The pastel purple and pink hues filled the sky as the golden orb-like sun drunkenly pulsed and began dropping behind the mountains. The day was coming to a close and after spending it exploring Death Valley National Park, I couldn’t have asked for a more poetic ending. Keep on reading to see how you can plan your itinerary to visit Death Valley National Park, Alabama Hills, Kern River, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Mono Lake, and Convict Lake in 5 days.
Day 1 (Bay Area –> Alabama Hills –> Independence, CA)
Day 1 began with picking up my friend Jon and then driving south from the Bay Area towards our Airbnb in Independence, CA. The drive took about 6 hours but it went by quickly and alternatively, you could fly into Death Valley.
Our Airbnb host, Ursula, was fantastic and if you’re planning on doing this trip, I highly recommend staying at her beautiful home. On the day of our scheduled arrival, she checked in to see when we would be arriving and also provided recommendations on things to do nearby Independence, like Alabama Hills.
Alabama Hills are a group of mountains and hills that are famous for being the backdrop to many famous Westerns, like The Long Ranger and Django Unchained. A group of Americans sympathetic to the Confederates named the hills after a Confederate warship called the CSS Alabama. Funnily enough, when a Union ship, the USS Kearsarge, sunk the CSS Alabama, people sympathetic to the North named another nearby mountain area after the Kearsarge.
As you can see, the dusty oranges and browns are very reminiscent of what you would expect in a Western movie. While driving through the dusty roads of Alabama Hills, crazy rock formations are everywhere to be seen, all set to the backdrop of purple mountains.
Jon and I also saw people riding ATV’s out here, which looked like a lot of fun because there weren’t that many cars and the weather was great. We went in mid-March though, so I would be more cautious of sun damage if you’re planning on going in the summer months.
After driving through the Hills, we found a chill hiking spot, which led to the Mobius Arch. The hike only takes ten minutes, so even if you’re super tired from the day’s activities, I’d recommend giving it a (photo) shot.
Driving along Movie Road in Alabama Hills is reminiscent of the picture below, where endless roads stretch out before you without another car or human being in sight. It is easy to get lost due to lack of road signs and as there are no street lights, if you are new to the area it might be best to get back on the main road before dusk (which of course we didn’t do #learnfromourmistakes).
Tip: If you are passing through Lone Pine, I highly recommend stopping by the Visitor’s Center. The helpful rangers provided us with maps of all of the different parks that we wanted to visit and gave us suggestions on how to best plan our itinerary for the next three days.
Day 2 (Death Valley National Park)
Death Valley National Park is a park unlike any other. It is commonly viewed as just a desert, and before traveling here, that’s what I thought too. But there is so much more to it than that.
In addition to the desert, it is also home to:
+ a salt basin, where you can lick the salt if you dare
+ desert dunes, some of which you can go sandboarding down
+ fields of wildflowers
+ canyons that are begging you to hike them
And the list goes on and on. Here is a shot of Death Valley from the drive into the national park:
There is so much life to be found in the valley of death.
Here is a closer look at the Badwater Basin, the salt flats that claim the title of the lowest elevation point in the States. Jon and I tried to walk to the end of it and after 30 minutes, you quickly realize that the salt flats stretch a little further than you think.
Dante’s View in Death Valley is a perfect spot to watch the sunset. From the parking lot, it’s a quick ten minute jaunt to the top of the mountain and from there, you can find a comfortable perch to snuggle up against to watch nature’s dramatic finale from day into night.
As you settle in, your eyes can feast upon the saltwater flats that lay below you. It almost looks like drops of gasoline slowly spreading in a sea of water.
Day 3 (Kern County –> Red Rock Canyon State Park)
On day 3, Jon and I drove to Sequoia National Forest to visit the Trail of 100 Giants. The park ranger at Lone Pine’s Visitor’s Center recommended this to us because a) we were interested in seeing Sequoias and b) we were too far away to do a day trip to Sequoia National Park. It was a great suggestion, except for one thing. After a three hour drive, when we were only ten minutes away, we discovered that the road to the trail was closed due to my archenemy, snow. Being quick pivoters, we decided to drive back down towards Kern County and find a hiking spot around there.
