Death Valley: One of America’s Worst National Parks?

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An ages old mesquite tree looking up at one of the darkest rated night skies in America.

An ages old mesquite tree looking up at one of the darkest rated night skies in America.

I recently came across an article by Bill Fink on Yahoo titled “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks.” In all fairness, there are some pretty lame national parks and monuments, I’m not going to argue that. Certainly a few of them ended up on this list as expected. But when I got to number five on the list and saw Death Valley National Park, I was astonished.

Fink writes in the brief article that the best way to simulate a visit to Death Valley is to “heat a pan full of sand to about 200 degrees, then pour it on your head,” and that “when it’s not hot [in Death Valley] it’s bitterly cold, so at least you get some variety in your misery.”

I’ve been to Death Valley National Park five times now. Twice on photography trips and three times to lead workshops through the park. All three workshops in Death Valley sold out in less than 24 hours. So either I (and my students) have terrible taste in beauty or Bill Fink doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In fact, after reading through his brief writeup a few times, I’d wager that Bill hasn’t even been to the park. If that’s true, it just goes to show how far we’ve come from true journalism in today’s age of click bait articles.

Death Valley is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best national parks in the country. Here’s a few ways to make certain you agree after your next visit:

Visit the park between January and March

The second time I visited Death Valley was in early September back in 2013. The reported temperate at Stovepipe Wells was right around 118 degrees fahrenheit (47.8c). We knew it was going to be hot in the park, but we didn’t know it would be that hot. We were after some Milky Way images and figured we’d give it a go. Since it was still daylight, we decided to hike out into the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes where the temperatures were around 10 degrees higher (128f or 53c) because of all the reflective sand.

I had a Camelback on to stay hydrated but if I didn’t continuously drink out of it, the water that gets stuck in the tube would get piping hot. Suffice it to say, the last thing you want to do when you’re experiencing the highest temperatures you’ve could ever imagine is to drink it a mouth full of piping hot water. It was, in a word, miserable.

As sunset approached, we decided to head to Badwater Basin. There, temperatures had cooled down to a much more manageable 113f (45c). The crazy thing is, the temperature didn’t drop as the sun set and darkness approached. It was pitch black outside and my tripod was too hot to touch and my Canon 1Ds Mark III was flashing warnings at me saying it was overheating. Yes, Canon’s flagship (at the time) pro level camera made to endure the harshest elements couldn’t handle the heat.

Badwater Basin at a scorching 113?F.

Badwater Basin at a scorching 113f (45c).

You may be thinking at this time that Bill Fink was pretty spot on, and if that had been my only visit to the park, I might be inclined to agree. If you want to enjoy everything Death Valley has to offer, you shouldn’t go when the temperatures are unbearable. The average high/low temps in fahrenheit in January for Death Valley are 67/40 (19.4/4.4C), February is 73/46 (22.8/8C)and March is 82/55 (28/13C). Anything past that and you’re looking at possible highs in the 90s and 100s. All three workshops I’ve done in the park have occurred during these months and they all had absolutely beautiful weather.

Rent a Jeep from Farabee’s

Much of what Death Valley has to offer isn’t accessible with the Ford Fiesta you rented in Vegas. Places like Racetrack Playa, Eureka Sand Dunes and Titus Canyon simply can’t (and shouldn’t) be reached without a good 4×4 vehicle. I’ve been to Racetrack Playa three times now. Once in a VW Toureg, once in a Chevy Tahoe and once in a Jeep from Farabee’s. The Toureg is a great SUV but it wasn’t 4-wheel drive. We got to the playa without any problems, but on the way out we busted something in the transmission and had to limp back to Vegas for three days while we waiting to get the car repaired. The second trip, with the Tahoe, resulted in a flat tire on the way in at Teakettle Junction. I think it goes without saying that the rest of the drive in, as well as the drive out was pretty nerve racking, considering our only spare tire had already been used.

The third trip (and my most recent), I finally decided to rent Jeeps for our workshop group from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals in Furnace Creek. We had to rent three because we had nine students and two instructors so we got two 4-door Jeeps and one 2-door. Getting out to Racetrack Playa in the Jeeps was like a dream. Sure, the road was still rough and unforgiving, but the Jeeps handled it without a problem. They also include coolers in the back full of ice cold water and a radio beacon in case you run into trouble, which will send them to your location immediately.

A "sailing stone" at the Racetrack Playa.

A “sailing stone” at the Racetrack Playa.

