Death Valley National Park has an area of 3.4 million acres, 91% of which is wilderness!
Hearing these numbers can be daunting to any trip planner but fear not, Death Valley is highly accessible with 785 miles of roads.
Roadside camping is typically allowed which means you can often get a great, isolated spot. Keep in mind that most of the park is wilderness so keep your car in the impacted area. Also, fires are only allowed at campsites with firepits. Oh, and a lot of roads require high-clearance and/or 4-wheel drive (you can rent a Jeep by Furnace Creek).
With that said, Death Valley can be as relaxing or grueling as you wish. This trip we opted for a little of both. We went in December so the daytime temperature was great! Perfect for a strenuous hike or a day of roaming the grounds of Scotty’s Castle.
Mesquite Springs Campground ($12/night, first-some, first-serve) at the North end of the park provided flush toilets and firepits for our lazy Wednesday and was conveniently close to Scotty’s Castle for our Thursday tours.
For those that usually avoid crowds, Scotty’s Castle is interesting enough to brave the insanity. Walter Scott, a.k.a. Death Valley Scotty, was a con-man who persuaded New Englanders to invest in his alleged gold mine. Among his victims was Albert Johnson. Not seeing the promised returns, Johnson eventually grew curious and headed West to investigate. DV Scotty gave him a good show complete with a fake Wild West raid in hope that Mr. Johnson would grow tried and head home.
Instead Johnson fell in love with the desert. He decided to build a house in Grapevine Canyon. Johnson also got a kick out of DV Scotty and the 2 became great friends. Johnson’s house became known as Scotty’s Castle as Scotty spread rumors that it belonged to him. Johnson was glad to play second fiddle to the entertainer and never objected to these lies.
After Johnson’s death, DV Scotty lived there until his own demise in 1954. The National Park Service acquired the property in 1970. Now, for $25 anyone can tour the main house as well as the Underground Tunnels ($15/per tour if you choose to only do one). Rangers guide visitors from room to room while explaining the history of the house and its inhabitants. We had great fun on both tours and thought the Rangers, who dressed in period garb, were energetic, knowledgeable, and entertaining.
We also walked the grounds to see the other buildings and Scotty’s grave. A walk to the Lower Vine, Scotty’s actual house, is also available but was not offered when we were there (check the NPS website). Sad. In either case, it was time well spent.
If you’re like us and snag a spot on the earlier tours, you can take the opportunity to see nearby Ubehebe Crater. We opted to drive out to Furnace Creek for a burger and a couple Ranger Programs and save Ubehebe Crater for the next day…
More Death Valley Posts:
- Titus Canyon, Darwin Falls, Rylolite Ghost Town
- Racetrack Valley, Lippencot
- Telescope Peak, Panamint City
- Eureka Valley
- Ubehebe Crater
For more national park adventures, visit our National Park Service Guide.