Otherworldly salt flats. Golden sand dunes. Vibrantly-colored badlands. Offering some of the most stunningly beautiful and diverse landscapes on the planet, Death Valley National Park is a not-to-be-missed destination during any trip to Southern California. But with the park’s enormous footprint- 3,000 square miles!- it can be challenging to figure out the best things to see and do, especially if you only have a few days to explore.
So if you’re planning a California road trip or simply wanting to visit this underrated gem, here’s 11 incredible things to do in Death Valley.
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Table of Contents
- How to get to Death Valley
- When to go to Death Valley
- Things to do in Death Valley
- What to know before visiting Death Valley
- Where to stay in Death Valley
Pssst… heading to Southern California? You might want to also check out our posts about:
- Alabama Hills Camping: Everything You Need to Know
- Alabama Hills Movie Road: How to Get to (and Photograph!) the Most Stunning Road in the United States
- 5 Incredible Hot Springs in Mammoth Lakes, California
- Wild Willy’s Hot Spring in Mammoth Lakes, California: A Complete Guide
- Crab Cooker Hot Spring: The Most Stunning Hot Spring in Mammoth Lakes
We actually have a ton of other content about California to help you plan your travels, which you can check out here.
How to get to Death Valley
Death Valley National Park is located in the Mojave Desert of southern California, approximately four hours northeast of Los Angeles and two hours west of Las Vegas, Nevada. If you need to fly in for your visit, I’d recommend flying into Las Vegas and picking up a rental car– airfare is usually cheaper here (check out Skyscanner for the best prices) and the drive is much shorter (and beautiful!).
Alternatively, if you can include your visit to Death Valley in a road trip around California, DO IT! This area of the state is packed with epically cool stuff to see- from the gorgeous landscapes of the Alabama Hills, to the highest point in the contiguous United States of Mount Whitney and the picturesque hot springs of Mammoth Lakes, you could explore the area around Highway 190 for months and months and still not see it all.
It costs $30 per private vehicle for a week in the park or alternatively, you can pick up an America the Beautiful pass for $80, which gets you unlimited access to all of the U.S. National Parks, National Forests, and literally thousands of federally managed sites!
Tip: Be sure to download offline maps on Google Maps and AllTrails ahead of time, given that cell service is nonexistent in most of the park. Cuz you seriously don't want to get lost in a barren desert that holds the title of the hottest place on Earth. You'll need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline trail maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here. If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
When to go to Death Valley
Death Valley is certainly a land of extremes and famously holds the world’s record for hottest-recorded air temperature (a toasty 134° F!). So summer, which typically starts in May and runs through mid-October, perhaps shouldn’t be your first choice when visiting the park.
If you do come during this period (lots of people from all over the world still do!), I’d recommend bringing tons of water with you and exploring the park early in the day or later in the evening (and maybe parking it at the hotel pool in between those times) to beat the intense heat.
Fall (mid-October through November) is a pleasant time to visit the park- the temperature is warm, but not, you know, scorching and the park is fairly uncrowded.
Winter (December through February) brings cooler temperatures, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. With this perfect hiking weather, Death Valley, in my opinion, is one of the best places to visit in California during winter!
The most popular time to visit, though, is the spring- the skies are clear and sunny and fields of vibrant wildflowers carpet sections of the park. My husband, Justin, and I visited in March and it was absolutely lovely- pleasant warm days to explore the park and crisp, clear nights to see the dazzling stars above. If anything, it was almost too hot even in March- it got up to over 90° each day while we were there!
Things to do in Death Valley
While the park is quite large, the variety of diverse terrain that is stuffed into its footprint is still mind-blowing to me. There’s so much to see and do concentrated into this one area- so lace up those hiking boots and let’s get to it!
Since the park is so large and most visitors only stay a day or two, I’m going to start with the part of the park that most visitors flock to- Furnace Creek. Towards the end of the list, though, I’m also including some more off-the-beaten track gems that are more spread out that should absolutely be on your bucket list if you have a few extra days to explore the park.
1. Hike the Golden Canyon
Located here, 3 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center (the central hub of the park)
The Furnace Creek area is home to a sea of caramel-colored, striated badlands, which create narrow canyons that weave in between these towering hills. Along the Golden Canyon Trail, you’ll hike through these corridors, leading you past soaring red rock formations and colorful badlands composed of an ancient lakebed.
