Death Valley National Park is a magical place. On the surface, it may seem like a typical desert, but this is far from true. Sprinkled throughout Death Valley National Park are a variety of unique and awe inspiring sights that one would never expect to be together in one park. From sea-foam green hills to bright white salt flats to cascading sand dunes, Death Valley National Park is sure to surprise you at every turn. Despite being very secluded from the rest of California, there are many things to do in Death Valley National Park like exploring the unique geology at the Artist's Palette, learning about the park's history in the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, and relaxing in the park's hotels. Being the lowest place in North America does have its drawbacks, however, as Death Valley National Park typically has temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for more than half of the year, with temperatures soaring well over 100 degrees in the Summer months. For this reason, Death Valley National Park’s peak season is actually the winter, where guests can enjoy temperatures in the 60s and 70s.
There are 3 main regions in Death Valley National Park—Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs. Centrally located in the park, Furnace Creek is close to many of the most popular attractions and has Death Valley's Visitor's Center, a gas station, 2 hotels, and 3 campgrounds. Stovepipe Wells is 25 miles Northwest of Furnace Creek, and Panamint Springs is 30 additional miles Southwest from Stovepipe Wells. Both Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs have lodging options, but other services in these areas are limited.
Entrance to Death Valley National Park is $30* per car for one week, and is also covered by the $80* America the Beautiful pass.
*Price at time of publication
Welcome to the lowest place in North America! Sitting at 282 below sea level, Badwater Basin is a notorious salt flat in Death Valley National Park that continues to sink lower with every major earthquake. Typically, such a low place would fill with water with even the slightest precipitation. However, since Death Valley National Park is so hot and dry that the little precipitation it does get evaporates quickly, leaving the salt behind. To get to Badwater Basin, hikers only need to walk a half mile trail with no elevation change to reach the vast salt flats. The salt flats are mostly hard and easy to walk on, but there are also geometric shapes created with loose salt. At only 1 mile round trip and no elevation gain, Badwater Basin offers one of the most unique experiences in the park with minimal effort compared to other hikes.
Out of the 5 hikes that the National Park Service labels as “Easy”, Badwater Basin was recommended the most in articles written about Death Valley National Park. In fact, Badwater Basin was recommended in 22 out of the 25 articles we read about things to do in the park—more than any activity (tied only with Zabriskie Point). On top of being so popular online, we thought that the mere geographical significance that Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America makes it one of the most notable attractions in Death Valley National Park.
Excited to see the famous Badwater Basin, we made our way down Badwater Road to the trailhead parking lot, which was about a 30 minute drive from Furnace Creek. The trailhead was on a boardwalk with a sign reading “Badwater Basin, 282 Feet/855 Meters Below Sea Level”. We made our way down the sandy and salty trail that became increasingly more salty as we got closer to the salt flats. After a quick and easy hike, we made it to the famous Badwater Basin! At 5 miles wide, the width of Badwater Basin allows visitors to spread out and enjoy the flats without a large crowd. We roamed around for awhile and enjoyed observing the curious geometrical shapes in the salt. One our way back, we noticed that a ranger program was in progress so we joined the group for a few minutes to learn the history of Badwater Basin. We learned that not only is Badwater Basin the lowest point in North America, but also that it continues to sink lower with every major earthquake.
Badwater Basin is especially beautiful during sunrise or sunset since the pink colors in the sky reflect on the white salt. You’ll also probably avoid some crowds if you visit during this time of day.
Natural Bridge Trail is another 1 mile hike with very little elevation gain, making its rigor nearly identical to Badwater Basin. This short hike takes you through a natural arch/tunnel in the golden rock which is also very majestic and a beautiful sight to see! While Natural Bridge Trail is a great option if you have extended time in Death Valley National Park, Badwater Basin should definitely be a priority since it is one of the most iconic spots in the park and was recommended 22 times in articles compared in Natural Bridge’s 10.
