Exploring America, Eco Style: My Trip to Death Valley


When Woody Guthrie sang of redwood forests and diamond deserts in “This Land is Your Land”, his lyrics suggested his roaming and rambling was entirely on foot. But the reality is that the United States is so vast and diverse that these days, motorized transport of some kind is needed for serious exploration.

When I first moved to California, one of the first things I did was learn to drive. I do not own a car and I am happy with a bicycle and public transport within San Francisco, but I wanted to be able to rent a car to go on road trips out of town. Now despite efforts to make the great American road trip a tad greener, I am not kidding myself that this is an eco option. The most I can say about it is that it’s better than flying. I would prefer to get around by train like I did in Europe but this is not always possible – railway lines don’t go everywhere and the trains are slow. How else would I see Yosemite and Big Sur and Death Valley and Mendocino – and that’s just in my state alone?

It turns out there are options. I stand by my decision to get my driving license – it’s an important life skill that everyone should have under their belts, and I had dallied long enough. But I now know there are ways to get around the state, even in car-loving California. Green Tortoise Adventure Travel Company is based right here in my home city of San Francisco. They run tours all over the country, even up to Alaska in summer, and also down to Mexico and Central America.


This is not your typical bus tour. Green Tortoise bills itself as an eco-friendly, socially conscious company and if nothing else, one bus for 40 people is certainly a greener way to travel than plane or car. The trips go into some beautiful wilderness areas and there is plenty of time for hiking and bonding with nature. The seats on the bus convert flat into beds so you can sleep on the bus, or on non-travel nights, either put up a tent outside or sleep under the stars. Everyone pitches in to cook vegetarian meals and clean and any rubbish is shipped back out again. The atmosphere is a bit like a youth hostel on wheels – there was a wide range of age groups on the trip I took in March, but I’m told the crowd skews younger in summer when college is out.

My husband and I took a Green Tortoise trip to Death Valley. The highlight for me was the hike from Zabriskie Point down through Golden Canyon – an other-worldly landscape of rock formations in different shades of red and gold and green. I also loved visiting Badlands – salt flats purportedly at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere that, unusually, had water in them so we could see the salt crystals forming. Over three days we also visited sand dunes, a date ranch, hot springs, and a ghost town.


It was such a great way to see this part of the state – the amount of driving involved was really too much for a new driver like me, and flying seems like such a waste of resources. This way we got taken there and shown around and we got to meet a bunch of great people. We spent a night getting to Death Valley, camped at Furnace Creek Campground for two nights, and spent another night getting back home. We arrived in San Francisco just in time to see the sunrise over Oakland and pink dawn skies over the city from Treasure Island.

I would certainly do this again and also recommend it as an option for visitors to the U.S as a way to avoid the hassles of rental cars and, for some, driving on the wrong side of the road. This land might not be my land, but I hope to tread lightly on it as I look around.

The author traveled anonymously and paid for the trip in full. Photos by the author with all rights reserved.