|Sunset in Death Valley. Or is that one of Tatooine's suns setting?|
If you're a Star Wars geek, then Death Valley needs to be bumped up to the very top of your bucket list. Because, guess what, they filmed the first two Star Wars movies there! I actually didn't know this until I read our guidebook. Just goes to show you that I'm not as much of a Star Wars geek as Scott thinks I am.
If you've seen Star Wars (and really who hasn't, even if they don't admit it), then you'll recognize this scenery. If might help to imagine little Jawas lurking about with their red eyes glowing. And if your inner Star Wars geek is screaming to be let out to play, then be sure to check out this site which maps out all of the filming locations in Death Valley.
If you're not all that into Star Wars, not to fear, there is lots more to see and do in Death Valley which doesn't require a light saber or spaceship. Here are some of the highlights that we managed to check out.
1 - Taking in the view of the badlands.
After entering the park, our first stop was at Zabriskie Point to have a look at the badlands at Furnace Creek. I think they should call them "weirdlands" instead. Because they're just weird. If you spend too much time looking at them, you start to think you're on some other planet. So different from the landscape I grew up in.
Zabriskie Point is closed now for repairs, so you're out of luck if you want to visit. But, it's a good thing. The edges of the viewpoint and support walls are eroding away. I kept a good distance back from the edge. Scott, of course, walked right up to the edge to take pictures.
2 - Driving through the Artist's Palette.
There really isn't a point in trying to include a picture of the Artist's Palette. No camera can adequately capture the amazing colors that the minerals give to the hills. So instead, the picture above is of the moonrise on our way to the Artist's Palette. Scott got slightly obsessed trying to get the perfect moon shot (and he would say this isn't it), so we never actually got to the Artist's Palette the first time were there until after the sun went down (it's best seen in the afternoon light). So, we headed out the next afternoon for another look and had a wander among the hills. The colors are pretty spectacular, although I think you can find better painted hills in the Gower Gulch. But if you aren't very mobile, or you're running short of time, the scenic 9-mile Artist's Drive out to the Artist's Palette viewpoint is a a great option.
3 - Ogling the Mesquite Flat Dunes.
Nearby Stovepipe Wells you can find the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They're pretty much what you expect from sand dunes. They're dune shaped and made out of sand.
4 - Not spending money at Scotty's Castle.
We drove up to Scotty's Castle up in the northern part of Death Valley. It's kind of a mind numbing drive - mile upon mile upon mile of desert. But eventually, you get to an oasis in the middle of the desert complete with a Spanish style mansion. The mansion's namesake, Walter Scott, was a gold prospector and scam artist who duped people into investing in non-existent gold mines. One of the people he conned, Albert Johnson, came out to Death Valley and fell in love with the desert. He and his wife ended up building the mansion as a vacation home. Strangely enough, Johnson and Scott became good friends and Scott lived on the property and was buried up on a nearby hill.
You can take a guided tour of the interior of Scotty's Castle, but it will cost you $15 per person. We just weren't that intrigued by the whole thing to shell out $30 for a tour, so we just wandered the grounds instead, walked up to Scott's grave and did some general poking around. Sometimes you just have to choose where you spend your money.
5 - Eating fudgsicles.
With all that money we saved not spending money at Scotty's Castle, we splurged on a couple of fudgsicles at the Furnace Creek general store. I actually wanted a Dove ice cream bar, but I thought the price was ridiculous, so I satisfied my sweet tooth with a $1 fudgsicle. Sometimes, you have to sacrifice premium chocolate covered ice cream so that you have enough money leftover for beer. This was one of those days. I hadn't had a fudgsicle in ages. They're actually pretty tasty and it reminded me of my mom. She likes fudgsicles. Sorry mom, I didn't get a picture of them.
6 - Hiking around Ubehebe Crater.
A few miles from Scotty's Castle is Ubehebe Crater. It's 600 feet feet deep and one mile across. You can get some good views of the crater from the parking lot, but if you're feeling feisty and fired up from your fudgsicle, then you can take a 1/2 mile walk along the western rim of Ubehebe Crater and check out Little Hebe Crater. If you're feeling particularly feisty (maybe you splurged and had a Dove ice cream bar), then you can continue around the eastern rim of Ubehebe Crater to complete the loop trail back to the parking lot.
7 - Checking out weird salt formations at the Devil's Golf Course.
Salt does weird things in Death Valley, like at the Devil's Golf Course where the salt formations are so big that "only the devil could play golf on its surface." If you're traveling around with a golf fanatic, drive down the 1.3 mile gravel road and check it out. If you're traveling around with someone who could care less about golf, check it out anyway. It's still pretty neat.
8 - Walking out on the Badwater Basin.
The Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America lying 282 feet below sea level. You can walk 1/2 mile out to the edge of the salt flats.
9 - Finding the chute at Natural Bridge.
It is just a short hike out to see the Natural Bridge at Death Valley - you'll find it about 1/2 mile from the trail head. The 50 foot bridge spans the canyon and is pretty impressive. But keep walking past the bridge and you'll find a really interesting dry water chute. It is hard to imagine what the place was like when water poured down the chutes and filled the canyons.
10 - Exploring the unknown at Gower Gulch.
Perhaps the best experience we had was hiking through the Gower Gulch. You get to the Gower Gulch from the popular Golden Canyon (and site of many Star Wars scenes!). Other than the rather vague sort of map we saw about the trail at the Golden Canyon parking lot, we really didn't know what to expect. And that's what made it such an adventure! Painted hills, climbing along a ridge, wandering through the gulch itself and scrambling down dry falls. What's not to love?
As a parting gift, I'll leave you with some more proof about the havoc that global warming is creating. Polar bears have been spotted living in the desert at Death Valley! What can we expect next? Camels living in Antarctica?
We embraced our Star Wars geekiness at Death Valley on 2-4 November 2014.