Weekend Adventure: Death Valley National Park

Death Valley was our last weekend adventure of 2019. The name, Death Valley, took on quite a literal form when Kevin and I both got sick a few days before we were supposed to leave for the trip. It was just a regular head cold — nothing crazy — so we decided not to cancel our plans.

Well, we ended up being sick for almost two weeks so you can imagine how that weekend went. But we made it! The best part was that because Death Valley is only about an hour and a half away from Las Vegas, we decided to get a hotel there for the weekend. Vegas is about a five hour drive, so we left at a reasonable hour on Friday afternoon (also my birthday) and were on track to get there at a decent time until we hit some traffic on an unfortunate two lane highway in Arizona.

By the time we got to Vegas, we were tired of being in the car and we were hungry and I was really starting to feel like shit. Kevin still felt fine at this point so he was in good spirits (he loves Vegas, I had never been). But although Kevin loves Vegas, he has never driven to Vegas, so he’s never had to deal with having a car in Vegas.

A piece of advice for anyone who has somehow still never been to Vegas: do not take your car there. I don’t care if you’re within driving distance, just get on a plane or Uber over there because it is a nightmare.

In the last few years, we’ve been focused on paying off debt and saving money which has — naturally — turned me into a fairly frugal person. I knew Vegas would be an expensive place to visit, but we got a great deal on a hotel (which I still had to pay some absurd resort fee for). We’re in the midst of this sea of cars trying to get to the hotel and I’ve just had the realization that I could never live in New York (or really any city) and I literally at one point close my eyes while Kevin is driving because the whole thing is giving me too much anxiety.

We finally make it to the parking garage, and it’s at that point that I discover that not only am I paying that stupid “resort fee”, I also have to pay for parking for the entire weekend. I briefly considered turning around and driving all the way back home, but I knew Kevin would lose his shit if I even suggested that under these circumstances.

So we park in the stupid not free parking garage and head inside. It feels like we have to walk ten miles through the casino to get to the hotel check-in and I’m following the signs that tell us which way to go, but by the time we get there I have absolutely no idea how to get back to the parking garage.

I was aware that the air in Vegas casinos is 90% cigarette smoke, and I’ve been to a casino in Reno before so I thought I was prepared. I was not prepared to actually see people smoking indoors. That was strange. I was not prepared for my eyes to start hurting immediately upon entering the building. I was not prepared to be sick and to be surrounded by people. Obviously this was not the ideal time to be in Vegas, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We set off in search of a restaurant after checking into our hotel, and the restaurant was in another casino. I don’t know why this was such a surprise to me, but I literally started to cry as we stood in line waiting to get into the restaurant. I knew I was acting like a two year old, but I felt like absolute shit, I was literally carrying DayQuil around in my purse and drinking it, my eyes hurt so bad from the cigarette smoke, and I am not a big fan of crowds.

Unfortunately, there was nowhere to escape to in order to have a temporary meltdown so I swallowed my tears and told myself to stop being a little bitch and apologized to Kevin for being a terrible wife, and went and ate one of the best burgers I’ve had in my entire life.

Another piece of advice: don’t go to Vegas if you can’t drink. I will never understand what compels people to take a family vacation there, but if you do drink alcohol — you’ll want to be able to drink it there. Because I was so sick already (and we were getting up early to go to Death Valley), I didn’t want to compromise my immune system even more by drinking so I did not have a drop of alcohol the entire time I was there. I can’t say for sure, but I’m almost positive the only way I could have an enjoyable time in Vegas is if I were drunk the entire time.

But I have learned my lesson. If cigarette smoke kills your eyes and makes you feel sick, you hate large crowds of people, and you hate paying extra for everything — Vegas may not be the place for you. I can now say that I’ve gone once and I won’t be going back.

Unfortunately, on Saturday morning I was not miraculously better — and Kevin woke up feeling like shit. Walking through Vegas in the early morning when everyone’s finally gone to bed was a surreal experience. We made it to Death Valley by 9:30am, and the drive was actually beautiful — we will have to go back and explore the Red Rock area just outside of Vegas sometime.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few people at the visitor’s center. I don’t know why but I think we expected no one. We got our map of the park and watched the movie (Kevin’s favorite part if you have been following our national park travel for awhile), which — as an added bonus — was narrated by Donald Sutherland! We also found out that it was the 25th anniversary of Death Valley National Park — which felt really special because I had just turned 25 the day before — so the day was shaping up to be a good one.

