Many visitors treat a visit to Death Valley as a car-only tour, an approach that makes sense during summer due to the extreme heat. But during spring, fall, and winter, you can experience the nuance of the desert and enjoy your own little piece of it by hiking some of the canyons or taking one of the many lightly traveled roads.
The Echo Canyon drive is popular for its scenic and winding canyon, stone arch, and ghost camp ruins.Dirt roads vary in their accessibility. Some roads require only high clearance and may be passable with a passenger car, while others require a serious 4WD vehicle. Several of the dirt roads in this area, including the West Side Road and the Greenwater Valley Road, are graded and easily passable with a passenger car. A 4WD vehicle opens up your possibilities for canyon or other more remote exploration.
West Side Road
West Side Road visits the rugged canyons of the Panamint Range; experience the orchards of Hungry Bill’s Ranch or the bubbling oases of Hanaupah Canyon. There are plenty of backcountry campsites and hikes where you can enjoy the intense quiet of the desert and the translucent glow of the night sky from the salt-crusted valley floor.
The West Side Road is a graded dirt road; high clearance is recommended due to washboards and pockets of soft dirt. There are two access points: from the junction of Highway 190 and Badwater Road, the northern access is 6 miles south; the southern access is 39.2 miles farther south. West Side Road runs for 37 miles and takes about one hour to drive, depending on road conditions. Note that the West Side Road may be closed in summer due to extreme heat.
Located at the southern end of the Amargosa Range, the southeastern corner yields scenic springs, ghost mines, and pristine dunes. Ibex Spring Camp and Saratoga Spring offer a rare look into desert wetlands and the endemic plant and animal species.
From Furnace Creek, take Highway 190 east for 30 miles to Death Valley Junction and Highway 127. Continue south on Highway 127 for 44 miles to the Ibex Spring Road; plan 1 hour and 45 minutes for the drive. Another option is to access Highway 127 via the Badwater Road and Highway 178, a drive of about 2.5 hours.
Scenic Four-Wheel Drives
Echo Canyon to Inyo Mine Camp
The Echo Canyon drive (19 miles round-trip) is popular for its scenic and winding canyon, stone arch, and ghost camp ruins. Echo Canyon starts from Highway 190, at an inconspicuously signed junction 2.5 miles east of Badwater Road. For the first couple of miles, as the road crawls toward the canyon mouth, it may be passable with a high-clearance vehicle or even a passenger car. Once the road approaches the mouth of the canyon, things change—from here to the mining camp, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required.
After entering the canyon mouth, the road winds through canyon narrows, reaching the Eye of the Needle, a sharp stone arch that juts into the canyon, at 4.8 miles. The canyon broadens into a valley that may be filled with flowers in springtime. Another 4.3 miles past Eye of the Needle (9.1 miles into the drive), a signed junction marks a small triangular intersection. Continue right toward the Inyo Mine Camp. The road leads to a small parking area below the mine. There are enough buildings here to elevate the site beyond the level of camp to a bona fide ghost town with a boarding house, cookhouse, several cabins, and, of course, the mine works.
Warm Spring Canyon to Butte Valley
This scenic drive leads through Warm Spring Canyon to Butte Valley (44.6 miles round-trip). The drive begins on Warm Springs Canyon Road, accessed from the West Side Road 2.9 miles from its southern end or 33 miles from its northern entrance. A good graded road leads 11 miles to Warm Springs Camp. While lower Warm Spring Canyon is easily accessible, the upper canyon is harder to reach, requiring a 4WD vehicle to access remote springs, secluded cabins, and the lovely geology of Butte Valley.
From Warm Springs Camp, the road spurs to the northwest at 4.4 miles (15.4 miles into the drive) to Arrastre Spring and the Gold Hill area; little remains from its brief time as a gold mining location. Arrastre Spring was named for the stone arrastres (now obscured by willows) used to grind gold. It is most famous as the spot where some historians think the infamous Bennett-Arcane party spoke the words “Good-bye, death valley” as they escaped their near-death ordeal.
The road continues as Butte Valley Road. The road condition worsens, but the scenery improves as the road drops into Butte Valley at 17.8 miles. The impressive Striped Butte, an unmistakable geologic feature for which this area was named, is straight ahead. Access to Striped Butte is via a northwest road into Redlands Canyon at 20.3 miles. Continuing on Butte Valley Road will take you to Anvil Spring Junction at 22.3 miles (look for an unsigned but obvious junction). From here, a right turn leads to Anvil Spring and the well-known Geologist’s Cabin. A left turn leads to Willow Spring. Straight on, the road continues to Russel’s Camp, Mengel Pass, and Goler Wash. Historic interest groups, the public, and the National Park Service maintain cabins in the area. They are available to camp in on a first-come basis; treat them with respect and leave them in a better condition than you found them. (Also, be aware of the threat of hantavirus that exists in any old building.)
To complete the drive, turn around in Butte Valley and head back out the way you came in. From Anvil Spring Junction, it is a 22.3-mile drive to return to the West Side Road. Allow at least three hours for the drive back. (It is sometimes possible to continue via Mengel Pass into Goler Wash and the western side of the Panamint Mountains, but this is one of the worst and most dangerous drives in the park. The road is often impassable and should not be attempted if you are not an experienced 4WD driver.)
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Death Valley National Park.