There’s actually several different routes for this trail (here’s a helpful map of the various trailheads and routes you can follow):
- Badlands Loop: This 2.7 mile trail (which, unlike the other routes, actually starts at our #2 stop on my list, Zabriskie Point, located here) will take you along the ridges of badlands and the canyons in-between. Be sure to lookout for signs at the junctions to keep you on the right trail.
- Golden Canyon to the Red Cathedral: Remember that “towering red rock formation” I mentioned above? Yeah, that’s the Red Cathedral, a rust-colored wall that reaches almost 1,000 feet over the desert floor. This 3.0-mile out-and-back trail will take you through a maze of golden walls to the foot of this formation. While most of the hike is suitable for any stage of hiker, the very last portion of the trail requires squeezing through some slot canyons and light scrambling- so put on your adventure hat for this one!
- Gower Gulch Loop: This 4.3 mile loop (add an extra mile if you want to take the spur trail to the Red Cathedral) will lead you up, over, and through the colorful badlands. I’d recommend doing the loop counterclockwise, starting the trail to the right of the parking lot- it’s a much more modest incline this way, plus you’ll save the most stunning views for the end of the hike!
- Complete Loop: This 7.8 mile loop (which leaves from either the main trailhead or Zabriskie Point) ensures you don’t miss a thing on the trail- you’ll pass the Red Cathedral, through the striated badlands- alllll the Golden Canyon things!
There’s seemingly a zillion spur trails and junctions on the Golden Canyon trail and it’s not very well-marked, so I’d recommend downloading a map (either the PDF linked above or an AllTrails route) to make sure you stay on the right path.
There is no cell service in the park, so you’ll need to do this before you enter. The trail here is completely exposed to the sun and, due to the badlands’ light coloring, the sun’s reflection makes it feel much hotter along the trail than it actually is.
So bring lots of water (there isn’t any at the trailhead) to make sure Death Valley doesn’t live up to its name!
2. Watch sunrise at Zabriskie Point
Located here, 5 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
If you don’t otherwise sneak a peek of Zabriskie Point along the Golden Canyon trail, it’s a gorgeous (and pointy!) rock formation towering over nearby striated badlands. The formation is so unique-looking in fact, that it’s been used as a shooting location for several movies, from the old school classic Spartacus to The Mandalorian.
You can see the point- and the surrounding swirling badlands- for yourself by walking a paved 0.25-mile trail uphill to a viewpoint. I’d recommend coming here quite early- due to the lookout’s popularity, securing parking in the small lot can be challenging later in the day, plus, sunrise here is absolutely stunning!
3. Walk across the Devil’s Golf Course
Located here, 10 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
Devil’s Golf Course is not as famous as its neighboring salt flat, Badwater Basin, but is just as otherworldly-looking. While most salt flats are fairly smooth, the Devil’s Golf Course is blanketed with clumps of jagged salt, creating a field of spiky salt crystals stretching to the horizon to the Panamint Mountains (and, thus, why it has the intensely metal-sounding name).
You’re welcome to explore the flats, but be careful- the formations are quite stabby-looking and I’d imagine a fall here would be rather unpleasant!
4. Climb the colorful hills at Artist’s Palette
Located here, 14.5 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
The Artist’s Drive Scenic Loop is awesome- both because the 9-mile one-way road winds through vibrant pink, green, blue, and purple badlands, but also because it’s one of the few Death Valley attractions you can do while sitting in your air-conditioned car! The colors that you’ll see along the drive are from volcanic deposits that are rich in compounds like iron oxides and chlorite, which makes the rock formations look like a veritable rainbow.
The Artist’s Palette, a particularly vibrant section of badlands, is the highlight of the drive and only one of a handful of sites along the way with a formal parking lot for you to pull over and explore the colorful hills on foot. I had so much fun climbing over the ice-cream colored hills- to see the formations in all of their brightest, most pastel colored glory, I’d recommend coming in the mid- to late-afternoon. The badlands face east and will look the most vibrant with the soft light of the setting sun illuminating them.
5. Stand at the lowest place in North America at Badwater Basin
Located here, 15 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
Another Death Valley claim to fame- the Badwater Basin salts flats are the lowest point in North America (and the eighth lowest spot on the planet!), ringing in at 282 feet below sea level, sprawling for almost 200 square miles. The flats allegedly got their name from an old timey surveyor whose mule refused to drink from a pool at the start of the flats- but the water here isn’t, in fact, “bad”, just really, really salty.
