The great national parks of the United States of America offer unparalleled access to the wonders of Nature, and Death Valley National Park in Southern California is no exception.
If you have a hankering for wide open spaces and the sweet sound of silence, you will love Death Valley National Park!
Read on to discover the ten best things to do in this desert national park.
Death Valley National Park is enormous. At over three million acres, it is the largest national park in the contiguous United States.
But many of the most stunning sights in the park are located not too far a drive from one another. So you can have a very productive visit in just one or two days.
In fact, many people visit on a long day trip from Las Vegas or Los Angeles. You can definitely experience the highlights of the park in one long day of driving, or on a guided tour.
But, if you can afford the time, it is worth experiencing a night in the park, to stargaze or to see the sand dunes in the moonlight!
The Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is known for its extremes. It’s the hottest place on the planet. It’s also the driest place in North America. And it also contains the lowest point in North America.
But when you visit, what will strike you immediately are its scale, magnificence, and raw beauty.
If you have the luxury of time, you can spend several days in the park, soaking up the desert vistas and savoring the closeness to Nature.
But even on a short visit, you can have some amazing experiences here.
Here’s our round-up of the very best things to do in Death Valley National Park!
#1 Watch the rising sun paint the landscape at Zabriskie Point
Without question, Zabriskie Point is stunning any time of day.
In fact, it is the most famous viewpoint in the park!
But sunrise at Zabriskie Point is an even more special experience: it’s one of the most fabulous things to do in Death Valley National Park.
Trek the short uphill paved road from the parking lot to the expansive overlook, from where you can get 360-degree views.
Find a spot facing the valley, so you will have your back to the sun when it rises. About fifteen minutes before sunrise, the sky over the Panamint Mountains turns pink purple.
And if there are clouds, swathes of pinks and oranges will light up the sky. Pure magic!
When the sun rises behind you, the top of Telescope Peak (the highest point in the Panamint mountain range) will light up, and then the glow will progress down the mountain range and into the valley.
Then if you move to the left, you can watch the sun paint the chocolate tops of the giant Elephant’s Feet formation.
Spend a few more minutes appreciating the beauty of the unique landscape, formed by eons of erosive action. The vast valley and multiple eroded ridges offer a pleasing palette in shades of yellow, gold, and chocolate.
Manly Beacon, the tall lone spire to the right of the valley, is like a sentinel guarding the Furnace Creek badlands. Still further to the right, the Red Cathedral formation rises dramatically above the valley.
Zabriskie Point is located on CA-190, just five miles east of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The road is paved, and there is ample parking.
Pro Tip: If you want to use a tripod for photography, plan on arriving at least an hour before sunrise, to get a spot on the coveted photographers’ ledge below the official viewing area.
Looking to do a guided day trip from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park? Check out this highly rated full day tour that takes you to many of the places I talk about in this article in 11 to 12 hours!
#2 Take in the panoramas at Dante’s View
At nearly 5,500 feet, the Dante’s View overlook terrace offers spectacular panoramic views of the valley and the Panamint mountain range.
From here, if you are fortunate to get a clear day, you can see both the lowest point (Badwater Basin) and the highest point (Mount Whitney) in the contiguous United States.
Driving up for these views is definitely one of the coolest things to do in Death Valley National Park!
While early morning is wonderful for photography, the views are gorgeous any time of the day. We visited in the late morning.
The views down into the Badwater Basin with its white salt flats are breathtaking, as are the views across the valley to Telescope Peak, the tallest peak in the park.
If you look through your zoom lens, you can see tiny specks (people!) moving on the salt flats two miles below.
Walk around the viewing terrace, and then, if you have the time, walk along one of the trails at the top that traverse the ridges to the north and south. You’ll be rewarded with more panoramas!
Dante’s View is located off CA-190, about 11 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
Turn right at Dante’s View Road (you will see the sign) and continue for 13 miles. The road up to the parking lot is paved. Long vehicles are not permitted on the last stretch of the road.
