Snow-capped mountain peaks, vast salt pans and tickling salt creeks, tall sand dunes, multicolored canyons and ocher badlands make up the impressively varied landscapes of Death Valley National Park, California. This immense variety results in a wealth of Death Valley National Park highlights. In this post, you’ll find the best nine of them.
Lower, Drier, Hotter – A Place of Extremes
Not your typical desert, Death Valley is a place where the use of superlatives is appropriate, necessary even. Its sheer vastness is mind-boggling, the number Death Valley National Park highlights extensive. This is where Mother Nature is at its mightiest, showcasing what she’s capable of.
In addition to encompassing North America’s lowest point (282 feet or 86 meters below sea level), Death Valley is officially the hottest place in America (134°F or 57°C) and is the largest American national park outside of Alaska (5,219 sq. miles or 13,517 km²). Give or take a square mile or two, it’s literally as big as Flanders, which, in case you don’t know, is where I’m from. That fact alone blows my mind. Death Valley is also one of the driest places on the continent.
Death Valley Is Not Dead
Besides its enormous diversity in landscapes and its seemingly unforgiving environment, Death Valley isn’t “dead” at all. The abundance of plant and animal life in the park is actually pretty astonishing. It’s 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 most well-known example being the endemic pupfish that live in the park’s salt creeks.
Death Valley National Park Highlights You Shouldn’t Miss
Below, you’ll find my nine favorite attractions in Death Valley. These activities should be the cornerstones of your itinerary, whether you stay only one day or spend a whole week in the park.
1. Enjoy Death Valley’s Most Famous Landscape at Zabriskie Point
The golden sun rays of the early morning or late afternoon paint the badlands underneath Zabriskie Point all kinds of yellow, ocher and orange. This is one of the best—if not the single best— places to watch the sunrise and sunset in Death Valley National Park. (Dante’s View is a strong competitor, though – see number three below.)
Zabriskie Point lies a short drive southeast of Furnace Creek. Named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, the general manager of the early-1900s Pacific Coast Borax Company, the overlook offers spectacular panoramic views of the eroded landscape below. Ocher-colored badlands stretch out before you in a sun-scorched maze of waves, canyons and gullies, while the Sierra Nevada mountains tower their way toward the sky in the far distance.
Although the view from Zabriskie Point is one of the major Death Valley National Park highlights, you’ll appreciate this remarkable landscape a lot more if you actually walk through it. We’ll get to that later in this list.
2. Visit the Lowest Point in North America in Badwater Basin
Badwater Basin is home to the lowest point in North America, one of the many things that make Death Valley National Park so extraordinary.
That lowest point lies 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level and is reached after a short walk across the salt pans from the parking lot. From Furnace Creek, you can get there in about 25 minutes.
Badwater Basin got its name from a small pool near the parking lot, named by a pioneer whose horse refused to drink the water. Although the water is extremely salty and undrinkable, there is some life in the pool, including water insects, pickleweed and the endemic Badwater snail.
This is arguably the most well-known of all Death Valley National Park highlights and one of those places you really shouldn’t skip. When you walk across the salt pan to the lowest point, absolutely make sure to wear a hat and put some sunscreen on. It gets scorching hot and the white salt reflects the sun rays, doubling your chances to get sunburned.
3. Enjoy a Glorious Dante’s View Sunset
If things get too hot in the valley—and they will—during the day, you can escape to the surrounding mountains. One of my favorite places to do that is Dante’s View. With an elevation of 5,476 feet (1,669 meters) above the valley, it’s much, much cooler up there. From Dante’s View, you’ll have a truly phenomenal view of Death Valley below and the Sierra Nevada in the distance.
What’s unique about this particular spot is that you can see both the lowest (Badwater – 282 feet or 86 meters below sea level) and highest (Mount Whitney – 14,505 feet or 4,421 meters) points in the contiguous United States at the same time. Dante’s View is also one of the absolute best places in Death Valley National Park to watch the sunset.
You can get there from Furnace Creek in less than an hour, a drive that also passes by Zabriskie Point.
4. Learn About the Park’s Mining History at Harmony Borax Works
A rich borax mine in the late-19th century, Harmony Borax Works was instrumental in opening up Death Valley to pioneers, traders, workers and, later, tourists. In its heyday, Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men.
One of the biggest challenges, besides sustaining a team of miners in such a hot and arid place, of operating a mine in the middle of a vast desert was getting your product out to the market. Harmony Borax Works figured it out and became renowned for its large mule teams and double wagons. These hardy animals and men traveled the long overland road to Mojave, the location of the nearest railroad station. Harmony Borax Works’ “twenty-mule teams” became a symbol of the mining operations in Death Valley.
Nowadays, you can visit the remains of the Harmony Borax Works plant, situated just outside of Furnace Creek. There’s a short interpretative trail that takes you around the mine and past an old mule wagon. This important site in Death Valley’s history is on the National Register of Historic Places.
5. Explore the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Because it’s a desert, you might think that Death Valley is covered in sand dunes. It’s what we usually imagine deserts to look like, after all. It’s not, though. Sand dunes cover less than 1% of Death Valley’s surface area. And this one percent is spread across five different dune areas, of which the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the most well-known.
They’re also the most accessible sand dunes in the national park, situated just off of Highway 190, a couple of miles east of Stovepipe Wells. These dunes are not the tallest in Death Valley National Park—the tallest are the Eureka Dunes in the far north of the park, which are more than six times higher than the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. They are, however, the largest dune field in the park.
Consisting of three dune types—star, crescent and linear dunes—, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a super-fun outdoor playground. Children and adults alike will have a blast exploring these hills of soft sand. They are no official hiking trails. You’re allowed to explore as you please. Climbing the dunes, jumping, running and rolling down,… it’s all allowed and it’s so much fun. In terms of footwear, consider wearing closed hiking boots or simply going barefoot.
