R2D2 and C3PO trudge hopelessly through an endless desert on Tatooine. Hostile Jawas, Tusken Raiders and vicious aliens infuse the fictional world with a menacing aura. “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” warns Obi Wan Kenobi. Luke Skywalker can’t wait to get out of there even before Storm Troopers murder his family.
Those scenes from the first “Star Wars” formed my unappealing mental picture of Death Valley, where they were filmed in 1976. Though I love to get outdoors, it took me decades to actually visit the national park and experience it myself.
What I found made me wish I’d done so much sooner. A first-time visitor can enjoy multiple desert hikes and scenic points of interest within a few days. Here are a few suggestions, arranged from least to more strenuous.
Artists Drive provides a look at marvelously colorful landscape on the western edge of the Black Mountains. A nine-mile drive takes visitors through an explosion of colors, featuring mountains that are red, pink, yellow, green, and purple. There are multiple places to stop and walk around and admire the geology, including the notable Artists Palette, an especially colorful viewpoint.
Furnace Creek’s Visitor Center educates visitors on both the geologic and human history of the park. While would-be miners inspired the future park’s name by getting lost and nearly dying in 1849, the indigenous Timbisha thrived for at least a millennium, and in 2000, became the first Native American group to secure land rights within a national park. These are just a few of the stories captured in the center, which has both water and air conditioning.
Just south of Artists Drive, Badwater Basin marks the lowest dry elevation in North America at 279 feet below sea level. Hikers here enjoy a short out-and-back walk on the large salt flat where a lake existed thousands of years ago. Only a shallow pond of very salty water remains, hence the basin’s name.
Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail shows visitors ruins of a building and a well-preserved 20-mule team wagon (minus the mules). Both stand in memory of an 1880s business venture. Seeing them is worth a short walk off Highway 190 north of Furnace Creek.
Dantes View affords one of the most dramatic and rewarding views of Death Valley, and terrific sunset photography. Visitors can reach it simply by driving to the end of Dantes View Road. Those slightly more ambitious can hike about a quarter mile to the north to summit Dantes Peak.
For a slightly longer trek, try Natural Bridge Canyon beside Badwater Road. A path leads up a narrow canyon with high walls, reaching an erosion-formed natural bridge in about a half mile. Other interesting formations abound. Those who wish can continue another half mile until the canyon ends with a wall of rock, where most turn around for a two-mile outing.
Visitors could complete any of the preceding outings in an hour or two, and in the hot weather that inspired the park’s name, that might be plenty of exercise for a day. But to get an honest workout and beat the heat, consider a higher elevation hike.
Wildrose Peak in the Panamint Range stands at 9,064 feet. To reach its summit requires an eight-mile round trip outing that climbs 2,600 feet. The start of the hike leads through a forest of pinyon pines and junipers. The summit offers a view of both Badwater Basin to the east and Mount Whitney to the west, the lowest and highest points of the continent both visible from the same point. This hike is high and cool enough to attempt in summer, though fall and spring offer more comfortable temperatures.
Not sold yet? Well, Death Valley is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a national park, and winter conditions provide ideal temperatures for many outings.
Still “got a real bad feeling” from the “Star Wars” imagery, like I did? Hey, the latest “Star Wars” film (spoiler alert!) finally sees a Skywalker return to the family’s desert home. Our hero enjoys the setting suns without a Storm Trooper or Death Star in sight. So, don’t wait a long time to visit this galaxy that’s not so far away.
If you go: Give yourself some time. Getting there takes a while, so you’d might as well stay long enough to look around. With 3,000 square miles, there’s a lot to see; Death Valley is three times as large as Yosemite and 64 times the size of San Francisco. Plan on at least two days, and three would be better. Avoid the summer, don’t rely on cell phone reception and carry more water than you think you need.
Matt Johanson authored the new guidebook, “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”