This post may contain affiliate links. Feel free to read our disclaimer for more information.
If I asked you to name a few National Parks you would love to visit or you have been to already, chances are Death Valley is not mentioned.
Death Valley National Park is one of the most underrated parks in the country. (In my personal opinion)
Most people when they hear the words Death Valley, they think of nothing but miles of desert with absolutely nothing worth stopping and seeing. Admit it, the words Death Valley just does not sound appealing to the average person.
But, what if I told you Death Valley is quite the opposite of …well death?
**sidenote** Death Valley earned its name back during the gold rush when many tried to cross it in search of regions with more gold. Boom you just learned some history
In fact, on our trip to the 5th largest national park in the United States, we came across all sorts of life. From unique plants to coyotes, rabbits, and reptiles; we saw plenty!
Even without the abundance of desert life, the desert landscape is truly impressive. Now I know you are thinking, how is a bunch of dirt and mountains without trees impressive?
Glad you asked! I wrote up a list of 8 highlights you must see at Death Valley in order to truly appreciate why it is given National Park status.
Badwater Basin is actually the lowest region or point in the United States. The basin is 282 feet BELOW sea level. The park put a sign of where sea level is at on the side of the rock edge to help you visualize how far below you really are.
Badwater rightfully earned its name from a small pool of water that is undrinkable due to the high levels of salt. Most of the basin is dried up and all that is left behind is the salt flats.
Once you park by Badwater Basin, you can get down and walk along a small boardwalk or walk across the salt flat itself. It is especially neat if you save this trip for the evening because I thought the sunset rays glowing across the salt looked beautiful.
FYI, it is actual salt, as in you can eat it.
However, I would not recommend it. Speaking from experience… but I also dare you too! Haha
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
You can find several sand dunes throughout Death Valley, but the easiest one to visit is the Mesquite Flat Dunes. The parking lot is located right next to it, so it requires just a short walk to get into some sand.
The tallest dunes reach up to heights of a 100 ft tall, which may not sound extreme, but walking to the top in the sand is quite the workout! I know I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top! (totally worth it too for pictures of the valley and dunes!)
You will not find trails at this Death Valley attraction, but you are free to roam and play in the sand wherever. You are even allowed to sandboard if that’s your thing.
If traveling during the warmer months, I highly suggest you keep the dunes visit either early morning or evening. Midday would be too hot and there is no shade cover whatsoever. Also, take lots of water and sandals. No one wants a ton of sand in their hiking shoes!
Although, going barefoot is probably the best option, just test how hot the sand is first.
Artist Drive is a great option from those you want to experience the desert from the comfort of their vehicle. Even if you love hiking, I would make time to take this 9 mile drive.
It was given the name Artist Drive because of the unique and awe-inspiring colors amongst the canyon sides and hills.
The colors are a result of minerals such as iron and manganese found within the rock. When you mix these minerals, oxygen, and most importantly time, you get color!!
Best time according to Death Valley park rangers (and myself) is in the afternoon, the rock colors seem to be even bolder and vibrant.
*** NERD ALERT!*** If you look around the section Artist’s Palette, part of Star Wars: A New Hope was filmed there! Just watch out for Jawas and Sandpeople!
Since I am obsessed with all things environmental, M
This hike is not your ordinary stroll through just some canyon. On this 4 mile out and back you will come across several different geological features.
The most obvious feature is the mosaic rock appearance formed by fragments of parent rock (aka really really old rock) held together by hard sediment.
But before you reach this natural art formation, you pass through some narrows of smooth marble like rock.
You actually have to be cautious when crossing this part because it can be really slippery! I was able to use one boulder as a slide.
Many people do not make it past the first 1.5 miles of this canyon trail because of what Death Valley NP calls the “boulder jam”.
It makes the trail appear blocked, but with some adventurous maneuvering, you can easily get through and continue to the rest of the canyon and narrows.
(Pssst! Be adventurous and go further! It’s worth it!)
You will pass a few more narrows of mosaic rock with eye catching colors before coming to the dead end of overlooking an amphitheater.
From there you need to navigate back the same way you came in. The hike totals around 3 hours for the round trip. And of course you can always make it shorter by stopping at the boulder jam.
One of the main visitor highlights and probably most photographed spot in Death Valley is Zabriskie Point.
From this point you will have a stunning view of what is called the golden badlands of Furnace Creek. What makes this point great is you can enjoy the view from a short walk or even choose to hike to it from the Badlands Loop.
I might seem a little redundant, only because it is true, but the best times to capture that golden effect photo is either at sunrise or sunset. Are you catching the pattern? Death Valley shows off her glory at sunrise or sunset.
That is not to say that there is nothing to do during the day. Death Valley has plenty of daytime options, especially if you choose to go during the warmer months.
Our mid-day preference was to get in our 4Runner and go exploring. Death Valley has a few highways and several OHV (off-highway vehicle) trails.
