BackRoadsWest presents:


Taking a Road Trip in Death Valley

Please read this section before doing any off-road exploring in Death Valley.  It contains important information about the potential dangers that exist while traveling on 4WD or other back roads here.  It also has some good background information that you should know.  Remember that driving off of the established roads within Death Valley National Park (or any National Park) is prohibited.

This chapter is divided into 6 sections:

bullet Driving Conditions with Road Trip Tips
bullet Flash Floods
bullet Engine Overheating
bullet Mine Hazards
bullet Road Difficulty Chart
bullet Vehicle Class Rating
bullet Road Type Rating

Driving Conditions
There are many outstanding 4WD experiences to be found in Death Valley and exploring the back roads is one of the best ways to get to those out-of-the way places!  This is a harsh desert environment and most 4WD roads in Death Valley are in rough, remote areas that are constantly changing.  This change can be good or bad depending on how challenging you like your 4WD roads.  We recommend that you check with the NPS [glossary] Visitor's Center in either Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells or visit the NPS website (morning report) for current road conditions.

Just like hiking in Death Valley, the best season for exploring the back roads is mid-October to mid-May with October and March being the most ideal months.  These two months typically offer the most comfortable temperatures and longer days.  The winter months (late November through February) can surprise you with the rare appearance of a rain shower or even snow at elevations higher than 2,000 feet.  This will, of course, make some of the roads muddy and a bit more challenging (or more "fun" for some of you) and some of the roads, especially in the canyons, impassable.

Traveling on any desert back road requires that you pay attention to where you are and keep your bearings.  Use your maps to stay oriented and to keep yourself on track.  We also strongly recommend that you know the weather conditions before beginning any Road Trip in Death Valley.

The following are tips that will help you be well-prepared for your Road Trip.  Be sure to include your "common sense" on all trips, too.

Road Trip Tips:

bullet Prepare your vehicle.  Death Valley itself is a very remote place with very few supplies.  Even in the "populated" areas of Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells, there are no auto parts stores or mechanics. So, before venturing out on any off-road trip, make sure your vehicle is in top condition.  Check the fluid levels, fan belts, tires (including the spare) and any other system that is vital to your vehicle running properly.  Many of the Road Trips are to very isolated areas so if anything important on your vehicle breaks-down while you are out there, you are likely to be on your own!  It is very unlikely that there will be any civilization close by or that you will run into anyone on the road who might be able to help you.  It is also unlikely that you will have cell phone service in these areas.  The paved roads are the only ones that the Park Rangers periodically patrol.
 
bullet Bring supplies.  Equally important to a having good working vehicle is to be prepared for the possibility that you might have mechanical problems or get stuck and have to spend a day and/or night in your vehicle.  Keep plenty of drinking water and other essential emergency supplies in your vehicle.  Many of the roads in Death Valley are traveled every day or so but, in the remotest areas, don't count on being rescued unless someone knows where you are.  It is best to stay with your vehicle.  If you decide to walk for help, even if it's a short distance, be sure to take lots of water and take the same precautions as listed in the Hiking Death Valley chapter.  Of course, one way to avoid some of these situations is to travel with another vehicle and/or tell someone your itinerary for the day.  
 
bullet Scout ahead.  When traveling a rough road and you are unable to see what is beyond that curve or over that hill, stop your vehicle and walk ahead to scout the road and determine if is even passable.  Keep in mind that on many roads you will not be able to turn around and the only way out is to back-up.  If you have already been through some rough spots, backing-up through these same spots will be even more difficult.  Now, some people think of having to back-up out of a situation like this as "admitting defeat" but it is much wiser to do so than to risk what is really important - the safety of your passengers and your vehicle.
 
bullet Use a "spotter".  It's also helpful to have a designated "spotter" with you.  This spotter should be someone who is familiar with the limitations and clearances of your vehicle in different situations because you will be trusting them to help you over the roughest spots in the road.  After both of you have assessed this rough spot, your spotter will guide you through this situation.  Oftentimes you will not be able to see where you are going and will be depending solely on the skill of the spotter to guide you over the rock or other obstacle without damaging your vehicle.  If this is a new concept to you, you might consider doing some practice runs before tackling a truly rough road. 
 
bullet Travel with others.  If your Road Trip includes a very rough road, try to arrange it so that you have two or more vehicles in your party that day.  This way, if one of the vehicles breaks down or becomes stuck, the other vehicle can go for help.  If you cannot arrange for another vehicle to travel with you, perhaps you should try one of the easier Road Trips in this Guide and save the more difficult trip for a time when you can have an additional vehicle with you.
 
bullet Tell someone.  It is always a good idea to tell someone, who is not going on the Road Trip with you, where you are headed and when you expect to return.  This way, if you have trouble, you'll know that someone knows your whereabouts and will come looking for you. 

