A Road Trip from Phoenix to Death Valley: From the Greenest to the Hottest Desert in the US

A road trip through three deserts is the perfect trip during a pandemic, with social distancing opportunities.

A desert is a desert, you might think. And maybe only desert dwellers notice the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle differences between the Sonoran Desert, known as the wettest, and the Mojave Desert with Death Valley, one of the driest spots on earth. During a three-day road trip, we passed through both.

A Road Trip Is the Safest Way to Vacation During a Pandemic

Though we are all starting to feel like the pandemic is over, we still have a way to go before we could relax about it. Yes, many people got vaccinated, and more already had Covid, but while this means light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t mean we are out of it yet. Besides that, traveling on a plane is not easy yet. No one in my family has been vaccinated, no one had the virus either. So, getting on a plane is complicated. Luckily we also like road trips.

They worked for us during the past year. We’ve taken a few short day trips from Phoenix, where we didn’t interact with anyone at all. When we first left town during the pandemic, we drove to Northern Arizona to hike Lenox Crater. Later, we took a longer road trip to Colorado. We always managed to stay safe and healthy, and by now we developed a routine.

We carry multiple face masks, hand sanitizers, and plenty of food so we only need an occasional take-out on a multiple-day road trip. In hotel rooms, I sanitize the areas we touch as soon as I enter, before anyone else touches anything. Door knobs, light switches, tv remote, and most surfaces we use. Even in the higher-end hotels, where I feel pretty confident that they are doing their best to sanitize everything. I might be slightly more relaxed about this lately though, but sanitizing door knobs are still a high priority, especially the one entering the room.

A Road Trip Offers Greater Flexibility

Besides safety during a pandemic, road trips have always been favorites in our family. Mostly because we are not planners, and road trips offer the greatest flexibility. Especially when we don’t even book hotels in advance. It was our preferred method of travel especially during our younger years. In the past decade or so travel has become so popular, we needed to start booking rooms in advance, especially for the better-known places. Still, we always leave at least a few nights open (besides, we only book places that allow a 24-hour cancellation – just in case we change our plans halfway through a trip).

For spring break this year, we originally planned a road trip to Taos, New Mexico. But as the date of our departure came close, we realized that it would be cold (without the added benefit of snow) there. I did not want to be cold this time.

So, I suggested Death Valley as a destination instead. We’ve lived within driving distance from it for almost three decades, but have never seen it. We always thought – maybe some day. besides, it’s a desert. We live in a desert, don’t need to see another one. Well, this was the “some day”.

A year ago, we spent spring break in Costa Rica (and almost got stuck there as the pandemic hit before we got home). This time, we opted for a road trip through a few different deserts.

Still, the day before we would be leaving, we realized that a storm was blowing through the area we would be driving through. Ok, we needed another change of plans. So, we altered the route, ended up in Death Valley a day later than we originally intended, and added an extra destination to the trip. It all worked out better than we even hoped for.

We Started in the Sonoran Desert, Known as the Greenest Desert on the Planet

The Sonoran Desert, where we live, is known as the wettest and greenest desert in the world. When we are waiting for rain, looking at the clear-blue skies with not a single cloud, it’s hard for us to think of it as such most of the year. But as we drove towards the Mojave Desert, this became very clear to us during the past week.

The Sonoran Desert in Phoenix
The Sonoran Desert, the greenest in the world

In the Sonoran Desert, we have giant saguaros, some of them ancient, living through centuries. They stay green, even when everything else is brown and burned around them.

We also have the unique palo verde trees, named “green sticks” because their trunks are green (even if their leaves are tiny). They stay green, even in the summer, when other trees look dead, and desert grasses are burnt.

Add hundreds of species of cacti, from the tiny pincussion to the organ pipe with its multiple trunks reaching towards the sky, and all the varieties of cholla and barrel cacti in between. Yes, the Sonoran Desert is evergreen, full of vegetation. Always. But especially now, in spring, when desert wildflowers are also in bloom, making this environment even more colorful.

Lake Havasu and London Bridge in the Sonoran Desert

We visited Lake Havasu over a decade ago. Once. Only because we wanted to see everything there is to see in our new-for-us-at-the-time state. Because that’s where the real, original London Bridge is. The London Bridge that was falling down.

We revisited it now because we tried to stay out of a storm. And because we realized that our youngest child, whose spring break we used for the trip, has never been there.

London bridge definitely does not belong in Arizona. But here it is, spanning across a man-made lake, in the middle of the desert. There it is, with the English Village, an artificial London look-alike tiny town on its shore. My daughter said she felt like she was in Biztown, the artificial town our schools take kids to learn how society works, how to choose a career.

But aside from all the kitchy stuff, there is some history here. You can walk across the original London Bridge. And you can enjoy water in the desert.

