3 Things to Do in Death Valley National Park in Winter

3 Things to Do in Death Valley National Park in Winter

The name might sound ominous, but Death Valley National Park in wintertime is strangely inviting. From December through March, everything is cooler and quieter than it is during spring and summer, when the sun’s heat and the park’s crowds can be overwhelming. It might not be the typical winter wonderland, but this desert on the California-Nevada border offers its own kind of magic. Explore Death Valley in winter with these three must-do activities.

Getting to Death Valley National Park

Fly into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and pick up your rental car. Take Nevada Route 160 west through Pahrump, then turn left and follow Bell Vista Avenue across the state line. Continue onto California Route 190 at the junction and follow this road to the park’s visitor center.

Sunrise at Mesquite Dunes Even if you’ve never been to Death Valley, the park’s Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes may look familiar: They’ve been the setting of many Hollywood hits.

 

Explore the Sand Dunes on Foot

Normally, the heat hinders hiking in Death Valley. It’s tough to explore the famous Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, for example, when the burning sun reflecting off the sand brings temperatures above 100 degrees. For that reason, many summer visitors see only the beginning of the dunes, comprised of ridges or hills of sand formed by the wind.

Easily accessible and especially enjoyable in winter, Mesquite Flat features three types of dunes — crescent, linear and star-shaped — and it’s the only dune field that permits sandboarding in Death Valley. With December’s more pleasant temperatures (highs average in the mid-60s), you can also forge deeper into the backcountry, where the dunes are all but untouched.

Getting to the dunes: The parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is on California Route 190, about 2 miles east of the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station. Because the dunes are constantly shifting with the wind, there’s no marked trailhead — just pick a ridge and start wandering. The peaks aren’t so high that you’ll be disoriented, and you may even be able to retrace your steps in the sand on the walk back to your car. That said, it’s always best to bring a map and let someone know where you’re planning to go. Before heading out, pick up a free backcountry permit from any visitor center.

 Zabriskie Point at Death Valley Catch a colorful sunrise or sunset from Zabriskie Point, a striking Death Valley landscape created by sediments left behind when Furnace Creek Lake dried up 5 million years ago.

 

Photograph the Sights Without Fighting the Crowds

Death Valley is famous for its vistas, and in spring and fall camera-toting tourists mob the park, eager to take that perfect shot. But in January, the number of recreational visitors dips to just over a third of its August peak, according to the park service. Fewer people means more room to start snapping photos across Death Valley. Capture the park from its legendary sunrise vistas at east-facing Zabriskie Point to the rugged cliffs and shadows of its slot canyons and the brilliant stargazing at Aguereberry Point.

Getting to Zabriskie Point: Drive 30 miles east on California Route 190 from the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station. The parking lot will be on your right.

 Dante’s View in Death Valley From around sea level at Furnace Creek, cycling enthusiasts can embark on a nearly 5,500-foot ascent to Dante’s View for scenery (and a climb) that will take your breath away.

 

Cycle the Desert Roads

The roads are smooth, the scenery is unique and the riding offers everything from cruises through salt flats to steep back-road inclines. It’s no wonder Death Valley has become a destination for cyclists. One of the park’s most famous — and somewhat challenging — rides goes from Furnace Creek up to Dante’s View, where you’ll enjoy a panorama of the southern Death Valley basin and the Owlshead Mountains rising in the south.

The park can be too hot to ride in the summer, and there are more cars on the roads in fall and spring, so winter is the time to do it. Plan to bring your own wheels or pick them up on your drive from the airport. Stop by Las Vegas Cyclery, which offers road, mountain and e-bike rentals for up to two weeks. (Tip: Save time by reserving your bikes online.) If you’re a cyclist, especially one who lives somewhere too cold for winter riding, a Death Valley trip could be just the thing to keep you motivated during the off-season.

Getting to Furnace Creek Visitor Center: Follow California Route 190 about 25 miles west from the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station. From there to Dante’s View, you’ll follow Route 190 for 12 miles before turning right onto Furnace Creek Wash Road.

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Charles Cody Siler is a writer, photographer, cyclist and active travel guide based in Bogotá, Colombia. His work has appeared in Club Traveler magazine, Gambit Weekly, Berkeleyside and other publications. He spends his summers working as a guide in Iceland, where he tries his best not to antagonize the local sheep.