Recommendations for Death Valley
I've been to Death Valley twice, but it's been more than 10 years since the last trip. It's only a 350 mile drive from my house to Furnace Creek, but other adventures always seen to get in the way of another trip. However, I am currently planning a trip for next April. In fact, just last week I picked up some maps at my local CSAA office. If you're a member of AAA, you should get a copy of their "Death Valley National Park Guide Map." It's what I'm looking at right now while I respond to your request for info. I am also looking at Google Earth, which I find helpful for understanding what views are possible or impossible from certain viewpoints.
The first time I visted was a day trip in a Buick and I stayed on paved roads. My second trip was in a stock Jeep Cherokee and we did lot's of the main dirt roads (Racetrack, Titus Canyon, etc.). My next trip will be in a stock Jeep Grand Cherokee and I will revisit many of the places from the previous trip.
Here is a link to the DVMP Visitor Guide: http://www.nps.gov/deva/parknews/newspaper.htm
Here is a link to some NPS maps of DVNP: http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/maps.htm
BTW, I just found a photography site for California that you may want to check out. It helps you scout out : http://ca.myphotoscout.com/
I have been to the five sites you mentioned and many more. Here are Wikipedia's thoughts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Places_of_interest_in_the_Death_Valley_area Here are my thoughts (this is long, so please bear with me):
HWY 190 FROM OWENS LAKE TO STOVEPIPE WELLS & HWY 190 JUNCTION --
-- Owens Lake isn't that photogenic, but the area around it is. If you find yourself in Lone Pine (on Hwy 395), stop at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. There is an excellent view of the east face of Mt. Whitney and the adjacent 14'ers from here. http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/inyo/recarea/?recid=20698
-- Father Crowley Point Monument -- There's a deep canyon on the north side of this viewpoint and Panamint Valley and the Panamint Range off to the east. The local geology is interesting and colorful. Because the "big view" is to the east, this vista point is probably best visited in the late afternoon/early evening. Unfortunately, we got here around 11:00 AM and it was very windy.
-- Darwin Falls (~2 miles SW of Panamint Springs) -- This is Death Valley's one easily accessible year-round waterfall. It's an easy drive and stroll to the base of the waterfall. The canyon is pretty well-shaded by the high walls and vegetation around the falls. I like photographing waterfalls, so this a must for me. http://www.hikespeak.com/trails/darwin-falls-death-valley/
-- Panamint Dunes (N of Panamint Springs) -- I haven't visited these dunes, but I've heard they're pretty nice and very little visted. IIRC, it takes about a 2-miles cross-country hike from the end of the dirt road to get there. There should be lots of photo opportunities here. http://www.panamintcity.com/sanddunes/panamintdunes.html
-- Mosaic Canyon & Grotto Canyon (immediately south of Stovepipe Wells Village). We hiked the first half mile or so of Mosaic and it's outstanding. Beautiful flash-flood sculpted canyon walls provide lots of photo opps. http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/mosaic-canyon.htm We didn't get to Grotto, mainly due to lack of time with all the other stuff we wanted to see. It's on my list for next year. http://www.americansouthwest.net/slot_canyons/grotto/canyon.html
-- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes & Devils Cornfield (just east of Stovepipe Wells). The dunes offer unlimited opps for beautiful late afternoon/sunset photography. My two youngest kids (both teenagers then) hiked about a mile in and back before the sun set. Devil's Cornfield is a combination of erosion and arrowhead bushes, which was not as interesting to me as the dunes. http://www.protrails.com/trails/view/36/death_valley_national_park/mesquite_flat_sand_dunes http://www.google.com/search?q=mesquite+flat+sand+dunes&hl=en&tbo=u&qscrl=1&rlz=1T4GGNI_enUS467US467&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=mC3FUM_MHsbKiwLciYGQAw&ved=0CEYQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=838
-- EMIGRANT CANYON / WILDROSE CANYON AREA --
-- Skidoo Ghost Town -- We didn't get to Skidoo and it appears that not much of it is left. http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/skidoo.html
-- Aguereberry Point -- Before you get to the point, be sure to stop at Eureka Mine, which has the only mine tunnel I know of in the park with stabilized walls so you can enter safely. Just bring a flashlight. http://www.nps.gov/deva/historyculture/pete-aguereberry.htm The point itself has some really nice views to the east, though a portion of the valley floor is blocked by lower ridges, so it's not as open a view as Dante's Point. If you want the Sun behind you, this is an afternoon trip. http://www.panamintcity.com/panamint/aguereberrypoint.html
-- Charcoal Kilns -- We didn't make it to the kilns, but they look interesting. http://www.nps.gov/deva/historyculture/charcoalkilns.htm
-- STOVEPIPE WELLS TO FURNACE CREEK & BEYOND IN THE VALLEY--
-- Salt Creek -- This is a year-round flowing creek in the bottom of Death Valley. Who wudda thunk it? There is a nice boardwalk along and over the creek, which is the only home of the rare Salt Creek Pupfish. I remember this as a place for "intimate" photography rather than "expansive" photography. http://www.nps.gov/deva/photosmultimedia/Salt-Creek.htm
-- Furnace Creek -- Furnace Creek has the main visitor center, museum, etc. IIRC, the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works is the main photographic draw here, but it's a more "staged" setting than a backroads ghost town.
