Thanksgiving weekend couldn’t have arrived at a better time. I was swamped with assignments and exams for my classes at the UCSF School of Nursing. I hadn’t had a full weekend off since the start of the quarter. My stress levels were through the roof. The air quality in Napa and the rest of the Bay Area was toxic. Packing up the van and heading out on a 4-day road trip to the desert was just what I needed to refresh my body and mind.


Because I am a morning person and always prefer getting up early to travel, as opposed to starting later and driving through the night, we rolled out of Napa around 6:00 am. We had intended to start earlier, but enjoyed a couple extra hours of sleep. That decision ended up costing us lots of time because once we were on the I-5, we slowed to a crawl with everyone else heading south for the holiday.

We had the camper van and were scouting out free BLM campsites along the way, but decided to keep going all the way into the park. With grocery and gas stops along the way, we made it to Stovepipe Wells just before sunset. The campground there is basically a giant gravel parking lot, but we really just wanted a place to park the van, so it wasn’t too bad. The camping fee was reasonable too. Despite being one of the busiest weekends of the year for Death Valley, there was still plenty of room in the gravel lot for another van. We made our simple Thanksgiving dinner of stuffing, potatoes, and some Tofurky sausages on the stove outside as the sun set.

Typical Tourists

We had big plans for day 2. We woke up early and drove south to Zabriskie Point for our first stop of the day. The place was crawling with tourists but it was still easy to step aside and admire the wild landscape without people stepping on your toes. We spent about an hour there taking photos and wandering around before getting back in the van to drive to Badwater Basin.

“Erosional Landscapes” at Zabriskie Point.

Badwater was also busy. The parking lot was full so we had to park on the side of the road about a quarter of a mile down the road. As we walked out onto the salt flat following a huge crowd of people, it felt like we were on our way to a huge music festival. After getting out far enough onto the salt flats people dispersed and you could enjoy some solitude and get those great Instagram photos.

Badwater Salt Flats. 279 feet below sea level.
Justine on the Badwater Salt Flats. Death Valley, CA. The hottest place on earth.

After leaving Badwater, we drove to the Devil’s Golf Course. It was a few short miles up the road. It was cool to see the different salt formations here. This would be a brutal place to find yourself stranded in the middle of the summer.

Devil’s Golf Course

Our next stop (or drive) was the Artist’s Drive, a short rollercoaster-like loop through some beautiful and unique hills. The Artist’s Palette was underwhelming but I’m sure some of this was due to the fact that we were there at noon. The lighting was not ideal to see the colors and textures on the mountain. The drive was really fun though so I would still recommend going.

After finishing the drive we kept getting distracted by the beautiful desert landscape. We ended up pulling off the road several times to take pictures and go for mini hikes out to some cool features.

Our creepy camper at a scenic pullout along the Artist’s Drive.
The colors in the desert were amazing this time of the year.
Desert Nomad

From here we drove to Furnace Creek for some snacks and supplies. Gas here was super expensive so we decided to hold off and refill back at Stovepipe Wells before continuing on to the northern part of the Park.

We had considered driving up to Eureka Dunes and camping but after figuring out that they were 40-50 miles up a dirt road, we changed plans and drove to the Ubehebe Crater. Again, we were there at the wrong time of the day with the wrong lens to get great photos. It was also starting to get really windy and cold and our stomachs were calling. After checking the maps we decided to drive to Mesquite Springs Campground to see if we could get a place for the night.

We rolled in around 4:00 pm and there were only a handful of spots left. There was a string of other vehicles right behind us so I’m guessing they were all taken by 4:30 pm. It was a busy weekend and this campground was much nicer (and smaller) than Stovepipe Wells, so we were lucky. Again, we set up our stove and cooked a nice dinner as the sun dipped behind the hills. Beautiful end to beautiful day in the desert.

Doing the dinner dance.

Sand Dunes and Boulders

Day 3 started with a drive to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. We packed a backpack, water, jackets, and snacks into a backpack and hiked out into the sand. We made our way out to the eastern dunes to get some solitude. The pastel desert colors and textures in the sand were otherworldly. Given the cool morning temperatures, we were comfortable exploring and enjoying ourselves out there until lunch, when we decided to hike back to the van for some food.

Feeling content with our Death Valley experience we made the decision to drive to Lone Pine and camp in the Alabama Hills, rather than spend another night in Death Valley. This would also give us a little head start on our drive home the next day.

The drive from Stovepipe Wells to Lone Pine is amazing! I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like to RUN that route as many runners do each year as part of the Badwater Ultramarathon. Unbelievable. Maybe someday I’ll be there.

If you haven’t camped in the Alabama Hills, you need to make it happen. There are tons of free sites on the BLM land with spectacular views of Mt Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states. Since it was a busy, holiday weekend, there were quite a few people out camping, climbing, biking, etc. in the hills, but with a little driving we found an good spot for the night.

Camper Cooking Ninja

On the Road Again

After watching the sunrise on Mt Whitney and the surrounding peaks from our camp, we packed up and hit the road again. Instead of driving up the I-5 interstate and dealing with all the traffic again, we opted to go up the eastern side of the Sierras, through Mammoth Lakes and South Lake Tahoe. I much prefer the smaller highways and back roads. It was a fun 4-day trip out to the desert, and we returned to Napa with clean air, blue skies, and a fresh perspective on the remaining weeks of the school quarter.

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