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Mercury rising

Feeling the heat in Death Valley's Stovepipe Wells

Hottest, driest, lowest: Home to some of the most intense conditions on the planet, dedicated as a national monument in 1933 and as a national park in 1994, Death Valley draws those seeking the extreme.

Death Valley by Air

Flying over the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Photography by the author. The Las Vegas Sectional featuring Death Valley—it’s a good idea to carry paper charts just in case of EFB issues and once expired, charts make the best wrapping paper or poster. Crossing an aqueduct into the desert near Lancaster. It was the last water the author saw until reaching the Stovepipe Wells oasis. Looking south from Pacific Palisades toward LAX while waiting to pick up flight following with SoCal Approach.

Beyond containing the lowest point in North America and the hottest recorded temperature on Earth, it is also home to Stovepipe Wells Airport (L09), which provides access for pilots to visit this anomalous natural wonder.

Death Valley is not that far off the beaten path by car, and especially not by airplane. But the flight requires some extra planning. Should I bring a survival kit? How much extra water should I pack? There are no services at Stovepipe Wells, so I’d have to plan for a fuel stop. And what if I had a maintenance problem?

To get to Death Valley from my home airport of Zamperini Field (TOA), I’d need to fly my rental Cessna 172 over LAX, through Los Angeles’ Class Bravo, across the San Fernando Valley, and into the Mojave Desert. Then, I’d pass by Edwards Air Force Base, thread the needle between restricted areas in Trona, and then descend under military operations areas into the valley. I planned for a little over two hours in the air and not much of that time would be flown in a straight line.

I knew an ideal departure time would be early morning, but there was a catch. Since I’d missed out on the “cool” weather season, I had decided to stay in the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel rather than camp, but check-in wasn’t until 4 p.m.—the hottest part of the day. This was before California’s reopening, and the hotel told me that there would be no place for me to wait inside if I arrived early.

Feeling a little envious of those with air conditioning, I was stuck with no perfect option. Fly in early, avoiding desert bumps, and then wait on the ground in the heat to check in, or fly in in the afternoon, deal with the inevitable turbulence, and know that I’d have a room ready for me after I walked into town? Waiting outside for hours in 100-plus degree heat seemed worse (and more hazardous) than turbulence and density altitude, so I planned for the afternoon arrival.

The hottest ticket in town

Aircraft boneyard at Mojave Air and Space Port. The mighty 172 had the field to itself.  A delicious burger and perfectly crisp onion rings await hungry pilots looking for a unique restaurant stop. GA takes us to some amazing places, and postcards, even if self-addressed, are a fun reminder of an aviation adventure. The information sign at the well-stocked general store and gas station. Illustration by Leigh Caulfield

Into the valley

On the day of the trip, I carefully packed the airplane with chocks, an extra quart of oil, and a small first aid kit. I also brought extra water, food, and current paper charts (just in case), and set off around 2 p.m. When I departed from Torrance, it was already over 100 degrees in Stovepipe Wells. I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride.

I departed Runway 29R at TOA, box climbed for LA Special Flight Rules, called up busy SoCal Approach for flight following and a Bravo clearance to climb to 7,500 feet, waved hello to 16R at Van Nuys on my way northeast, and then said goodbye to all things green and crossed into the desert.

What had been a smooth flight until then quickly changed. Updrafts, downdrafts, and consistent turbulence had me actively on the controls and struggling to maintain my altitude within 200 feet, and I pulled the power back to stay out of the yellow arc. I was grateful that I was solo, and that Joshua Approach already knew of the conditions and didn’t mind giving me leeway with my altitude. If the weather was this grim, how would it be crossing the Panamint Range into Death Valley?

I passed by Edwards and wondered about the space race legends who had flown in this very same airspace. I could see the famous two-mile-plus-long strip just off my wing—that’s where the shuttle landed! This is where we broke the speed of sound just 44 years after the first flight! And this is where we still push the boundaries of what’s possible. I wryly considered the innovation off my right wing and gave myself a bit of a hard time for struggling with the updrafts—if we can fly faster than sound, why can’t I hold my altitude?

A few miles later it calmed down, and I made my way through the Trona Gap, which was far less intimidating in real life than the airspace corridor appeared on the chart.

When I planned the trip, I was so focused on the “Death” part (hot, dry, you’ll die without water) that I forgot about the Valley aspect—and I was amazed while I descended between the up-to-11,000-foot mountains of the Panamint and Amargosa ranges. I followed the lone road to the north, flying over the cracked earth of Badwater Basin, past Furnace Creek Airport (elevation minus-210 feet), and over the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes that led me into Stovepipe Wells. Just flying that scenic leg took over half an hour and I was struck by the scale of this place.

Stovepipe Wells is located on California Highway 190, about 30 nautical miles north of Badwater Basin and 30 nm south of the Ubehebe Crater. Its 3,260-foot-long Runway 5/23, with right traffic for 23, sits at 25 whole feet of elevation.

As I overflew the tiny outpost of Stovepipe Wells Village, right traffic for Runway 23 made sense based on the wind in the valley, but I decided to overfly to check the windsock just in case. I’m glad I checked, because 5 turned out to be the favored runway—and although the wind was light, landing with even a few knots of tailwind at a relatively short strip in a high density altitude could’ve gotten far more interesting than I wanted. The surface, listed in the chart supplement as “pavement heaving, extremely rough,” wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, but I planned for a soft-field landing anyway.