Engine Overheating
With a recorded high temperature of 136F, Death Valley's summer heat is not only potentially dangerous to you but to your vehicle as well.  Traveling in the summer makes being prepared even more important so be sure to read the Road Trip Tips above and carry more water than you think you'll need. 

Watch your temperature gauge!  Keep in mind that while you are sitting in the comfort of our vehicle's air conditioning, the engine is being subjected to extreme levels of heat.  If your vehicle seems to be running hotter than normal, take a 15-30 minute break and let the engine cool off.  If the engine seems to be overheating while climbing a grade (going uphill), turn around and go back. 

You may also encounter engine overheating when the weather is not extremely hot.  This can happen when you are moving slowly uphill (using 4WD) and have a tail-wind.  The combination of up-canyon winds and your slow speed creates a situation similar to standing still at an idle.  Your engine is not getting air pushed into the radiator (as it's designed to do) and cannot get the air it needs to cool itself.

If this happens, your options are very limited and you will have to make a "judgment call" as to whether you continue on or stop where you are and wait for the engine to cool enough to back down.  If breezy conditions exist and you are preparing to climb uphill using your "granny gear", keep these conditions in mind. 

Flash Floods
The canyons of Death Valley are some of the most beautiful, fascinating and challenging places to drive through.  Much of their beauty is created by one of Mother Nature's most powerful forces: water.  And, as with most deserts, it is the fast-moving power of flash flood water that carves the shape of a narrow canyon [see picture].

Flash floods [glossary] [see picture] occur mostly in the summer as a result of sudden, violent cloud bursts.  Because the water does not have time to be absorbed into the ground, it runs off and quickly picks up speed.  As it finds the path of least resistance, the canyons act like funnels and concentrate the water into powerful, raging torrents that gather not only speed but debris as it heads downstream.  This debris can contain anything that is in the floods' path including rocks from the size of gravel to large boulders. 

Death Valley has a long history of violent rainstorms that have caused death and destruction.  Do not underestimate the power of these flash floods.  If you are planning to drive into one of the canyons, check the weather conditions by calling or stopping by one of the Ranger Stations or the Visitor Center.  Most ranger stations have daily weather updates by 10am along with any predictions for afternoon thunderstorms.

Remember, though, that weather conditions can change rapidly in the desert so even with an updated weather report, you must always rely on your own common sense.  That morning weather report can be completely different within a few hours.  Stay alert and aware of the weather conditions as you drive.  Before starting into a canyon, look at the mountains above the canyon, as well as all around, and gauge the situation.  What type of clouds are in the sky?  If you see any thunderheads [see picture], you might be risking an encounter with a flash flood and you might be wise to try different Road Trip that day. If you see smaller white puffy cumulus clouds, it is probably safe to proceed, but stay alert.

Flash floods are a genuine danger in Death Valley and should not be taken lightly.  For an example of the power and damage a flash flood can do,  see the pictures of what happened at the junction of S.R. 190 and Badwater Road (near Furnace Creek Inn)  in August of 2004 during a flash flood.  Two people were killed.

Mine Hazards
The old mining areas of Death Valley are, for many people, the main reason to go off-road exploring here.  Exploring around the mines is interesting on many levels and they are some of our favorite places to visit.  But you must be cautious and watch where you step!  There are many potential dangers.  Besides the crumbling, unstable edges of vertical shafts, there may be sharp, rusty objects, hidden pits, mine tunnels with decaying support beams or no support beams at all that can give-way at any time, pockets of carbon monoxide gas, etc.  They still find forgotten caches of explosives, too.  Unless you are an experienced mine explorer, our best advice is to simply stay out of the tunnels.  The NPS has posted warning signs at some of the more popular mine locations but, even if there is no sign, consider all mine areas hazardous.