Golden Canyon Trail is a 3 mile out and back hike that winds through a steep canyon comprised of golden rocks that glow in the sun. The trail leads to the Red Cathedral, a bright orange rock formation that contrasts beautifully with the golden rocks on the rest of the trail. The 1.5 miles to the Red Cathedral has around 500 feet of elevation gain that is spread out throughout the hike, which means no section of the trail is notably steep. The Golden Canyon trail dates back to the early days of Death Valley where visitors would drive through Golden Canyon via a paved road. To this day, bits of the paved road remain on the trail, but it is now mostly dirt and rocks. Golden Canyon Trail can be combined with Badlands Loop and Gower Gulch to take visitors all the way to Zabriskie Point (our choice for best lookout point) and back, which is 7.8 miles total when combined.
Out of the 21 hikes in Death Valley National Park, the National Park Service classifies 11 of these trails as “moderate” in difficulty. After reading online articles about hiking in Death Valley National Park, 6 out of the 11 “moderate” trails were recommended at least once, with two trails, including Golden Canyon, being recommended significantly more than the rest. In addition to this hike being strongly recommended online, one characteristic that was especially appealing about Golden Canyon was the option to combine it with Badlands Loop, Gower Gulch Loop, or both. Badlands Loop and Gower Gulch Loop are also labeled as “moderate” trails on the National Park Service website and we liked that this gives hikers the option to complete a longer moderate trail after hiking Golden Canyon—up to 7.8 miles! With its option for varying trail lengths, central location in the park, and overall online recommendations, we were confident choosing Golden Canyon Trail at the best moderate hike for most Death Valley visitors.
We started the Golden Canyon Trail in the mid-morning so the sun was just starting to shine into the canyon, illuminating the golden rocks as we made our way uphill. Golden Canyon Trail has a gradual but steady incline throughout the whole hike, but the terrain was fairly easy to navigate. Even with a few rocks to climb up and around, we agreed that “moderate” was a fair categorization for Golden Canyon since the terrain definitely made us work, but we could still easily maintain our conversation and didn’t really have to stop for breaks. The Red Cathedral was breathtaking, and could be seen in the distance for a good portion of the hike.
Remember how we said that Death Valley is the hottest and driest National Park? It’s important to bring water on every hike, but water is especially important in Death Valley. Temperatures can be over 90 degrees for more than half of the year, so hydration is especially important here!
Ubehebe Crater Loop is a 1.5 mile trail in the northern outskirts of the park that circles a very large crater. With its exposed edges and steep drop offs, hikers get an incredible view down into the crater creating a fairly unique trail. Ubehebe Crater Loop was rated similarly to Golden Canyon in our breakdown of the moderate hikes, and we agree that it’s a great option if you are looking for another “moderate” hike in Death Valley National Park. Since these trails were neck-and-neck in our research, we ultimately chose Golden Canyon Trail due its options for combining multiple trails, giving more options to better cater to the abilities of different hikers. Also, while we’ll never make a decision solely on location or convenience, it’s important to consider that Ubehebe Crater is located over an hour from Furnace Creek (the center of the park), while Golden Canyon is located less than 10 minutes from Furnace Creek. If you do decide to make the trek out to Ubehebe Crater, be sure to allot at least half of your day if Furnace Creek is your home base.
Zabriskie Point is a lookout point that boasts of unmatched views of the golden badlands in Death Valley National Park. With only a 0.2 steep trek to the top of a hill, hikers can enjoy a 360 view of the badlands after a short climb up the trail. These hills may look like piles of sand from a distance, but they are actually made up of a hard sediment that was formed from a lake that dried up millions of years ago. It’s no surprise that this wonder is one of the most visited places in Death Valley National Park.
In the articles we read about Death Valley National Park, Zabriskie Point was recommended the most, tied only with Badwater Basin. There are only two major lookout points in Death Valley National Park, and Zabriskie Point was recommended significantly more than its competitor. Also, Zabriskie Point is easily accessible and is open during all seasons, making it a great option for most visitors to Death Valley National Park.
