Snowcapped mountain peaks, billiard table-flat salt pans and trickling salt creeks, tall sand dunes, multicolored canyons and wild badlands make up the impressively varied landscapes of Death Valley National Park, California.
Not your typical desert, Death Valley is a place where superlatives are appropriate. Its sheer vastness is mindboggling, the number of attractions large.
This is a place of absolute extremes. The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley National Park encompasses the lowest point in North America—Badwater Basin—and offers views of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States—Mount Whitney. Situated within the Mojave Desert, it is both the driest and hottest place on the continent. Total annual rainfall averages 2 inches (5 centimeters) and summer temperatures peak at 120°F (49°C) or more. Death Valley is also the largest American national park outside of Alaska (5,219 sq. miles or 13,517 km²).
Despite its seemingly relentlessly inhospitable environment, Death Valley isn’t “dead” at all. The variety in plant and animal life in the park is actually pretty astonishing. It is, after all, not because people find the heat uncomfortable that animals do too. Everything that lives in Death Valley thrives in Death Valley. And there are lots of things that live there.
Wildlife ranges from coyotes, kangaroo rats and bighorn sheep to roadrunners and ravens to sidewinder rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas. Some animals are endemic to Death Valley, with the pupfish that survive in the salt creeks as the best-known example.
Best of Death Valley National Park
Top Attractions in Death Valley
Its sheer enormity means that Death Valley has a bunch of great attractions. They range from sensational viewpoints and scenic drives to historic mining sites, sand dunes and rock formations.
- Badwater Basin (lowest point in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level)
- Zabriskie Point (classic viewpoint of the Death Valley badlands)
- Dante’s View (lookout point offering panoramic views of the valley, phenomenal sunsets)
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (most accessible sand dunes in the park, hiking)
- Harmony Borax Works (historic borax mine, exhibits)
- Devil’s Golf Course (expansive area of sharp salt rocks)
- Artist’s Drive (scenic drive through colorful canyons, valley views)
- Salt Creek (natural habitat of endemic pupfish)
There are several different hiking trails in Death Valley National Park. However, if you’re limited in time, focus on these two.
- Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Badlands Loop (8-mile (13-kilometer) circuit through ocher-colored badlands, passing by Zabriskie Point)
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (no designated trail, you’re free to explore the towering dunes as you please)
Where to Stay?
Because early spring is the best time of year to visit Death Valley National Park, I recommend staying at the Stovepipe Wells Campground. This first-come first-served campground is arguably the best of its kind in the entire park.
It lies just across the road from the Stovepipe Wells Resort, which has a swimming pool, saloon and showers. There’s also a well-stocked grocery store and a gas station. The campground itself has nothing more than toilets, tables, fire grates and drinking water.
The reason you should stay at Stovepipe Wells as opposed to Furnace Creek, which is home to the park’s main visitor center and many other facilities, is that the Furnace Creek Campground requires reservations in early spring. If you like to play it by ear , Stovepipe Wells is where you want to go. There’ll be plenty of space for you to pitch your tent. Death Valley’s campgrounds hardly ever get filled, except for the one in Furnace Creek.
Note, though, that the Stovepipe Wells Campground is closed from May 15 to October 14. It’s simply too hot to be camping that time of year. Furnace Creek Campground is open all year long, however, and is first-come first-served from mid-spring to mid-fall.
Besides these two main campgrounds, there are several others in Death Valley National Park. Check the National Park Service website for a full, up-to-date overview.
When to Visit?
Death Valley National Park is at its prime in early spring. This is when nights still cool off, allowing for relatively comfortable morning hiking. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see wildflowers bloom on the hillsides and desert flats. Creeks still flow in spring, which gives you the chance to see the endemic pupfish frolicking in the water.
Summer is when you really don’t want to be in Death Valley. Afternoon temperatures are often higher than your body temperature, which makes being outdoors extremely uncomfortable. In summer, the only places in Death Valley you’ll want to be are air-conditioned restaurants or saloons, and your car. This eliminates more than half of the fun that the park has to offer. Visit Death Valley in March, which is the ideal time for a road trip to the Southern California desert parks.
How Much Time Do You Need?
Some people “do” Death Valley National Park in just one day, but that’s almost blasphemous. Do this enormous park justice and spend at least three days there. There’s so much to do and see that you’ll need a few days to tackle things properly.
I really recommend camping because the night skies in Death Valley are sensational. This is an International Dark Sky Park for a reason. If you spend 72 hours in Death Valley, you’ll have sufficient time to see all the highlights mentioned above. You’re there anyway, so why not take some more time to explore the park more in-depth?
Death Valley National Park Map
Location: Eastern California, United States
Area: 5,219 square miles (13,517 square kilometers)
Features: Salt flats, wildlife, historic sites, viewpoints, sand dunes, mountain ranges, canyons
Main Attractions: Zabriskie Point, Mequite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin, Dante’s View, Harmony Borax Works, Artist’s Drive
Main Activities: Hiking, cycling, stargazing, camping, 4-wheel driving
Suggested Stay: 3 days
More Information: National Park Service
Death Valley National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Death Valley National Park.