Our Road Difficulty Chart
Every Road Trip in our Virtual Tour Guides includes a Difficulty Chart so that you can quickly see if your vehicle is equipped to handle such a trip.  Our chart is divided into two segments.  The first segment is the Vehicle Class Rating which rates and defines the different vehicle types depending on their mechanical ability and how they are designed to cope with rough terrain.  The second segment, the Road Type Rating, rates and defines the difficulty of the roads themselves.  Together, these two ratings create the Difficulty Chart and allow you to match your particular Vehicle Class to the appropriate Road Trip.  Following these guidelines will help you have a safe and enjoyable journey.

Another important factor for your safety is to be realistic about your vehicle's capability and your own off-road driving ability.  Simply having 4WD on your vehicle is not enough.  You must also consider clearance and vehicle width.   Many of the newer 4WD SUV's are wider and have less clearance than the older, more traditional trucks and SUV's used off-road.  The "Stock 4WD" classification (Rating C) is based on our stock 1995 Toyota 4-Runner which is higher and narrower than many "stock" 4WD's on the road today. 

Disclaimer:  Be aware that road conditions change constantly.  Every rainstorm, every season can change the road conditions, and therefore the ratings, we describe.  Road ratings are based on how we found conditions at the time we were there - as of the date of the pictures.  As a general rule, road conditions get worse, not better.  So if the Difficulty Chart suggests to you that your vehicle's ability to complete that Road Trip is questionable, then don't attempt it.  Choose another Road Trip or consider hiking that section instead of driving.

Vehicle Class Rating

Note: 2WD means "two wheel drive" and 4WD means "four wheel drive".  Also remember that just because your vehicle claims it is "4WD" equipped, it may only mean that two of your four wheels actually get traction and is essentially a two wheel drive vehicle.  This means two wheels on any of the two axles.  This is the case with most stock 4WD vehicles on the road today.

Click on picture to see larger view of the example.

Rating

Picture

Description

  A - 2WD Automobile A stock vehicle with standard clearance.
  B - 2WD, High Clearance A stock vehicle with added clearance and suspension such as a truck or 2WD sport utility vehicle (SUV).
  C - Stock 4WD This is what we drive.  Most stock 4WD SUV's on the road today are very capable but are limited in very rough terrain by their independent front wheel suspension (except for those with locking axles).  Almost all road trips in this virtual guide can be done with this class of vehicle.
  D - Modified 4WD This is typically a classic Jeep, Toyota Land Cruiser or similar vehicle that has been modified after it was purchased from the manufacturer.  This class includes at least one locker (one of the axles can be locked at the choice of the driver), built up suspension and increased clearance.

 

Road Type Rating

Click on picture to see larger view of the example.

Rating

Picture

Description

 1 - Easy This type of road can be driven on by any class of vehicle.  It is, however, typically very narrow, has deteriorating pavement and is rarely (or never) maintained.
 2 - Easy w/caution This type of road can still easily be driven on by Class A vehicle.  Watch for ruts or potholes - especially if traveling at a higher speed as these obstacles are difficult to see ahead of time.  Also, watch your speed in the turns.  It is very easy to slide (lose traction) in the dirt and roll-overs are possible.
 3 - More difficult This type of road is getting more difficult with a high road center, rocks, sand, deep ruts and other obstacles.  Vehicles should have better suspension and higher clearance, but 4WD is not required.
 4 - Difficult As the rating implies, this road type is challenging for a stock 4WD.  The road may be Type 3 (more difficult) most of the way, but there will be several Type 4 obstacles in the way.  Type 4 obstacles include deep ruts/gullies, stream crossings (as in this picture), stair steps of 1-2 feet tall, deep sand or mud, rocks/boulders, steep climbs/descents, risky narrow spots, etc.  You must have high clearance and some 4WD driving skills. 
 5 - Very Rough This is the type of road that hardcore 4WD'ers live for.  On this type of road, you will need experience with your vehicle to succeed without damaging it.  One or more locking axles and high clearance is required.  Leave this type of road to the experts!
 X - Do not attempt! Do not attempt this road with this class of vehicle.  You don't want your vehicle to end up like this one!

Conclusion
Our intention is not to scare you out of trying some of Death Valley's awesome back roads but, rather, to make you aware of the potential dangers. Now that you have read this information and know what you might encounter, you are a well-informed, responsible off-road driver.  Use the difficulty chart provided with each Road Trip to match your class of vehicle with the road type difficulty.  But most importantly, get out there and experience the large portion of Death Valley that most people never see because they don't venture off the pavement!

Home or Back to top of page, or The Road Trips of Death Valley

Last updated March 03, 2007


June 2005 Version
 Copyright 2005, BackRoadsWest.com