The hike up to Zabriskie Point was quick and easy with several places to stop along the way. We enjoyed that there are several lookout points during this short hike, which are all worth a stop to experience Zabriskie Point from a different perspective. Once we reached the top, we noticed there is a short trail that takes you down to an even better view of the badlands. This section of the lookout point definitely gave us the best view.
Zabriskie Point is a great place to have a picnic lunch or simply take a break in the middle of your day. There is a stone wall that surrounds the lookout point, and there were several people sitting here enjoying the view while eating their lunch. Zabriskie Point is also a great place to watch the sunrise, but depending on how many days you are in Death Valley, we’d prioritize sunrise at the Artist’s Palette (see next section).
Dante’s View is a viewpoint that overlooks Badwater Basin, giving an incredible perspective to the salt flats that most people visit during their trip to Death Valley National Park. This viewpoint was highly recommended online, though not as much as Zabriskie Point. Due to its higher elevation, Dante’s View is not accessible all year since the roads get snow and ice. Winter is Death Valley National Park’s peak season, so it is likely that Dante’s View may not be open when the park gets most of its visitors.
The Artist’s Road is a 9 mile scenic drive that winds through the colorful badlands of Death Valley National Park. Due to the oxidation of the materials in these hills, many areas of the badlands are colored purple, blue, and green. However, the main attraction on Artist’s Road is the Artist’s Palette, a cluster of hills that are especially colorful that is open for hikers to explore.
We read 25 articles about things to do in Death Valley National Park and 20 recommended visiting Artist's Road/Artist’s Palette. Other than the main roads that drive through the park, this is the only scenic drive in Death Valley National Park.
When we looked at pictures of the Artist’s Palette online, there were a few that stood out because they had a view that looked like it could only be achieved with a drone. However, since we saw this view from a multiple photographers and drones are banned from all National Parks, we were hopeful that this view would be accessible to us. We made two trips to the Artist’s Palette and spent several hours looking at the Artist’s Palette on Google Maps satellite view to find this iconic spot.
The drive down Artist’s Road is stunning, but the start of the show was definitely the Artist’s Palette itself. We immediately saw the colorful badlands from the parking lot, but even more colorful hills continued to unfold as we made our way deeper into the Artist’s Palette. The rigor of hiking around The Artist’s Palette is really what you make it since there isn’t a designated trail. We found ourselves climbing up and down many sandy hills to find the best viewpoint, which definitely made us work! As we explored the Artist’s Palette, we noticed that many people make the mistake of hiking into the palette, which we learned doesn’t give you a view of the hills at all. We visited the Artist’s Palette twice during our trip to Death Valley National Park because we were determined to find the best view. After some in-person and online scouting, we found the best view of the Artist’s Palette and the best time to visit— dawn. We weren’t sure if this view was possible without a drone, so we were so excited to find this incredible spot. More details next.
I know that we’ve recommended to visit quite a few places at sunrise, but if there is one place that you NEED to visit right before sunrise, it’s The Artist’s Palette! When the sun has risen but hasn’t come over the mountain to shine on the palette yet, the colors of the palette are incredibly more vibrant! Once the sun shines on the palette, the colors are significantly muted.
If you hike to these coordinates (36°21'49.7"N 116°48'03.9"W), you will get a view so great that people will accuse you of flying a drone!
CA-190, also known as Death Valley Scenic Byway, runs through the park offering views of badlands, salt patches, and other desert scenery. Even though CA-190 has some beautiful scenery, it does not compare to the unique and captivating Artist’s Road/Palette. However, CA-190 is the main road in the park, so you’ll most likely be utilizing this road during your trip anyway.
