Taking a Road Trip in Death
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:
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
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
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
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,
||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.
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.
||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.
||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
||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.
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.
With a recorded high temperature of 136°F, 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.
The canyons of Death Valley are some of the most beautiful, fascinating and
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
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,
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.
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
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
Road Type Rating
Click on picture to see larger view of the
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.
- 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.
- 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.
||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
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.
- 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!
- 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!
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
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
large portion of Death Valley that most people never see because they don't
venture off the pavement!
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March 03, 2007