Nothing surrounds the airport but soft desert sand, and it was hard to judge my altitude above the narrow strip. The terrain south of the field rose in a gentle slope immediately from the edge of the runway, creating the illusion that the runway itself was not quite level.

Focused on the pavement and not my surroundings, I touched down and taxied over to the small ramp that conveniently had some chain tiedowns and an ominous warning sign of high winds. Here I was! I woke up by the ocean, and now I was in Death Valley.

I secured the airplane, signed the pilot log next to familiar names, sent a couple messages that I’d landed safely (there was service!), and began the trek to the hotel.

On the ground

It’s amazing how long a 10-minute walk feels in 100-plus-degree heat, especially while wearing a backpack I was now positive I’d overpacked. A telltale prickle on the back of my legs let me know I was getting sunburnt. This temperature was no joke. I soaked through my clothes in sweat; they dried by the time I made it to check-in.

I’d timed my arrival well despite the bumps, and I managed to get to my room, drop off my things, cool down for a few, and head over to the Badwater Saloon for dinner before sunset began. I might’ve just been starving, and maybe the journey made it taste better, but the cheeseburger I had for dinner while watching the sun dance down the valley was one of the best $100 hamburgers of all time. The severe clear sky turned to orange and gold, and the mountains to soft violet as the first stars of the night sparkled overhead.

Darkness fell and the day caught up with me. A timer in the bathroom reminded visitors to be mindful of water usage, and after a quick shower, it was time for bed. The room was basic but clean and had everything I needed, plus an excellent view: I could see just the tops of the wings of the airplane and was comforted to know it was there if I needed it.

"I might’ve just been starving, and maybe the journey made it taste better, but the cheeseburger I had for dinner while watching the sun dance down the valley was one of the best $100 hamburgers of all time.”In the morning, I explored the village and learned about how this place came to be. Back in the mining days, this spot had been the only known water source in the area, and to mark the well and prevent it from being hidden by the moving sand dunes, a tall stovepipe was placed in the ground. Years later, it turned into the tourist destination that it is now.

When the days are hot in Death Valley and you are without a car, there is not much to do but relax by the pool, regularly apply sunscreen, and stay hydrated. I considered going for a local flight but wanted to be extra conservative with my fuel—and what if the starter only had one last start in it?

Later, I wandered down the highway to the ranger station and paid for a vehicle entry to the park. I wasn’t in a car, motorcycle, or RV, but I’d technically entered the park, and an airplane is a vehicle, so it seemed only fair that I pay an entry fee. In the distance the Mesquite Flat dunes looked like foamy ocean waves. Their sand had crept all the way to the village, and now it sidewinded in ribbons across the asphalt in the afternoon wind. It seemed as if the hotel was there by the mercy of the valley, not through human ingenuity, and that a single strong sandstorm could bury this little oasis from sight and memory overnight.

I watched another beautiful sunset, and after night fell, I wandered away from the room to look up at the night sky again. Several wishes on several shooting stars later and it was time for a check of the weather and another early night.

Aviation spoken here

The morning dawned and after a last stop at the general store for some extra water, I walked over to the field. Even though it was still relatively cool—only in the low 80s!—the half-mile felt longer this time, especially knowing how rough the walk back into town would be if I had any issues starting the airplane.

The airplane seemed to have survived the elements. After a thorough preflight and an extra check for any desert creatures that may have burrowed into the airplane, I was ready to go.

The trusty 172 started up on the first try, and I was relieved. I planned to stop at the Mojave Air and Space Port (MHV) for fuel, to meet up with engineer and fellow pilot Dustin Mosher for lunch and wait out some coastal fog at Torrance. On the way back, the airspace was much less intimidating, the route now familiar, and it was a more relaxing flight.

When I landed at Mojave, I could see Mosher taxiing from his work hangar (Virgin Galactic’s) over to the Voyager Restaurant, which welcomes all pilots with a sign proclaiming “Aviation Spoken Here.” Mosher has a Cessna 140 and a Stearman, and he had been happy to give me tips on the route into Stovepipe when I was flight planning—his name was one of those I’d seen in the pilot log.

The fog was taking its time to burn off over the SoCal coast and after lunch Mosher offered to take me for a hop in his 140 while I waited. The pull-to-start on his airplane made the whole engine start procedure look like a secret handshake. We landed on a local dirt strip after his expert, no-bounce wheel landing, and headed back to Mojave Air and Space Port shortly after.

By then, the weather had improved enough for me to continue. I’d taken the essentials into the restaurant with me but had foolishly left my iPad inside the airplane. As I started up, it didn’t seem to be a problem, but I knew they are heat-sensitive devices. I pulled out my charts just in case, and just as Joshua Approach handed me to SoCal about half an hour later, the iPad overheated. Glad to have a backup and annoyed at myself for creating a preventable inconvenience, I navigated my way home just with the charts.

Seventy-five degrees never felt so cool as it did after I landed in Torrance. It was quite a journey, going from the busy LA airspace into the quiet desert and back, and from cool ocean air into unforgiving Death Valley. The roundtrip was just shy of five hours on the Hobbs—the one-way drive would’ve taken at least an hour longer than that. There’s more to explore of Death Valley than what I saw on this trip, which just gives me another reason to fly back.

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Alyssa J. Miller

Alicia Herron

ASI Aviation Writer
Aviation writer Alicia Herron joined the AOPA Air Safety Institute in 2018. She is a multiengine-rated commercial pilot with advanced ground and instrument flight instructor certificates. Alicia is based in Los Angeles and enjoys tailwheel flying best.

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