For this week’s road trip, we’re leaving Las Vegas and heading to Death Valley National Park – the hottest, lowest, driest place in North America. Depending on your priorities, there are a number of different possible routes to take; long and scenic, along a major highway, or even one that passes through a ghost town. But as we’re on a ‘mini’ road trip, we’re going the quick way.
Our journey takes us over a winding mountain pass and across high desert, and if we did it non-stop it would take about two hours in total — but that would be boring, wouldn’t it? You’d miss out on bikers and vineyards for a start…
The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign
Let’s assume we’re kicking things off from the centre of the Las Vegas Strip. If you get in your car and head south out of town, you’ll actually approach the back of the famous retro sign first, instructing you to drive carefully and come back soon. No problem, just drive past and pull over into one of the designated parking spaces, where you (and a relentless trickle of other folk) will be able to turn around and get the all important snap. Erected in 1959, the sign is located on the median in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard South (the Strip), just across from the Bali Hai Golf Club and technically in the town of Paradise, four miles south of the actual city limits of Las Vegas.
The Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, 5100 Las Vegas Boulevard South (The Strip)
Mountain Springs Saloon
Carry on driving another couple of miles down the Strip then turn right onto Blue Diamond Road (State Route 160). Over the course of the next 25 miles the road rises and twists to an elevation of 5490 ft: this is the Mt Springs Pass and when you’re somewhere near the summit the Mountain Springs Saloon will greet you with its “World Famous” sign. We’re not quite sure if that’s true, but if you’ve ever been on any kind of road trip across the States then you’ll know it’s a claim that many a proud or faintly ridiculous roadside attraction likes to make. Either way, the saloon is certainly highly popular, especially among those who were born to be wild and prefer two wheels, and if you want to hang out with dyed-in-the-wool Nevadans this is definitely the place for you.
Grab some steak and ribs from the BBQ house and snag an outside table underneath the 60 year old Cottonwood trees. Wannabe easy riders will drool over the gleaming leather and chrome of the (often wildly expensive) bikes lined up in the parking area, and don’t worry about appearing overly covetous — according to the website, ‘bar fights are very rare’.
Don’t forget another layer or too if it’s hot in the city. The elevation means it’s normally at least twenty degrees cooler up here than in Vegas itself.
Mountain Springs Saloon, 19050 State Route 160, Las Vegas, NV 89161
A winery in the desert? Yes, and one of only three in the entire state of Nevada – compare that to more than 2,500 in the neighbouring state of California. Still on route 160, thirty miles west of Mountain Springs is the unassuming town of Pahrump, and if you drive into town and turn right onto Winery Road, you’ll reach the Pahrump Valley Winery. It’s been a real labour of love for owners Bill and Gretchen Loken, who moved here from Arizona in 2003 with absolutely no winemaking experience whatsoever.
Today, the winery is the proud recipient of 245 National Wine Awards and produces around 8-10,000 cases a year. Open every day, you can take a tour, wander through the grounds and vineyards, stock up in the shop or enjoy lunch or dinner in the gourmet Symphony’s Restaurant.
Pahrump Valley Winery, 3810 Winery Road, Pahrump, Nevada 89048
Furnace Creek, Death Valley
Get back on to the highway and carry on heading west. Do not follow the first signs to Death Valley or Shoshone, stay on route 160 — we’re going the quicker “locals’ route”. Pass through the centre of Pahrump and turn left onto Bell Vista Avenue — you’ll see a brown, national park service sign for Death Valley National Park; you’re now on your way to California.
In about twenty miles, you’ll cross the state line. Keep going until you reach the national park and follow signs for Furnace Creek village. This is where the park’s main visitor centre is based and where the highest temperature in North America was recorded – 134 °F or 57 °C. The reasonable number of facilities here makes it a great place to base yourself for further exploration. If you want to stay overnight, check out Furnace Creek Resort or the open-all-year Furnace Creek campground.
So what else is there to see? You could never hope to experience all of Death Valley’s eerie landscapes in just a day, or even a week – but there are some things you shouldn’t miss. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are one of them. Lying to the north of Furnace Creek (carry on driving along 190 past Beatty Junction), they’re an obvious choice for film locations due to their proximity to Hollywood and they’ve starred in several movies, including Star Wars.
For something completely different, take the desolate Badwater Road and head south out of Furnace Creek. You’ll soon find find yourself in Badwater Basin, vast salt pans which contain the lowest point in the United States – 282 feet below sea level, where huge hexagonally-shaped saucers fill a seemingly endless 200 square mile panorama to the Black Mountains on the horizon.
For more information about what to see and do on your visit to this incredible landscape, visit the Death Valley National Park website.
When you leave Las Vegas, remember you are in the desert. Regardless of the season, always ensure you’re carrying a plentiful supply of water. In remote locations like Death Valley, GPS navigation systems are notoriously unreliable, so make sure you have an up-to-date road map to check the accuracy of GPS directions!
Header shot of Death Valley Paul Lemke | Dreamstime.com, Las Vegas sign Elena Dremova | Dreamstime.com, Mesquite sand dunes Dean Pennala | Dreamstime.com, Badwater Basin, Glenn Nagel | Dreamstime.com, Death Valley National Park james_gordon_los_angeles on Flickr.com.