THIS ISN’T A “top three” or “newest three” or “favorite three” article. This is about every bar in Death Valley, and there happen to be three of them*.
The scarcity makes for an interesting scene. In a place where it’s sometimes 100F during the night in summer, you’ll drink anything as long as it’s wet. And if it’s cold and boozy, all the better.
Just don’t expect great service.
Furnace Creek: Corkscrew Saloon
Furnace Creek is the epicenter of the ‘ritzy’ side of Death Valley. It’s where the main resorts and the biggest campgrounds are. There’s even a golf course. Not surprisingly then, the Corkscrew Saloon was the best-staffed and best-run bar we found. It’s just nicer than the others because it can afford to be.
This is the area most people associate with “Death Valley” — it’s close to the Badwater Basin, the lowest point on the continent; Artists’ Drive, an amazingly scenic roadway; Zabriskie Point, a beautiful overlook; and Golden Canyon, one of the most popular trails. Because of this proximity, it has the most traffic, and that traffic stays overnight and ends up at the bar.
The Corkscrew is a great place to observe the mix of tourists that visit the park. Here, your waitress may be a Ukrainian exchange student or a gap-year 20-something spending a year in the boondocks. You might run into one of the snowbird retirees that winter here, one of the masochistic cyclists that drip sweat pedaling across the valley, or a group of the checklist-toting tourists that spend just enough time at each attraction to snap a pic before piling back into the car.
It’s a great place to grab a drink, and it’s made even greater thanks to its never-ending supply of free popcorn.
Stovepipe Wells: Badwater Saloon
Stovepipe Wells is Furnace Creek’s black-sheep brother. Not as many people make it up this way and it shows. If they do hit the attractions, it’s on a day trip. Fewer people stay here overnight, which means the bar suffers.
It’s too bad, because this area of the park is filled with really great sights: the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Mosaic Canyon are two I’d recommend. Rhyolite, a ghost town, is a short drive east.
The staff at the Badwater isn’t as attentive or skilled and the service is slow … very slow. Instead of the perky exchange student, you get a surly older woman. Don’t mess around if you really want to drink here. Do what my old coworker would do on planes crowded with thirsty businessmen — order two drinks right away. The second will take a lot longer than you think so you may as well just have it sitting in reserve.
Know your bill and pay cash. Getting your check can be a process. Honestly, this bar is terrible. A decent alternative is just getting a beer across the street at the convenience store and drinking it on their patio.
Panamint Springs: Panamint Springs Resort Bar
The selection of beer here is simply amazing. After a day in the heat, you may think it’s a mirage, but it’s not. It’s just wonderful. They have everything from Belgium’s finest brews to local swill and macrobrews all lined up in windowed coolers along the wall. They even have a few brews on tap.
Watch out, however, for the $35 pizza. It’s probably best to stick to beer here and fight off the inevitable dry-heat hangover with their bountiful breakfast buffet.
This bar feels the most like an off-the-grid refuge in the desert, because it is. Nearly nobody gets over to the Saline Valley and Panamint Springs. It’s worth the trip to have it to yourself.
One word of caution: the owner seems to enjoy drinking some of his profits, and he just might chat you up all night.
That’s it. Three bars. Give one a shot. Or do the ultimate desert bar crawl and hit all three. Just bring a designated driver — you’ll cover 56 miles on barren, too-hot pavement if you attempt the hat-trick. Most automobile accidents in Death Valley are single-car incidents. Don’t be one of them.
* There may be more bars in Death Valley, maybe hidden in a ghost town or some back corner, but these were all we could find. Searches on the internet only turn up these as well. Technically, you can get a beer at the golf course in Furnace Creek, but I’m not counting that. If there’s a bar I overlooked, I want to hear about it so I can check it out.
(Feature photo: Ken Lund)
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Paul and his wife, Lisa, quit their jobs and sold off their possessions in late 2011. They're now touring the United States in a minivan. You can follow their adventures on their blog, drivinginertia.com.