Death Valley National Park’s Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes // © 2016 Michelle Juergen
Feature image (above): The park is nearly 3.4 million acres in size. // © 2016 Bicycle Adventures
When most people think of Death Valley, they usually picture endless stretches of khaki-colored barren wasteland. And true, this nearly 3.4 million-acre desert valley — the largest U.S. national park outside of Alaska — is considered the hottest place on Earth as well as the driest in North America, and it does contain many stretches of nothingness. But what often catches visitors off guard is just how much Death Valley does offer.
“I think what people are most surprised by is how much there is to do,” said Todd Starnes, owner and president of Bicycle Adventures, a tour operator that offers fully supported and customizable trips across the U.S. and in international destinations such as Chile, Peru, Taiwan and Slovenia.
From arid salt flats and multicolored canyons to 11,000-foot-high mountains and undulating sand dunes, Death Valley, which is located mostly in California and some of Nevada, showcases a wide range of alien-like landscapes. One of Starnes’ favorite ways to take it all in is, naturally, by bike.
The company offers two four-day Death Valley itineraries that cover an average of 25 miles per day, and each February, Starnes leads a third itinerary for more diehard cyclists — the weeklong Death Valley Training Bike Tour, during which riders log anywhere from 40 to 100 miles per day. The former all-levels trips begin in Rhyolite, Nev., a ghost town almost a century old that’s located near the eastern edge of the park.
“You come up over this hill and drop down into Death Valley, and it’s such a spectacular view to see mountains on both sides and the valley down below, and it just seems to stretch on forever,” Starnes said. “There’s a certain type of peacefulness and serenity that comes with that vastness.”
Though the park has seen an increase in traveler interest over the last few years — logging 1.1 million visitors in 2015 — it arguably remains an under-the-radar site compared to more iconic California national parks such as Yosemite and Joshua Tree. And this, Starnes says, is what makes it a choice location for cycling trips.
“There aren’t many people who go to Death Valley, so the roads are pretty empty for cycling,” he said. “And the roads are perfectly smooth and great for riding.”
But whether on two wheels, four wheels or two legs, visitors to the park have a multitude of sightseeing options. Popular spots include Badwater Basin salt flats, the lowest point of elevation in North America; Artist’s Drive scenic loop; Mosaic Canyon; Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; and Spanish-style mansion Scotty’s Castle (which is closed until 2019 due to flooding last October). Additionally, Starnes recommends not to miss the impressive Ubehebe Crater, a half-mile-wide and 600-foot-deep volcanic crater, as well as to take a sunrise hike up to Zabriskie Point, an eroded, cappuccino-colored landscape on the eastern side of the park that is part of the Amargosa mountain range.
To get a long look at Death Valley’s expanse, Starnes suggests a drive or bike ride up to the 5,500-foot-high Dante’s View, a viewpoint terrace on the western side of the park, or to the 6,400-foot Aguereberry Point in the middle of the park, which is less frequented because of the gravely road up.
When visitors view Death Valley’s otherworldly landscapes is just as important as where they go, points out Abby Wines, management assistant for the park.
“Time of day makes a huge difference in the park’s beauty,” she said. “Unfortunately, most people with limited time are in the park in when the sun is high overhead, which flattens out the landscape’s appearance. The park’s mountains, sand dunes and salt flats are at their most photogenic in the early morning or late afternoon.”
To take in sunrises and sunsets, Wines suggests facing away from the sun, rather than toward it, to see how shadows and light transform the terrain.
Nightfall is also a magical time in Death Valley, which is an International Dark Sky Park, a protected land distinguished by an exceptional quality of starry nights. According to Wines, night-sky programs — such as night hikes during full moons or star-viewing when the moon isn’t out — are incredibly popular in Death Valley, and many visitors report seeing the Milky Way for their first time.
When to Visit Death Valley
Death Valley is so-named for an obvious reason: It’s incredibly hot, and not much can survive when temperatures are at their extremes. The name, in fact, was given by a group of pioneers who got lost in the valley in 1849 and were certain they would perish in the wilderness. Most of the group, now known as the Lost ’49ers, were rescued, but the ominous name stuck. (Be sure to check out the park’s sleek visitor center for more quirky history on the area.)
During summer months, daytime temperatures typically reach or exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights can be nearly as toasty, with lows in the 90s, so exploring the park during this time is not advisable for everyone. The National Park Service advises that travelers always carry an abundant supply of water and use their vehicle’s air-conditioning. Though average rainfall is less than 2 inches, thunderstorms in late summer can cause flash floods, as well.
Winter and spring in Death Valley are mild and provide a far more pleasant environment that’s ideal for visitation. However, this is a land of extremes, after all, so visitors should be advised that temperatures in winter can drop to below 40 degrees and occasionally even below freezing.
According to David Blacker, executive director of Death Valley Natural History Association — the official nonprofit partner of Death Valley National Park — the best time to visit is from September through May.
“For the best time, I would recommend November; the weather is great, and the crowds are not big,” Blacker said. “Of course, if you’re looking for the opportunity to enjoy the park with as few people as possible, come the first three weeks in December.”
Starnes of Bicycle Adventures finds that choice months for riding include late January, February and early March. This time of year is also prime to view the “super bloom,” which earlier this year caught the attention of flora fans nationwide with its atypical vibrancy. During this period, the valley’s native Desert Gold wildflowers — along with more than 20 species of wildflower that bloom at various elevations — show off their petals, covering the park with thousands of bright pops of violets, oranges and canary yellow.
Where to Stay in Death Valley
In-park lodging includes Stovepipe Wells Village; Panamint Springs Resort; and Xanterra Parks & Resorts-run The Inn at Furnace Creek and The Ranch at Furnace Creek. (These accommodations do not offer travel agent commission, though Stovepipe Wells Village reports that it work with travel agencies.)
There are nine campgrounds within Death Valley, and amenities vary depending on location. Four sites are open year-round, and only one — Furnace Creek — accepts reservations.