Looking for the best things to do in Death Valley National Park? Read our Death Valley travel guide to see the highlights of Death Valley in a day including Badwater Basin, Zabriskie Point, Mesquite sand dunes, and Artists drive. You may also like our post on 10 days in California.
My introduction to Death Valley was in an adventure reality TV series finale: the participants had to survive a full day of scavenger hunt in Death Valley National Park. Upon visiting Death Valley, I could understand why the show producers chose that location…
Death Valley is truly the ultimate survival test: it is the lowest, driest, and aridest place in the country. Its many acres are home to barren and unwelcoming geological landforms in the Mojave desert of California. It gets unbearably hot in the summer and deceptively cold in winter. It is a land of extremes: one where rattlesnakes, bobcats, and mountain lion sightings are common.
You may then wonder, why is Death Valley worth a visit? The national park is no doubt less popular and its environment is harsh but that’s not all that Death Valley has to offer. Inside Death Valley, you can find sand dunes that gleam in the sun, unique salt flats, colorful badlands, viewpoints offering scenic panoramas, and beautiful canyons.
Death Valley is also a popular filming location because of its unique landscape. Come springtime and Death Valley blooms with thousands of cacti and wildflowers in every color. And that’s why we recommend adding Death Valley to your USA bucket list. After all, it’s not every day that you get to visit 282 ft below sea level!
While Death Valley National Park is located in the Mojave desert of eastern California, it is much closer to Nevada’s Great Basin National Park than to any major California cities. That’s why the easiest and most accessible way to visit Death Valley is on a road trip from Las Vegas. Death Valley is just over two hours from Las Vegas and can be easily seen in a day from Sin City.
Note – If you are planning a visit to Las Vegas in addition to Death Valley, then you should read our post on 52 Best Things to do in Las Vegas for first-time visitors. You can also visit Death Valley on an epic California road trip – after all, it’s just 6 hrs from Death Valley to Yosemite via the scenic CA 395.
Best time to visit Death Valley National Park
Death Valley’s peak season is winter. In summer, the park gets super hot and we don’t recommend visiting – especially if you have kids. There is no shade or cover in Death Valley and being outside for even a few minutes is exhausting. We have friends who have visited in the summer and the temperature was about 110F.
On the other hand, the park is perfect to visit in winter. The slight breeze is welcome, the animals are more active, and the night sky is beautiful. Often, it rains in winter and the landscape colors look even more vibrant. However, you would still need a hat and plenty of water since it is still quite dry and quite hot, even in winter.
Spring is another great time to visit. The winter rains germinate the dormant wildflower seeds and beautiful blooms can be seen all over the national park. The cacti also bloom in wonderful colors. Sometimes, if the conditions are perfect you can experience a super bloom where the entire landscape will be a gorgeous burst of colors.
How long to spend inside Death Valley National Park
We would ideally recommend spending at least one full day inside Death Valley National Park. That means, yes, you can see it as a day trip from Vegas – but you need to leave the Sin City for Death Valley really early as it is 2.5 hrs away. You should ideally plan to reach Death Valley by 8 am or 9 am, even earlier in the summer, so that you can explore before the sun gets hot around noon. We would recommend spending the day checking out the park’s major attractions, hiking a bit, and checking out the sunset colors before heading back to Vegas for the night.
However, in one day you can only check attractions around the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and Badwater Basin Road. To see attractions near the northern/western boundary of the national park including Racetrack Playa, Scotty’s Castle, and more, you need to either camp or stay near Death Valley and do them on Day 2.
If you want to cover all of Death Valley at a leisurely pace and hike strenuous trails such as Zabriskie Point and Ubehebe Crater as well as take sunset/sunrise photographs around the park, plus visit nearby attractions such as ghost town of Rhyolite, then we would recommend anything upwards of 3 days. In reality, Death Valley is so beautiful and so desolate that you can easily spend a week in this bare desert environment and still not get tired of it.
Where to stay in Death Valley National Park
If you are planning a day trip from Las Vegas, then you don’t need to stay near the national park. However, if you are planning a longer stay in the area or visiting Death Valley on your way from Vegas to California, then you need to carefully plan your lodging as the distances in Death Valley are very vast.
