If you ever wanted to feel what it is like to visit another planet, then head out to Death Valley National Park! Located about 3 hours northeast of Los Angeles, and 2 hours west of Las Vegas, Death Valley National Park is one place in the US that everyone should visit in their lifetime. There is nothing quite like it, and it's one of my personal favorites of the National Parks because of all the different and dramatic landscapes all in one place.
Quick Park Info: Official Website
Fees: $30 per vehicle / $15 per individual for 7 days / National Parks Pass welcome | Camping: YES Dogs: Only allowed on-leash in campgrounds and designated roads and trails
Death Valley National Park is huge and one you'll want to do in more than a single visit because there are so many cool things to see. I've only visited once, but will be back again as there are a bunch more 4x4 off-roading experiences I want to explore. The main attractions however are all easy to find, do not require a 4x4 and can be done in 2-3 days. For a 3-day trip, here's my picks of the main highlights you won't want to miss.
1. MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
What better way to be welcomed to the desert! The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are dramatic and vast —exactly what you'd expect to see in the desert. It's one of the first points of interest when you enter the park from its northwest entrance (east of the 395 fwy), and like all of the popular sights in this park it is well marked with a sign off of the main road. There is a short unofficial trail to start you off, which is basically footprints you can follow that will take you right out to the high point of the dunes. Or you can just wing it like I did and go your own way. The highest dune rises 100 feet above the desert floor. You can see all of the dunes from the road where you parked so it is easy to just walk on out and explore for as little or long as you like.
2. ARTIST'S PALETTE DRIVE
Artist's Palette is one of the most unique and beautiful stops in Death Valley National Park. It's so impressive! The pastel colors look as though someone with watercolors and a brush painted these mountains, hence why the name is so fitting. As one of the most popular stops in the park, this is also easily accessible off the main road and is well marked with a sign. The full drive through Artist's Palette is about 9 miles, with a few stop off points where you'll want to get out and and walk to see these colors up close. As you can see, this is really one of the more stunning stops in the park, especially after rain!
3. BADWATER BASIN
You can't make a trip to Death Valley National Park without visiting the famous salt flat site, Badwater Basin. Sitting at 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest point in North America which is quite a contrast to its neighbor Mt Whitney— the highest point only 86 miles northwest of here. Badwater Basin is basically a dried up bed of a salt water pool. The multiple quick evaporation cycles of water created these hexagon shapes all throughout the basin over time giving it this cool, other-worldly look. The basin is a huge sprawl and you can access it immediately off the main road. It begins with a boardwalk that extends out to a small portion of the basin, and then you can continue walking right on the hexagons as far out as you like. I'd walk at least a mile or so out to get the full feeling. Even though it looks like snow, the surface is rough and hard. This also makes for a beautiful spot to watch the sunset!
4. DANTE'S VIEW
After you've walked on the Badwater Basin, why not go see the whole thing from above! Dante's View is the premiere overlook in Death Valley National Park, providing sweeping panoramic views and a top down overview of the Badwater Basin. You can even see the little black dots (people) walking across the basin from up here. Sitting atop of the Black Mountains at an elevation just over 5000 ft, this is also a nice drive up to escape the heat. An awesome overlook showing just how vast and beautiful this desert expanse is in this park.
5. DEVIL'S GOLF COURSE
Another salt basin, but this time one that is elevated and more rough and jagged, similar to a coral reef. Not as easy to walk out onto like the Badwater Basin, but certainly doable with good shoes if you want to venture out from the main viewing point a bit. When I visited it was during a government shutdown, so I was able to fly a drone out here (drones are not permitted in the park) so I got lucky and was able to capture some shots I wouldn't otherwise be able to. This unique section of the park got its name after a line in the 1934 National Park Service guide book to Death Valley National Monument, which stated that "Only the devil could play golf".
6. GOLDEN CANYON - GOWER GULCH LOOP HIKE
Length: 4 mile loop | Level: Moderate | Duration: 3-4 hours | Elevation: 675 | Dogs: NO Directions and full hike info here
My favorite day adventure during my visit to Death Valley National Park was hiking the Golden Canyon- Gower Gulch Loop trail. This hike is awesome and made my list of my top favorites of 2019. This trail has it all—a gorgeous ascent through a golden canyon that brings you up to a beautiful view of layered colored mountains that look like folded rippled fabric. It feels like you've landed on the moon! You can extend this hike and go right up to Zabriskie Point (below) or stick to the loop trail. Either way you choose, you are sure to have an epic afternoon!
7. ZABRISKIE POINT
Just another breathtaking overlook inside Death Valley National Park! As mentioned above, Zabrieski Point is accessible from the Golden Canyon hike, but if you just want to see the view without taking the trail, you can drive up and walk out to the overlook point. This is a very popular area to watch the sunrise and the sunset, as the colors over these formations are stunning! It's also on the way to Dante's Peak so you can see both of them in one day easily.
That wraps up my highlights for visiting Death Valley National Park. This is just the tip of the iceberg on all the things to see and do there as there is so much more. I'll be writing a followup to this with a whole new list once I get back there. Any tips or recommendations feel free to comment or send me a DM!
QUICK TRAVEL TIPS
When to visit? I recommend visiting in the winter months between November and March. The weather is ideal at that time and you'll be able to see more of the attractions without risk of the super high temperatures and heat stroke.
Do I need a 4x4? No, but it is great if you have one due to the many OHV trails you can explore.
What's the weather like? The hottest place in the country! In summer expect super high temperatures up to 120-134 (F), with evenings in the 90s (F) and in the winter highs will be 60-70s (F) with cold nights down to the 30-40s (F).
Where to stay? Camping is available at several park campgrounds listed here. Reservations are a must during busy months, and several are closed in the summer so be sure to check. There are also a few local resorts and motels. I stayed at The Ranch which has several rooms and amenities without being too expensive. The historic Death Valley Inn is a beautiful but more expensive option if you are looking for that full resort experience.
Death Valley is the largest, hottest, driest, and lowest elevation of all the national parks in the United States.
The highest range within the park is the Panamint Range with Telescope Peak being its highest point at 11,049 feet
With little light pollution, Death Valley National Park is a stargazer's dream! It is also recognized as a Dark Sky Park.
Death Valley is filled with old relics from the gold rush era including ghost towns, mining ruins, and landmarks like the Amargosa Opera House.
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