Story and photos by Jen Peng
Few people would choose to visit Death Valley in the summertime. After all, it’s the hottest and driest place in North America. Yet, with proper planning, it can be a fantastic trip. Combine that with the rugged landscape of Alabama Hills, and you’ve got yourself a memorable, off-the-beaten-track road trip for the summer.
Temperatures in Death Valley can reach over 120 degrees in the summer. To safely visit, outdoor activity should be limited to the early morning, late in the day or at higher elevations. Plan on staying indoors (including your air-conditioned car) for the rest of the time, and make sure you have plenty of water and sun protection.
Start your day with sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Located near Stovepipe Wells Village, these easily accessible sand dunes span 14 square miles and reach up to 130 feet. Sunrise and sunset will offer the most dramatic colors and shadows. The sand dunes are also a great spot to visit at night – the stars here dazzle, while the dunes themselves are ethereal under a full moon.
Another popular sunrise spot is Zabriskie Point, one of the most iconic spots in the park. There’s a short walk to an overlook offering sweeping views over the surreal badlands landscape below. Or head to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. It will be too hot to venture far, but you can walk the wooden platform to a salt pool and step foot on the salt flats.
Nearby Devils Golf Course is a large salt pan covered with jagged spires of salt deposits, where it is said that “only the devil could play golf.” Listen closely for the sounds of the salt crystals exploding in the heat.
During the heat of the day, you can tour along Artists Drive, a scenic 9-mile one-way loop that winds its way past pastel-colored hills and canyons off Badwater Road. The colors are especially vibrant and concentrated at Artists Palette, where a short trail takes you to an overlook. Or take the short and scenic drive through Twenty Mule Canyon, an unpaved road that heads through the golden badlands.
For sweeping views of the park, drive to Dante’s View at 5,476 feet. From here, you can see both the lowest (Badwater Basin) and highest (Telescope Peak) points in the park. The former gold mining town of Skidoo near Emigrant Canyon is another option and offers fantastic views from the 6,433-foot Aguereberry Point.
Summer is the best time for several high elevation hikes, including 11,049-feet Telescope Peak. It’s a 14-mile out-and-back hike that starts at 8,200 feet, with spectacular 360-degree views from the summit. Those less ambitious can try the 8.4-mile out-and-back to the 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak. Stop by the Charcoal Kilns near the base. These well-preserved beehive shaped masonry structures date back to the 1870s and were used to convert limber to charcoal.
As you head out of the park towards Alabama Hills, stop by the Father Crowley Overlook. If you’re lucky, you might see some fighter pilots practicing their maneuvers in the canyon below.
Given the vast size of Death Valley, it’s best to stay in the park itself. Six campgrounds are open over the summer. Several central lodging options in the park also offer air conditioning and swimming pools – the Oasis at Death Valley (which includes the pricey but luxurious Inn at Death Valley and the more modest Ranch at Death Valley) and the Stovepipe Wells Hotel.
After Death Valley, Alabama Hills will seem relatively mild, with temperatures that approach 100 degrees in the summer. Located near Lone Pine, off Highway 395, the eroded hills and rounded rocks of the Alabama Hills stands in sharp contrast to the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains behind it. A popular Hollywood filming location, more than 400 movies have been filmed here, including numerous westerns and more recently, Iron Man and Django Unchained.
In the town of Lone Pine, the small but interesting Museum of Western Film History is worth a stop and is home to an extensive collection of movie memorabilia, props, costumes, posters and more. Pick up a self-guided tour map of Movie Road, then drive along the dirt road at the heart of Alabama Hills to see some of these sites for yourself.
Stop along the way at the Arch Loop Trail, a short and easy 0.6-mile loop trail that takes you to Mobius Arch, famous for its perfect framing of Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney. Don’t miss Lathe Arch nearby either. As you drive around, you can also look for other famous arches like Heart Arch, the Eye of Alabama and Whitney Portal Arch.
Alabama Hills is also a portal to Mount Whitney, the highest peak on the continental U.S. at 14,505 feet. If you’re lucky enough to have obtained a wilderness permit, you can spend a day or two hiking and summiting this peak.
The area is also a popular destination for rock climbing, with more than 400 bolted sport and trade routes. Climbing is still possible in the summer, just make sure you get an early start before the heat really starts setting in.
There are three campgrounds in the area, at Tuttle Creek, Portuguese Joe and Lone Pine along the Whitney Portal Road. There’s also fantastic dispersed camping in the area, though the BLM has recently limited the areas open to dispersed camping. The sun will be a big issue when camping over the summer, so be sure to use the many boulders and outcroppings around for shade.