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Artist’s Drive at Death Valley National Park: Finding Color in the Desert!

Planning a trip to Death Valley National Park? Be sure to include Artist’s Drive in your itinerary. The one-way drive through colorful canyons will take your breath away with its raw beauty. Artist’s Drive was high on my list for our visit, and I was excited to finally experience the surreal colors in person.

Following our return home, I posted a photo from our visit to Artist’s Drive to my Instagram account. In response to my caption gushing about the beauty of the desert landscape, one commenter exclaimed in dismay, “But there are no trees!!!”

Precisely!

In this starkly beautiful landscape, there’s almost nothing to distract from the shapes, colors and textures of the rock surfaces. Just raw earth. The sky above. And you.

Artist's Drive Death Valley National Park California

ARTIST’S DRIVE IN DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK

The exhilarating drive through Artist’s Drive consists of nine miles of colorful canyons in the Black Mountains, spliced by a windy, twisty one-way road. It was so beautiful that as soon as had completed the drive, I wanted to go right back and do it all over again!

The entire road is paved, unlike some of the other canyon drives in Death Valley National Park. That’s a boon if you happen to be driving a little Honda Civic, like we were. Give yourself plenty of time: whoever draws the short straw and has to drive will definitely want to stop often, to enjoy the beauty on either side of the road!

Artist's Drive Death Valley National Park California

Artist’s Palette Viewpoint

The most colorful viewpoint on the drive is the Artist’s Palette, about five miles into the drive. Right before the official turnoff, you’ll see cars parked along the side of the road. Follow the people clambering across the landscape to get to the edge of a ravine that lies between the road and the Artist’s Palette.

From across the ravine, you get an excellent view of the varied hues in the rock surfaces. I saw pink, red, teal green, lavender, rust, white, gray and black. On your right, as you face the Palette, are other pink-hued rock surfaces. They impressed me because of the richness of the textures and the subtle color striations.

The Artist's Palette in the Black Mountains Death Valley National Park California
The Artist's Palette in the Black Mountains Death Valley National Park California

Artist's Palette Death Valley National Park California

At the official turnoff, there is a small parking lot, and you can walk down to the bottom of the ravine to see the colors up close. You can even walk on to the multi-hued deposits.

The Science Behind the Colors

So what’s the science behind the surreal colors that form this natural color palette? The multi-hued mineral deposits were formed eons ago, when volcanic rocks interacted with hydrothermal systems deep below the ground. The deposits were reportedly formed in the Miocene age. Millions of years of erosion by periodic flash floods and wind eventually exposed the beautiful colors, and weathering and oxidation created the colors you see today.

The green color comes from mica, the lavender hue from manganese, the yellows and mustard from iron oxides, and the pinks and reds from hematite. You can see colored mineral deposit formations in other parts of Death Valley, but none I saw was quite as striking and concentrated as the Artist’s Palette.

The Artist's Palette on Artist's Drive in the Black Mountains, Death Valley National Park California
The Artist's Palette in the Black Mountains Death Valley National Park California

Beautiful Scenery

While the Artist’s Palette is undoubtedly the star attraction on this drive, there is no shortage of breathtaking scenery all along the route. The road dips and then rises alarmingly in spots, making you feel almost like you are on a (kiddie) roller coaster. At other spots, the walls of the canyons close in on the road, and you have to look straight up to see any sky. Yet other parts of the drive reveal panoramic views of the salt flats and the desert landscape.

Artist's Drive in Death Valley National Park in California
Artist's Drive in Death Valley National Park in California
Colorful Rock Formations at Artist's Drive in Death Valley National Park in California

When we visited, the road itself was a well-maintained pitch black, ideal for those road shots for your Instagram account.

Artist's Drive in Death Valley National Park in California

And for my Instagram friend, I have a photo of a lone piece of vegetation I saw on the drive. Not a tree by any stretch of the imagination, but a magnificent specimen nevertheless, clinging tenaciously to life in the extreme environs of Death Valley.

Lone piece of vegetation in the desert landscape at Artist's Drive in Death Valley National Park

Getting There

Death Valley National Park is about 2.5 hours by road from Las Vegas and about 4.5 hours by road from Los Angeles. Once inside the park, turn on to Badwater Road near Furnace Creek, and you will see a sign for Artist’s Drive on your left after you drive about nine miles on Badwater Road. The Artist’s Drive is a one-way road, best done on your way back from visiting Badwater Basin.

Tips for Your Visit

Ideally, you should visit Death Valley National Park in the winter months, from November through March, when daytime temperatures are generally pleasant and you can get out of your car and explore.

Try to time your visit to Artist’s Drive for later in the day on a sunny afternoon. The rays of the afternoon sun brighten up the colors such that the Artist’s Palette looks surreal at that time of day.

Because of the dips and curves on the narrow road, long vehicles, over 25 feet, are not permitted.

The road is one of the more popular parts of Death Valley National Park, so be prepared for traffic, and cars parked by the side of the narrow road.

Always have plenty of water in the car and stay hydrated…this is the desert! Sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and glares are other must-haves.

Top up your gas tank at a town before you enter the park. We found the cheapest gas within the park at Stovepipe Wells.

Have you visited Artist’s Drive in Death Valley National Park? If you have, I’d love to read your thoughts. Comment below to respond. If you have not visited yet, I hope my post inspires you to go and chase color in the desert!

You may also enjoy: The 7 Best Things to Do at Death Valley National Park

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Planning a visit to Death Valley National Park? Place the Artist's Drive on your itinerary! This drive through colorful canyons will take your breath away!

Dhara

Dhara's travel interests are eclectic, spanning everything from natural wonders to history, culture, art and architecture. She has visited 22 countries, many more than once, plus almost all 50 states of the USA, and has amassed a hoard of cherished travel moments.

2 thoughts on “Artist’s Drive at Death Valley National Park: Finding Color in the Desert!”

  1. Great post! I just went to Anza Borrego desert state park a few weeks ago with my husband and granddaughters. There was no super bloom like last year, but the ocotillos had bright red flames of color at the tips of the branches and the barrenness of the mountains against the blue sky was spectacular. There’s a lot of beauty in a desert. No need for trees!

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Tami! I loved the red tips of the ocotillos at Anza Borrego! I agree, the beauty of the desert needs no embellishment! The colors and the textures of the rock, sand and hills are magical.

      Reply

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