Death Valley National Park

Written by User 1

Last Updated: August 02, 2012, 02:17 pm (UTC)
Originally created on January 17, 2011

Death Valley is about as far as one can get, in California, from the city lights. The valley is the land of extremes being hottest in the western hemisphere, lowest and driest on North America, and some of the best observing sites in the world.

Death Valley National Park is huge, occupying 2.2 million acres in California and Nevada. The Last Chance Range above Eureka Valley, in the far northwest of the park, is the arguably the best location for astronomy in the park. The mountains are accessed by Big Pine Road which climbs up to over 4000' in the mountains with light pollution almost non-existent.

Racetrack Valley (4500') is another great place suitable for a telescope. The Racetrack, a playa (dry lakebed) at the southern end of valley, is famous for its mysterious moving rocks. The flatness of the playa certainly helps with setting up. Avoid the playa on windy days when winds race down the surface unobstructed frequently reaching speeds of over 60 miles per hour. A primitive campground is just south of the playa and features an old restroom. The valley is reached by Racetrack Road, an incredibly washboarded road which leads south from the Scotty's Castle / Ubehebe Crater area. Drive slowly; flat tires are common along this road. Passenger vehicles should be fine. For those not willing to make the drive, Mesquite Springs Campground is nearly as good though at low elevation (about 1200') is found a few miles to the southeast of Scotty's Castle.

The rapid growth of the Las Vegas and Los Angeles metropolitan is beginning to affect the skies over the southern part of the park even from over a hundred miles away. Nonetheless, even the sky at the extreme south of the park is significantly better than most other places in the country. The image above illustrates the effect of light pollution from Las Vegas at Mesquite Springs Campground -- noticeable, but limited.

Campgrounds in the southern half of the park are found in Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Note that these are all at or below sea level so telescopic "seeing" (apparent blurring of objects caused by the atmosphere) is poor compared to other locations. Wildrose, Thorndike and Mahogany Flats campgrounds are in the mountains above Death Valley (but inside the park) and provide the best seeing in the park. The latter two are closed in winter. If telescope portability is not an issue, take the 7 mile (one-way) hike to the top of Telescope Peak, beginning in Mahogany Flats campground, for some of the clearest air anywhere.

Visitor services are found inside the park at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Beatty, NV is a few miles northeast of the park and provides more options. The nearest major city is Las Vegas, NV about 150 miles away.

The valley bottom is not the place to be in summer when even the low temperatures may reach 110 degrees (F) on occasion. Summer highs average around 120 degrees (F) and lows are around 90 degrees (F) at the valley bottom. The record high is 134 degrees (F) set in July of 1912. At 4500' in Racetrack Valley, summer highs are around 100 degrees (F) and lows are around 60 degrees (F). In winter, the valley bottom tops out at around 70 degrees (F) and bottoms out at around 40 degrees (F). Racetrack Valley sees a high of around 40 degrees (F) and a low of about 20 degrees (F). Temperatures vary drastically from the average so check the latest forecast.

Death Valley National Park charges a $20 entrance fee good for 7 days. Visitors are required to pay either at either the Grapevine entrance station by Scotty's Castle or in the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

For more information on the park and its other attractions, see the official website of Death Valley National Park.

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