London Bridge in Arizona
View of the London Bridge in Arizona

Though on a normal year this is an extremely popular destination in Arizona (the main reason we haven’t returned in about two decades), this year it was the perfect destination. It wasn’t fully deserted, but it was relatively quiet, with only a few people walking on the lake shores, and no boats in the water. If we ever wanted to return here, this was the perfect time.

We spent most of our time in the small waterside park with seagulls (that’s still a mystery to me that they were there), and a pair of ducks. Then walked across the famous London Bridge, originally built between 1176 and 1209, sang about in nursery rhymes as it was “falling down”, bought in 1968 and reconstructed in the Sonoran Desert in 1971.

Transitioning from the Sonoran to the Mojave Desert

As we drove towards Nevada (though Death Valley is in California, the easiest way to get there from us is through Nevada), the cactus varieties disappeared, as the desert seemed to become more and more desolate. When I started noticing the Joshua tree, I knew we were in the Mojave Desert.

The differences are subtle at first, but if you live in one of these deserts and are used to it, you’ll notice when it changes. The absence of the giant saguaro makes the Mojave Desert look more devoid of life, flatter. And it’s not just the saguaro; there seems to be no cactus in the Mojave Desert. However, it is the home to the Joshua Tree, a large type of yucca variety. Not that the Joshua Tree doesn’t live in the Sonoran Desert. It’s just more prevalent in the Mojave, so it is the classic telltale of this high desert, where winters are colder, hence the absence of cactus varieties.

Still, as desolate as it looks, the Mojave Desert, named after the Mohave tribe native to the area, supports about 2,000 species of plants, and 1,500 species of animals. Not as spectacular as the Sonoran Desert, but still. Looks can be deceiving.

But what the Mojave Desert lacks in vegetation, makes up in colorful rock formations. This was becoming more obvious as we approached Las Vegas.

There Is More to Vegas Than The Strip

While I had not desire to ever visit Las Vegas, or at least the town as I perceived it before seeing the environment it is in, our latest version of this road trip took us through it. It was also the best place to use as a “base of operations” while visiting Death Valley and a few other sites.

We drove through the strip though. Twice, in fact. When my teenage daughter heard “Vegas” as one of our stops on this road trip, she wanted to see the sign. “You know, the sign you always think of when you hear Vegas, mom. You know what I am talking about.” I didn’t. Until I saw it.

The famous Las Vegas sign
The famous Las Vegas sign

In the middle of a busy street, the old sign has a parking lot built around it, and people – even during an epidemic – were lined up to see it, and take a photo of it – or with it. Obviously (for those who know us), we didn’t stop, but drove by close enough and slowly enough that she should see it and even take a photo of it. So that was our Vegas adventure. Almost.

Since the road past the sign lead to the Strip, we decided to drive through. My thoughts? It looked like something out of Legoland, only a bit larger. When our kids were little, we took them to Legoland (given that my now-engineer son was obsessed with legos), and I remember the lego cities. One side of the strip looked just like it.

Egyptian pyramid and the Luxor near an English castle, New York city buildings and the Statue of Liberty lined one side of the street. But the more striking part was the difference between the glamorous side of the street and the run-down, older side, with buildings that looked like Elvis would walk out of – and just as old as he would be.

It looked more glamorous at night, to be fair – we drove through it in the dark again, just to see its lights (so I could rant about the light pollution).

But the strip Vegas is famous for takes up about two miles of the city. The rest looks like Phoenix without saguaros. But the best part about Vegas: the city is surrounded by some gorgeous scenery, state and national parks where we could spend time outdoors and enjoy the desert – a slightly different desert from our own.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area

The best part of Las Vegas was Red Rock Canyon, just a few miles west of the city. A protected area of the Mojave Desert, the canyon is popular with rock climbers, and hikers, besides drive-through visitors. You’ll find plenty to see even from the scenic stops, but hiking on some fo the trails offers a more in-depth feel for the place.

The view from our first stop in Red Rock National Conservation Area

We were glad we looked up entrance fees the day before we got there, because, as it turned out, we needed reservations with a designated time when we could enter the park. Given its proximity to the city, this kept the visitors to a manageable number.

Since we got into the area before our designated time, we took a short side trip through an adjacent nature preserve. Hiking through the area, I noticed a baby rabbit near the trail, oblivious to our presence. The views from the top of a hill stretched for miles. But later on, Red Rock Canyon beat it all.

We spent most of our first day in Vegas in Red Rock Canyon, driving the 13-mile scenic road, stopping at each overlook, and trailhead. We took a few hikes, and enjoyed the outdoors surrounded by red rocks, in a different desert from our own.

Driving to Death Valley

Next day, we left relatively early and drove to Death Valley, only two hours away. To be fair, we stayed in the outskirts of Vegas, close to the road towards Death Valley, so we probably cut down on the road trip distance that way. We drove through more desolate areas, until we reached Pahrump, an unexpected larger town in the middle of the desert.