There are a couple of lodging options located inside the national park or you can also stay in communities surrounding the park. Death Valley also has a variety of campgrounds available for those into tent camping/car camping / RVing. However, a majority of these grounds are closed in the summer, so plan accordingly.
What to pack for Death Valley National Park
The key rule while packing for Death valley is to remember that you are entering a remote, desert environment. Amenities are at a bare minimum and the weather can be extremely hostile. You need to pack everything that you will need, especially if you plan to hike or camp inside the national park.
Key things to carry include lots of water: 1 gallon per person per day, sturdy hiking shoes, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, food for the entire day, ice coolers, and first aid kit. Dress in layers, the temperature can drop quite a bit in the evening. There is no reception inside many areas of Death Valley and we recommend carrying a GPS with you. We also always carry a flashlight and a swiss knife, for safety purposes. You will also need a camera to capture the fantastic landscape and a pair of binoculars to spot wildlife.
Day visitors should also bring along enough essentials as the distances inside Death Valley are deceptively vast. We recommend keeping a small bottle of water, some food, a camera, sunscreen, and a light jacket in a daypack and carrying that daypack every time you get out of the car – even for hikes under half a mile. Replace the water in your backpack as soon as it gets low.
Best things to do in Death Valley National Park
We love Death Valley for its isolation and silence – it seems so removed from the glitz of Las Vegas or the crowds inside Yosemite. There is so much beauty and stillness inside of Death Valley that you can’t help falling in love with this part of California. While most visitors come to see the salt flats in Badwater Basin, there are many other interesting places to see and trails to hike inside Death Valley. We have been to Death Valley twice and yet to see all parts of this unique landscape. Here’s an epic list of things to do in Death Valley National Park.
Visit Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Few people know that Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in mainland USA. In spite of this, the park has only one visitor center which is located in Furnace Creek. A second, smaller visitor center used to be in Scotty’s Castle but it’s closed since 2015 due to flooding.
Furnace Creek is where you can stop to refill water, get a park map and ask rangers for hiking recommendations – making this a great place to start your trip. This is also the place to buy magnets and other souvenirs. After spending time at the visitor center, follow the Badwater Road up to the Badwater Basin.
See the salt flats in Badwater Basin
Undoubtedly Death Valley’s #1 tourist attraction! The Badwater Basin salt flats are beautiful, unique, and truly extraordinary. The salt flats extend for nearly 200 square miles; they are one of the largest salt flats in the world.
The salt flats are formed by minerals and salts rich rainwater flowing from the mountains into Badwater Basin and then evaporating, leaving behind the unique salt crystals. The hexagonal salt flats gleams in the afternoon sun, giving Death Valley a surreal appearance. When you are standing on Badwater Basin, you are 282 feet below sea level – check the sea level sign on the mountainside, it adds to the extraordinary experience.
There is a parking lot near the Badwater Basin and a boardwalk will take you to the salt flats. The salt flats near the boardwalk are muddied, so we recommend exploring around you to observe and photograph the pristine salt flats.
Enjoy the Artist’s Drive
Death Valley has many scenic drives but Artist’s Drive is the most popular one. On the drive, you will essentially be taking a 9-mile detour from Badwater Road into the mountains. The road is narrow and curves a lot, making it fun to drive.
The highlight of this drive is a vividly colored mountain slope called the Artist’s Palette. At Artist’s Palette, you can see a rainbow of colors on the rock formations including vivid pastels. The color is caused due to the oxidation of metals in the soil. You should get down from your car to explore the vivid colors.
We recommend allocating half an hour to an hour for the drive. To reach the drive, follow the road to Badwater Basin and turn at the marked intersection. The road will take you past Artist’s Palette (which is about midway into the drive) and then rejoin Badwater Road, to continue onto Badwater Basin.
View the Devil’s Golf Course
I was baffled by this name until I saw the landscape. The Devil’s Golf Course is a large area of salt and mineral deposits that have pockmarked the surface and the name comes from the saying that ‘only the devil could play golf on it’. There is not much else to see here so expect to spend no more than 10-15 mins to look around.
To reach the Devil’s Golf Course, follow the road from Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin and take the gravel road at the intersection. If you take the Artist’s Drive route, then you will skip the Devil’s Golf Course intersection – so you will need to backtrack to it. Another option is to see the Artist’s Drive while going to Badwater Basin and the Devil’s Golf Course on the way back.
