Secrets of the National Parks
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Death Valley National Park, California
The setting: The hottest, driest, lowest place in North America, Death Valley is at once harsh and beautiful.
The inside scoop: Head to Golden Canyon, says Brad Day, the founder of Weekend Sherpa, a Bay Area Web site and newsletter for outdoor enthusiasts. It's near the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and is popular for its golden sandstone, which "resembles swirls of giant marble ice cream." But you can lose the crowds after the first mile by following the turnoff to Gower Gulch. A four-mile trail loops around the gulch, which you'll likely have all to yourself. Just be ready to rejoin the masses at the Visitor Center.
Plan B: Hike 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak, a particularly appealing option come summer, since temperatures will be much more bearable this high up (summer temps can spike to 120 degrees in some parts of the valley). The view from the top, says Day, "is arguably the best in the park." He also recommends bringing a picnic to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, just east of Stovepipe Wells Village, and climbing up a spine to catch the sunset.
Money-saving tip: Instead of the famous Inn at Furnace Creek (which closes in summer), book a cabin at the less expensive Furnace Creek Ranch. For $128, you'll get a motel-style room with AC and access to a pool, golf course, and tennis courts.
When to go: Fall and spring are more bearable than the heat of summer. If you do come between June and August, be prepared with plenty of water—a gallon per person per day is recommended—and heed ranger warnings about heat exposure.