Parking lots are for tourists – don’t be a tourist

Two of the most incredible places in Death Valley are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Badwater Basin. Both have large parking lots that can be totally full at any given time and both locations can be pristine or totally useless depending on the recent weather conditions in the park. When the winds calm down for days or weeks on end, the sand dunes get covered in foot prints quickly and become totally un-photogenic. The salt plates at Badwater Basin are always changing and depend on rain to get back to their pristine condition with white salt and low, thin borders. As the plates dry and time goes on, the salt turns brown and the edges rise until they become totally unrecognizable.

The best thing to do at the Mesquite Sand Dunes is to park about a half mile before or after the parking lot on the side of Highway 190. Then, just hike out to the dunes from there. You’ll be free of nearly 90% of all foot traffic and will have mostly untouched dunes at your disposal. Just be smart and do your very best to tread lightly. Only walk were you have to and try not to trample the most beautiful dunes.

If the salt patterns at Badwater Basin look terrible from lack of rain, head over to West Side Road. You’ll actually drive right past this road on the way to the Badwater Parking lot, but most people just keep driving because it just looks like a dirt road. Drive about half mile or so down this road and you’ll have a great chance at finding some incredible patterns here. Just keep in mind that Badwater Basin is always changing and this information could be totally reversed during your visit.

From our location at sunrise (looking toward the parking area) we could see the circus or photographers already underway at sunrise.

From our location at sunrise (looking toward the parking area) we could see the circus or photographers already underway at sunrise.

Scout during the day – shoot at the edges

Blue skies are the norm in Death Valley. So don’t be surprised if you don’t see much in the way of clouds on your trip. I’ve actually lucked out quite a bit during my visits to the park and have experienced some incredible conditions. All that aside, don’t go photographing this place in broad daylight thinking that you’re going to come out with a bunch of keepers. This is the same with any landscape photography, all over the world. If you want to experience this park in all its glory, you need to capture it at sunrise, sunset or at night.

Zabriskie Point at dawn as storms move through the park.

Zabriskie Point at dawn as storms move through the park.

Conclusion

Death Valley is one of the most magnificent, diverse and photogenic national parks in America (USA). You just have to know how to do it right. You can either listen to some editor on Yahoo who just threw a list together (probably) without even going to the places in the article. Or you can listen to the throngs of photographers who visit the park each and every year, including ones like me who keep coming back again and again.

What do you think? Should Death Valley have made this list of worst national parks? Let’s talk in the comments below!

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Bob Markin

    I have been to numerous National Parks and monuments and have NEVER been disappointed. Some are better than others, but all have been worth the trip. DVNP is an amazing place that every American should visit at least once. There are places within the park that very few people ever go because their car won’t make it or they do not want to walk to it. Those are often the best places to visit as you get a real sense of the remoteness of it.

    Many of the dirt roads can be driven in a rental car, though some research needs to be done before going to far off the pavement. Personally, I wouldn’t be too worried about Titus in most cars, Echo Canyon is a different story. Farabee’s is a great plan, definitely worth the scratch. I am lucky to own a jeep, and have visited places like Phinney Canyon, where we usually have lunch in the snow! There are many, many other places where most tourists don’t go that present great photographic opportunities.

    I don’t know Fink or know of him for that matter. He really missed the mark on this one.

  • Ann

    I saw that and had the same reaction you did – I thought he was nuts. Some National Parks are more amazing than others – but a good photographer (and/or human being) will find beauty in any part of nature, especially federally protected land!.

    I have loved and adored DVNP all three times I have been there, and I would love to go again as a more serious photographer and get those amazing shots. I’ve been lucky enough to go for both of the major recent blooms which is throughly enjoyable – the dichotomy of flowers in one of the hottest places was just amazing.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree with Bill Fink, and be in agreement with you and all the other photographers out there that have found beauty in DVNP!

  • Mary Rose

    I had read previously about Death Valley being so beautiful in a painting workshop magazine. As for 113 degrees F, hey we are used to that in Phoenix and it is not so tough. I agree that people who write these articles should have to deal with a tough editor and not just let it all hang out. Frankly, I am sick of the “top ten”, “worst ten”, bucket lists. Mary Rose

  • Valerie Kramer

    Death Valley is great! I just wish I could get there more often. I had one of my most memorable National Parks experiences there. My husband and I hiked up one of the canyons and sat in the shade for a bit. The quiet was incredible. Then a large bird flew overhead and we could hear the wind moving over it’s still wings. It may not sound like much but it was incredibly special and moving. Last time we were there some military jets were playing follow the leader in the next canyon over. they put on quite a show! I think the best time to go is whenever everyone else thinks it is the worst time. Death Valley is best seen without the crowds. Definitely get off the beaten track as much as you can!

