I recently spent some time in Death Valley National Park, and it was awesome. Unlike places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, and Yellowstone, Death Valley doesn’t get the massive density of visitors as the more popular parks, and this allows for a uniquely relaxed experience. Our first night there, Mrs. Lite Adventurer and I were sitting for dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was the only restaurant in a 30 minute driving radius, and noticed that we had pretty much the entire place to ourselves. There were maybe 2 other small parties present. This was such a huge change from Yosemite where we had just left that same morning where there were multiple restaurants on site, some of which required advance reservations, and all of which were completely packed with people all the time. I imagine Death Valley today is probably what visiting Yellowstone was like 50 years ago in terms of crowd size. It’s really nice.
If you’re planning a visit, there are two main hubs for tourists in Death Valley: Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. If you’re looking for upscale and want to be around more people, Furnace Creek is your place. If you’re looking for fewer crowds and isolation, go with Stovepipe Wells. We chose Stovepipe Wells. You can also camp in a number of places, but the desert heat, insects, snakes, and our inability to sleep well outdoors made us give that option a big fat Hell Nah.
We visited the park around mid-May which is when the high tourist season begins to tail off, and I had no problems getting a room. In fact, the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel* was more than half empty during our stay. If you’re planning a visit during peak travel times between the beginning of March to early May, you may want to reserve a room way in advance, but this is not the type of place like Crater Lake or Yosemite where the rooms fill up a year ahead of time.
*This lodging is called a hotel, but it’s really a motel in that all the rooms are directly accessed from the outside. See photo below.
I was pleasantly surprised when we saw our room for the first time. I’ve stayed in several official national park lodgings, and this is by far one of the better ones. The room was very clean and spacious, had no weird smells whatsoever, and came with nice amenities such as 4 free bottles of water per day and a good sized mini-fridge. The bathroom was huge with a shower big enough for 2 people and plenty of space and hangers to hang dry your clothes. The climate here is perfect for lite travelers like us who wash our own clothes, as it’s so hot and dry that you don’t even need to do the towel trick for your clothes to be completely bone dry within about 6 hours (see the link in the prior sentence if you don’t know about the towel trick). Here are some photos of the room we stayed in:
On site, there are a few different useful conveniences including a general store and a restaurant/bar which is your only dining option in the area. Fortunately, the food is pretty good, and although the prices have the expected mark-up, it’s not nearly as expensive as some of the other national park restaurants I’ve eaten at. A useful tip: eat at the bar side of the building. You can get the same menu as the restaurant, and the views are much better if you sit at one of the high top tables by the windows. In the mornings, the restaurant serves a buffet style breakfast which we never tried, and at dinner it’s a traditional menu. The way it’s worded (poorly) on the Stovepipe Wells website, we expected dinner to be buffet style as well, but it is not. In addition to tasty food, they also have a decent beer selection on tap and bottles, especially for a place that is in the middle of the desert.
The very useful General Store across the street from the hotel has a 24 hour gas station and a convenience store that sells a variety of food and beverages (only the gas is 24 hours with a credit card; the store is not). We stopped at a real grocery store before we entered the national park boundaries and stocked up on food for our breakfasts and lunches, so we didn’t need to buy much additional food, but there’s plenty available to munch on at the General Store if you don’t want to eat at the restaurant 3 times a day.
The hotel does have wifi, but it’s only in the registration building and restaurant, and it is very slow. Don’t plan on streaming any movies while you’re here. Cell service is also limited. I have Verizon and was able to get a decent 3G Extended Network signal in the room. I’m not sure about any of the other wireless carriers. Before you visit the park, consider downloading an offline map of the entire Death Valley region on Google Maps for your phone so you can use GPS to get around. Most of the park has no cell phone service whatsoever, and this is not a place where you want to get lost. Or you can go old school and get a paper map like we did back in the day.
Two last important pieces of advice: 1) buy a gallon jug of water and leave it in the trunk of your car, and 2) wear good shoes. The water is there so you don’t die in case your car breaks down mid-day and no one else is around. The shoes are to protect your feet from the harsh elements. In the summertime, the sand can get so hot that it will melt the bottoms of cheaply made thin flip flops, so don’t wear flimsy shoes. Also, be careful even wearing well-built sandals like Chacos here. I wore my Chacos on the first morning in the park to watch the sunrise, and while hiking on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, I impaled the inside bottom of my foot on a sharp piece of wood sticking out of the sand. It was no fun, and I ended up switching to my trail shoes after that painful & bloody experience (I’ll have a more detailed post on this interesting episode soon).
Overall, Stovepipe Wells was a great place to stay. I felt it was worth it to pay a little extra for a room with a view, and everything about the lodging either met or exceeded my expectations. Highly recommended.