At the very least, we were determined to make the best of it. We were now both drinking DayQuil out of my purse every 4 hours and we had almost gone through an entire box of tissues.

We discovered that — unbeknownst to us — Death Valley is actually the largest national park in the continental US (one of the Alaska parks is the largest overall). So, it turned out that we were going to have to do a lot of driving in order to see everything. Luckily, we were putting miles on a rental car because the truck was still in the shop (we got in an accident on the way back from Oregon over Thanksgiving).

Immediately after reading the map, I told Kevin we would have to come back at some point (with the truck) because there are a whole bunch of ghost towns in the park. Most of them are off dirt roads and in remote locations so we couldn’t take the rental car, and we didn’t have enough time.

Since we were both sick, we decided this would not be a hiking-heavy trip. Kevin wanted to see the Charcoal Kilns so we drove there first. I think it took us at least an hour to drive there — maybe longer, I dozed off in my DayQuil haze — if that gives you any indication of the vastness of this park. There is a trailhead up there for an 8.4 mile hike to Wildrose Peak that I definitely want to do when we come back.

Next, we drove to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. I wanted to do the Mosaic Canyon hike but you have to drive several miles up a gravel road and we decided not to try it in our rental car. So we’ll save that for the next trip as well. The sand dunes were really cool though. It was like a little beach in the middle of the park, where the surrounding landscape looks completely different, and obviously there is no water in sight. You can walk miles out onto the sand dunes, but we walked about 50 feet from the parking lot and called it good.

Next, we drove to Badwater Basin, which was by far the highlight of the trip. It’s a bit of a walk out to the salt flats, but so worth it. Because it’s winter, they were covered in a few inches of water and that made it look so much more beautiful — and it made our pictures look really cool because you can see the reflection of the mountains in the water.

We took the artists’ drive loop on the way back which is a one-way 9 mile scenic drive through some beautifully colored hills. You can stop at a place called Artist’s Palette to take pictures, but it was getting late at that point so we just drove through. I highly recommend driving this way on your way back from Badwater Basin. The road is very narrow and has some crazy twists and turns that make you feel like you’ve been swallowed up by the landscape. It’s incredible.

There were a few other places in the park that we didn’t have time to drive to — Keane Wonder Mine, Ubehebe Crater, and all the ghost towns — but we got to most of it in one day. We’ll definitely come back and do some actual hiking, maybe next fall/winter.

My biggest takeaway from this trip was, why on earth would anyone want to come here in the summer? I cannot imagine doing Death Valley in the summer heat, especially the salt flats and sand dunes. I would highly recommend visiting in the winter. The weather was great. It was cold and I wore a jacket most of the time, but didn’t need it once I started walking.

We returned to Vegas — after a quick stop at the grocery store for more cold medicine and Powerades — and got in a brief fight in the middle of the casino over where to eat dinner. The place we wanted to go was booked for the night, but we ended up eating at a different restaurant that had almost the exact same menu. Kevin is apparently obsessed with Gordon Ramsay so we ate at his burger place on Friday and ate at his restaurant inside Caesar’s palace on Saturday.

The point of all that being, Kevin got to try Beef Wellington, and it was just as delicious as he always imagined. I was feeling better on Saturday night and actually told Kevin I would be down to go have a drink somewhere, but we had traded places at some point that day and Kevin was now feeling like absolute shit so we ended up back in our hotel and in bed before 11pm (we like to party hard).

Beef Wellington in all its glory!

On our way back home on Sunday morning, we stopped at Hash House A Go Go in St. George, Utah. Ironically, there is also one of these in Vegas and it was recommended to us, but we wanted to get the hell out of there by Sunday morning. I only bring this up because if you do go to Hash House A Go Go, you do not need to order your own food — split it with someone, the portions are huge. Kevin and I made the mistake of each ordering some insane fried chicken/waffle/benedict concoction and did not finish either of our meals.

And that concludes our last national park adventure of 2019! We’ve already got a 2020 travel calendar up and plan on visiting at least 10 national parks this year, and I can’t wait to share our adventures here! We’ve already had one trip in 2020 so I’ll be writing another blog post here shortly.

A quick administrative announcement: Kevin and I both deleted our Facebook accounts at the beginning of 2020, which means we no longer have our Life After Oregon Facebook page. If you’d like to follow the blog, you can subscribe to it by entering your email on the left side of this page. You will only get an email when a new blog post is published, I won’t be spamming you with anything else 🙂

Published by Sami Hertel

Oregon native, current Utah resident, blogging about my adventures on lifeafteroregon.com!

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