Road Trip 5

Death Valley National Park

February 2020

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Death Valley National Park has enticed me for a long time. The haunting name, salt flats, desert landscape and gorgeous night skies have all combined to lure me to the hottest place on Earth! Despite this National Park not being very dog friendly, some of my favorite Star Wars movie scenes from the original trilogy were filmed here and happen to be easily accessible in a vehicle. Dogs are only allowed on roads, sidewalks, and in select areas. I double checked with a ranger on dog friendly areas and was told that a good rule of thumb to follow is, "If a car can be on it, then so can your dog."

Death Valley National Park covers 5,270 square miles. Driving there from San Diego is a relatively short distance, but getting around Death Valley requires a lot of driving. We drove about 1,200 miles in 4 days and spent approximately $300 on the entire trip.

Please note: much of Death Valley National Park has absolutely zero cell service. Even Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells had little to no cell reception. As such, it is highly recommended to check the NPS website for road closures/conditions, checking in at the ranger station for updated information, and/or purchasing a map at the ranger station. Do not rely on GPS.

Day 1 – Driving to Emigrant Campground in Death Valley National Park Video

Normally I like to blaze through 6 hours of driving in one straight shot, but Brie is constantly teaching me the value of breaks/snack time. We stopped for second breakfast, lunch, second lunch, and pre-dinner snacks. All of which consisted of delicious aged cheeses, dry cured salami, salad, and whole wheat bread (my staple road trip food). Brie napped in between stops.

We were fortunate enough to snag the last free campsite at Emigrant Campground! Though it is next to the 190 highway, Emigrant Campground is fairly isolated. There are only about 10 primitive free campsites available. At 2,000 ft elevation it has the most perfect view overlooking the valley. We ate quickly, watched the sunset, and hopped into bed, listening to the wild animals scrounge around throughout the night.

Day 2 – A self-guided tour of the Star Wars filming locations Video

In February, Death Valley National Park is comfortably warm at sea level. At 2,000 ft elevation, icy winds blasted our faces in the morning! I was so happy that we didn’t have to camp at Wildrose Campground, though, as it is higher in elevation and much, much colder. We hung out in the tent playing guitar while it warmed up. First breakfast was a yummy soft boiled egg sandwich with toasted pecan coffee! Then Brie and I took off to a galaxy far, far away in search of the Star Wars filming locations *cue the Star Wars theme song*

We were able to find a few of the A New Hope and Return of the Jedi filming locations thanks to the excellently detailed Star Wars in Death Valley guide, written by Steve Hall’s Death Valley Adventures (which is unfortunately now unavailable!? I can't find it anymore!). None of the Star Wars filming locations are officially marked in Death Valley National Park. You'll need to know exactly what you are looking for, but finding the locations is half the fun! I stumbled upon a couple by complete accident. Brie and I reenacted a few scenes of course :P

This self-guided Star Wars tour was especially sentimental for me as A New Hope is the movie that sparked my passion for adventure and film scores. I will never forget the first time I heard Binary Sunset as Luke Skywalker watched the sunsets on Tatooine. John Williams is an amazing artist! The music struck a chord with 10 year old me and helped shape the next 20+ years of my life with a growing desire for adventure!

Please note: all movie photos contained on this page are copyright Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Lucasfilm Ltd. and are used for matching purposes only.

Dinner was a hearty potato carrot stew with cheese. We chatted with our campsite neighbors, nice folks on an extensive road trip to every National Park in America. Very cool trip idea! (Note: they unfortunately had to cancel early). Brie and I then played guitar while the sun set over the mountains.

Stargazing at the Mesquite Flat Dunes was a little surreal. It was practically empty on a weekday at 9:00p.m. Coyotes howled in the distance. The world around me was pitch-black, sans the brightly-lit starry sky above. My headlamp was only strong enough to illuminate the ground in front of me. Everything beyond my immediate circle appeared to be empty nothingness. Except for the sky! It all freaked me out a tad, I’ll admit. I was reeling slightly from the I'm-in-a-snow-globe vertigo feeling as well. Thankfully, I saw what looked like a family stargazing a short distance ahead of me. I hurried over to them, not wanting to be alone in the vast darkness with the coyotes! The thick sand and steep dunes made it a struggle to walk on. When I was close enough to shine my light on the family, my tired brain suddenly realized that the "family of stargazers" was actually a group of dead trees and sticks sticking out of the sand! I gasped because it seemed as if they had transformed from people into wooden sculptures the moment I shined my light on them. Kind of a weird scifi horror-ish experience that reminded me of the Weeping Angels from Dr. Who. Anywho, I eventually found a super duper nice couple who didn’t mind me hanging out with them for a little while. I was too scared to take any pictures here haha.

Day 3 – Exploring Death Valley National Park Video

In the morning we chit chat with our other camping neighbors, an aspiring travel photographer from the Midwest and a nature lover from Michigan. We could hear sonic booms from the jets flying through Rainbow Canyon aka Star Wars Canyon. I'll have to swing by next time to watch! The nature lover shared some sweet potato pie! Sweet potato pie + toasted pecan coffee + amazing view of Death Valley National Park = best second breakfast ever.

Brie and I then hiked Titus Canyon, the only dog friendly backcountry road/trail in all of Death Valley National Park. We made lots of friends on our 5 mile hike through the canyon. Brie especially liked the motorcycle group from Colorado. They gave her lots of attention!

Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America with a depth of -282 ft below sea level, was next on our list. We stayed on the sidewalk in the parking lot and waited for nightfall. Fun fact, both the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin at -282 ft) and the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States (Mt. Whitney at 14,505 ft) can be seen from Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park!

Last destination on our trip was a quick drive out to the rugged Devil's Golf Course for more night photography.

Day 4 - The Trip Home, Final Thoughts

This trip was really cool! Nostalgic, surreal, exciting, fun, and so much fun! The desert is very beautiful. We will be back :)

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