Pro Tip: The temperature at Dante’s View is generally about 25 degrees lower than down in the valley. It may also be windy. So dress appropriately!
#3 Walk the salt flats at Badwater Basin
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America.
There is a small pool of water next to the parking lot, and the story goes that an old-timer’s mule refused to drink from the pool — the water is super salty — and that’s how the basin got its name.
That is the only water we saw in the entire basin when we visited.
The forces of nature cause the salt in the basin to form a honeycomb pattern.
When rainstorms occur in the surrounding mountains or in the valley (it actually does rain here sometimes!), the entire basin gets flooded with a layer of water, in which the salt dissolves, only to emerge again in new honeycomb patterns when the water evaporates.
You can walk a long way into the flats, staying on the designated path into the basin.
We found a couple of side paths, where walking out a short distance makes you feel like you are all alone in the vast barren landscape, even if there are lots of people visiting the basin when you go.
The salt flats cover about 200 square miles, so they stretch as far as the eye can see in both directions.
The best time to visit Badwater Basin for photos is at sunset, but it is a fabulous place to visit any time of day because of the patterns in the flats and the amazing feeling of being a speck in a vast natural basin.
Badwater Basin is located about eighteen miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center on Badwater Road. The road is paved all the way to the basin.
The parking lot gets crowded: we had to wait about ten minutes for a spot when we visited in late December.
#4 Drive the colorful canyons of Artist’s Drive
Artist’s Drive is one of my favorite memories from our visit to Death Valley National Park. The drive is a nine-mile, one-way, south-to-north loop off Badwater Road, through some of the most picturesque canyons in the park.
The main viewpoint along the drive is Artist’s Palette, where you can see multi-hued mineral deposits in the mountain face. We saw lavender, teal, rust, yellow, mustard, pink, gray, and chocolate.
You can park by the side of the road and scramble across the landscape to view the palette in the distance, and then park at the official parking lot a little further down the road and actually walk out on to the mineral deposits.
While the Artist’s Palette is no doubt the high point of the drive, the entire drive is thrilling, as the road dips and curves through the canyons. The best time to visit is the late afternoon, when the colors in the mountain faces are bright.
Artist’s Drive is located off Badwater Road, and is about fifteen miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The entrance to the drive is signposted, and comes up about nine miles into Badwater Road when coming from Furnace Creek.
Long vehicles are not permitted on this road. The entire drive is paved.
When we visited, the road was a newly-minted pitch black.
If you enjoy driving through the desert as much as we do, and you have a few days, then you can combine your visit to Death Valley National Park with other desert destinations in southern California on an epic road trip.
#5 Learn a little Old West history at Harmony Borax Works
The California desert is one of only two places on earth rich in borax, a laundry product used for more than a century.
Borax deposits were discovered in the Furnace Creek area in 1881, and the Harmony Borax Works began operations in 1883.
Between 1883 and 1889, twenty-mule teams with double wagons hauled borax from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to Mojave, the site of the nearest railroad.
When richer deposits of borax were discovered elsewhere, however, work at Harmony Borax Works came to a stop.
Harmony Borax Works was included in the US National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Today you can see the plant, a double wagon, and some of the outbuildings at the site.
Also of interest is the Borax Museum at the Ranch at Death Valley nearby. The museum includes a number of interesting exhibits, including equipment and a steam locomotive.
The last owner of the Harmony Borax Works eventually created a hotel company and developed the Furnace Creek Resort, which brought tourism to the area in the early 1900s.
It’s fascinating to learn a little about the history of the works and the resort.
#6 Hike the beautiful Mosaic Canyon
Death Valley National Park has many beautiful canyons you can hike, and the hikes can vary widely in difficulty.
We’ve hiked Mosaic Canyon hike and I have no hesitation recommending it as a must-do experience when you visit.
The hike is four miles out and back, and gets progressively difficult.
But the first mile or so is relatively easy. After the first quarter mile, the passage narrows and you are enclosed by the marble walls of the canyon.
