Death Valley National Park is the lowest and possibly hottest and driest spot in North America. The 134 degrees recorded on July 10, 1913 is the highest temperature recorded on the planet. The park is also the largest national park outside of Alaska with 91% designated as Wilderness. Though broken up by paved and dirt roads into at least 40 smaller wilderness sections it is the largest named Wilderness area in the lower 48 states. The wilderness contains acreage in both California and Nevada. Annual rainfall measures slightly less than two inches, and for six months each year, heat sears the valley floor, with July temperatures averaging 116 degrees Fahrenheit. During the other six months, the climate is very hospitable and considered the best time to visit.
Yet there is far more to this Wilderness than dry heat. Once you've adjusted your mental palette to the area's harsh, subtle beauty, wonders abound. Telescope Peak rises to 11,049 feet, higher than any other point in the park, and, with much of the Panamint Range, stands white under winter snow. (In fact, the climb up to Telescope Peak, where temperatures are cooler, is one of the few hikes considered reasonable in the heat of summer.) Contrast this with nearby Badwater, 15 or so miles to the east as the crow flies, where the earth lies almost 300 feet below sea level, the lowest terrestrial point in North America. Vast fields of sand dunes shimmer in the sun, and rock outcroppings are carved into shapes of staggering beauty, especially striking at dawn and dusk. Colorful cliffs stand above endless flats of creosote bush. Still more contrast is provided by areas like the Bowling Alley, a long, narrow strip, added in 2019, that includes a desert spring important for wildlife. More than 1000 species of plants have been identified within the park, and nights come alive to the scurrying of small mammals. Coyotes, gray and kit foxes, bobcats, jackrabbits, and desert tortoises thrive here, as do a plethora of bats, birds, lizards, and snakes. Desert bighorn sheep live in the canyons and lower mountains while mule deer live in the high Panamints, where you can sometimes tramp through a dry forest of piñon, juniper, mountain mahogany, and a few bristlecone pines. Wildflowers bloom in spectacular variety when enough rain falls during the winter and spring. Ubehebe Crater opens 2,400 feet in diameter, marking where a "maar" volcano erupted less than 500 years ago.
You are free to hike the Wilderness, limited only by your courage and ability to carry water. Camping in the frontcountry is only allowed in designated locations but in the Wilderness, camping is allowed just about anywhere. Visitors are required to obtain a free backcountry camping permit from any park visitor center.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Death Valley Wilderness.
Located in the Mojave Desert along the California and Nevada border, Death Valley National Park is only a two hour drive from Las Vegas and a five hour drive from Los Angeles. Most of Death Valley National Park is designated as the Death Valley Wilderness. There are three paved roads entering the park from the east, Highways 190, 374, and 178. Highway 367 is closed. There are also two paved roads entering from the west, Highways 178 and 190. California Hwy 190, designated a National Scenic Highway, crosses the middle of the park providing access to both Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek.
GPS is unreliable in this area. Check current road conditions, carry a map and exercise sound judgement before driving on dirt roads.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
California Desert Protection Act of 1994 - Public Law 103-433 (10/31/1994) "California Desert Protection Act of 1994" An Act to designate certain lands in the California Desert as wilderness, to establish the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, to establish the Mojave National Preserve, and for other purposes.
The best time to visit the Death Valley Wilderness is mid-October thru mid-April when cooler temperatures provide the perfect climate for camping, hiking, and exploring this unique desert environment. Hiking opportunities are limitless though the park has few maintained trails. Backpacking opportunities abound, but due to limited water sources, careful trip planning is of special concern.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
If visiting in the summer, backpacking should be limited to the higher elevations. At lower elevations, day hikes should start at sunrise and be completed before 10 am. Also carry enough water with you especially in the summer. The standard is one gallon per hour hiking during the summer.
Safety and Current Conditions
The number one cause of death and injury in Death Valley National Park--single car rollovers--occurs before people even get into the wilderness. Always carry current maps and stop by the park visitor center for updated road information. In summer, never travel without additional drinking water in case your vehicle breaks down. Avoid hiking in lower elevations during the heat of summer (May thru September). Cell phone coverage is limited or non-existent. GPS units are not a substitute for a good map. In remote areas such as Death Valley, GPS units are not always dependable.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.