What does “backcountry” mean?
We use the phrase a lot, as if we actually know what it means, but what DOES it mean? People vaguely think of it as being “off the beaten track” or “away from paved roads,” and it can mean those things. In practical use, it can vary from region to region or park to park. Some people in the parks business define it as anywhere beyond a typical day trip. For folks whose world consists of their couch, remote control, and an occasional hike to the kitchen, backcountry is wherever they can’t drive their car or golf cart.
For Death Valley specifically, because of its unique climate, remoteness, and limited services, I think of backcountry as any area where, if your vehicle became inoperable, or you were seriously injured or ill, or for any reason could not move under your own power, and you had no means of communication, you might not be found or be able to find help until it was too late.
As used by Death Valley National Park, “backcountry” generally means 2 miles or more from the nearest paved road or developed (built-up, inhabited, cultivated, etc.) area.
This means you can drive on certain unpaved roads or hike on certain trails and be in the backcountry fairly soon. The Racetrack, Titus Canyon, or the Marble Canyon road from near the Stovepipe Wells airstrip, are examples.
Backcountry camping is allowed in much but not all of Death Valley’s backcountry. It is prohibited within 100 yards of any water source, to safeguard water quality for both potential human use and habitat preservation.
No camping is allowed at Eureka Dunes; or on the Valley floor between Ashford Mill and 2 miles north of Stovepipe Wells, an area that takes in Badwater, Devil’s Golf Course, Salt Creek and surroundings, Devil’s Cornfield, and the Sand Dunes.
Camping is also prohibited at several specific sites and the roads leading to them, including but not limited to Aguereberry Point, Grotto Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, Natural Bridge, Titus Canyon, and West Side Road; also at any historic mine site or structure (e.g. Leadfield, Lost Burro, or Skidoo).
In the frontcountry, camping is allowed only in established campgrounds, not in day-use areas, picnic grounds, parking lots, or along roadsides.
Death Valley has quite a few historic backcountry cabins, and most of them may be used by the public with some restrictions. Maybe the best known is the “Geologist’s Cabin,” a very nice stone building west of Striped Butte at the top of Warm Springs Canyon.
For detailed regulations about backcountry camping and cabin usage, see the park website.