  • ImRike

    I’ve spent four Winters in Death Valley (October thru March) as Campground Host at Mesquite Spring CG, and I’d go back right now if I had a chance. I tell everybody that DV is the only place I have ever been homesick for! It is absolutely magnificent.

  • James Brandon

    Thanks Rike! What really struck me about the article is that it sounded like he hadn’t even been to the places he mentioned in the article. He just wrote it based off of reports he had heard from friends and peers.

  • James Brandon

    Valerie, I had pretty much the EXACT same experience in Arches National Park in winter of 2014. I had hiked up a cliff side to shoot Landscape Arch at sunset and it was so quiet I couldn’t believe it. Then, an eagle came flying to it’s nest in the cliff and I could hear the wind flowing over it’s wings. It was truly inspiring and moving, couldn’t and still can’t really explain it.

  • James Brandon

    Couldn’t agree more Mary 😉

  • James Brandon

    Cheers Ann! And cheers to Death Valley 🙂

  • Valerie Kramer

    Hi James!
    Sounds like you know exactly what I meant then. I guess the body has two aspects represented by the brain and the “heart”. We’re pretty good at using our brains and communicating our thoughts but we haven’t learned nearly as much about emotions, feelings, etc. and we seem able to communicate them only poorly. Pity. the “heart” system is probably the more important system in the long run. Anyway, getting away to a quiet place, like we both experienced, helps open us up to really feel the world. Those are very special moments wherever and whenever they occur. They are all too infrequent.

  • Lynn Gemeinhart

    My wife and I were in Death Valley last October. We had a great time. We didn’t have a 4×4, so we didn’t see everything, but still enjoyed the trip. I don’t know what Bill Fink is expecting, but he can’t expect all national parks to be the same. A return trip is on my list of things to do when I retire in about 2 years. This time I want to camp, and spend more time to do some hiking and see what we missed on the first trip. Death Valley is not Yellowstone or the Great Smokies, but it is still worthy of being a national park.

  • Charlie Young

    Been to Death Valley many times and always seem to find different views I hadn’t previously captured. I don’t agree with the author at all. Want to visit the least visited National Park? Travel across Nevada to White Pine County and visit Great Basin National Park. The alpine mountain vistas are stunning to say the least.

  • The challenge of Death Valley is what makes going there and photographing the area worth it. Yes January – March is a bit more hospitable, especially now with all the wildflowers blooming. But still in the middle of July when virtually no one is there is a perfect time to get some of the most incredible shots that can be made. The desolation and loneliness cannot be captured any other way. Just be prepared.

  • Phil

    I have been to Death Valley several times. The geological history and. Natural beauty there is as amazing as any of the so called top parks in our system like Yosemite. The exposure to the elements there, the living creatures that survive there and the natural wonders that exist there is truly an amaIng thing to experience. Saying that Death Valley is the worst park is like saying earth is the worse planent because it is covered it water. I am stunned that someone could say is.

  • ckt

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s an overused expression, but overused because it rings true. I’m from Idaho which I think is one of the most gorgeous places ever. I am often told how boring and dull it is. I agree with your assessment of Death Valley. Cynics are everywhere these days. However, your statement “In all fairness, there are some pretty lame national parks and monuments” yeah, this betrays the very mentality your arguing against in this article. I guarantee that there is something beautiful and worth preserving in ALL the national parks. Even if NOT EVERYONE can see it.

  • Ernesto Franklin

    Its what you get for A: reading Yahoo news and B: taking serious what you read on Yahoo news…..

  • Susan Kohkonen

    I love your photos of Death Valley. I want to go there myself someday and get some pictures. I have no excuse, got the camera, got the Jeep, and live within 2 hours. Your photos help motivate me to get off my duff and pack up and take off.

  • Darren

    I’m an Aussie who visited USA in July last year for the first time. We blitzed around CA, AZ, UT, NV then WA, OR before heading east to NY & DC. Family trip. 4 weeks. DVNP was high on my bucket list having read it’s history as a kid. 47 deg C when we got there but I wasn’t put off or disappointed. Awesome place and I’ll definitely go back as a serious photographer some time instead of the family-toting tourist. We really only over-nighted in Furnace Creek and went to Badwater (very time limited). But I’d go back there just as much as I’d re-visit Yosemite. I could easily spend a week or more in both locations. BTW we found Bryce Canyon to be more spectacular than Grand Canyon ie different people enjoy different things for different reasons.

