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HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

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HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Hello all,

I'm planning a roadtrip to Death Valley NP, which will be my first time. I will be driving from Sacramento, leaving the day after Christmas, and heading back on the 30th.

*First question: Is Sac to DV doable in one day? Or should we plan to stop overnight somewhere like Bakersfield and continue on in the morning? We're planning on taking I-5 to Bakersfield and then cutting east. Sounds like the best route east is 58 to 395 to 190?

*Second question: At this time of year, what are the chances of needing chains? I have a Dodge Neon w/ city tires, but can bring chains just in case.

*Third question: Considering that most lodging in the park is either pretty expensive or already booked (or both), we were planning on camping. Looks like FC is full, so we were gonna aim for first-come first-serve at SPW. On the chance that this is full, what could be a could Plan B?

*And last question, I'm looking for some recs as I'm putting together our itinerary. We will have 3 full days, and are mostly interested in hiking and photography. So far I've got the following:

Zabriskie Point

Badwater

Dante's View

Artist's Palette

Golden Canyon

Devil's Golf Course

Mustard Canyon?

Mesquite Dunes

Mosaic Canyon

Rhyolite

Any other recs? Suggestions on splitting these sites/hikes into an itinerary? I apologize if my questions are addressed in other threads - I'm still working my through many of them! Thanks in advance for your help!

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1. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

As you’ve seen, there are many threads about sightseeing in Death Valley, so I’ll start with the more important topic for this time of year—your travel route. We can talk about what to do in the park later.

From Sacramento to Furnace Creek via Bakersfield is about 530 miles. From the town of Mojave, you’ll need to go up 395 to 190 and turn east at Olancha, because the usual roads entering from the southwest, Panamint Valley and Trona-Wildrose, have been closed since July due to severe flashflood damage. On some rare occasions, there can be snow on Hwy 58 or 178, your two options eastward from Bakersfield. It’s possible but unlikely to have snow on 395 south of Lone Pine, and sometimes there is snow on Hwy 190 in the park at Townes Pass, between Panamint Valley Road and Stovepipe Wells (the elevation is close to 5000 feet).

If you take this route, I think Bakersfield is too soon to stop over. It’s only a little over halfway, and the run from Sacramento is the easiest part and you should be fresh enough to go a little farther. I would try for at least Mojave, another 60 miles. With the roads I mentioned being closed, Ridgecrest is not on the most direct way into DV for now, but it isn’t far off 395 and you could go there for the night and then cut back over to 395 in the morning to finish the trip. If you stayed in Ridgecrest, it would be only about 160 miles more to Furnace Creek, compared to about 220 from Mojave or 275 from Bakersfield.

It’s close to 100 miles shorter to take Hwy 50 to 395 and go south. This is a far more interesting route than going through Bakersfield. Although 58 or 178 would be scenic enough, neither can compare with 395, which is one of the most spectacular rides in California. You could see Topaz Lake, Mono Lake, Mammoth Lakes, Manzanar, Mt. Whitney, and more. The likelihood of snow and ice on this route in late December is high. You are literally right next to the Sierra Nevada all the way from Tahoe to Lone Pine, and the highest elevation on the highway is over 8000 feet. There are sometimes high winds, and the road can be icy in the mornings when the sun has been down. Chain controls happen often on 395 between Bridgeport and Big Pine. Now and then the highway will be closed by snow, but it is a maintenance priority because it’s one of the major roads in the western US from the Canadian to the Mexican border. So delays won't typically last long unless the weather is extreme. You’ll have to decide for yourself between the longer, less dramatic, less precarious route and the shorter, more scenic, more iffy one.

Whichever of these routes you take, you need to bring chains, especially with a regular car. If you had a 4wd vehicle with all-weather tires, you might get away with not having chains much of the time, but even then it’s best to have them. Anywhere in the Sierra Nevada or any higher elevation, snow is possible. You might not always find a place to buy or rent chains, and if you reach a chain control point without them, you will not be allowed through.

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2. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

F-R is right. Via 395 is most scenic for sure but also more chance on snow and icy roads. On the other hand Tule Fog can occur in the Central Valley.

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3. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

JSYK, there has been snow almost everywhere east of the San Joaquin Valley overnight (Friday-Saturday), and Mother Nature is making a fibber out of me about some of these roads. There are or have been chain controls last night and this morning on most of 395 between Reno and the Mojave Desert area, including south of Olancha; and on both 178 and 58 out of Bakersfield (58 is currently closed).

There have even been chain controls at elevations just over 1,300 feet on Hwy 140, commonly called the Yosemite all-year highway.

IOW, winter means unstable weather in much of California. We can't always predict what might happen a few weeks from now, so you must be prepared. There is a new thread on the TQ corner of the state forum where we talk about winter driving safety and chains.

P.S. to Tet's comment: now that we've had some very cold and wet weather, I think tule fog will be a good possiblity for a few days. Tule fog scares the stuffings out of me more than just about any other weather condition except maybe tornadoes. If I have my druthers, I'd pick snow or ice with decent visibility any day.

Edited: 2:21 pm, December 07, 2013
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4. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Personally, i would not chance this drive at this time of year unless i was really well versed in the roads with my own vehicle. i would approach from the east or not go. i have seen the weather change too unpredictably and in a rental car i am always especially careful, especially on the road from the west. however, please note Frissy and Tet know far more than i do and i would yield to their experience.

