Road-Tripping through Death Valley and Pinnacles National Parks

Death Valley National Park, California

As someone who travels extensively for work and pleasure, I have done a pretty poor job at exploring my own country and its numerous national parks. I guess I just get tempted with the more ‘exotic’ destinations where people speak different languages, use foreign currency, and serve authentic foods. The grass is always greener on the other side, right? But the US has so many beautiful places to explore and it’s high time that I get to exploring them.

So that’s just what I did with this little solo road trip of mine. I spent a week dipping my toes into Death Valley and Pinnacles National Park. I say ‘dipping my toes’ because both parks have so much to offer and one week split between the two was nowhere near enough to fit everything in. But what I did see was pretty special. Here’s what my itinerary looked like:

Death Valley National Park, California

DAY 1

Route: Mammoth Lakes to Death Valley National Park

Sights and adventures: None - travel day

Where I stayed: Texas Campground, upper loop

My first night was a bit of a disaster and almost sent me home in defeat. I arrived at the Texas Springs campground in Death Valley NP around 3pm and ALL of the good campsites in the lower loop were taken. I had to resort to setting up camp between a ridiculously large RV who’s male inhabitant snored like a fire engine and a BMW suv that was toting two beefy motorcycles. The ground was not tent friendly – it was gravel – and the only greenery around were the shrubs and bushes lining the paved drive. The icing on the cake, though, was the wind. The WIND! I struggled to get my tent set up because the wind was blowing so hard and I ended up eating a hummus and cucumber sandwich for dinner because my camp stove fire kept getting blown out. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much that night…


Death Valley National Park, California. Golden Canyon

DAY 2

Route: Death Valley Circuit,

Sights and adventures: Golden Canyon, Dantes View, Badwater Basin, Artist’s Drive

Where I stayed: Texas Campground, lower loop

The next morning, I was able to snag a campsite down in the lower, camping-only loop of Texas Springs. The ground was dirt instead of gravel and the site had some trees to provide shade and protection from the wind. After marking my territory with a cooler, a stack of firewood, and a jug of water, I set off for the day. 

My first stop was the aptly named Golden Canyon. As I entered into the slot canyon, early morning rays were just coming up over the ridges and the light cast a magical golden glow all around me. I followed the trail back into the dramatic gallery of Red Cathedral where I scurried up a small peak for a spectacular view of layers upon layers of colorful ridge lines stretching out before me. Then I worked my way up over a pass and into the hot, seared terrain of the Badlands.  I felt like I was wandering around the set of a Star Wars movie. It was getting pretty hot by 10am, so instead of hiking out to Zabrieski’s point, which I had planned on, I completed my loop by returning to my car via the Gower Gulch trail.

After Golden Canyon I drove all the way up to Dantes View. I almost didn’t make this trek, because driving up a mountain – to me – is cheating. But two fellow travelers convinced me that views from the top are incredible. I did some quick research and saw that there were a few hiking trails snaking off from the main parking area, so I decided to give it a go. I have to admit, the road up is exciting and the views from the top are pretty spectacular. Plus, the trails along the plateau – both to the left and right of the parking area - make the drive to the top justifiable. The views just get better and better the farther you go.

From Dantes View, one of the highest points in Death Valley, I made my way down to the lowest point in the Unites States: the expansive salt flats of Badwater Basin. It was pretty crowded near the parking area so I walked farther out into the flats, way passed where most tourists turn around, and pretended that I was on the set of yet another Star Wars movie.

My last stop of the day was Artist’s Drive, a loop showcasing the pastel colors of earthy minerals ‘painted’ onto the dunes and ridges. This was the feature I was looking forward to the most in Death Valley, but by the time I got there, I was so tired and hot that I didn’t really want to get out of the car and explore the colorful ridges. The drive was still beautiful, but I think next time I’ll dedicate at least a half day to walking around and photographing the mineral-colored hills. 


Death Valley National Park, California. Mesquite Sand dunes

DAY 3

Route: Death Valley to Wildrose Campground

Sights and adventures: Mesquite Sand Dunes, Charcoal Kilns

Where I stayed: Wildrose Campground

I packed up camp early (after a much better night sleep) and headed out of the park to Wildrose Campground which sits high above Death Valley’s western entrance at 4000ft. On the way there, I stopped at the Mesquite Sand Dunes. I was only going to stay for a few minutes because I wanted to make sure I got a good campsite at Wildrose, but a few minutes turned into an hour and a half because the dunes are so cool! Especially early in the morning when the light is golden and soft. I hiked out as far as I could and climbed the tallest dune where I enjoyed some fantastic views and a few moments of solitude. 

