Death Valley winter escape

In the dead of winter, names like Death Valley, Badwater Basin and Devil’s Golf Course sound downright heavenly

Photo By Marnee Benson

Even if you love winter and thrive in subzero temperatures, you probably have thoughts of a warm weather getaway during Reno’s coldest, grayest days. When money and time are tight and a road trip imminent, consider pointing yourself and your vehicle toward Death Valley National Park.Death Valley is about 350 miles southeast of Reno, a six-hour drive without speeding tickets to the heart of the park, where daily temperatures reach an average high of 65 degrees in December and January.

If you spend two or three days in Death Valley, you can have an adventure full of otherworldly sights. Your first stop should be the excellent and informative Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. Talk to a ranger, plan your activities, and get maps or guidebooks.

South of Furnace Creek is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Badwater is named for the accumulation of salts in the natural pools there that make the water undrinkable. Be sure to look up on the cliff wall behind you for a sign that says “Sea Level,” and realize that you are 282 feet below it.

Stop by the Devil’s Golf Course, and take some pictures of the weird razor-sharp landscape created by evaporating groundwater and leftover salt crystals. Be careful when you’re walking around not to damage these fragile formations.

Ride your bike or drive your car along the curvy, nine-mile Artist’s Drive to see beautiful mineral deposits on the hillsides where ravens stare you down. Consider parking at Artist’s Palette for a picnic and then wandering around the tuffs and canyons.

Don’t miss Zabriskie Point. Depending on the time of day and your fitness level, you can either drive around to the top, look at the incredible views of the valley and Panamint mountains, and watch an unforgettable sunset, or walk up Golden Canyon to the awe-inspiring Red Cathedral, over to Zabriskie Point, and then back down.

Near Stovepipe Wells, you will find the extremely scenic Mosaic and Cottonwood Canyons, great for exploring on foot. Sprawling sand dunes are here, as well—photogenic and fun to play on, but extending much further away than they seem at first.

Photo By Marnee Benson

North of Stovepipe Wells, massive alluvial fans line Highway 190 to Titus Canyon, a challenging mountain bike ride up and down or a fun one-way, four-wheel drive down with petroglyphs on the rock walls and a stop at the Leadville town ruins.

At the northern boundary of the park, Ubehebe Crater and the surrounding magma field were formed by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. Walk around the rim and then down to the floor of the big cinder cone. Scotty’s Castle is nearby, a two-story Spanish villa built in the 1920s and ’30s by Albert and Bessie Johnson. Now open for tours, it is the most visited site in the park.

For accommodations, the larger campgrounds, like Sunset, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek offer the most services and are especially handy for RVs and families. Here you will find stores, showers and lots of other travelers. The more remote campgrounds, like Mesquite Spring and Wildrose, are less developed and so offer greater seclusion, but they get really cold at night because of higher elevations.

Photo By Marnee Benson

For non-campers, Furnace Creek Resort has two hotels with tennis courts, swimming pools, horseback rides, four restaurants, spa services, and an 18-hole golf course. Even if you’re not staying at the resort, you might consider an indulgence there.

No matter which activities you choose or where you stay, Death Valley is a great option for chasing away the wintertime blues. You won’t regret the drive, and you’ll never forget the experience.