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The winding road: Death Valley, California
Why: A California classic that serves as the desert yang to the sea-spray yin of the Pacific Coast Highway.
What to expect: Long stretches of highway that unfurl to the horizon line; a series of turtlelike RVs; and average summer temps of 115. Bring plenty of water, and be sure you're prepared for emergencies if you plan to travel off-road.
Start your engines: What better place to begin than the desert-oasis hallucination of Las Vegas? Head over the mountain passes on Route 160, passing through Pahrump (famous for the unholy trinity of fireworks, prostitutes, and aliens) and into California. Enter Death Valley National Park at the village of Shoshone on Route 178. From there, give yourself at least two days to wander the various primary and secondary roads that crisscross the vast desert. You can't go wrong. Whether you want to head back to Vegas or move on to L.A. is up to you.
Road secrets: Be sure to see the Lawrence of Arabia–worthy Eureka Dunes in the north of the park. And though all the other tourists do it, stop at Badwater Basin—at 282 feet below sea level, the salt flats are the lowest point in North America.
Shack up: Out here, water is a luxury, so forget about Egyptian cotton linens. While you can camp in the park, there are few properties inside the park. The best bet is Furnace Creek Inn, with 66 subtly styled Southwestern rooms, many with terraces, and all—most importantlywith AC. There's also a swell natural-spring swimming pool.
National Park Service, Death Valley
Tel: 760 786 3200
Furnace Creek Inn
Tel: 888 297 2757
Doubles from $275; closed May through October