Hiking in Kern County was beautiful. We hiked on a trail that ran alongside Kern River, and the trail offered opportunities to go down to the river itself. There are also campsites nearby, where it would be fun to swim and fish, especially during summer months.
Our adventure left us hungry so we decided to visit Kern River Brewing Co. for some tasty tacos and local beers with tongue in cheek names like “Dirty Hippie”. Sipping the beers on the patio was a perfect way to spend a lazy, warm afternoon…moments like these remind me of why California is so great.
Then we headed towards Red Rock Canyon State Park aka a park straight out of Mars with its rustic red coloring. Climbing these rocks was a lot of fun and I would recommend climbing in sturdy shoes because some of the rocks are pretty much chalk-like and will fall away if you put pressure on them.
Day 4 (Panum Crater –> Mono Lake –> Mammoth Lake)
For our final full day, we drove to the Mammoth Lake area to visit three different sites.
First on our list was Panum Crater. This volcano is part of the Mono-Inyo craters and is about 600-700 years old. Hiking up to the edge of the rim, you can see tons of pumice and obsidian. This is a picture of the bundt cake looking formation found inside the crater.
Next, Jon and I visited a place that’s been on my bucket list for a while, Mono Lake. This lake used to be much deeper and is famous for its tufas. Tufas are limestone formations created by calcium carbonite. These tufas all used to be underwater, but when the rivers that fed the lake were diverted to bring water to L.A., the lake lost much of its water supply. This led to damage in the wildlife and surrounding area, leading environmental activists to protest. Because of their efforts, there are rivers feeding once again into the lake. The goal is to have the lake reach 6,391 feet of water by 2020. You can read more about these efforts here.
Our last scenic stop of the day was Convict Lake. After being in the desert, seeing snow was quite a change but also very tranquil. It is called Convict Lake because it was the backdrop to a shootout that occurred between six convicts who escaped from a Nevada prison and the county sheriff and a Native American guide.
For dinner, our Airbnb host recommended Mountain Rambler Brewery in Bishop, which was on the way back down to Independence. They have great brews and a decent food selection, all set in a wide expansive space with friendly bartenders and lots of climbers.
Day 5 (Independence, CA –> Bay Area)
Jon and I spent Day 5 driving back up to the Bay Area so nothing too exciting happened and it was nice to be back home!
Some of you may be wondering, how much will this trip set you back? Here is a breakdown of our expenses:
Food: $125 each
Visitor’s Pass for Death Valley: $20
Airbnb: $426 for four nights + breakfast
Total: $435.5 each
This trip was relatively cheap in comparison to other popular Spring Break destinations like Cabo, Cancun, Europe, etc. The major expenses come from gas and housing, but other than that, costs are pretty minimal. Other than a parking pass for Death Valley, there are no costs to get into any of the parks. Since food options are pretty limited, you don’t have to spend exorbitant amounts when you’re talking about burgers and Nature Valley bars.
- Bring sunscreen, sunglasses, and water! It gets hot and depending on where you are, there may be little to no shade. If you plan on hiking, I’d highly recommend getting a CamelBak which will allow you to easily rehydrate.
- Driving out late on some of these roads can be a pain because there are not many street lights. Consider heading back before dusk to avoid having to high beam for hours.
- If you own a Jeep/SUV, I recommend bringing it on this trip. It will make it much easier to traverse the rocky, gravelly roads. If you’re thinking about renting a car, I definitely recommend a larger vehicle for the same reason.
This trip included some of the most visually diverse places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. We played in the desert, mountain, canyons, salt basins, fields of wildflowers, forests, rivers, lakes, snow, and Joshua trees. If you’re looking for some R&R time with nature, I highly, highly recommend this trip. Feel free to post in the comments below with any questions you may have!
Other posts you may be interested in:
How I Went to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and the Grand Canyon In Six Days: for another hiking adventure in the Southwest
Hiking Guide to Machu Picchu: for a South American hiking adventure to one of the Seven Wonders of the World
8 Secrets to Cheap Flights: so you can find cheap flights to your next destination!