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Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

California
posts: 38
reviews: 123
Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

We're spending three nights in Death Valley the week of Thanksgiving with another family, between us there will be five kids from age 8 to 13. All of the kids are good hikers, can easily handle 3 miles or more if it's really spectacular. We are staying 3 nights at the Furnace Creek campground and a fourth night somewhere on the way home, probably Bakersfield (so 3 full days in DV). Anyone have experience driving from the SF Bay Area? Is it really a 9 hour drive?

What are the things we should not miss? Is it worth the time to drive to Scotty's Castle? And anything we should know about camping at Furnace Creek?

Thanks!

Camp Sherman, Oregon
posts: 453
1. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

With camping, what site(s) are you at? Are you tenting or trailer/RV? I can give you some good info knowing that. With the new hook up sites going in things should be quieter without generators running. I think there might be some nice improvements. Some sites have been enlarged, some removed.

I like the campground a lot as a whole. Often in the early evening there can be a nice party atmosphere, with people playing instruments around the campfires, groups getting together. We like to walk around the campground at that time, enjoying the festivities. There can also be drunken, rowdy groups making too much noise.

The walk in and drive in tent sites are pretty good, with some small shade trees. The RV and/or tent sites can be good or bad, depending on site. Many have nice trees and views. The worse are (new site numbers with redo) 67, 68, 69, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76 and 77 as they are large pull through sites out in the open.

There is often strong winds at night, so make sure if tenting guy wires are in place! Very hard, rocky ground except close to trees where there is looser soil.

California
posts: 38
reviews: 123
2. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

We are in site 150, which is a walk-in site, and we are tenting. So is it hard to drive in the tent stakes?

Camp Sherman, Oregon
posts: 453
3. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

That will be a nice, more private site as there are not many other sites around you. Some traffic going by as others continue on to the other walk in sites but no big deal. Big empty space in back of your site across to good rv/trailer sites. Should have nice views of both mountain ranges to the east and west. The new map at the park website is upside down so to speak and drives me crazy as it shows south on the top. The campground is close to the ranch so you can walk there; kid's will like that for the store, etc.

Since FC was closed this past March we camped at Texas Spring. We used the stakes that came with our Marmot tent. They were the best by far compared to the other ones we used. I don't know what your tent is but you might want to look into some real good, strong stakes that won't bend when you hit rock. Perhaps from REI or other good camping store. Nice time of year to go. Too bad you can't do all your nights there!

You might want to search/wade through older postings on things to do in your time span. I like Scotty's Castle for the history but may not be a must do during your stay. But three full days will give you a lot of experiences.

San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,449
reviews: 41
4. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

Yes, it is about a 9-hour drive (or more) from San Francisco to Death Valley. If you go over the Sierra, it’s more scenic but also longer. It’s even longer than usual right now because Tioga and Sonora passes are closed and the alternate, Ebbetts and Monitor passes, are iffy. It’s too soon to know if these road closures are for the season; Caltrans tries to keep them open as late as possible, but at some point it’s no longer practical or safe. The closest reliable trans-Sierra road in winter is Hwy 50.

If you want to stop over on the way home, Bakersfield is pretty soon, unless you have activities planned on the way that will take a few hours. It’s a bit less than halfway. But if you want to take I-5 the rest of the way, which most people do after Bakersfield, there aren’t many places to pick from, and no real towns right on the freeway. Most lodgings along the freeway are at “travel villages” like Buttonwillow Junction, Lost Hills, or Harris Ranch. Harris Ranch may be farther than you want to go before stopping over. If I come back from Death Valley this way, I almost always take Hwy 99, where there are many real towns with real town services, and if I stop overnight it is usually at Fresno.

For youngsters who are good hikers, you’ll want to give them a variety of natural settings and scenery. Most kids (and other people) like the Sand Dunes and Badwater for easy walks, and you don’t need to go 3 miles to enjoy them. Also, there is no major elevation gain, so they are a good intro to the park. The Sand Dunes is a magical place at sunrise or sunset. Sunsets may be more “photogenic” because the mountain ranges on the west are higher. If you go in the morning, you can look for tracks made by critters that come out at night. Even though November isn’t hot, nocturnal wandering is part of their physiology. You can see tracks from coyotes, kit foxes, birds, and even beetles that look like a black olive and leave a trail resembling a zipper. The most exotic track is from the sidewinder rattlesnake, which has adapted to the heat by moving in looping motions, putting only small patches of skin on the ground at a time. The prints look like a series of loose S shapes.

