Death Valley was given its ominous name by a group of pioneers crossing the vast desert plain in the winter of 1849-1850. The name stuck: today, it’s the moniker of the national park straddling the border of Nevada and California, only 160 miles (198 km) west of Las Vegas. It’s also the centerpiece of the Death Drive, a road trip route that includes a ghost town and a coffin shop — yes coffin shop, not coffee shop. But this is no road to oblivion! There’s plenty of life-affirming pleasures on this itinerary, from the wineries in Pahrump to a stop at the Happy Burro Chili in Beatty to exploring Desert National Wildlife Refuge and Mount Charleston, at 11,916 feet (3,632 meters), one of the tallest peaks in the state.
328 miles/528 km
Check out the map HERE.
LEG 1: LAS VEGAS TO PAHRUMP (72 miles/116 km)
The Death Drive begins, somewhat ironically, in Las Vegas, a city alive with entertainment, shopping, fine dining and adventure. Or maybe not so ironically: Las Vegas is only about a two-hour drive from Death Valley National Park, making it the closest urban metropolis to this desert jewel and the logical start for a Death Drive.
First stop is Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, where natural springs maintain green lawns surrounded by the stark Mojave Desert. Just about 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, Spring Mountain Ranch is within the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area - a spectacularly beautiful valley with bright red, iron-laden rock formations, yucca plants, desert tortoise and wild burros. Visitors can enjoy short walking trails and tour the visitor center, a former ranch once owned by Howard Hughes and other personalities from the 20th century.
If the timing is right, stop for a bite to eat at the Mountain Springs Saloon, about 15 minutes from the Spring Mountain and one of the best biker bars in the state. Plan your trip to coincide with the last Saturday of the month, March through October, when the saloon has a regularly scheduled pig roast. From here, it’s just another 30 minutes to the town of Pahrump, a community of 38,000 with many lively amenities, including two award winning wineries, Pahrump Valley and Sanders Family Winery; two golf courses, Mountain Falls Golf Club and Lake View Executive Golf Course; and a Jetpack America location at the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club.
But that’s not the end of it! In the end, and because this is the Death Drive, there’s COFFINWOOD.
Open by appointment, Coffinwood is the creation of Bryan Schoening, a carpenter with a penchant for building coffins. He and his wife, Dusty Schoening, own Coffin It Up, a business that makes custom coffins as well as coffin-shaped items, from Ping Pong tables to jewerly and purses. Coffinwood is where you can check out some of those items, make your own custom orders, or simply a place to skip the Vegas chapel and arrange to exchange vows!
Not ready to shuffle off this mortal coil? Head back to one of Pahrump’s resorts to rest up for tomorrow.
CATCH SOME ZZZs
- Pahrump Nugget Hotel Casino, 681 S. Highway 160, Pahrump, 866-751-6500, PahrumpNugget.com
- Saddle West Hotel, Casino and RV Park, 1220 Nevada 160, Pahrump, 775-727-1111, SaddleWest.com
- Wine Ridge RV Resort & Cottages, 3800 Winery Road, Pahrump, 775-751-7805, WineRidgeRVResort.com
LEG 2: DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, RHYOLITE GHOST TOWN, GOLDWELL OPEN AIR MUSEUM, AND BEATTY (106 miles/170 km)
From Pahrump, it’s about a one hour drive to Furnace Creek Visitor Center, the main visitors’ center at Death Valley National Park. Here, check out museum exhibits on the area’s geology and natural history, and watch a 20-mile film about the area before exploring the 3.4 million acre park.
The most popular drive is Badwater Road, which includes stops at the Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest, hottest and driest place in North America. There’s a byway off Badwater Road, Artist’s Drive, which takes you past colorful canyons and mountains. TravelNevada PRO TIP: Make the most of your trip to Death Valley during the spring months before temperatures creep into the 100s. If you time it just right, there is often a seriously spectacular wildflower bloom throughout the area (based on the amount of preciptiation received throughout the year.) Plus, lower 80 - 90 degree temps make exploring this vast National Park more doable, safe and enjoyable.