Actually, Badwater Basin is home to some wildlife- this is the only place on Planet Earth you can find a certain species of snail, creatively named the Badwater snail, as well as salt-loving flora, like pickleweed. You can try to catch a glimpse of the itty bitty snails and the cool martian-looking flats by following the boardwalk from the parking lot onto the flats themselves.
To reach the portion of Badwater Basin that’s geometrically-shaped, you’ll need to follow the path approximately 0.8 miles out- the route is flat and easy and, given that any picture taken out here looks like it should be the cover of a rock album, it’s a totally worthwhile trek.
6. Play on the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes
Located here, 23 miles southwest of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
Death Valley is home to several sand dune systems, but the Mesquite Flats is the most popular and accessible one in the park. Set against the striking purple-hued Black Mountain Range, these dunes, which reach up to 100-feet in height, are best seen at either sunrise or sunset, when the low angle of the sun casts dramatic shadows on the swirling dunes.
Climb up them, sandboard down them (note: sandboarding isn’t allowed on most of the other sand dune systems in the park to protect plantlife, but it is permissible here), and just generally act like a little kid on ‘em!
7. Catch sunset at Dante’s View
Located here, 25 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
Dante’s View is yet another viewpoint, this time perched atop the Black Mountains, providing absolutely spectacular vistas of Badwater Basin, some 5,450 feet below, and the surrounding Panamint Mountain Range. The view here is so otherworldly, in fact, it was used as a shooting location for the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope (fun nerdy fact- George Lucas recruited a bunch of kids from Death Valley Elementary to play Jawas in the movie, which went on to be one of the highest-grossing films of all time).
While it’s absolutely worth the drive to check out the viewpoint in and of itself, consider taking the trail to the right of the parking lot (facing west), which will lead you to the summit of Dante’s Peak and even better views of the valley floor below.
The 1.0 mile out-and-back trail starts off fairly steep but quickly levels off as you cut across the west face of the mountain. Since it’s so short, it’s suitable for hikers of all abilities, but it is quite rocky, so to avoid the whole, falling-off-a-5,000-foot-cliff thing, I’d recommend wearing some hiking boots here (like these for men or these for women).
Whether you stay put at the overlook or hike to the summit, Dante’s View is one of the best places in the park to watch sunset, as the sun sinks beneath Telescope Peak, the highest peak in Death Valley.
8. Find Death Valley’s oasis at Darwin Falls
Located here, 59 miles west of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
With such metal names like “Death Valley” and “Devil’s Golf Course”, I’m hoping you’re picking up on the vibe that the park is a fairly extreme landscape- but Darwin Falls is one shining exception. This spring-fed waterfall, which is 18-feet tall, cascades year round and allows for a unique ecosystem, with amphibians; mammals, like bighorn sheep; and lush greenery, to flourish in the spring’s presence.
To get here, you’ll need to drive about three miles on the unpaved Old Toll Road, which is potholed and has some rocks, but should be passable with most passenger vehicles if you drive carefully and slowly. From the parking lot, it’s a mostly easy two-mile out-and-back hike (with some light scrambling over some rocks) to the falls and the surrounding oasis.
While the waterfall in and of itself is probably not the most impressive one you’ve ever seen, it’s an interesting divergence from the other, more barren landscapes in Death Valley. But if you’re hard to impress or short on time, it might be best to skip this one.
If you do head here, please avoid the temptation to splash around in the springs, as it’s the water source for the Panamint Springs Resort. If you were staying at the resort, you wouldn’t want strangers’ feet (and… other things) floating about in your drinking water!
9. Relax in the Tecopa Hot Springs
Located here, 65 miles southeast of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
If you come in the cooler months, what could be better than soaking in a cozy warm hot spring in the middle of the desert? These natural hot springs are located outside of the park itself, but are an amazing stop if you’re on a road trip or looking to just get a change of scenery from Death Valley. To get to the natural hot springs, you can just park on the side of the road and walk to the marshy pool, which will be a toasty 104°. Word to the wise- like lots of hot springs out west, locals treat this place as clothing-optional, so don’t be surprised if you see some strangers’ nether-regions while you’re here!
