California Scenic Drives: Death Valley Scenic Byway

By: Clark Norton

Located in one of the most remote parts of California, Death Valley Scenic Byway (Route 190), the gateway to Death Valley, attracts travelers from all over the world. International visitors see Death Valley as part of the grand tour of California -- more than 75 percent of the summer visitors in this area come from abroad. Even scientists and researchers come to study and explore the park's unique resources.

Death Valley National Park contains the hottest, driest, lowest point in North America. It has 3.3 million acres of spectacular desert scenery, interesting and rare desert wildlife, complex geology, undisturbed wilderness, and sites of historical and cultural interest.

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Archaeological Qualities of Death Valley Scenic Byway

Archaeologists have found traces of distinct prehistoric cultures in Death Valley National Park. The first known inhabitants of Death Valley lived there some 7,000 years ago and were known as the Nevares Spring Culture. After another 6,000 years and many climactic changes, a new group of people entered the valley. This group came to be known as the Desert Shoshone and has been in the valley ever since.

The Desert Shoshone were distinguished by their production of superior arrowheads as well as their skills to make pottery. Their ingenuity led to constructing pits for storing mesquite beans, which were later ground and processed for the seed.

The Desert Shoshone moved about the Death Valley region, hunting sheep, deer, and rabbits when the animals were abundant. During other seasons, the people harvested plants and seeds. The Desert Shoshone had this wilderness to themselves until 1849, when emigrants from the east began to arrive.

Qualities of Death Valley Scenic Byway

A tale of the valley's history must include one brief but important period that started when some of the '49ers, who were heading for the California gold fields, took an ill-advised detour through Death Valley. This began the boom-and-bust era of Death Valley, a period that involved more bust than boom. Borax, the "white gold of the desert," was the only significant "gold" found in Death Valley.

Eventually, the prospectors lost hope of finding gold in the desert. Likewise, the miners eventually deserted their borax mines. In the 1870s, for example, Darwin was a thriving

mining town. Now, the historical city has but a few

residences, a post office, and a phone booth.

Rhyolite, once the largest town in the Death Valley area

during the mining boom, is now home to a train depot, a jail,

a two-story schoolhouse, the ruins of a three-story bank building, and a house built completely of bottles. Skidoo was one of the last gold-mining camps in Death Valley. This ghost town is a marvel of mining engineering that existed from 1906 to 1922. Additionally, Twenty Mule Team Canyon displays an amazing number of old prospector tunnels.

Qualities of Death Valley Scenic Byway

Death Valley Scenic Byway is one of the most uncommon and dramatic routes in the western United States. Death Valley is the nation's largest park unit outside of Alaska. Because of the faulting in Death Valley, the vertical rise from the lowest point to the top of Telescope Peak is one of the greatest (11,049 feet) in the United States.

Traveling on Route 190 from the west end of the park from Towne Pass to some 282 feet below sea level (the lowest spot in North America), this trip is highlighted by rugged natural beauty. You're afforded 80-mile views that include bare mountain slopes towering above huge alluvial fans.

Other highlights along the byway are salt-encrusted salinas created by evaporated water basins that accumulate salts, borates, and other minerals. Windswept sands across the valley floor form ever-changing patterns. Desert varnish, shiny black iron, and manganese oxide, which cover the cobbles, make an interesting mosaic of pavement.

With an average of 1-1/2 inches of rain a year and average high temperatures nearing 120 degrees during the summer, this region is one of the driest and hottest environments in the western hemisphere.

Passing from the lowest point to the highest summit, you traverse four major plant zones, each determined by climate and elevation. The diversity of plants along this drive ranges from Pinon pine and juniper in the upper elevations to the valley's mesquite, desert holly, and cacti. This complex ecosystem includes kangaroo rats, sidewinder rattlesnakes, burrowing owls, and bighorn sheep. Thousands of years of adaptation in the plant and animal species make this drive a fascinating experience.

This map details the highlights along Death Valley Scenic Byway.
This map details the highlights along Death Valley Scenic Byway.

Qualities of Death Valley Scenic Byway

One of the best ways to discover Death Valley National Park is to get out of the car and take a hike. Due to the extreme elevation changes and climate, however, many of the hikes within Death Valley may be too difficult for the average visitor, but several very easy to moderate hikes are accessible to just about everyone. When you do go for a hike, remember to drink two quarts of water. Sunglasses and a hat will help, too, because the sun often glares throughout the park.

Find more useful information related to California's Death Valley Scenic Byway:

  • California Scenic Drives: Death Valley Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in California. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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Highlights of Death Valley Scenic Byway

Variance in elevation creates stunning views along Death Valley Scenic Byway.
Variance in elevation creates stunning views along Death Valley Scenic Byway.

Death Valley Scenic Byway is a dynamic route. Death Valley National Park's scenic diversity includes deep rugged canyons, sand dunes, and, surprisingly, even fragile wetlands. The desert is also surrounded by high rising mountain ranges, adding dramatic contrast to the scenic variety.

Toward the western end of the byway, you climb to the pull-off for Father Crowley Point at the top of the Argus Mountain Range. The short drive to this observation point provides spectacular views overlooking the Panamint Valley and the complex geology of the Panamint Mountain Range. This observation point is the perfect location to view the setting sun on Telescope Peak. You can also peer down into Rainbow Canyon.

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Consider taking this scenic tour of Death Valley, beginning in the early morning.

Death Valley National Park: Enter Death Valley National Park on Route 190 about three miles northwest of Death Valley Junction.

Furnace Creek Wash: Traveling north along Route 190, you'll notice that you're following along the Furnace Creek Wash. There may or may not be any water, but watch for thunderstorms -- water rises fast in this area!

Furnace Creek: When you stop at Zabriskie Point, about eight miles past the entrance, you'll enter the heart of Death Valley -- Furnace Creek. This area is full of history and is a recommended base camp for visiting Death Valley. Stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to orient yourself to the park.

Stovepipe Wells: After spending the heat of the day indoors, take an afternoon drive farther north along Route 190 to Harmony Borax Works and Salt Creek. Catch the sunset near the sand dunes, and then head back into Furnace Creek or on to Stovepipe Wells, where a hotel and campground are available.

Charcoal Kilns or Scotty's Castle: Take a day to explore the southern end of the park, including Devil's Golf Course, Artists Palette, and Golden Canyon. In the summer, take a detour through Emigrant Pass and on up the road to see the Charcoal Kilns. Parts of the roads to these sites are not paved, so a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Or head north to Scotty's Castle for a great tour.

It's no wonder people travel far and wide -- and even from overseas -- to see the unique sights along the Death Valley Scenic Byway.

Find more useful information related to California's Death Valley Scenic Byway:

  • California Scenic Drives: Death Valley Scenic Byway is just one of the scenic byways in California. Check out the others.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

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