Take a 360 photo at Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point is Death Valley’s most popular lookout point. It is famous for its dramatic views over the valley, the salt flats, and the Badlands. Seeing the park from Zabriskie Point gives some idea of the vast extent of this national park. The easiest way to reach Zabriskie Point is by driving to the parking lot and walking the short paved trail to the viewing platform. The panoramic view from Zabriskie Point looks even more spectacular at sunset.
You will need at least 15-20 mins to observe the geological landforms and take photos at Zabriskie Point. You can also venture out into the mountains and explore them as long as you want after seeing the view from the platform. Another popular way to reach Zabriskie Point is via the hike through the Golden Canyon trailhead.
Enjoy the panorama from Dante’s View
For a dramatic panoramic bird’s eye view of Death Valley, make the drive up to Dante’s View. Along with Zabriskie Point, this is the most popular overlook inside Death Valley National Park. The drive up the mountain to the viewpoint is incredibly scenic but the view from the top of the peak is the real highlight.
Exactly below Dante’s Peak, lies the Badwater Basin. You can see the glistening white salt flats spread below. Along with Badwater Basin, you can also see the black road snaking below around the valley. Across the valley, you can spot Telescope Peak, the highest in Death Valley National Park. Capturing the lowest place in the park (Badwater Basin) along with the highest (Telescope Peak) on a single frame is a unique experience.
Dante’s View is especially crowded at sunset when the entire park looks spectacular. Even sunrise is a good time to visit but be prepared for the chilly winds at the top. To reach the overlook, take Dante’s View Road past Zabriskie Point till you reach the parking lot.
Hike the Golden Canyon
If you want to hike inside Death Valley, then the area surrounding the Golden Canyon is the perfect place to visit. Easily accessible from Badwater Road, the area of golden hills and narrow canyons is great for day hikes of various difficulty levels. The canyon is also a filming locale for Star Wars movies and hence, worth a visit for the franchise fans.
The Golden Canyon is a wide canyon/gorge located between the yellow alluvial fan-shaped mountains. The hike from the trailhead to the end of the canyon / Red Cathedral is an easy 3 mile out and back hike. Along the way, you will see beautiful rock formations and even scramble over a few of them. The colors in the canyon get more vivid towards sunset, making this a popular time to visit.
Other hikes and points of interest in the area include Red Cathedral, Badlands Loop, and Zabriskie Point. You can hike up to Zabriskie Point for a challenging hike or continue the trail over the Badlands for an easy one. The climb up the Red Cathedral is a good way to combine a short strenuous hike. The Red Cathedral is a sheer red rock wall that rises at the end of the canyon, making for beautiful photos.
While the canyon walls shield you from direct sun for a better part of the day, you will still need lots of water and sturdy shoes for this popular hike.
Sandboard on the Mesquite Flat sand dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand dunes are one of our favorite places to visit in Death Valley National Park. Located near Stovepipe Wells, the Mesquite Flat sand dunes remind us of the sandy Middle Eastern deserts. The sand dunes are big and beautiful and cover a vast area. At Mesquite Flat, you will find dunes of many types.
The ripples created by the wind make the dunes very photogenic – in fact, this is a popular spot at sunrise and sunset. The dunes look spectacular when the sky turns bright orange at twilight. The Mesquite Flat sand dunes are also good to visit after dark – the night sky is great for stargazing and the dunes look silver on a moonlit night. We recommend arriving an hour before sunset and staying till it’s dark to experience the dunes by day and night.
While at Mesquite Flat, you should hike over the dunes and explore them. The view from the top of the dunes is beautiful and if you look closely you can often spot animal footprints over the undisturbed dunes. If you are feeling more adventurous, run to the top of a dune while your feet sink in the sand. Kids, especially, love climbing to the top and sliding their way down, making this area popular with families.
Hike the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
Salt Creek Interpretive Trail inside Death Valley is an easy, half-mile long boardwalk trail that will lead you to the park’s pupfish population. The Death Valley pupfish are an endangered species of fish that are unique to this part of the world. Informative plaques along the way explain how the pupfish can survive in the extremely salty water.
