California has no shortage of beautiful, diverse National Parks (8 of them to be exact) and Death Valley is no exception. It’s 3+ million acres of land are full of other-worldly beauty just waiting to be explored! From impressive sand dunes to mysterious salt flats – the diversity of this National Park will not disappoint.
Death Valley is the largest National Park in the lower 48, which means there’s a ton to see and do! (It’s not JUST piles of sand, you guys. Though you do have that option, if that’s what you’re into.) Scenic drives, hiking trails, view points, and road side stops – there’s something for everyone in this park.
So, without further ado, here are 10 things you can’t afford to miss in Death Valley National Park.
A breathtaking scenic drive in Death Valley that winds through 9 miles of painted canyon. This road wasn’t named “Artists” for nothing! The rocks vary in color (mostly turquoise-greens, purples and pinks) so take your time and enjoy the scenery.
NOTE: The road is well-paved and is a one-way, so no need to worry about oncoming traffic.
Zabriskie Point is just a quick jaunt up-hill from the parking lot (with benches along the way, if you need a rest). The walk up is gradual and paved and it leads to an astounding view of the badlands!
NOTE: I’d recommend stopping here for either sunrise or sunset for the best photos!
This viewpoint is a bit out of the way, but definitely worth the drive! It overlooks Badwater Basin, and it’s interesting to see how small the salt flats really are down there! When you’re standing in them, they seem to go on forever.
NOTE: There is a trail leading further up from the parking lot if you’re up for a small hike (and a better view!).
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES
These winding, rippling dunes make the perfect stop for sunrise or sunset photographers (or those wanting a good calf workout). With the tallest dune measuring 100 feet, Mesquite flats are not the tallest dunes in Death Valley (that award goes to Eureka sand dunes) but they are the easiest to access.
VISITOR BEWARE: This is an insanely popular spot on holidays and weekends. During those times you can expect the parking lot to be full almost all day long. I was shocked to see that people (even families) arrived early for sunrise. The parking lot was half full by 5:30am (and filling up more and more by the minute).
BADWATER BASIN SALT FLATS
If you can only make one stop in Death Valley, let this be it!
Badwater Basin sits almost 300 feet below sea level (the lowest point in Death Valley) and covers over 200 square miles of land. It’s one of the largest protected salt flats in the world and walking through it, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another world. If you get there early enough, the only sound will be you and the crunching of the crumbling salt crystals beneath your feet.
NOTE: The Salt Flats are a great, less hectic, alternative for enjoying the sunrise. While you don’t have a clear of a view of the horizon, the soft pink and orange hues playing off the mountains is absolutely breathtaking, and the resulting photos are what Instagram dreams are made of.
Partway through your trip down Artists Drive, you’ll reach Artists Palette. Here you’ll find the largest deposit of color along the road.
Created 5 million years ago by chemically altered volcanic minerals, this is a natural wonder you can’t leave the park without witnessing. Pastel hues of green, pink and purple brighten up the canyon and make for the perfect photo op. It almost looks unreal!
NOTE: Artists palette is best visited before the sun starts to breach the top of the ridge line. The beautiful pastel greens and purples are best seen in softer light, as harsh sunlight can wash them out.
DEVILS GOLF COURSE
Have we just landed on Mars? Nope. Still in Death Valley.
Devils Golf Course is just a short drive from Badwater Road and looks like something from another planet. It may look like just a butt-load of jagged rocks, but this landscape is composed of crystallized salt that has been formed by the elements.
NOTE: The further you walk out into the salt formations, the more intricate they become. The formations closest to the road have been walked on, sat on, and jumped on who knows how many times.
Mosaic Canyon is a fun, if somewhat challenging, 4 mile hike through a canyon. It gets it’s name because of the fragments of rock that have been cemented into canyon walls, creating a sort of random, tile-effect.
The “mosaic” rocks are few and far between on this hike, but that doesn’t take away from the beauty of this trail. There’s much more to see in the canyon and maneuvering over the smooth, ice-like slides near the end of the hike provides a fun challenge for hikers!
NOTE: The trailhead is fairly close to Mesquite Sand Dunes, and is quite busy by midday.
NATURAL BRIDGE TRAIL
If you only have time for one hike during your stay in Death Valley, I would recommend Natural Bridge. It is only a 1.4 mile hike total to get to the Natural Bridge itself, and 2.3 miles to do the complete hike. For more tired adventurers, hiking to the Bridge provides enough views to make it worth the trip. However, continuing on you’ll see the Dry Waterfall and have a chance to do a little bouldering as parts of the trail are not really a trail at all.
NOTE: A 15 foot rock wall marks the official end of the trail.
Right next to Zabriskie Point is the Badlands Loop trail. True to the name, this 2.5 mile hike is ALL badlands. The trail takes you through the vast expanse of golden mudstone seen from the viewpoint, and back up to the parking lot where you started.
NOTE: Much of this trail is exposed. Bring sunscreen on a hot day!
If you have 4WD (unlike me) and a lot of courage, you can see one of nature’s weirdest phenomenons. The road to the Racetrack is poorly maintained and full of jagged rocks. Not to mention, there is no cell service or ranger out there in the unlikely event that you get stuck. But if you’ve got good tires, 4WD and a dream, you can do it!
If you haven’t heard of Racetrack, perhaps “Sailing Stones” rings a bell. This flat terrain is lined with “trails” created, somehow (by magic perhaps?), by the stones. It seems the stones are pushed by thin sheets of ice in the right conditions, but for years the mystery remained unsolved. And though there is now a scientific explanation, it’s still creepy as heck.
Titus Canyon Drive
Titus Canyon is a scenic drive that winds through a canyon. Much more rugged than Artists Drive and, again, requires 4WD.
The photos look unbelievable and I’m planning on making the drive when I inevitably come back to Death Valley.
Have any other tips to share or questions to ask? Drop them in the comments below!
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