Sand dunes are created naturally in windy areas that have sand and a place for the sand to collect. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of a few sand dunes scattered throughout Death Valley National Park, located right off of CA-190 in the Stovepipe Wells section of the park. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes has three types of dunes (crescent, linear, and star shaped) and has a floor made of geometrical clay that can be seen in some parts of the dunes.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes was recommended 21 times in the 25 articles we read about Death Valley National Park, making it one one of the top recommended activities— second only to Badwater Basin and Zabriskie Point. There are 4 other sand dunes in Death Valley National Park, but only one other was recommended online, and was only mentioned 3 times. Also, we learned that Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the only dunes where sand-boarding is permitted which is a draw for many guests.
Since there isn’t a trail at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, we had free reign to go just about anywhere in the dunes. We decided to head left (east) since it seemed like the least amount of people were there. We hiked for about 20/30 minutes to find some clean dunes without footprints. We spent our last hours of light hiking up and down the dunes, admiring their beauty and getting some great pictures.
If you are looking for some dunes without footprints, you’ll have to hike quite a bit. It’s also possible that you won’t find any, since the dunes do eventually end. It really depends on the amount of wind and visitors during the time you visit. Also, we’d highly recommend skipping the pit toilets at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes if at all possible. Not to be dramatic, but these were probably the worst smelling pit toilets we’ve ever smelled.
Eureka Sand Dunes were recommended 3 times in the 25 articles we read about things to do in Death Valley, which simply didn’t compare to Mesquite Flat’s 21. This is likely because Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is located off the main road, which makes it easier to get to for most people. While beautiful and less crowded, Eureka Sand Dunes are far from most other popular attractions in the park and requires visitors to drive down a non-paved road that is tricky for some cars.
Devil’s Golf Course is a field of large salt crystals that gets its name from the popular saying that “only the devil would play golf here”. At a slightly higher elevation than Badwater Basin, Devil’s Golf Course never experiences flooding, which is why the crystals keep their round and spiky shape instead of being smoothed by water. Even though walking across these salt crystals slowly breaks them down, it is permitted. As you venture further you venture into the Devil’s Golf Course, you’ll find more unadulterated versions of the crystals due to less traffic.
Devil’s Golf Course was recommended in 19 of the articles that we read about Death Valley National Park—completely rising above the competition. For perspective, other quick stops like Harmony Borax Works and Rhyolite Ghost Town have 6 and 4 recommendations respectively. In addition to being strongly recommended, we thought that visiting Devil’s Golf Course is a great compliment to Badwater Basin—two salty places that look very different due to their slightly different elevations.
Right off of Badwater Road, a short dirt and gravel path will lead you to the parking lot of Devil’s Golf Course. We noticed that the salt crystals closest to the parking lot were smoother due to more foot traffic so we ventured out into the golf course to get a better view. It’s pretty tricky to navigate through these salt crystals since there isn’t really any access to the floor below. Also, the salt crystals are incredibly sharp, so even a small fall will likely result in a skinned knee. We slowly but surely made our way deeper into the golf course and marveled and these salt formations that were unlike anything we had seen in nature before.
Since the road to Devil’s Golf Course is dirt and gravel, make sure that your car is equipped to drive it. We saw numerous sedans drive in to Devil’s Golf Course with no problem, but the road conditions might get trickier in the rain. Take this road at your own discretion. Also, as we already mentioned, the salt crystals are very sharp so take it slow and have a first aid kit handy.
There are several other “quick stops” in Death Valley National Park that rival Devil’s Golf Course for the top spot in this category—most notably Harmony Borax Works. Harmony Borax Works is a short interpretive trail that circles the remains of a borax plant from the late 1800s. From just a short, 0.4 mile ADA accessible walk from the parking lot, guests can admire the remains of this plant that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. While Harmony Borax Works is an interesting piece of history for Death Valley, Devil’s Golf Course came more highly recommended and we found that its geographical significance was worth the visit. However, if you are looking to avoid gravel roads or want an ADA accessible stop, Harmony Borax Works may be a better choice.