Relatively early into the hike, you can see on either side of the canyon examples of Mosaic Breccia, after which the canyon is named. Breccia is Italian for fragments.
Embedded in the parent rock are little fragments of other rocks, so you get natural mosaic.
After you get about a mile into the hike, you come to what looks like an impassable mass of boulders.
We turned around at this point, but you can crawl between the boulders on the left to get further into the canyon for more examples of Mosaic Breccia and dryfalls.
You have to navigate two additional sets of narrows to reach the dryfall in a cavernous space that marks the end of the trail, at which point you retrace your steps out of the canyon.
Mosaic Canyon Road is an unpaved road, 2.3 miles long, located at Stovepipe Wells. We made it in our Honda Civic, but it was rough and slow going.
There is a gravel parking lot just outside the entrance to the canyon. You get beautiful views of Stovepipe Wells Village from this road.
#7 Get your toes in the sand at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Death Valley National Park boasts diverse desert vistas, and one of the most visited and photographed are the sand dunes at Mesquite Flats.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located a couple miles south of Stovepipe Wells. The highest dune is about 100 feet tall. There are four other sand dune areas in Death Valley National Park, but they are either far out or not easily accessed.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes can be viewed from the road, and are easily accessed from the parking lot. They look gorgeous at sunrise and sunset, when the angle of the sun creates long shadows and makes for dramatic photos.
You can walk all over the dunes if it is not windy, sinking your feet into the soft sand and trekking to the high ridges. It is about a quarter mile to the high points. There is no established trail, so you can choose where to go.
From Furnace Creek, take CA-190 West and the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes parking lot will come up in about 23 miles.
Tips for visiting Death Valley National Park
The Best Time to Visit
The hottest temperature on earth was recorded at Death Valley in July 1913.
Summers are scorching, no question.
So plan to visit any time from late November until April for reasonable daytime temperatures, when you can get out of the car and explore.
Many US National Parks are wonderful winter destinations, and Death Valley is definitely one of them.
Spring brings wildflowers, and if you choose a superbloom year, you will be rewarded with spectacular carpets of wildflowers in the park.
WHERE TO STAY
Lodging within Death Valley National Park are available at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. Reserve well in advance if you plan to visit during the peak season.
The Inn at Death Valley, renovated in 2018, is a beautiful resort located inside Death Valley National Park, near the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. With in-house dining that includes vegetarian options, a swimming pool fed by a spring, patios to take in brilliant desert sunsets, and decks to gaze at the stars in the night sky, this is a fabulous place to stay. Rooms are spacious and beautifully furnished.
Book a stay here!
The Ranch at Death Valley is also located inside the park at Furnace Creek. More affordable than the Inn, The Ranch at Death Valley offers comfortable rooms and features a pool, sports courts, a kids’ playground, and onsite restaurants.
Book a stay here!
ROADS IN DEATH VALLEY NP
All but one of the experiences I have described are accessible via paved roads. But many roads in Death Valley are unpaved and not suitable for sedans. If you plan to explore the backcountry, come equipped with the proper vehicle.
Looking for a rental car for your national park trip? Compare prices, find your car, and book on Discover Cars! They search numerous car rental agencies, from brand to budget, to offer you the best choices for your trip.
Much of Death Valley National Park is designated wilderness area. The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including rattlesnakes. Get informed before your visit to stay safe.
More information on Death Valley National Park, including safety information, can be found on the National Park Service website.
CELL PHONE RECEPTION
Download maps of the park or carry hard copies with you. Cell phone reception within the park is sketchy at best and non-existent at worst.
Guided Tour from Las Vegas
If you are visiting Las Vegas, with just one day to spare and don’t want to drive, consider a guided small group tour from Las Vegas that will show you many of the best sights I talk about in this article.
If you are looking for parks to visit during your summer vacation, discover the most beautiful US national parks to visit in the summer.
And if you love visiting national parks as a family, check out this list of amazing US national parks to put on your must-explore list!
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