We had no reason to stop at Pahrump, but if you need supplies of any kind, it is a good place to get them. It also seems a good place to stop for lunch, snack or even dinner; we’ve seen plenty of restaurants (and casinos) lined up along the main road through town.

The Amargosa Opera House

Right before the turnoff to Death Valley, a seemingly deserted opera house sits in the middle of the desert, at first glance with no connection to anything. On closer look, you realize that the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, opened in a renovated building in 1968, sits in a small complex. As run-down and deserted as it looks, it is still a functional opera house, where shows only stopped temporarily in March of 2020 because of Covid. An interesting piece of history.

Death Valley National Park

The hottest, driest, and lowest – a large portion of it under sea level – desert in the US, Death Valley National Park is even more desolate than any other desert environment I’ve visited over the years. Still, it is one of the most beautiful. And, despite everything, some life survives even here.

But what it lacks of vegetation, Death Valley makes up in gorgeous geological features. I couldn’t get enough of the colorful rocks surrounding us, as we drove lower in elevation, to sea level, then below. We drove on through Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, with views of the surrounding salt flats.

We drove through from the entrance to the farthest point in the park at Stovepipe Well Village. If you need anything, this is the place to buy it. You’ll find a gas station, a camp store and a restaurant here. We didn’t stop, but turned around and drove back, stopping at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes

You won’t find much here, other than sand, and more sand, beautiful vistas in the distance, and a creosote bush now and then. Nevertheless, it is fun to walk in the sand, among the dunes that sometimes hide all other humans. You can feel absolutely alone in the middle of this land filled with golden sand, even as you know that the closest humans, and even the road is close enough to walk to in a few minutes.

Only creosote bushes seem to grow in the Sand Dunes in Death Valley
The only living thing seems to be the creosote bush in the Sand Dunes in Death Valley

Just don’t try to walk barefoot in the sand. I did. The deep sand was so inviting for my bare toes, I had to take my shoes off. They stayed off for a few minutes, until my toes couldn’t take the heat. The intense heat of the sand was unexpected, given that it was cool enough for us to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts.

Artist’s Drive

A side-trip from the main road, the 9-mile one-way Artist Drive is a must see site when visiting Death Valley. Once you get on this road, you’ll know right away whey they call it Artist’s Drive. You’ll drive through narrow canyons, and no matter where you look, the colors on the rocks look like a perfect artist’s palette – and we didn’t even see it at sunset. You’ll notice all shades of reds, whites, yellows and greens, from the lightest pastels to the darkest shades. I couldn’t get enough of it all. We stopped at the viewpoints for a closer look, but even the views from the road are gorgeous.

Death Valley - Artist's Loop
The colors of these rocks look like an artist’s palette at a stop on the Artist’s Drive

Zabriskie Point

Before leaving the park, we stopped at the busiest viewpoint and walked up to the top for a view of the surrounding golden rock formations, badlands.

Leaving Death Valley

While many parts of the park reminded me of the Painted Desert and the Badlands on the Navajo Nation’s land, somehow Death Valley was even more desolate. Artist’s Drive offered a higher concentration of colorful rocks. The Salt Flats in Badwater Basin was something I haven’t seen before, and the Sand Dunes were fun – only because we knew we weren’t far from the car with food and carried water.

At the end of the day, we made our way back to Vegas. The next morning, we started making our way back towards our own Sonoran Desert. But we stopped soon after leaving Vegas.

Valley of Fire State Park

On the way home, we stopped at the Valley of Fire State Park, for views and hikes among more red rocks. Mostly red, though we’ve seen other colors, too. We spent time walking around the beehive formations, then took a few hikes among desert rocks in the park. Holes in the rocks, rock formations in all shapes and sizes, from dark red rock to white were the highlights of the park. But we also saw signs of ancient people here, where we stopped to look at the petroglyphs on the side of a flat rock.

Before leaving the park, we stopped to look at the elephant rock, a red rock formation that may or may not resemble an elephant, depending on what angle you look at it from. However, if you stand on the right spot and look at it from the right angle – they have a sign on the trail to help you, just on the side of the road, a short walk from the parking lot – you can’t unsee it. In my case, my daughter had to point it out to me. But I felt better when someone else was looking for it and not finding it until I pointed them in the right direction.

The "Elephant Rock" in the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
The “Elephant Rock” – can you see it?

Driving Back towards the Sonoran Desert

After spending most of our morning in the Valley of Fire, we got back on the road towards Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. More desolate desert environment, with a large man-made lake in the middle of it. With no boats on the lake, and no one around, the place was peaceful and quiet. We saw no reason to stop though, so kept driving back towards our own greener desert.

I felt that familiar “happy to be home” when I saw my first saguaro. The transition wasn’t too abrupt, but as we drove, the desert around us was becoming greener, more vegetation started to appear dominated by prickly pear and cholla cactus besides the palo verde trees, until we drove through a patch of giant, green saguaros. We were back in the Sonoran Desert.

Phoenix to Death Valley road trip

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