After returning to my car and dumping the sand out of my shoes, I continued on my way to Wildrose. It takes a bit of time to get there, but the scenery is absolutely stunning – lots of sagebrush, mountains all around, winding roads, wildflowers in the spring… It’s worth the drive even if you don’t stay at the campground.  

After claiming the best site in camp, I got back in my car and continued along the road to where the pavement ends. Because I had a rental car and rental car insurance doesn’t cover damage done on gravel roads, I parked at the end of the pavement and walked the final 3 miles up to the charcoal kilns. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I have to admit, the charcoal kilns are pretty darn cool. Built in the late 1800’s by Chinese laborers, they were used to make fuel for several nearby lead-silver mines (if you can call 25 miles away nearby…). They’re immaculately preserved/rebuilt and quite impressive.


Pinnacles National Park, California

Day 4

Route: Wildrose Campground to Pinnacles National Park

Sights and adventures: None - travel day, but the scenery was gorgeous!

Where I stayed: Sweetwater BLM Campground

The plan for my final day in Death Valley was to hike up Wildrose Peak in the morning but the wind was so bad the night before (again) that I didn’t sleep at all. When morning came all I wanted to do was get out of dodge and make my way to Pinnacles National Park. I do regret not hiking Wildrose, but that’ll have to be another trip.

The drive from Death Valley to Pinnacles was a long one, about seven hours. The route was gorgeous, though, and everything was so green and vibrant from all the rain California had been getting. I had to pull over numerous time to take pictures, but of course, the pictures don’t really do it justice. 

By the time I got to Pinnacles, all of the campsites were taken (I’m learning that campsite reservations are highly recommended for US National Parks) but the ranger was nice enough to direct me to a nearby BLM campsite called Sweetwater, Of course all six of those campsites were full, too… Hunting season had just started. Thankfully, I was able to stake out a primitive spot up on a hill in back of the campground that overlooked a beautiful, green valley below and I had the sunrise all to myself the following morning.


Pinnacles National Park, California

DAY 5

Route: No driving, exploring Pinnacles National Park

Sights and adventures: Bear Gulch to High Peaks hike

Where I stayed: Pinnacles National Park Campground

The next day, I returned to Pinnacles early and secured a campsite for the night. Then I spent that afternoon hiking and exploring the caves and trails that make up the National Park. Before arriving, I had no idea what to expect, but I was truly blown away by the beauty and uniqueness of the area – tall spires of red, gold, and brown lava rock stand upright amid vibrant green meadows dotted with wildflowers; clear streams run through healthy oak forests; pitch black caves begging to be explored; California condors soaring high overhead… there’s just so much variety and diversity to experience in this small but mighty park!

The first hike that I did was Bear Gulch. I started the hike from the campground via the Bench Trail because on weekends, the parking lot at Bear Gulch fills up super early and the line for the shuttle at the ranger station gets quite long. So instead of waiting in line, I opted to hike the two miles from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s a beautiful walk and I definitely recommend it if you don’t mind adding a few miles to your day. From Bear Gulch I continued on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which followed a pretty little stream and culminated at the Bear Gulch Cave. I wasn’t expecting much from the cave, but it was definitely more dramatic than I thought it would be! A flashlight or headlamp is a must. Once through the caves, I passed the reservoir at the top and continued along the Rim Trail. From there, I took the steep High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak and finally made my way back to the campground via the rest of the High Peaks Trail and Bench Trail. In all, it was about an 11 mile day and I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it.


Pinnacles National Park, California

DAY 6

Route: Pinnacles National Park to San Francisco

Sights and adventures: Old Pinnacles to Balconies hike

Where I stayed: San Francisco

On my second day in Pinnacles I only had a few hours in the morning to explore so I hiked the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies – about 4 miles round trip. Unlike the previous day’s hike, this trail is mostly flat and pretty easy (but still beautiful!) The Balconies Cave rivals the Bear Gulch Cave in its darkness and otherworldliness – a flashlight or headlamp is still a necessity. My favorite part on this hike, though, was the upper Balconies trail. Perhaps it was because I had much of the trail to myself but I just couldn’t get over the magical beauty and magnificence of the stone formations and lush greenery.


WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY 

  • Spend more time in the Artists Drive area early or late in the day. No real trails, but you can walk back into some of the slots canyons

  • Hike up Wildrose Peak

  • Stay another day in Pinnacles to hike the 9.3 mile North Wilderness trail that branches off from the Old Pinnacles Trail and rejoins at the Chaparral Trailhead parking lot.