ZB

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5. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

This has evolved into two questions…. How to get there and what to do once there…

Both are weather dependent…

You can go to Death Valley via the east (hwy 395) or west side (hwy 99 or I-5) From Sacramento, I would prefer 395, from either I-80 or Hwy 50… if the weather is ok… Alternately either Hwy99 or I-5 south to near Bakersfield then either Kern Canyon or Tehachapi then north works…

Maybe one way there and the other back…

Once there again, the weather can limit options… but with two days you can’t do everything so just do what you can… start with Furnace Creek and Bad water… go from there… Scotty’s Castle and Beaty and Rhyolite are good…

My wife and I will be in Death Valley over New Years, coming in from the east… planning home via Lake Isabella, the Kern River canyon and I-5….

Randy

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6. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Before driving Kern River Valley check weatherconditions first:

http://www.kernvalley.com/news/weather.htm

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7. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

rachelruns,

As you can see FC campground is full. This means that people from all over do make the drive into the park this time of year so it all depends as others have said as to your confidence in driving and checking roads conditions both ways for best route in and out.

For camping I would continue to check for cancellations. They do occur. I do see #40 for that Thursday and Friday night but you would be getting in late in the dark. Texas Springs you could check for spots and you mentioned Stove Pipe Wells. Tough time to be coming. There is Sunset. If needed I would suggest some of the outer sites but for camping last resort. Just a big gravel parking lot, no campfires and often house size rv's towering over you.

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g143021-i2027-k698…

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8. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Hello!

I wanted to offer my belated thanks for all of your suggestions and advice. We returned from DV on Monday and the trip went off without a hitch! We really lucked out on the weather and were able to take 395 both there and back. You guys were right - not only is 395 shorter, but it's unbelievably scenic!! I reserved a camping spot at Panamint Springs as a back-up, but we lucked out and were able to snag a spot at Stovepipe Wells. It was a good thing, too, as I can't imagine making that drive in the dark twice a day! We managed to see almost everything on my list (and a couple new things!), the weather during our whole trip was perfect, and the park wasn't as crowded as I expected during the holidays. Win, win, win!

For those of you interested, here's a quick recap of our trip. We opted to take two days for the drive down, so we stayed overnight in Lone Pine. We got an early start in the morning and made a quick detour to explore Alabama Hills before catching 190 into the park. We snagged our camping spot, set up, and then headed out to start exploring! It was already mid afternoon so we were only able to visit a couple places that day: Devil's Golf Course and Artist's Drive. Both got me pretty excited for two more full days in the park. Camping was convenient and cheap, but man does it get cold at night!

Day 2 had us up before the sun to catch sunrise at the Mesquite Dunes. My mom and I hiked out to the highest dune just in time for sunrise. Trying to hike in sand gave us an unexpected workout, but the views made it totally worth it! That afternoon we headed to Mosaic Canyon which was just beautiful. The second half of the day we made the drive out to Scotty's Castle (which I wasn't too impressed by) and the Ubehebe Crater - easily my favorite thing I saw. This wasn't on my original list of things to see, but I'm so glad I did! It truly felt like I was on another planet. After the crater we hurried back and made it to Zabriskie Point just in time for sunset. This was one of the places in DV I'd heard the most about, but words and pictures cannot do this place justice.

Day 3 we were up early again and caught sunrise from up at Dante's View. The view of the surrounding landscape was of course incredible, but I would've liked to return when the surrounding mountains weren't casting such dramatic shadows into the valley. Next time! After sunrise we headed to Badwater early hoping to escape the crowds. We had perfect timing, too, as just as we were leaving 3 giant tour buses rolled up and the place was flooded with tourists. We drove a little past Badwater to do some exploring, and ended up pulling off the road and walking out to some untouched salt deposits. I found these even more beautiful than those from our last stop, and it was quite an experience to have them all to ourselves. Definitely one of my favorite moments from the trip! On our way back to Furnace Creek we stopped for a quick hike at Natural Bridge, then grabbed a quick lunch at FC. Our final stop for the day was Golden Canyon. I managed to talk my mom into the 4 mile Gower Gulch loop, which was fantastic! Mom was a little unsure at times, but enjoyed it overall. The changing terrain and scenery made it one of the most unique hikes I've done in a long time.

We got an early start back the next day, making only one stop at Mono Lake to do a little exploring. We made it back to Sacramento in about 9 hours, with great conditions the whole way. Death Valley far surpassed my expectations and was simply like being in another world. I've never experienced such unique and diverse beauty. It was a wonder to explore and to photograph, and I will definitely be returning one day soon! Once again, thank you all for your quick and thorough advice. While I did not reply right away, I did use all of your comments/recommendations/cautions in planning our trip and very much appreciated each and every one. Happy New Year and happy travels!!

Rachel

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9. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Rachel, it sounds like you had a wonderful trip! Thanks for sharing.

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10. Re: HELP! 3 days in DV end of Dec

Thank you for your report. It is so great to read a trip report like yours where everything went well, and your enthusiasm is catching. Makes me want to get in the car in the morning.

Edited: 8:30 pm, January 03, 2014