-- Golden Canyon -- We didn't get to Golden, but it is apparently a very beautiful area to hike. http://www.hikespeak.com/trails/golden-canyon-gower-gulch-loop-in-death-valley/
-- Artists Palette -- This one-way road winds it's way through some intersting and colorful geology. IIRC, the best formations are east of the road, so they are best lit by the afternoon sun. http://www.hikespeak.com/ca-desert/dv/artists-drive-in-death-valley/
-- Devil's Golf Course -- Who would have thought evaporated salt could be so interesting? This is a place for both wide vistas and maybe some macro. http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/parks/deva/ftdev1.html
-- Natural Bridge -- Another hiking destination we didn't get to (my wife isn't much of a hiker). It's a short hike, so next time I'm going to do it. http://www.birdandhike.com/Hike/DEVA/Nat_Bridge/_Nat_Br.htm
-- Badwater -- This is the Holy Grail of low points in North America, at least that you can drive to (the two ponds here are at about elevation -280 ft, while the lowest point at -282 ft is several miles away. Be forewarned: the white salt is very bright, so wear sunglasses (I prefer polarized lenses). From the ponds look up at the cliff to the west and you be able to easily spot the "Sea Level" sign. http://www.google.com/search?q=badwater+death+valley&hl=en&tbo=u&qscrl=1&rlz=1T4GGNI_enUS467US467&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=eDfFUK3cKMmziwLvioD4Cw&ved=0CCsQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=838
-- We didn't get south of Badwater, but there are several other things you might want to check out, including the Ashford Mill ruins, Saratoga Springs (at the far south end of the park). If you have a 4WD, there are some canyon roads that branch off the graded West Side Road.
-- ALONG HWY 190 SE OF FURNACE CREEK --
-- Zabriskie Point -- This is another viewpoint with interesting and color geology plus a partial view of the the valley bottom. Here you are mosly looking west, so the morning Sun is your best bet. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zabriskie_Point
-- Hole in the Wall -- We missed the wildflower bloom by a few weeks on our last trip, and this area was one of the few that has flowers (mostly on cactus, but a few on weeds too). IIRC, this road requires 4WD. The highlight is a drive through a narrow gap in the mountains and finding yourself in a little valley. http://www.google.com/search?q=hole+in+the+wall+death+valley&hl=en&tbo=u&rlz=1T4GGNI_enUS467US467&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=QjvFUPqTFoe7iwLqtoD4Dw&ved=0CC4QsAQ&biw=1920&bih=838
-- Twenty Mule Team Canyon Road -- This little graded side road passes through some more intersting geology. I know we did this, but I can't remember what it looked like.