Badwater is the lowest point in North America, and the salt flats are easy to walk on. In November, the weather will be comfortable for walking, although you can still get dehydrated because the humidity is so low. North of Badwater is Devil’s Golf Course (2 mile drive to it on a rough gravel road). In big contrast to Badwater, it is a very rough and jagged landscape, where eons of flooding and evaporation have created mud and salt pinnacles and crystals. These formations are beautiful and they look delicate, but you can get some nasty cuts, scrapes, and bruises if you fall. I would carefully supervise really young kids, but ages 8 to 13 will be fine. The central Badwater salt flats and Devil’s Golf Course are two of the rare (and surprisingly so to some people) places in Death Valley NP that are truly barren.

I can identify several hikes that would be special for families with kids, and they are different from each other. At Natural Bridge, the large namesake is a little under a mile walk from the parking, and there are other interesting formations beyond the bridge. If you’ve been to Arches NP or some of the other Utah or Southwest parks, this is not going to be the absolute be-all and end-all of rock formations, and you may want to use the time and energy elsewhere. Artist’s Palette (along Artist’s Drive) is very colorful, and you can walk or hike anywhere you wish (no established trails).

My top canyon hikes for newcomers are Golden, Mosaic, and the west end of Titus. Titus is a drive-through canyon, 1-way east to west on a road that is often 4wd and/or high clearance. But you can drive to the west end on a rough gravel road, park, and walk in as far as you wish. This canyon has sheer, high walls that show the marks of eons of flashflooding. The narrowest spot is about 20’ wide. At the mouth of Titus, Fall Canyon branches off to the north and has even more diverse and spectacular formations and colors; it will be a little over a mile to reach those. Many people consider Fall Canyon among the most beautiful in the park. Golden Canyon is next to the Badwater Road and there is no strenuous walk to get to it; you park, walk in the canyon mouth, and start seeing the rich colors and eroded sandstone and clay formations. You don’t need to go far to enjoy Golden Canyon, but you can hike, or, for the kids, mini-climb, all the way to Zabriskie Point. (You can also drive direct to Zabriskie on Hwy 190). Mosaic Canyon is just west of Stovepipe Wells Village. You drive a couple miles on a gravel road and then walk as far as you like. The “mosaic” here is breccia, or broken rock surfaces resembling mosaics. The polished white canyon walls look and feel like marble. Like all canyon hikes in the park, this one can get strenuous as you go higher, but there is plenty of fun rock scrambling for youngsters near the bottom. Mosaic is unusual among DV canyons in that it runs north-south, rather than east-west like the ones off the main body of the Valley. This means it does not get sunlight for hours on end like the east-west canyons, and is best done from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. The marble-like surfaces will make it feel colder—a delight in the summer but maybe less comfortable in November.

Before I let Titus Canyon slip too far behind us, let me mention that it is on the way to or from Scotty’s Castle. The Castle is an hour (or more, depending on your style) from Furnace Creek. If you’re going up there, plan on some time for Titus Canyon (adding Fall Canyon will make it longer) and also Ubehebe Crater. This is a volcanic implosion (not eruption) crater, created when molten magma came in contact with groundwater far below the surface. The resulting steam explosion made a nice round hole in the ground, named Ubehebe from the Timbisha Shoshone phrase for “basket in the rock.” The kids will love pronouncing “you be he be.” You can walk down the crater and c-l-i-m-b back up, digging in and sliding back in the loose pumice soil; or you can walk around the crater to other smaller craters. If time allows, a side trip to the ghost town of Rhyolite (east of the park, over the Nevada state line) is a good add-on to this trip.

Don’t forget to go to the park Visitor Center (next to FC campground). This is a 1960s shell that was gutted and totally renovated over two years and is now a state-of-the-art “green” building, with solar power that is expected to reduce the park’s utility bill by something like 80%. You can see the solar panels in the front parking area (over some of the parking spaces) or behind the Administration Building which is directly behind the Visitor Center. All the exhibits are new. Be sure to get the kids into the Junior Ranger program so they can develop their skills of observation, learn more about this park, and think green. Just ask at the Visitor Center. The Junior Ranger program is available at just about all of America’s 360 or so National Park Service locations (that includes parks like Death Valley or Yosemite, plus National Monuments, Historic Sites, Seashores, etc.). When I was working there this past summer, we had one young lady of maybe age 9 come in and earn her 230th Junior Ranger badge and certificate!

I haven’t run out of stuff to share, but didn’t want to overwhelm you more than you may already be. If you have other questions or want to discuss other ideas for your three days, let us know

BTW, if we know what kind of vehicle(s) you wll have, we can give you more definite yeas or nays on some specific places. Some roads are more suitable for 4wd, or simply not fit for regular cars. This can be an important factor if there has been wet weather.

