A Family in the Desert – Death Valley, CA

Genie Davis May 7, 2012 No Comments


Some of my happiest vacation memories have been based in the desert. There’s just something about bright blue skies, dry air, gold sand, and red rock that draws my family in. Sitting on my desk right now, are photos of my kids in Death Valley. Maybe it’s the way the stark beauty of the place strips down everything to the elemental. You’re not going to be distracted with movie openings, haute cuisine, or amusement park rides. Your internet connection may be spotty at best. Your hotel – with a few exceptions – will probably not be a five star accommodation. And, the desert isn’t Honolulu – my other favorite vacation spot – so you’re likely to be able to explore without huge crowds or a search for a parking space.  In the desert you’re free to experience nature, and just be.

As a family in the desert, my kids and I have learned a number of important must-have’s: first and foremost, water and a full tank of gas. At all times. Four flats of water isn’t excessive for a two day trip. And those outrageous prices at the pump will seem a lot more reasonable if you imagine the alternative, being miles from the nearest station. You must also have healthy but easy to preserve snacks – crackers, nuts, juice boxes, individual sealed apple sauce. And you need sweatshirts – at night, no matter what the season, temperatures can drop. Lastly, you need sun screen, and plenty of it, regardless of the season.

What you don’t necessarily need: an SUV, unless you’re going off-road, or hiking boots for children old enough to walk under their own power.

The Ultimate Desert Experience

Badwater salt flats Death Valley California

A great place for a morning walk - Badwater salt flats

Living in Southern California, there are two main desert destinations that have drawn me back, year after year: Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is possibly the ultimate desert experience: located about three hundred miles from LA, this is a vast, startlingly beautiful place, ringed by mountains, boasting dunes and sand flats, mysterious and unpalatable waters, ruins and relics, oases and mineral streaked boulders. Come for the ghost towns near by, the wild flowers in the spring, the ranger led tour of Scotty’s Castle, or a climb on the dunes. And at night, if there’s a pool at your motel and it’s warm, use it. If there’s no pool or it’s too cold, take out a deck of cards, play a game of charades, and no matter what else you do, look up at the stars.

Yes, the drive to the park is long, but there are fascinating stops throughout the park no more than twenty minutes apart.   No one will be bored. There are kit foxes to watch for, ground squirrels to spy, hawks soaring overhead.

Ghost Towns

There are two main ghost town stops around Death Valley. To the south, outside of Trona, CA you’ll find Ballarat. A sparse general store and one or two humans populate the place; the ruins of a small town are easy to stroll through once you’ve made it down the wash-boardy dirt road from the highway. Rhyolite, NV outside the north end of the park, is accessible on a paved road, and along with shells of a once bustling main street’s shops and bank, there’s a house made of bottles and a railroad depot. Best of all for my kids are the modern art sculptures scattered through the desert at the edge of town – surreal and lovely.

Morning Walks

Sun, sand, and sky in Death Valley

Moments of just looking at the raw beauty of the desert make for a great family trip

Regardless of the time of year, morning walks are the best in the desert. Cooler, with the sun less intense and better for photographs, a morning stroll along the dunes in the national park just south of Stovepipe Wells’ motel and general store, are both easy to reach and fun for kids of all ages to explore. Whether you’re sticking to the few short dunes closest to the road, or wandering like Lawrence of Arabia to the peak of a towering dune a half mile away, everyone will have a great time. Be prepared for lots of sand in shoes and later in the car!

Another great morning walk is the short stroll across the salt flats of Badwater, the lowest altitude in the contiguous U.S. The white salt looks like snow, the undrinkable water like a mirror reflecting the sky.

Interior Experiences

The best indoors attraction in Death Valley is Scotty’s Castle, where costumed guides tell the fascinating story of the eccentric Death Valley Scotty for whom the retreat is named, and his friendship with a Chicago millionaire. The tours are fast moving enough and entertaining enough to captivate older children, and keep young tots from being bored.

Another great indoor spot:  Furnace Creek Interpretive Center. With stellar exhibits on the borax mining that once was rampant in the park, artifacts, and ranger led educational talks available, as well as the highlight for small children – the ability to touch pelts and rocks and animal bones on display.

Wherever you roam, there will be time for just a few moments of quiet contemplation – when your kids look up at the vast and untrammeled sky, or out across a sea of sand, and just stare. And maybe take your hand. It’s these moments which make a desert trip to Death Valley one of those family experiences you’ll be happy you shared for years to come.

avatarAbout the Author:

Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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