  • drdroad

    Death Valley, and places like Death Valley (El Malpais, Saguaro, Badlands, Petrified Forest NP, lots more) are easy to fees the loneliness, just get off the road!

  • Pete

    DV great photo park even if you don’t go to far from the road. When we where there it even rained for the first time in 15 years. It was fun just watching the people living there enjoying the rare rain. Willgo back when in the area.

  • Tony Sanger

    What do you expect from a guy named Fink.

  • El_Fez

    This guy can eat a flaming bag of crap: https://www.flickr.com/search/?w=26104563@N00&q=death%20valley

    Death Valley is a FANTASTIC park! I’m totally planning on going again to catch all the areas I missed the first time around!

  • El_Fez

    Seconded! Great Basin is a great park – the cave tour alone is worth the trip. And if you go, spend some time driving the Loneliest Road in America. Far from Lonely and amazingly photogenic!

  • Richard

    Three words: Climb Telescope Peak.

  • James Brandon

    The park gets around 2 inches of rain per year though? I’ve been there during a storm so strong we had to pull over because we couldn’t see the road. Knocked out power to our hotel in Stovepipe Wells and had to relocate our workshop group to Beatty for the duration of the trip.

  • James Brandon

    That’s great Susan! Get out there, you won’t be disappointed! Thanks for the kind words, too!

  • Andrew Thomas

    We’ve been to 56 of the 59 USA National Parks (we are from Australia!) and DV is right up there with the best. We’ve been there twice, on the 2nd visit I was caught in a wild sandstorm whilst out on the Mesquite Dunes, and though my lens had to go in for repairs when I returned home, it was worth every second of the experience.
    James, one thing I commend you for in this article is your willingness to share your knowledge in the best way to approach these 2 locations- well done!

  • Adrian Donati

    I visited Death Valley in about March 1979 after being buried under a couple of feet of snow in the Mammoth Mountain ski lodge car park (we were camping in the back of our car) After the snow was cleared we thought, ”bugger this Ice Age apocalypse style living” and drove the short distance to Death Valley. I was instantly mesmerized by its unique beauty and rejuvenated by the 70F temperatures during the day, although the mornings were cool. I don’t recall seeing any other people there, which added to the appeal of the place as I’ve always found that the presence of the gawking hordes to be detrimental to the ambience of any natural landscape. I live half a world away from Death Valley (Northern Territory, Australia) but often find myself thinking about the brief time that I was there, including all the other stunning national parks I saw in the western side of the US. I agree that Death Valley is a great park but seeing it at the right time of year is probably key to enjoying what it has to offer.

  • Caryn Hill

    GREAT advice on when to go. We just did a 3 day visit there 2 weeks ago. PERFECT temp and the crowds were bearable. 🙂 Fun place to photography too!

  • Graham Payne

    We visited Death Valley June of last year and loved every minute. Managed to get some good shots of Bad Water. Love your Photos.

  • Craig Myers

    My take on the Fink article was that he was going for some cheap laughs and hadn’t visited any of the parks on his list. Certainly not an article to be taken seriously. Your comments about Death Valley are right on.

  • Barry engleman

    I agree with Death Valley being one of the best! Just don’t go when the heat is too bad! And, you do have to do some exploring to see it at its best.

  • James Brandon

    That’s awesome that you’ve been to that many parks! People like you are much more qualified to write an article about the best or worst national parks 🙂

  • James Brandon

    Thanks Graham!

  • Kathy Sharman

    We visited Death Valley one November and it was pretty awesome. One bit of warning: my brother set his GPS to Death Valley and was sent to the center of the park to a bunch of unimproved roads to nowhere–which is not where you want to go unless you are prepared.

  • Annette Berglund

    I will never forget the first time we went to Death Valley! It was really a surprise, so many different things to see. The dunes, wildflowers in the spring, the old abandoned towns, it has so much to offer. We have been there a few times, this last time we rented a Jeep at farabeesjeeprentals.com. They are so helpful! We went into the back country. We went to Warm Springs, this was old in the middle of nowhere. There was a wonderful campground and hot springs to enjoy!
    I can’t wait to go back and explore so more! One of the best parks!