From the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, it’s about an hour’s drive north to Rhyolite Ghost Town. Rhyolite is a former mining town that developed in the early 1900s that was part of the Bullfrog Mining District. The town boomed in the early 1900s, but the financial panic of 1907 (along with the San Francisco Earthquake) took its toll.
In the next few years, the mines began closing and by 1916, the town was completely deserted. Many of the wooden structures were carried off, but some structures - like the bank, miner's union hall, brothel and jail - remain and can be viewed and explored. Once you've visited, you'll see why the area is the most photographed ghost town in the entire state.
Adjacent to Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Seven large-scale sculptures are here, work created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski and fellow artists in the 1980s. Among them is Szukalski’s often-photographed “The Last Supper,” with cloaked figures representing Jesus and the Apostles. From here, it’s about a 15 minute drive east to the community of Beatty.
Beatty was founded at the turn of the century as the central supply hub of the Bullfrog Mining District. The Bullfrog mines eventually played out, and while other mining towns became ghost towns, Beatty survived, and today markets itself as a gateway city into Death Valley National Park.
Learn more about area history at the Beatty Museum and Historical Society and grab a bowl of chili and draft beer at the Happy Burro Chili and Beer, set inside a historical building that originally stood in the town of Rhyolite but was relocated to Beatty after Rhyolite bust.
CATCH SOME ZZZs
- Atomic Inn, 350 S. 1st Street, Beatty, 775-553-2250 AtomicInnBeatty.com
- Exchange Club Motel, 119 Main Street, Beatty, 775-553-2333 BestDeathValleyHotels.com
- Death Valley Inn & RV Park, 651 US 95, Beatty, 775-553-9400 DeathValleyInnMotel.com
- For additional information on and to book lodging at Beatty hotels, visit BestDeathValleyHotels.com
LEG 3: DESERT NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE AND SPRING MOUNTAINS NATIONAL RECREATION AREA, THEN BACK TO LAS VEGAS (162 miles/261 km)
Grab a to-go lunch from Beatty's Sourdough Saloon or KC's Outpost and hit the road. From Beatty, it’s about an hour and a half drive to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge’s Corn Creek Visitor Center. At 1.5 million acres, Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest national wildlife refuge in the continental United States, and one of the largest intact blocks of desert bighorn sheep habitat in the American Southwest. Most of the roads in this refuge are primitive, and ordinary passenger vehicles are not recommended; however, the road to the Corn Creek Visitor Center is paved. TravelNevada PRO TIP: Be sure to plan ahead when visiting this stunning, yet vast landscape. The visitors’ center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
If the timing is not right to visit Desert National Wildlife Refuge, consider a stop at the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, also known as Mount Charleston. About an hour and 45 minute drive from Beatty, this section of the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest offers 316,000 acres of diverse landscape. The hallmark is Mount Charleston, at 11,916 feet, this is the fifth tallest peak in Nevada and home of one of the largest concetrations of Bristlecone Pine Trees (the oldest tree on Earth) in the Intermountain West.
Spring Mountains National Recreation Area also is home to a small ski resort, Lee Canyon. The Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway at 2525 Kyle Canyon Road, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, is a 128-complex with a visitors’ center; the Seven Stones Plaza honoring the seven Southern Paiute tribes of the Southwest; the Silent Heroes of the Cold War National Memorial; hiking trails and more. Escaping to a higher elevation in the Spring Mountains makes for a particularly enjoyable retreat during summer months.
Interested in extending your time in the Spring Mountains? Plan on staying at the Resort on Mt. Charleston, a lodge-style accomodation with close proximity to this incredibly vast forest landscape. If you've had your share of exploring this gem of the national forest system, head down to into Las Vegas, an easy 40-minute drive.
At this point, road trippers are out of the woods, literally, and can count survival of the Death Drive as an accomplishment.