Winter Wandering in Death Valley



Written by Rachel Leung, Marketer at Presidio

California is a beautifully diverse wonderland that generously provides us with year-round adventures. Barring any health or environmental threats, you can camp all year round. You don’t wait for summer to camp - you camp when you want! Though camping in California naturally conjures up ideas of alpine lakes and hot summer nights, there are a ton of reasons to grab your pack and a nice warm sleeping bag and explore this winter.

Our top recommendation: take a few days this winter and roam the vast and rugged landscapes of Death Valley. We say winter because like many deserts, it’s deathly hot in the summer. There’s a place in the park called Furnace Creek because... well, you get it. As late as October the projected weather in Death Valley can be 100 degrees. So yes, file Death Valley under Winter Getaways. Trek across Star Wars terrain, roll down massive desert sand dunes and get down to the lowest point in North America all in one place! This one’s definitely a grand adventure for the whole crew.  

Despite our best efforts to prepare, we still got caught in a crazy unforecasted sandstorm. We were out on a hike when we noticed daunting clouds approaching quickly. We turned back on the trail immediately but by the time we could see our car, the sands had already been swept up into the valley at a violent speed. The winds were so strong and visibility was so poor that we found ourselves cautiously driving back to camp at the casual pace of 12mph. Some neighbors had already packed up but by then the winds were too powerful. We would have lost half our tent in the breakdown process, so the sharp grains of sand whipped at us as we proceeded to tie the tent to a nearby tree.

But eventually, the weather did subside. We read in the car for several hours and since we couldn’t easily pop out the propane stove and make dinner, we decided to eat a variety of bars and snacks that we had packed. We slept in our tied up tent, but only after scooping at least a cup of sand off our bags. The lesson here is to be prepared. We had extra water and gasoline, non-powered entertainment, rope, extra layers and extra food supplies. We were prepared and we made it a successful trip because we were ready. Not ready for a sandstorm per se, but ready for Mother Nature in general!

 

After all that crazy adventure, we took a rejuvenating side trip to Remington Hot Springs, right along Kern River. It’s a perfect opportunity to rest and recover before you head home. Go early, but still expect you may be sharing or waiting for pools. We met some creative folks who were heating up canned food in the pools! If you’re brave, dip your feet in the river just so you can stick ‘em right back in the pools. Enjoy yourselves and be mindful of time since others are probably waiting for the same amazing experience! 

SURPRISING BENEFITS OF WINTER CAMPING

Relish the lack of crowds. People are super turned off by winter camping and tend to stop their outdoor activities later in the year. It’s a great time to travel because most consider winter a “staying in” kind of season. Not us! We’re adventurous, outside and super warm in our layers!

Save yourself from scorching heat. Hiking is all jim dandy until it’s suddenly uncomfortably sweaty in the lower back area. That’s a worry we can leave behind for summertime! Trudge away to your heart's content and know the temperature won’t bring you to a slow boil in the process.

Enjoy a bug free journey. Take a deep breath and enjoy the lack of mosquitos around. No soulless winged creatures loitering around your face. No need to count up how many bites when you get back! It’s a truly underrated benefit of winter camping.

Lay back and be star struck. The nights are long in the winter and that just means you can cozy up and keep your eyes peeled for shooting stars. Feed your night sky curiosity by downloading a free stargazing app on your phone. If this is a no-phone-zone kind of trip, then just use your imagination like they did back in the day.

Take a refreshing dip in some hot springs. Hot springs are nice during summer, but they’re epic during the winter! There’s something magical about the contrast of hot springs and the frigid winter air. It’s like you’re cheating nature or something!

Despite the awesome pros of winter camping, folks are still a little chilly to the idea. Winter camping generally requires more thoughtfulness and preparation, but it doesn’t mean you need to bring an ice axe and crampons. While winter evokes scenes of white mountains and waist deep power, there are plenty of places in California you can camp during the winter sans snow! Just knowing you have options can make it much easier to embrace winter camping. That said, you should still be prepared for anything.

FACTORS TO CONSIDER IN THE WINTER

Even without the snow, winter comes with more inherent risks outdoors. Prepare for the worst and you’ll likely still have a blast! 

Weather - Always check the weather. Rain, snow or sandstorm in the forecast? Even if nothing is forecasted, things can change instantly! Pack the appropriate gear and make sure you have enough layers.

Daylight - The sun sets earlier in the winter so you’ll have less daylight available. No 9pm sunsets anymore. Sorry! Think about how much daylight you have as you plan your activities. You don’t want to be stranded on the trail in the dark.

Food & Fuel - This one’s a must for any place you go with limited resources, regardless of the season. But consider extras because of what I’m about to say next.

Store Closures - Some facilities are closed during the slower times of the year. Assume that many visitor centers or general stores serving the local areas may not be available.

Road Closures - The weather can heavily impact road conditions during the winter. Grab chains if you need them and anticipate delays or detours due to conditions. It’s not just those small backroads. It snows on the Grapevine on I-5!

Expectations - One of the most important preparations you can make is to check your expectations. Yes, you’ll be camping, but don’t expect to swim in alpine lakes, sleep in a tank top and get a sunny tan (though it's still possible)! Set your realistic expectations for your trip; then you can prepare accordingly and have a great time.

OTHER FUN WINTER TRIPS

Joshua Tree Desert - Much like Death Valley, it’s preferable in the winter. J Tree is also well known for bouldering and we encourage experienced, prepared climbers to check out the scene! Deserts are great this time of year and we recommend you do some research on a few before you make your pick.

Kirk Creek Campground - Make a trip up and down the PCH for a iconic coastal trip. We stumbled on this campground one year but I can say it was one of our best decisions. Nestled amongst the coastal brush, this campground boasts epic beach views and is just a stone’s throw away from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and the fabulous McWay falls.

A Drive on the 395 - A trip recommended for anyone. Make the journey to Bishop and have a grand old time, especially if you enjoy bouldering, snowshoeing, hot springs or just staring off at the Sierra Nevada mountains. Don’t forget to hit the slopes at Mammoth! Keep in mind, some roads are closed in the winter.

Mendocino - The coast can be a bit rainy this time of year, but the timing is great for whale watching! Each year, November through April, California gray whales migrate from Alaska south to mate and have babies in the warm coastal lagoons of Baja, Mexico. Oh, and don’t forget to stop by Mendocino’s local wineries and grab some bottles for the trip!

Big Basin (at another point in time) - In any other year, we would highly recommend this as a primo local destination for the winter. Currently, much of the Big Basin and the surrounding area is closed due to fire damage, but it still should be preserved in our minds. Learn more about Big Basin recovery here.

Mount Tamalpais State Park - Close, convenient and walk-in only! Try your hand at winter camping and stay in your Bay Area backyard. The camping options are excellent, though limited, so we encourage you to plan wisely and have back ups. Bootjack Campground and Pantoll Campground are first-come, first-served, however you could always skip that hassle and book a cabin or campsite at Steep Ravine.

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