Edited: 9:21 pm, November 10, 2012
San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,449
reviews: 41
5. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

P.S. Folks who aren't staying at Furnace Creek Ranch can buy guest passes for the Ranch pool and showers. I know, it's November, but all the kids I know are happy to have a pool anytime. And with 3 or 4 days of camping in between all the hiking and other activity, an occasional shower might be nice. The hotel registration office sells the passes; the last I knew, they were $5 per person and good anytime on day of purchase. Stovepipe Wells Village also does this.

The food at Furnace Creek is pretty good; it has improved a lot in response to the competition since Stovepipe Wells got new management and revamped its menus.

Also, Furnace Creek Ranch has a bicycle rental shop.

California
posts: 38
reviews: 123
6. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

Thanks for all the info! We will be driving a Honda Odyssey minivan, not a good vehicle for rough roads as it has pretty low clearance. We may reconsider going to Scotty's Castle - I was thinking the drive was more like 2 hours each way.

Our plan now is:

Day 1: Artist's Drive, Badwater, Devil's Golf Course, and Golden Canyon/Zabrieske. Hopefully we'll have time to hit the visitor's center and maybe let the kids go swimming (or we can do that on Day 2)

How long is the hike from Golden to Zabrieske?

Day 2: Borax Works, Mosaic Canyon, and Sand Dunes.

Day 3: Titus Canyon (from the west), Scotty's Castle, and the crater. How early do you think we need to set out to see these three before it gets dark (which I think will be around 5:30 pm)? We won't get an early start b/c this is the day we are leaving. I'm also worried this might be ambitious b/c we will have a long drive ahead of us, but I want to get the most out of DV in the time we are there. I'd really like to see Fall Canyon too, but I worry we will be trying to pack too much into one day.

Washington State
Destination Expert
for Yosemite National Park
posts: 37,338
reviews: 56
7. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

Tent stakes ~ we buy those huge nails / spikes from the hardware store for campground camping.

Have a great trip. I'm looking forward to reading your report!

San Francisco
Destination Expert
for Death Valley Junction, Death Valley National Park
posts: 10,449
reviews: 41
8. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

With the amount of time you have, you can manage a trip to Scotty’s Castle, and there s plenty to do along the way so you aren’t making that trip with only that one destination, The graded gravel roads mentioned for the main sights are fine for a van or any passenger vehicle. Of course, five passengers will give you a little less clearance, but take it easy and you’ll be OK.

I think you’ll be able to go to the Visitor Center on Day 1 and then hit the pool for a break in the afternoon, or go later in the evening if the weather is nice. The Visitor Center is open until 5:00. I think the pool is open until 10:00 or 11:00.

From Golden Canyon to Zabriskie is approximately a mile, some of it fairly steep uphill. Before you get to Zabriskie is a spectacular rock formation called Red Cathedral. Many people just hike that far. I know families with youngsters who have done the whole climb, but you decide once you get there. It might take an hour or more. Of course, you can drive to Zabriskie on 190.

On Day 2, you’ll have time for more than the Harmony Borax Works, Mosaic Canyon, and Sand Dunes. You can add Salt Creek, which is on the way from Harmony to the Sand Dunes. In the spring, this becomes a hotbed of life, with thousands of silvery, finger-sized pupfish. This is one of the most unexpected and exciting sights in the park, but the fish go dormant in late spring when the water level drops and becomes too salty. Even though the creek will be low, there is always plant life to see, and lots of birds and lizards. This is close to sea level where the vegetation is sparse, so it might be interesting to make this short (about a mile of gravel road) to see it.

If Day 3 is the day you want to go to Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, the west end of Titus, and then leave the park and get to Bakersfield for the night, I’m not sure you’ll have time for Fall Canyon unless you start early. Scotty’s Castle opens for tours at 9:00. You can go to the crater or the canyons anytime. The hike to the mouth of Fall Canyon once you branch off from the main Titus Canyon is a little over a mile. Also, even with kids who are good hikers, this might be more than you (or they) want to do if you have taken them on hikes on the previous days. I suspect most kids would enjoy a little more time at the crater, because it’s unique in the park.

Since you live in California, this doesn’t need to be your last trip ever to Death Valley. Use this trip to get the lay of the land, see major places of interest, and whet your appetite for another trip. It’s impossible to see and enjoy everything in one visit.

Uden, The...
Destination Expert
for Road Trips
posts: 48,035
reviews: 42
9. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

Don't forget to visit Dante's View. I'd do that first thing first day.

10. Re: Suggestions for Death Valley with kids in Nov?

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