The road to Death Valley
- Recommended for:
- Road Trip, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
Death Valley in California is a stunning landscape of coloured canyons, salt flats and awe-inspiring, record-breaking facts. But every bit as amazing is the road you drive to get there
Death Valley is a place unlike any other in the world, where the beauty is in the isolation, where emails don’t work, there’s no wi-fi and no mobile phone signals. With moon-like landscapes and the pancake-flat white basin of the dry salt lake stretching out for miles into the horizon, it would be easy to overlook one of the hidden delights, and that is the road into Death Valley from the west.
Coming off the Interstate CA99 and heading east, you enter the Tehachapi Mountain Pass (which, if you are travelling in winter, is the only road left passable to cross the vast Sierra Nevada mountain range). This is simply stunning: the mountain peaks surrounding you rise higher and higher with every winding turn of the road and slowly become shrouded in snow.
A good idea is to refuel at the top at the last gas station you’ll see for a while. Getting out of the car, the first thing you’ll notice is the blistering cold, then the silence, only broken by the biting wind. One of the most imposing sights high up in the jagged mountains is the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm at the very top. How did they build that at 4,500ft?
The way down is just as grand and this leads to a striking view of the vast Mojave Desert. The desert is flat but the surprise is how elevated it is at 3,000ft. The views are enormous: your eyes feel like they have been fitted with panoramic lenses and the skies are just so big. The Mojave Desert is just miles and miles of nothing. Barren, cactus, yucca, scrubland, surrounded on all sides by the Sierra Nevada mountains and El Paso mountain range. However, look closer in between the dominant creosote bushes and you’ll see a diversity of birds, plants and lizards. Most of the larger animals are nocturnal, so unless you’re brave enough to drive the CA58 at night or dusk, you’ll miss most of them.
Head north again through the desert for 85 miles on the CA14, which becomes the US395, and the road takes you through the narrow valley and Indian Wells, with snow-covered mountains and their own weather systems on each side. This roads leads directly through Red Rock Canyon State Area, with massive sheer walls of imposing red rock on each side of you, on towards Little Lake, which is wedged in the Wickline Canyon, climbing higher and higher again on to Olancha.
Turn left for 15 spectacular viewing miles on the CA190, driving between the now dry Owen Lake and Sugar Loaf Mountain, then you begin the last leg of your journey at a sharp right turn, between the Sierra Nevada mountains, Inyo Mountains and Coso Mountains ranges. What a sight! It is hard to believe that you are only 40 miles from Death Valley but still 4,000ft high. As Death Valley is one of the lowest places on earth, the way down is steep. Just 10 miles from Death Valley, and still at 3,000ft, the world suddenly drops below the car and you plummet down 3,000ft in eight and a half twisty, stunning miles. As if this was not enough, if you time it right, the sun sets behind the mountains and the clouds behind you light up red and orange, giving the desert a warm golden glow. What a welcome to Death Valley!
The first hotel you come to as you enter Death Valley National Park is the Panamint Springs Resort, which is one of only three hotels in Death Valley, so be sure to book early, as they are usually booked up four to six months in advance. With a queen room starting from $79 and a two-bed cottage for $150, most budgets can be catered for - and with plans for wi-fi connection any time soon, you may not feel quite like you are on the moon.