Death Valley by OHV
Rhyolite Mining Ghost Town
This first stop on our “driving tour” is not actually in Death Valley park boundaries, but after reading about it, we had to go.
Rhyolite is located east just outside the park off highway 374, going towards the town of Beatty. So why is it worth the drive?
In 1904, miners entered the region and found quartz and gold. They opened the mine which led to a boom of people moving in and thus the town being erected. However, it didn’t last long. The town closed and became essentially a ghost town by 1916.
Today, you can still see the school, bank, and famous bottle house still standing. There is also a cemetery you can walk in and look at the history of dates.
While you can get to Rhyolite by paved highway, the roads of the actual town are gravel and dirt. (fair warning if traveling by car)
After Rhyolite we hit our next trail to put our “adventure vehicle” to the test.
If you look at the Death Valley map, you will find several OHV trails to explore. One of my favorites was Titus Canyon.
There are two ways to enter the canyon.
However, the entrance within the park is two-way traffic for a short distance.
If you want to experience the whole trail including Red Pass (in Titus Canyon), you will have to enter the one-way trailhead near Rhyolite Ghost Town.
Perfect since we drove there first!
So just to recap, for the longer route, you need to enter the trailhead about 3 miles outside the park off highway 374.
The total trail distance from this point is 28 miles and includes steep grades and some hair raising mountainside turns.
While the trail is not too technical, there are no guard rails, so make sure you are confident in your driving skills.
Along your drive you will come across more mines that you can get down and go walk around and look. It is also a good time to find a large boulder to go pee behind (just saying).
You also will find yourself navigating through some canyon narrows, which again has that hole Star Wars: New Hope vibe.
Want to drive the canyon but don’t have a 4WD vehicle?
No worries! You can rent a jeep in Furnace Creek! They are fully equipped to handle the terrain.
If exploring Death Valley by OHV please refer to the Death Valley Backcountry Roads Page for safety and regulations.
Death Valley Nights
I spent the majority of this post hyping up Death Valley during the daylight hours, but let’s talk about her nights!
Nighttime in Death Valley is just indescribable! Because of how massive the park is, you will not find any city light pollution to dim the stars.
If you can plan properly and go when there is a new moon, you will be treated with jaw-dropping views of the Milky Way.
Even if you were to go during a full moon, the skies are gorgeous and the way the desert landscape shines is spectacular.
Where to Camp
There are several campgrounds in Death Valley as well as the option to primitive camp.
We chose to camp at Texas Springs for 3 reasons:
- We are from Texas, so it was more of an obligation
- It’s just across from the Furnace Creek general store. In case we needed to resupply items and firewood.
- It’s located at a higher elevation giving you some great views of the park and mountains. (Not to mention listening to the coyotes that reside within the area)
If tent camping is not your thing, Death Valley does have a resort you can reserve a room at.
It offers a full restaurant, pool, and rooms with AC.
**Tip- The campgrounds do not have showers! But you can purchase a shower pass from the resort and use the swimming pool locker room showers.
Also, they tell you each person needs to purchase a pass, but that’s not true. The card is just to open the pool gate. We got duped into buying two cards when we only need one. Just have one person go into the resort lobby to buy the card, which is good for 24 hrs. **
If you are camping further away from Furnace Creek, then packing a solar shower is highly recommended! Even though we went during winter, it’s still fairly warm during the day and you will work up a sweat!
When To Go
Death Valley is open year round, but there are more optimal times to visit.
During the summer the temps can soar up to 120 and at night only go as low as 85 at night. (Que the “but it’s a dry heat” comment)
Summer temperatures in Death Valley hot as early as May and stick around through September. You won’t see a drop to the double digits until October.
Which is why we chose to go in the middle of December. The average temperature in Death Valley during winter is around the mid 60’s for the high and low 40’s at night.
To me it’s perfect for daytime hikes followed by nighttime campfire snuggles and s’mores.
Death Valley Packing Tips
When preparing for any camping trip, you have to plan ahead in order to make sure you are ready for anything. Especially when you will be in the middle of a desert!
Luckily, Death Valley does have a few general stores, but you will find items at “national park” prices.
I suggest if your visiting only for a couple of days to bring your own items. Save the general store visit for emergency needs, like if an a raven steals your bacon.
Other tips include:
- Packs the right clothes based on the time of year you are planning to visit.
- Hats and sunscreen are a must year round! Hardly any shade in the desert.
- Be sure your vehicle is in top shape, it would not be good to get stranded on one of the roads or OHV trail. (Think of the towing costs!) make sure your spare tire is good to go.
- Pack water jugs! The campgrounds have potable water so make sure you are staying hydrated! And keep a jug full when you go out exploring! The trails do not have water fountains.
- If your planning on tent camping, I highly recommend a sleeping pad or mattress, the ground is slightly rocky.
Want a full camping checklist? Sign up below and receive a free printable checklist to make sure you have all your camping needs!
Thanks for stopping by! If you have been to Death Valley, I want to know what was your favorite spot to hike or take pictures!
Leave me a comment below!!!