Death Valley's oldest rocks may be at least 1.7 billion years old, but it's only been in the last few years that I've discovered the vast national park for myself.

When I tell people that I'm decamping to the desert for the weekend, they're a little mystified that I've become so entranced by this place called Death Valley. Typically, the only time you might hear about the national park is when the mercury in summer is soaring past 130 degrees.

But there are few better places to clear my mind than with a hike through the quiet, surreal landscape of the desert during winter or early spring when temperatures are mild. One of the best parts of Death Valley is that long before I've arrived at my campgrounds, I've lost a phone signal. I feel truly off the grid.

The other thing that shocks people is just how close this park is. We're about four hours away from Furnace Creek, a small village in the heart of the park where you can find lodging — or camp under the stars.

Kern County residents are lucky to be so close. This isn't like Joshua Tree or Yosemite national parks. Winter and spring are peak seasons, but I've always been able to find a place to camp or a place to park at the most iconic locations.

I don't need to understand how exactly the forces of volcanoes, shifting tectonic plates, wind and water have combined to create an alien landscape with brilliant colors to appreciate it. But the friendly rangers of Death Valley are always happy to enlighten me about mountains the color of rainbow sherbet at Artists Palette or the smooth, winding marble narrows of Mosaic Canyon.

Zabriskie Point is one of the most beautiful vistas overlooking badlands with undulating layers of sandy brown and a deep volcanic brown. Like most places in Death Valley, you can drive to it. My preference is to hike an 8-mile loop that begins at Golden Canyon and includes a side trip to the Red Cathedral, a rust-colored natural formation that towers above the canyon. By the time I've hiked up through the badlands, I feel like I've really earned that view.

(If the sand dunes, canyons and desert vistas remind you of a galaxy far, far away, you'd be correct in noting that Death Valley played Tatooine in the original "Star Wars" sagas.)

Many of the wonders of the park don't require so much hiking. The lowest point in North America — 282 feet below sea level — are the salt flats of Badwater Basin. It almost looks snowy from a distance. Up close, the salt crystallizes in intricate patterns that shift shapes from the marshy edge to the center.

Night is a wonderful time to enjoy the park. A ranger-led moonlit hike through the fine sands of the Mesquite Flat Dunes was the highlight of my first trip to the park. But the best time to visit is during the new moon, when even the Milky Way is visible. Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park with a Gold Tier rating.

I'm eyeing the weekend of Jan. 29. There's a new moon on Jan. 31, which — barring any clouds — should be the perfect time to camp under the stars.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.