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Death Valley: Where to Sleep for Free & 1 Day Itinerary

Seventy kilometres after we drove past the last “town” (and by town I mean a gas station, a shop, a camp and a few houses in different stages of being abandoned), we arrived in Panamint Springs… A dot that is almost impossible to see on a map and you can understand why when you get here. It’s just a gas station, a small restaurant and a few (quite expensive and most of the time booked) rooms. 

Panamint Springs is a world of its own. From the restaurant, you can see the hills we’ve just arrived from and raising up on the other side of the valley, connected by a road so straight it just looks like someone took a ruler and draw it. 

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As soon as we finished the last fry, the sun went down and everybody started to slowly go back to their bedrooms which were a clear signal for us that we should start sorting out where we are going to sleep tonight. Going to Death Valley didn’t sound like the idea of a century so we decided driving back, up the hill, is more reasonable. Before dinner, we saw a parking lot at the Father Crowley Overlook which turned out to be the perfect spot for spending the night. We can’t recommend this enough as well as sleeping as close to the Death Valley NP as possible.

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Let’s focus on the practical stuff for a second. There are decent toilets and the parking lot is big enough to accommodate a few cars or campervans. For the romantic souls, you can’t really beat the night sky here. There are no sources of light for tens of kilometres which means nothing disrupts the show on the sky. So we just opened a beer, sat outside and watched the sky until it was too cold (and some guys told us they are searching for scorpions next to us). 

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The sunrise here is equally fascinating so it’s worth waking up early, not just because it gets really hot quite fast but for the experience as well. It’s so beautiful it just makes you excited for the day.

Biting into an apple and a baguette we checked the map and the guide for the last time, agreed on an approximate plan and headed to the place we’ve known from the encyclopedia since we were little. 

We ended up driving for tens of kilometres around the park from one fascinating stop to another so here’s a list of the best spots we’ve managed to see in one day.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Depending on the side you enter the park from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes will be either the first or the last stop. We turned off the engine at the parking lot here at 7 am and we were there only with a few other people. The soft-shaped dunes contrast boldly with the sharp-cut moonscape that surrounds them.

Keep in mind the sand will be hot during the day so either plan to arrive in the morning or later in the evening.

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Artist’s Drive

The 9 miles long one-way road winds along the rocks that have been coloured by various metals and minerals. There are a few stops on the road where you can park your car and head towards the rocks to see the colours from up close.

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Badwater Basin

The lowest and probably most visited point of the park, Badwater Basin. 85.5 meters below the sea level, we were walking on an endless field of salt so white that our eyes hurt a little and it was the first time we’ve ever seen fata morgana. It can be seen at the other end of the valley and the trees bending over the river seem very tempting and used to lure desperate pilgrims to the foot of the mountain.

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You can see Badwater from a viewpoint but if you’re not in a hurry to gamble in Las Vegas, we suggest you go a bit further and see the salt plain from up close. After a few hundred meters you’ll see the salt is a lot more preserved and everyone who gets here cand find a place just for himself. Just don’t forget to wear a hat and a water bottle! You’ll be walking in direct sunlight, without any shadow and it’s definitely not smart to forget about staying hydrated.

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Devil’s Golfcourse

Sharp, jagged and salty landscape. That’s probably Devil’s Golfcourse in three words. The sharp edges of boulders from dried salt and mud are definitely not the most comfortable to walk on but it’s worth to try and walk a few meters on the “golf course”. Supposedly when you press your ear to the ground, you can hear crystals of salt expanding to the point of bursting from the heat.

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Zabriskie Point

One of the most well-known views of the lunar landscape is just a short walk away from a car park. If you have enough time, plan to stop here in the morning when the sun plays with the shadows on the hills and when you can have it all for yourself. We got here a bit later but even during the day walking in the heat is bearable and if you manage to avoid the arriving tour busses (they are usually slower to go up so just hurry up a bit), you’ll enjoy the views nonetheless.

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Dante’s View

It’s a slight detour from the main route to Dante’s View but since it was on our list of recommendations (thanks to Ondra for this tip!) we decided to sacrifice some more gas and make a forty-kilometre detour. And we were so happy we did! From the top of the mountain (1669m to be precise) where you can park your car opens a breathtaking view of the valley. It’s at this moment when we got a completely different perspective of the area and felt sorry even more for the lonely pilgrims who tried to cross Death Valley a long time ago.

The path that we walked on at Badwater Basin can be seen very clearly and when we saw how small the part was we actually walked and how incredibly far it felt on the way back, we had no doubts about why the pilgrims who were eventually saved called the place Death Valley.

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Death Valley_ Where to Sleep for Free & 1 Day Itinerary