There are several ways to get to Death Valley and each of these travel routes offer a few side road destinations, scenic overlooks and long 4x4 trails. Because this vast National Park has such a varied terrain, all of the roads to Death Valley are equally beautiful to experience. On the flip-side, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, because the steep grades going way downhill into the valleys can be a real nightmare for RV campers and trailer haulers. Engine overheating is a common problem on the uphill runs, especially during the summer season and the trip downhill can melt the brakes if the speed is not checked.
Highway 190 is one of the main Death Valley National Park travel routes that goes east toward Las Vegas and west to the Owens Valley next to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mt Whitney is located just outside the western boundaries of the National Park, so a tour of this long road is guaranteed to be a picturesque journey. Highway 190 from the Owens Valley to Panamint Springs is a visual experience to remember and there are plenty of alternate touring options along the way.
When heading to Death Valley on Highway 190 from the west, Olancha Dunes is one of the first scenic areas to be discovered along the way. This spot is a busy off-highway vehicle playground on the weekends, but during the weekdays solitude is easy to find in this place. A few miles further east is is where the road to the Saline Valley can be found, which offers branching dirt road travel routes to hot spring areas, Lone Pine, Big Pine, Racetrack Playa and Death Valley. The Saline Valley dirt roads are very rough through the mountain passes and the lengthy distances can push the limits of the fuel tank, so only a well prepared 4x4 high ground clearance vehicle venture should be planned for a tour of this end of the park.
The rest of the smooth paved Highway 190 to Panamint Springs is a visual experience like no other. The road literally weaves through the mountain peaks all the way to the steep pass into the Panamint Valley. There are plenty of roadside spots to take the views in and there is one famous scenic overlook near the end point that is well worth checking out. Father Crowley Vista Point is the roadside spot to look for, which overlooks the Panamint Valley and Rainbow Canyon. Rainbow Canyon is better known as "Star Wars Canyon" in modern times, because this is where the top gun military fighter jets do their low level practice runs!
Upon arrival at Panamint Springs, there is a resort area and campground for those who need to settle in after the long drive. From here there is only one more mountain range to cross to get to Death Valley, but it pays to not be in a hurry because there are several great destinations to explore while in the Panamint Valley. Just like with the old west pioneers, it is best to conquer one deep valley or towering mountain range at a time when traveling through this unforgiving terrain, so be sure to stop to smell the roses often and the radiator will be less likely to boil over!
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