-- Dante's View -- This is DVNP's most outstanding viewpoint. It's more than 5700 directly above Badwater and you can see pretty much the entire portion of Death Valley that is below sea level from hear (depending on haze). Since the view is S-W-N, this would be best in the morning, but my slow-moving family delayed us until mid-afternoon. We actually had cell phone service here (a rarity in DVNP) because of a directly line-of-site to Furnace Creek. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dante's_View
-- NORTH END OF THE PARK --
-- Titus Canyon -- This is a one-way well-graded dirt road that runs downhill (mostly) from east to west. You pick it up just outside the park on the road to Beatty, Nevada. Except in wet conditions, this road is passenger car traversable. There are views, colorful geology, a scam-created ghost town (Leadfield), and a narrow canyon near the end. This drive is definitely worth the time. http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/titus-canyon.htm http://www.desertusa.com/mag99/may/stories/titus.html http://www.google.com/search?q=death+valley+titus+canyon&hl=en&tbo=u&qscrl=1&rlz=1T4GGNI_enUS467US467&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ei=fj7FUPazGqnYigLn4oHQBQ&ved=0CDIQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=838
-- Scotty's Castle -- Hearst's Castle it's not, but it is still worth a visit. http://gocalifornia.about.com/od/cadeathvalley/ig/Death-Valley-Photo-Tour/Scotty-s-Castle.htm
-- Ubehebe Craters -- These volcanic craters are at the north end of Death Valley's paved roads. This area is definitely worth a visit. We spent time here in the morning on our way to the Racetrack and again in the afternoon on the way back. Lots of photo opps here, both of the craters and the wider vistas beyond. http://www.americansouthwest.net/california/death_valley/ubehebe_crater.html
-- Teakettle Junction -- People leave teakettles here. Seriously. When I go back I want to see if ours is still there (I saw a photo taken last year by someone in my favorite astronomy forum that shows a teakettle just like the one we left…I just don't know if it's ours…we wrote our name in Sharpie on the bottom). BTW, we actually had good cell service (AT&T) here within a radius of about 100 feet because we a direct line-of-sight to an Air Force radar station in the Inyo Mountains to the west through a small gap in the nearby mountains. When we told a ranger, she was amazed. http://www.birdandhike.com/Hike/DEVA/TeakJct/_TeakJct.htm
-- The Racetrack -- An article on Death Valley, specifically a photo of The Racetrack, in a 1960s or 1970s National Geographic was the inspiration for me to want to visit Death Valley in the first place. This is one the most outstanding places in the National Park System, let alone DVNP. The nearly 30 miles of graded dirt road to here is technically passenger car passable, but the road is mostly washboarded and you can get shook pretty good. a high-clearance vehicle is a good idea. At The Racetrack you get big vistas of the valley and surrounding mountains as well as close-ups of the rocks and rock tracks. A wide angle and even a fisheye will be well-used here. You can compress a rock track with a telephoto. http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/the-racetrack.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racetrack_Playa
-- From The Racetrack, you can  return to Ubehebe the way you came,  head back to Teakettle then turn right toward Lost Burro Gap and Hidden Valley, then head south over Hunter Mountain and come out on Hwy 190 west ~20 miles west of Panamint Springs, or  take the dicey and not always passable Lippencot Road (4WD only) down into Saline Valley for a REALLY remote experience. We did #1, but with a short detour into Hidden Valley before turning around. If you want to enter Saline Valley (http://www.stanwhite.com/salinevalley.html) from The Racetrack, your best best would be over Hunter Mountain then down Grapeview Canyon. I haven't done this, but everything I read and see about Saline Valley makes me want to go. Lots of photo opps there.
-- Eureka Valley & Dunes -- I haven't been, but it's on my list. From just east of Ubehebe Craters there is a graded dirt road that heads north up out of the north end of the Death Valley proper. Near the north end of DVNP there is a road that heads south into Eureka Dunes, which rise ~700 feet about the valley floor. Lots more photo opps here. http://www.protrails.com/trails/view/292 http://www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/eureka-dunes.htm
BTW, Saline Valley and Eureka Valley were outside Death Valley National Monument, but were added when it was upgraded to Death Valley National Park.
-- Ballarat Ghost Town (about 25 miles SSE of Panamint Springs) -- Ballarat has a current population of two and a general store along with some old run-down buildings and anive view of the Panamint Range. We spent about an hour here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballarat,_California
-- Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark (about 50 miles S of Panamint Springs and about 10 miles S of Trona). We passed by these on our way from DV to Ridgecrest to meet a friend for dinner, so we didn't have time to stop. However, they are visible from Hwy 178. Exploring these is on my agenda for my next trip. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/ridgecrest/trona.html
-- Rhyolite & Bullfrog, Nevada. These are adjacent ghost towns just outside the park on the road to Beatty and just past the east end of the Titus Canyon Road. Rhyolite is the more interesting of the two. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullfrog,_Nevada http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhyolite,_Nevada http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhyolite,_Nevada
There's a bunch of stuff along Hwy 395, which wuns N-S west of DVNP, but that's a whole new subject. Also, not too far away are the White Mountains and two groves of ancient bristlecone pines. We visted the White Mountains in early September 1998 and saw both groves and the Barcroft High Elevation Research Station (it's open to public one day each year and we happened to hit it that year). I wouldn't try to add the White Mountains to a DVNP trip, but it works well as a day trip for a Hwy 395 exploration.
If you have hung in there and read this whole thing, please treat yourself to a 7-14 DZ or some other fun thing.
'Is it the only lesson of history that mankind is unteachable?' …Winston S. Churchill
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