The Ranch is one of two hotels located in the Furnace Creek section of Death Valley National Park. As its name suggests, The Ranch is decorated in a rustic style and has international flags lining the perimeter of its building. Unlike the rest of the hotels in the park, The Ranch has multiple restaurants and even a general store that sells souvenirs, groceries, and drinks. With rooms starting at $269* on weekdays, this hotel is a bit of a splurge that many find is worth it since the closest hotel outside of the park is at least a 60 minute drive.
There are only four hotels located within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park, two in Furnace Creek, one in Stovepipe Wells, and one in Panamint Springs. All four hotels had decent online ratings, but none were notably strong. We noticed that all four hotels were pretty pricey compared to their quality which is likely because of the high demand for lodging due to the remoteness of Death Valley National Park. However, we felt that The Ranch at Furnace Creek was the best middle ground for overall value. For a moderate price, guests can have a quality lodging experience that is also close to most of Death Valley’s most popular attractions. At some other hotels, guests would have to drive 30-60 minutes to see most places in the park.
When we arrived to The Ranch after a long day exploring Death Valley National Park, we were immediately captivated by the charm of this hotel and were excited to relax here for the rest of the night. The rustic style and twinkling outdoor lights made it especially welcoming! We learned that The Ranch is the center of all activity once the sun goes down in Death Valley, with several restaurants and the general store. To our surprise, The Ranch overbooked and moved us to The Inn, the more expensive hotel down the street. While The Inn was nice, our stay there confirmed to us that The Inn is not worth the high price ticket. In fact, we ended up going back to the The Ranch for part of our night to use their amenities.
With only a few lodging options in Death Valley National Park, be sure to book ahead, especially if you are trying to stay within a budget. Some hotels have a limited number of their lower priced rooms, so you might end up paying more if you wait too long to book a room.
Since lodging is notably pricey in Death Valley National Park, Stovepipe Wells is another option if you are looking for something under $200 per night. While Stovepipe Wells is about a 30-40 minute drive from most of the hikes and activities in Death Valley, some may determine that the money saved is worth the extra drive. Stovepipe Wells is not as luxurious as The Ranch or The Inn, but it does the job if you are just looking for a clean place to sleep.
*Price at time of publication.
Furnace Creek Campground is located in Furnace Creek— the central area of Death Valley National Park. This campground has individual sites, group sites, and RV sites, and offers its campers drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables, and a campfire ring or grill. Reservations can be made online for Furnace Creek Campground during peak season (October 15th - April 15th) and are available first-come-first-serve during the rest of the year. Sites at Furnace Creek Campground start at $22*.
There were only 3 articles written about camping in Death Valley National Park, but all articles recommended Furnace Creek Campground as a great option for camping. This is also the only campground in the park that takes online reservations, unlike the rest of the campgrounds which are walk up only. The National Park Service website almost guarantees that campers will be able to find a walk up sight any day of the year, but having a reservation is ideal for most people which is another reason why we chose Furnace Creek Campground.
We didn’t stay at Furnace Creek Campground during our trip to Death Valley National Park, but we visited a few campgrounds during our time in the park. Furnace Creek Campground was noticeably clean, had paved roads, and overall just seemed nicer than other campgrounds we visited. While at Furnace Creek Campground, we realized how close it is to other convenient resources like the General Store at The Ranch, the gas station, and the visitor center.
Site 56 is nice and seems to have slightly more room since it is located on a curve. It’s close to the bathrooms, but not too close. If you are coming with friends and couldn’t get a group site, Site 21 could be easily combined with Site 56.
Wildrose Campground is a free campground that was recommended just as much as Furnace Creek Campground. A free campground definitely has an appeal, but Wildrose Campground is very primitive and quite a far distance from all the main attractions in the part. If you are looking to camp while experiencing the park, the $22 saved isn’t worth the 75 minute drive to Furnace Creek (each way) to us. With the extra money spent, Furnace Creek does give you a higher quality experience with it’s flushable toilets and dump station.
*Price at time of publication.