If I had to describe Death Valley in one word, it would have to be otherworldly.
Yes, hot is a given – after all, it’s a desert. But this enormous adventureland’s seemingly endless expanse of salt flats, sand dunes, and winding mountain roads serves as a prime example of the complex marriage between geology and time that’s constantly at play here.
One thing I noticed almost immediately upon entering the borders of Death Valley National Park was the silence.
You can’t hear the wind. There are no bugs chirping in the distance. You sometimes have to stomp your feet as you walk just to remind yourself that sound does, in fact, exist. Oddly enough, the lack of it can feel quite loud.
The silence simply adds to the extraterrestrial nature of a place so devoid of life that you may feel convinced you’ve been transported to another planet – or perhaps into the plot of a Western movie. (Thank the ghost towns, abandoned mines, convenience store sales of sarsaparilla, and other echoes of the Gold Rush for that.)
Never been to Death Valley before? You’re in for a treat. It’s one of the most unusual, disconcerting, and fascinating places I’ve stepped foot, and will have your inner adventurer doing backflips.
To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of the must-see spots to see during your excursion to the park, as well as some useful tips to know before you go.
Places to See
It would take you a substantial amount of time to explore all that Death Valley has to offer. As the largest national park in the continental United States, located on the border between California and Nevada, Death Valley National Park is more than 3 million acres wide.
Most visitors will stay at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, or Furnace Creek, all of which have lodging and camping options available. (FYI, I’d recommend camping for the stars alone; they’re among the most incredible you may ever see.)
While it is quite impossible to see all of Death Valley in one visit, given its size and limited accessibility, many of its most popular sites are easily doable in 24 hours – particularly for those staying at Furnace Creek. Here are 8 places you won’t want to miss:
1. Badwater Basin
The lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin is simply stunning. It feels a bit like you’ve wandered onto a massive, snow-dusted field – except, what you think is snow is actually salt.
Venture onto the basin’s impossibly flat surface, searching as you do so for where sea level is (you’ll find it marked by a sign 282 feet above you on the surrounding mountains.) It’s the oddest feeling in the world, and the experience itself is mesmerizing; you could seemingly keep trekking across the crunchy salt flats for eternity. And as the sun beats down on you with triple digits of dry intensity, you may even wonder if there’s a portal to the underworld somewhere nearby…
2. Zabriskie Point
I recommend heading to Zabriskie Point for sunrise – it’s truly a jaw-dropping vista. A short hike will take you onto an overlook with sweeping vistas of craggy hills, eroded terrain, and alien formations. Gain perspective when you catch sight of ant-sized humans crawling through the rippled sediment down below, and feel humbled by the pastel colors creeping over the landscape as the valley takes its first breath of the day.
3. Artist’s Palette / Artist’s Drive
Gaze in awe at the oxidation of metals in Artist’s Palette, creating artwork on the Black Mountains. Trek down into the canyons for a closer look, and clamber through the palette of mint greens, lavenders, roses, and tangerines as you take note of the thick silence surrounding you.
The journey alone through Artist’s Drive will have you gaping with awe. The one-way road cuts through narrow fissures in the earth and coasts down winding canyon terrain. Don’t make the mistake I did and assume the first pull-off on Artist’s Drive is Artist’s Palette; it’s not (though it’s still an incredible sight.) There’s a clear sign indicating where the pull-off for Artist’s Palette is.
I recommend exploring Artist’s Palette at dawn and enjoying another leisurely cruise through Artist’s Drive at dusk (the photo opps are prime.)
4. Devil’s Golf Course
There are few ways to describe Devil’s Golf Course other than odd. Craggy salt mounds form a bewildering, vast, and potentially dangerous landscape that’s enticing for adventurers of every type. Don’t forget your camera, but pay attention to your footing.
5. Dante’s View
Providing incredibly scenic views of Badwater Basin (and seemingly the entirety of Death Valley), Dante’s View is simply excellent. Drive 13 miles up Dante’s View Road to a parking lot, from which several (relatively short) hiking trails branch off along the ridges going both north and south. Take your pick and prepare for panoramas aplenty.
6. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Located just off Hwy. 190 near Stovepipe Wells, the sand dunes are a living playground. Roam up and down the vast expanse of rippling sand formations, some of which reach 100 feet in height. Don’t forget to bring your water bottle; distance is harder to measure in a dune field, and the heat can be particularly unforgiving here.
7. Salt Creek
Feel like you’ve fallen straight into a western with this interesting and scenic hike. The loop consists primarily of boardwalks that wind alongside the namesake salt creek through flat thickets of pickleweed. Sense the lingering feeling of possibility in the air, and keep an eye out for the rare Salt Creek Pupfish.
8. Mosaic Canyon
Few places will give you the feeling that Death Valley was once a thriving, lush wonderland quite like Mosaic Canyon. Wander amongst the polished rock, and clamber through a mosaic of marble as you take in the echoes of mighty riverbeds past.
Know Before You Go
While Death Valley is a stunning place, it houses extreme conditions and challenging terrain. Consequently, there are certain precautions you should be mindful of prior to your visit. Here are 6 tips for a safe and enjoyable trip to this incredible national park:
1. Come prepared with plenty of water and snacks.
Plan on bringing at least a gallon of water per person, per day. Death Valley is the hottest and driest national park in the United States; its temperature consistently hits triple digits, particularly in the summer months, and its highest recorded temp is 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Stay hydrated and have water on your person at all times. Similarly, bring lots of salty snacks!
2. Pack sturdy hiking shoes, and comfortable clothing.
There’s a plethora of exciting landscapes to explore in Death Valley, but some of the terrain is unique. Come prepared with a sturdy, comfortable set of hiking shoes, and bring clothes that are breathable and easy to move in.
3. Make sure your car has 4WD, a full tank of gas, and can handle intense conditions.
I’m glad we took my friend’s SUV when we visited Death Valley, because my compact economy car certainly wouldn’t have done well there. Many of the park’s sights are accessible via bumpy, challenging roads (some of which can hardly even be considered roads), so it’s essential that your car has 4WD, and also that it can handle intense conditions and elevation changes.
There are service stations in Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek. No matter how far you’re going in the park, make sure you always have a full tank of gas. Many injuries and fatalities in Death Valley have been caused by ill-prepared people that got stranded by broken-down cars.
4. Keep in mind that cell service is not great in the park.
Oftentimes, you won’t have any service at all. Be prepared with a full phone charge for the rare moments of reception, and bring a satellite phone if you plan on exploring the backcountry.
5. Plan to do most of your hiking before 10am.
Similar to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley is a place best explored on foot before 10am – after that, the heat gets dangerous.
6. Don’t forget your camera!
Death Valley is an incredibly stunning place, and is certainly a photographer’s dream! Grab your DSLR, GoPro, Polaroid, or iPhone 7 and prepare for an entire gallery’s worth of adventure shots.
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Do you have any further tips for Death Valley first-timers? Share them in the comments below, and don’t forget to follow more Jetsetter-in-Training journeys on Instagram.