post about Teakettle Junction in Death Valley.
Duck Duck Jeep: I haven't talked much about ducking Jeeps in MustBringSnacks because my husband adds those to his A Jeep's Life blog, but last year, we caught on that Jeep owners were buying cute rubber ducks and covertly leaving them on fellow Jeep owners' Jeeps in the wild, simply to make people smile and spread kindness during all of the yuck. So, we stocked up on rubber ducks and I made some tags to attach to them and we have a fun time looking for Jeeps to duck while out on the road.
Another six miles down this dirt road and we could finally see the Racetrack ahead.
The Racetrack was really neat and very different from anything I've seen before. But it was also different than what I had imagined. I didn't expect the "playa" to be so hard and compact. I was expecting it to be more sandy and dusty.
The entire playa seems so vast – it covers 3.64 square miles – and you can see a long ways from one end of it to another because it's so flat.
It was also interesting to me that the surrounding mountains – a vastly different terrain than the playa – go right down to the playa's edge in an abrupt change from one terrain to the other. And of course, there's the trails from the sliding rocks, which were a little hard to see, but I'm sure when the playa still has some moisture in it, the trails are much more pronounced. If you look closely, you can see the faint trails.
After leaving the Racetrack, we double-backed so that we could check out the Ubehebe Crater, but on the way is where we also saw our first Joshua Trees. When they are "young," they kind of look like large pineapples growing out of the sand. And I don't think any two Joshua Trees are the same.
The Ubehebe Crater is super weird. It was caused by a volcanic explosion possibly 300 years ago when steam and gas explosions along with hot magma reached groundwater. It's hard to tell scale in the photos, but it's 600 feet deep and a half a mile across. And, in addition to the colorful striations, the most interesting thing to see was for a several-mile radius around the crater, everything around you is like charcoal black – called cinder fields – about as far as you can see. So, the explosion occurred, created a massive crater 600 feet down, and then spewed volcanic ash around it for miles that is still there today.
From Ubehebe Crater, we continued south-ish for an hour and then cut west towards the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. (We had the Devil's Cornfield on our destination list, but as we approached it along the highway, we called an audible and agreed it didn't seem worth making a stop for, so we kept going.)
When we arrived at the sand dunes, it was 86º F with full sun. This meant I was going to change into shorts in the parking lot because it was just too hot out for pants. This is now the third sand dunes we have been to since living out West, and it always seems to be really hot at sand dunes, and they are neat, but they also kind of all look the same. It was still worth stopping to see them.
While making our way slowly through the sand, me trying not to get sand in my shoes, we watched a man with trekking poles put on snowshoes before he headed out to traverse the dunes. I do kind of wonder if those made a difference or not. We also saw people walking out with plastic sleds. In my mind, the most interesting thing about sand dunes, aside from their existence, is the fact that they are constantly changing due to the winds shaping them differently all the time. So, they likely will never look the same way no matter how many times you visit the same one.
This was also where I noticed my fitness watch was showing a negative elevation number for the first time. This just made me chuckle.
We left the sand dunes and headed to one of the short hikes I was really looking forward to: Mosaic Canyon. We hiked in over 1.28 miles and then turned around, making it a 2.57-mile hike roundtrip. The neatest part of the trail, where you pass through the narrowest stretches, is within the first half-mile.
But the variety of rock colors, formations, and types in this short distance is incredible.
Once we hiked back down the canyon, we drove the short distance to our motel for the night in Stovepipe Wells, California. But by this time of the day, I was very hungry and ready for dinner, so we got a table at Tollroad Restaurant and I had a delicious pulled pork sandwich. We checked in and then headed across the highway to the General Store to get some souvenirs, noticing that diesel at the gas station was selling for $9.99/gallon.
Although many things find a way to grow in Death Valley, it doesn't have an abundance of green plants, but this one stood out to me on our Mosaic Canyon hike. I thought it was really unique, it looked like a hybrid of some sort, and a part of it resembled Christmas holly. When we got back to our motel room, I saw a poster on the wall that mentioned "desert holly." I pointed to it and told my husband, "I bet that's what we saw along the trail today!"
After all of the day's driving/riding, hiking and fresh air, I was beat and ready to relax early so we could get another early start on Day 2. We had numerous sights to see and lots of miles to put in. Check out Day 2's adventures here.