If you are lucky to visit during the mating season in April, you will find the pupfish very active in the water. However, we recommend looking for the pupfish in the creek at other times as they are often quiet and can be easily missed. Also, the creek runs full from November to May, making this the best time to see the pupfish.
This trail is good for families with children because of its short length. At the far end – in the middle of the loop – you can exit the boardwalk and walk along the creek up to McLean Spring. We recommend carrying lots of water and insect repellent – as you can encounter flies along the trail.
There are plenty of birdwatching opportunities along the trail which comes as a surprise since one doesn’t easily associate a region as arid as Death Valley with birds. The views along the trail are also spectacular.
Visit Scotty’s Castle
Scotty’s Castle is a historical landmark inside Death Valley National Park. The two-story Spanish Mediterranean style building has lots of mystery attached to it – you can read more about it here. The castle has lots of original furnishings intact and the paid guided tour is led by rangers dressed in period costumes is an amazing experience.
Update: The castle is currently closed to the public due to vast flood damage and will remain so well into 2020.
Explore the Ubehebe Crater
Did you know that there are volcanic craters inside Death Valley National Park? These craters were created hundreds of years ago when hot magma reacted with groundwater to create a steam and gas explosion. The largest and most visited of these craters is the Ubehebe Crater, located near Scotty’s Castle.
To reach the Ubehebe Crater, take the road up to the parking lot located on the crater rim. You can see the crater spread before you immediately after getting down from the car. We recommend walking around the rim – this moderately difficult trail of 1.5 miles will take you past other craters, cinder fields, colorful crater walls, and other geological phenomena. You can also climb down into the crater, though the way out can be exhausting.
See the mysterious rocks of Racetrack Playa
Racetrack Playa is one of the most underrated, remote and inaccessible places inside Death Valley National Park. Visited by very few people, Racetrack Playa is an ancient lake bed that is known for rocks that mysteriously move on the lake bed. These rocks are quite large – some weighing over five hundred pounds – and leave behind beautiful trails in the lake bed as they move.
Why made these heavy rocks move of their own accord on the lake bed remained one of the most interesting geological mysteries for a long time. It is believed to have been solved in 2014 – as scientists discovered that the rocks moved due to a unique combination of rain, ice formation, and low winds. You can read more about it here.
To reach Racetrack Playa, you will need a 4WD, high clearance vehicle. The road begins from the Ubehebe crater area and is rough and lonely. You will also spot Joshua trees in this part of Death Valley. There are no amenities along the road and cell reception is non-existent. You need a full tank and enough food and water to visit this remote area of Death Valley.
At over 3 hrs drive each way, the playa is almost a day trip from Furnace Creek Visitor Center and you can’t do it if you have only one day inside Death Valley. However, the mysterious rocks are extremely beautiful to look at and if you have the time, then Racetrack Playa is definitely worth the visit.
Road trip the Death Valley Scenic Byway
SR 190 or the Death Valley Scenic Byway is worth the trip into the desert for its scenic views. The byway begins at the eastern entrance of the national park and passes through Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Valley before ending at the western side of the park.
The entire drive is 130 miles long and takes over 3.5 hrs to complete. Along the byway, you will find interesting desert scenery and wildlife, unique geological landforms, as well as interesting historical and cultural sites. In spring, you will see beautiful wildflowers along the route. Driving the scenic byway is a great way to experience Death Valley National Park without exiting your car.
Understand Death Valley’s history at Harmony Borax Works
Last but not the least, visit the Harmony Borax Works to understand the history of borax mining at Death Valley. The deposition of various salts and minerals led to the discovery of borax inside Death Valley. The plant was built to extract and transport the borax.
A short 0.25-mile trail takes you to the now-abandoned borax plant. At the site, you can see the remains of the original building along with unused mining equipment. An old wagon cart is also left at the site, as a reminder of the past – it makes for great ruin photographs.
Informative panels along the trail describe the history of the borax discovery, its mining process, and transportation to the railroad in nearby Mojave. The use of twenty mule teams to haul the large wagons over the desert is especially fascinating. The site is very interesting and must for history lovers.
We hope you liked our list of the best things to do inside Death Valley National Park. Did we miss any popular hikes or exciting views inside the park? Let us know in the comments.