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Death valley Ntl park, ca

Admittedly, we've been living in Vegas for well over 10 years now and had never been to Death Valley. Sigh. Why, you ask? 

We knew it got hot in the summer. Not just Vegas hot, but death be upon us hot. So obviously, visiting in the summer was out for us. What about the other 6 months of the year? Especially considering it's only a little over 2 hours from Vegas. Well, here's the thing. When we explore an area, we REALLY explore the area. We leave no rock un-turned, no sunburst un-captured, no mountain un-climbed. We don't just visit somewhere only to mark it off our bucket list. We get to know the area like locals do. And then we share that wealth of knowledge with you. So you can get outdoors and explore the places that are calling your name. 

Needless to say, Death Valley has always been an ominous beast to us. So much land to cover. So much to see. We didn't want to miss anything. 

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Enough procrastinating. We finally picked a weekend this fall and made it happen. We weren't able to stay overnight and camp this trip, so we made the trek from Vegas two days in a row. And you know what? We made the most of those two days! The road trip was a blast. We found some great new tunes and enjoyed looking out the window in wonder as we made the much anticipated trip to Death Valley. And as a bonus, we saw the sunrise and sunset two days in a row. Amazing. On the last day, golden hour hit at the same time we spotted a handful of wild mustangs in Amargosa Valley. We pulled off the road and watched them meander by, while enjoying the gorgeous sunset, which reminded us that sometimes in life, it's the little things that leave more of a mark on your soul than the big things. 

Like we mentioned, Death Valley is HUGE. When you plan your trip there, pick out one or two places you'd like to see in the day. Don't go into it thinking you'll be able to see it all in one weekend. We still need another five full days there to be able to see everything on our list. For starters though, here's our list of must see places, in order of our favorite:

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1. Badwater Basin

Any idea what the elevation is at Badwater Basin? Here's a clue. It's the lowest point in North America. Say what? Yep. At 282 feet below sea level, it experiences intense repeated freeze-thaw and evaporation cycles which gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagon honeycomb shapes. Depending on rainfall, the salt flats, on the far west end, can be hazardous to walk on due to its thin crust over mud. You can, however, take a short walk (1/2 mile) onto the boardwalk out to the flats. Badwater Basin is located just 30 minutes south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Make note, pets are not allowed in Badwater Basin.

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2. The Racetrack Playa

Love a good mystery? The Racetrack Playa is home to the longest standing mystery in Death Valley. Well, until just recently. The Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed, best known for its strange moving rocks. Yes, you heard right. Rocks that move. Crazy, right? How do they even do that? 

In 2011, two crazy smart dudes (Richard and Jim Norris) got permission from the National Park Service to set up a high-resolution weather station capable of measuring wind gusts in 1 second intervals. Then they fit 15 rocks with custom-built, motion-activated GPS units. (The NPS, understandably, wouldn't let them use native rocks, so they brought similar rocks from an outside source.) Long story short, they suspected it would be "the most boring experiment ever" while they waited for something to happen. 

But then in December of 2013, they arrived in Death Valley to find that the Racetrack Playa was covered with a shallow pond about 3 inches deep. Shortly after, the rocks began moving. Richard Norris said, "Science sometimes has an element of luck. We expected to wait five to ten years without anything moving, but only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person." 

Their observations found that moving the rocks required a rare set of circumstances to occur. First, the playa fills with water, which needs to be deep enough to allow formation of floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to still expose the rocks. Overnight, when the temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form sheets of "windowpane" ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice starts to melt and break into large floating panels. Then the light winds move across the playa pool, causing the ice sheets to shove the rocks in front of them. The moving rocks leave trails in the soft mud bed below the surface of the pool. Mystery solved! Isn't that rad?! 

The Grandstand is on the north end of The Racetrack. It's essentially a large island in the middle of the playa. Made from an outcrop of quartz monzonite, you'll find some incredible views if you scramble to the top of it. 

If you want a longer hike, just west of The Grandstand is the Ubehebe Peak hiking trail. It's a fairly strenuous hike, with 1800 feet of elevation gain during its 6-miles roundtrip. But the views from the top are unbeatable.

Another cool site to see on your way to The Racetrack Playa is the Ubehebe Crater. It's a quick stop and there's a parking lot just off the road, making it convenient to get out and explore. You can walk along the rim of the Ubehebe Crater, which is an astonishing 600 feet deep and mile wide. As recently as 300 years ago, craters in this area developed when hot magma rose up from the depths of the earth, reaching ground water. The intense heat flashed the water into steam, which expanded until the pressure was released as a huge explosion, known as a Maar Volcano.

So here's the thing. If you decide to go see The Racetrack Playa, Moving Rocks & The Grandstand, it's important that you keep in mind its remote location. Road conditions are very rough. We don't recommend going out there unless you have a 4x4 vehicle with good tires and high clearance. Standard rental vehicles and sedans aren't recommended and are very likely to get flat tires. Additionally, there is no cell phone reception in the area. It's about 3.5 hours from the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, so you want to plan accordingly. It is a day trip all on its own. We recommend you have plenty of fuel and water. You should also be prepared to stay overnight if your vehicle becomes disabled. 

Please help protect The Racetrack Playa by not driving on it or anywhere off established roads. The surface of the playa is fragile. When it's wet, avoid walking in muddy areas and leaving footprints. They become unsightly scars on the playa long term and they disrupt the rocks natural movements. 

If we all work together to protect this beautiful land that we are able to enjoy, it will remain a sight to see for years to come! Do your part and leave no trace.

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3. Dante's View

Located just 16 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitors Center is Dante's View. At an elevation of 5,476 feet, Dante's View overlooks Death Valley, giving a stunning perspective of the land below, which sits well below sea level. The dramatic drop in elevation makes for a stunning panoramic view in the daytime and an excellent venue for nighttime star viewing. The ideal time to arrive at Dante's View would be a couple of hours before sunset, leaving you plenty of time to explore and hike along the ridges to the varying viewpoints.

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4. Artist Drive

A 9-mile driven loop, Artist Road is quite unique. Located between the Furnace Creek Visitors Center and Badwater Basin, Artist Road is looming with large mountains. The road is curvy, with lots of dips, making it a fun drive! About 5 miles into the drive, you'll see Artist Palette, which shows an impressive array of colors in the rock. The colors are created by oxidation of the metals and elements found in the ground here, producing greens, purples and blues. There is a small parking lot at Artist Palette, making it convenient to get out and hike back into the rocks a bit. 

As we continue to explore Death Valley, we'll add to our review so you all can pick and choose what you'd like to see when you visit! 

Next on our list of places to explore in Death Valley are: Zabriskie Point, Devil's Golf Course, Telescope Peak, Darwin Falls, Golden Canyon, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon, Charcoal Kilns, Devils Hole, Barker Ranch, Aguereberry Point, Titus Canyon, Grotto Canyon and Echo Pass. See why we say, you can't do it all in a weekend?! There are so many cool places to see!