The dunes are at their most photogenic around sunrise and sunset. Under a full moon, they’re absolutely magical. If you want to go for a couple-hour dune hike, I recommend doing that early in the morning. It gets hot in the desert during the day, up to a point that the sand’s temperature is so high that’s unbearable to walk on it.
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6. See Thousands of Salt Rocks at Devil’s Golf Course
Even though this is by no means the most spectacular sight in the park, I do consider Devil’s Golf Course to have its place among these other Death Valley National Park highlights. I liked it a lot because it looks incredible in the late afternoon. With the sun low in the sky, the remarkable halite salt crystal formations in this huge salt pan cast countless wonderful shadows across the desert floor.
The remarkable landscape is made up of literally thousands of serrated salt rocks, eroded away by water and wind, some as sharp as a knife. You can walk over and among them, but make sure to wear sturdy shoes and be careful. If you trip, you’re certain to get hurt—those rocks can cut.
These extraordinary features are the reason behind this area’s interesting name. It was said that “only the devil could play golf” there.
7. Cruise Through Colorful Canyons on Artist’s Drive
One of the greatest short drives in Death Valley National Park, Artist’s Drive meanders through brightly colored hills and canyons. The result of the oxidation of various chemical elements such as iron, manganese and mica, a process that took many millennia, this landscape contains all kinds of red, yellow, pink, purple and green.
Nine-mile (14.5-kilometer) Artist’s Drive is a one-way road that runs from south to north off of Badwater Road. The drive’s most scenic spot, Artist’s Palette, lies about midway. There, you’ll have great views of both the valley below and of a colorful hillside above.
8. See Rare Pupfish in Salt Creek
Salt Creek, on Highway 190 between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, is home to Cyprinodon salinus salinus, commonly known as Salt Creek pupfish. In fact, it’s the only home of these fish in the entire world.
In prehistoric times, Death Valley used to be a massive lake. After that lake dried up about 10,000 years ago, only small streams, springs and trickles were left. Salt Creek is one of those, the last habitat of the evolutionary descendants of fish that once lived in that large lake.
Pupfish are exceptional in the sense that they adapted from living in freshwater to surviving in saltwater. That’s a truly remarkable feat in itself, but these rare pupfish are also able to survive in water that ranges in temperature from almost freezing to 108°F (42°C). They’re one of the hardiest fish species in the world.
A half-mile (800-meter) boardwalk loops around and over Salt Creek and its pools, wetlands, pickleweeds and salt grasses. The best time of year to see pupfish frolicking in the water is spring. (They go dormant in summer.)
9. Hike the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Badlands Loop
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the badlands at Zabriskie Point can only be fully appreciated by walking through them. It’s always great to get a new perspective of a landscape by actually walking through, in addition to overlooking, it. You’re encouraged to strap on your hiking boots and explore the ocher-colored badlands that you see below you.
There are a few options. You can hike the 2.7-mile (4.3-kilometer) Badlands Loop for a nice introduction, but I recommend making it a much more challenging loop by combining the Badlands Loop and the Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon Trails.
This three-trail loop hike takes you through the heart of these golden badlands, to places such as Red Cathedral and Zabriskie Point, and through barren canyons and gullies. The entire circuit is about 8 miles (13 kilometers) long and takes at least four hours.
You can start the hike at either Zabriskie Point or at the parking lot off Badwater Road. I suggest starting at the parking lot. This way, you’ll save the (more or less) downhill part of the hike for the way back. It’s a challenging hike in a sun-soaked, shadeless and hot desert landscape. Saving the most strenuous section, back up to Zabriskie Point, for last isn’t an option I would recommend.
This strenuous hike is one of the best day hikes I’ve ever done and one of the greatest Death Valley National Park highlights. In fact, if you do anything in the park, let it be this hike. It’s definitely challenging, not so much because of the trails’ steepness, but because it’s an environment that isn’t too kind on the human body. Start this hike as early in the morning as you can, bring lots and lots of water, put on a hat and bring sunscreen.
It’s worth the effort. This is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley National Park for a reason.
When to Visit Death Valley National Park
The high season is in winter and spring, with spring receiving most of the visitors. The spring wildflower bloom attracts thousands of people, so if you’re planning on visiting Death Valley National Park between late February and mid-April, make sure to book ahead.
If you’re camping, you’ll probably be able to find a spot, though, as many campgrounds are first-come first-served. The key to scoring a site is simply arriving early in the morning.
Visiting in summer is only suitable for masochists. If you like suffering in ridiculous heat, visit the park in July or August. If you’re a sane person, go there in early spring.
You’re All Set!
This overview of Death Valley National Park highlights will send you on your way toward one of the best national park experiences in America. I love this park. It was my favorite of the fifteen national parks we visited during our road trip earlier this spring.
It’s a huge park, though, so take your time. To really appreciate all these Death Valley National Park highlights, you’ll need three full days. Minimum. Also, the night skies are to die for. Definitely pitch a tent at one of the park’s several campgrounds instead of staying at one of the resorts in the villages. We stayed at the Stovepipe Wells campground, which is first-come first-served and lies right next to a bunch of great facilities, from a grocery store to a saloon and gas station. For a small fee, you can also use the resort’s pool and showers just across the road. (The campground itself has no showers.)
Before you start exploring, make sure to visit one of the park’s visitor centers. There’s a kiosk in Stovepipe Wells. The main visitor center is in Furnace Creek. Pick up a map and a newspaper, which is always chock-full with useful up-to-date information and suggestions.
Looking for more information to plan your trip? Head on over to the park’s official website.
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