  • Eleutheria

    Just returned from vacation to Death Valley and it was sad to come across the Fink article. I presume he didn’t see the Eureka Sand Dunes, Racetrack Playa, or walk outside at night to see all of the stars and planets. It is a magnificent place.

  • Massimo Nittardi

    I’ve actually visited the park at the end of november/early december and it was rather chilly at night, totally fine during the day. I think november to march are probably safe bets. It’s a magnificent place by the way, and I came away with unforgettable shots and memories.

  • Adrian Donati

    Thanks James,
    Although I’ll have to concede that my experience with US national parks is several decades old the true essence of the landscape doesn’t change much in our brief human lifespans. Despite receding glaciers all over the world, which we can all claim responsibility for, we’re still left with the magnificent sculpting of 2.5 million years of Pleistocene glaciation. Yosemite National Park is a prime example of the stunning beauty formed by ice, gravity and time; Ansell Adams certainly found inspiration there and an effective trigger for his creative genius. I climbed there back in the late 70’s and thought this place would have to be the closest thing to paradise when the original indigenous people were living there. As luck would have it I’ll be heading back across the Pacific in mid May with a newly acquired Nikon D5300 in hand (I haven’t mastered all its technological wizardry yet!) and sojourning briefly in Yosemite before heading up to Alaska to check out a few glaciers from the seaward side and then to Denali National Park. Unfortunately no time to revisit Death Valley but hey, its not going anywhere soon! I enjoy your work. All the best. Adrian

  • CatInTheWoodpile

    There are definitely right and wrong times to visit Death Valley. I like to go between Thanksgiving and Christmas – the weather is comfortable and you aren’t risking life and limb heading out solo on a 4WD trail. One thing to beware of (photographically speaking) is that darkness falls incredibly fast in the valley. Bright light one minute and darkness the next, so it seems. If you are planning on hiking some distance from your vehicle with a plan of getting some “golden hour” shots, be prepared to hike back in darkness. Oh, and if you are out on Racetrack or the salt pans – it’s a lot further back to your vehicle than you think it is 🙂

  • CatInTheWoodpile

    I’ve been to DV three times, once passing through, twice staying in the park. I still haven’t seen most of it. I personally prefer DV to Yellowstone, but I think my favorite National Park (of the ones I’ve been to) is Grand Teton. But that’s just me 🙂

  • jmwlasvegas

    Every time I visit Death Valley I see something new, and I’ve been there more times than I can count. Went camping there every year for about 5 years growing up. Now I live in Vegas, so we can pop over there for a day trip. It’s a magnificent park. No, I don’t go when it’s hot. That’s not my thing. But if we didn’t go often we would have missed people kayaking across Badwater after a very wet winter one year. That’s a sight I’ll never forget. And the desert bloom that year was absolutely incredible. I could go on and on about the park. I really love it. Fink is out of his mind, or wants nothing to do with the beauty of nature.

  • fhayes

    I was there in April 1976 or 77. There had been 3 times the annual rainfall over night just before we arrived. It was a total of THREE INCHES! Because of the unusual amount of rain, a fungus appeared on the cacti. It was orange and looked as though it was yarn wrapped around the plants! For lack of knowing what it was, the park rangers called it spaghetti fungus, they also said it had never been seen in the recorded history of the park. They had no idea if it would harm the cactus. A week later, it had shriveled and was gone!

    Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder, as a great drunk once told me.

  • Matt Vargo

    I just went last weekend to catch the “Super Bloom.” I thought Death Valley was incredible, and could’ve easily spent 3 more days taking photos there.

    I also got to catch a serious storm, giving some unique conditions!

  • Peter Hybrid Photography Tread

    Great article and I couldn’t agree more!

    I travelled through Death Valley en route from San Francisco to Vegas for Photoshop World in July and the mercury touched 48c (119f) at its hottest! Whilst that was a bit of a drag and quite tiresome by the end of the drive, it was also part of the adventure and experience and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way!

    Also, although we weren’t lucky enough to have the time to do any night shooting, I got some absolutely incredible shots driving through the park during the day.

    If you get the opportunity to go, then please don’t be put off by some armchair journalist trying to pad out an article!

  • ernldo

    This can’t be the first article you’ve read that was less than accurate, and btw, journalism has been DEAD for over a half century now. Chill out, even a dope like Fink is entitled to his own opinion and just maybe he helped keep the tourist numbers low when YOU want to be there?

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