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Death Valley Wilderness

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A desert sunrise, inky black shadow rolling back over the valley floor, as golden clouds cast an orange glow over the mountains in the distance.
Library image #382: Saline Valley sunrise


The United States Congress designated the Death Valley Wilderness (map) in 1994 and it now has a total of 3,190,455 acres. California contains approximately 3,145,105 acres. Nevada contains approximately 45,350 acres. It is managed by the National Park Service. The Death Valley Wilderness is bordered by the Sylvania Mountains Wilderness to the north, the Inyo Mountains Wilderness to the west, the Darwin Falls Wilderness to the west, the Argus Range Wilderness to the west, the Surprise Canyon Wilderness to the west, the Manly Peak Wilderness to the west, the Funeral Mountains Wilderness to the east, the Ibex Wilderness to the east, the Saddle Peak Hills Wilderness to the east, and the Resting Spring Range Wilderness to the east.


Death Valley National Park is the lowest and possibly hottest and driest spot in North America. The 134 degrees recorded on July 10, 1913 is the highest temperature recorded on the planet. The park is also the largest national park outside of Alaska with 91% designated as Wilderness. Though broken up by paved and dirt roads into at least 40 smaller wilderness sections it is the largest named Wilderness area in the lower 48 states. The wilderness contains acreage in both California and Nevada. Annual rainfall measures slightly less than two inches, and for six months each year, heat sears the valley floor, with July temperatures averaging 116 degrees Fahrenheit. During the other six months, the climate is very hospitable and considered the best time to visit.

Yet there is far more to this Wilderness than dry heat. Once you've adjusted your mental palette to the area's harsh, subtle beauty, wonders abound. Telescope Peak rises to 11,049 feet, higher than any other point in the park, and, with much of the Panamint Range, stands white under winter snow. (In fact, the climb up to Telescope Peak, where temperatures are cooler, is one of the few hikes considered reasonable in the heat of summer.) Contrast this with nearby Badwater, 15 or so miles to the east as the crow flies, where the earth lies almost 300 feet below sea level, the lowest terrestrial point in North America. Vast fields of sand dunes shimmer in the sun, and rock outcroppings are carved into shapes of staggering beauty, especially striking at dawn and dusk. Colorful cliffs stand above endless flats of creosote bush. Still more contrast is provided by areas like the Bowling Alley, a long, narrow strip, added in 2019, that includes a desert spring important for wildlife. More than 1000 species of plants have been identified within the park, and nights come alive to the scurrying of small mammals. Coyotes, gray and kit foxes, bobcats, jackrabbits, and desert tortoises thrive here, as do a plethora of bats, birds, lizards, and snakes. Desert bighorn sheep live in the canyons and lower mountains while mule deer live in the high Panamints, where you can sometimes tramp through a dry forest of piƱon, juniper, mountain mahogany, and a few bristlecone pines. Wildflowers bloom in spectacular variety when enough rain falls during the winter and spring. Ubehebe Crater opens 2,400 feet in diameter, marking where a "maar" volcano erupted less than 500 years ago.

You are free to hike the Wilderness, limited only by your courage and ability to carry water. Camping in the frontcountry is only allowed in designated locations but in the Wilderness, camping is allowed just about anywhere. Visitors are required to obtain a free backcountry camping permit from any park visitor center.

Planning to Visit the Death Valley Wilderness?

Leave No Trace

How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Death Valley Wilderness.
  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
For more information on Leave No Trace, Visit the Leave No Trace, Inc. website.

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