If you prefer more developed hot springs or want to enjoy your hot springs experience without seeing other people’s junk, you can consider staying at the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort, which offers a variety of accommodations, from RV sites to cabins, five private hot spring tub rooms for its guests, and other quirky amenities, like a 40-foot stone labyrinth created from rocks taken from all over the area. While you’re in the area, consider a stop at the Tecopa Brewing Company– not only can you pick up some tasty locally-brewed beer, but they sometimes allow visitors to take a dip in their pool!
10. Observe the mysterious rocks at Racetrack Playa
Located here, 83 miles northwest of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center
In a more remote section of Death Valley, there lies a dry lakebed (which has the fun name of a “playa”), known for its mysterious sailing rocks. On this dry, cracked field, huge rocks, weighing up to 700 pounds, skid across the surface of the ground, leaving trails in the mud behind them.
Until recently, scientists were puzzled by how these enormous boulders could possibly move around- but recently uncovered that a rare combination of melting ice and extreme wind (more than 50 mph) cause the rocks to slide across the terrain, sometimes several hundred feet per day (although, I want to point out, unless you’re willing to wait years and for quite a hell of a storm to stop by the Racetrack, you won’t see the rocks in action yourself!).
To see the sliding rocks and their tracks across the playa, you’ll need to take the unpaved Racetrack Valley Road for about 28 miles. Between the pointy rocks on the road that are seemingly made to pop your tires, the extreme washboarding, and some intense potholes, you should not make the drive out here unless you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. To see the sailing stones, you should stop in the second parking lot you’ll pass here- as soon as you step on to the lakebed, you’ll see the famous rocks and their mysterious tails etched into the dirt!
If the playa is wet from rain (which can occur in the summer and winter), don’t walk on it- it will leave footprints that dry into the lakebed that takes several years to erase, which can ruin the stones’ trails and make the lakebed unsightly for other visitors. This is one of the times the whole “Leave only footprints…” saying doesn’t apply!
11. Star-gaze at the incredible night sky
Located literally anywhere in the park!
Given its remote location, Death Valley has some of the darkest night skies in the country and offers such incredible star-gazing opportunities that it’s been named an International Dark Sky Park.
For the best star-gazing, try to time your visit with a new moon and find a spot in the park that has low light pollution (which, given how sparsely populated it is, shouldn’t be hard), like the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes or Badwater Basin. While Death Valley is stunning during the day, the endlessness of the twinkling stars in the night sky may just give the park’s landscape a run for its money.
What to know before visiting Death Valley
The main thing you should know about Death Valley before heading here is that there’s extremely limited resources- and given that it’s located in the middle of nowhere, it’s expensive to haul supplies out for visitors.
There’s a handful of gas stations in the park itself, each of which charge about a trillion dollars for gas (okay, more like $10+ per gallon but still) and no other options for about 100 miles. Same thing with groceries- Furnace Creek has a general store with some nice grab-and-go options and food staples, but expect to pay a premium for any of these items. There’s no cell signal in the park and no medical facilities around for hundreds of miles.
So before heading here, assess what you need- do you have downloaded maps of the park on your phone? Do you have enough food to last your trip (or are you willing to pay the prices of the few stores or restaurants in the park)? Do you have a first aid kit if you were to trip and hurt yourself on a trail? What happens if you get a flat tire on a remote road- do you have a spare tire, the appropriate tools (having a kit like this on hand may be a good idea), and know how to actually change it without being able to reference the internet? Do you have a big refillable water bottle that you can take with you on hikes and while you’re out exploring the park?
Think deeply about what you’ll need for your trip before you head out and make sure you bring everything you’ll need with you. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find any random odds and ends you’ll need within the park itself and even if you do, you’ll likely pay WAY more than you’d like to get it.
Where to stay in Death Valley
Given how enormous Death Valley is, I’d highly recommend staying inside of the park itself during your stay, so you actually have some time to explore, instead of just driving for hours and hours to get to the main sites.
And good news- there’s some surprisingly swanky-looking resorts here. The Inn at Death Valley and The Ranch at Death Valley are both beautiful hotels, each offering plenty of amenities, but most importantly, a pool and air-conditioning. If you’re visiting Death Valley in the summer, I would 1000% recommend staying here as a mid-day reprieve from the desert’s oppressive heat.
If you’re looking for more affordable accommodations, the Panamint Springs Resort offers much more modest accommodations as compared to the other two bougie hotels (and sadly, doesn’t offer a pool), but still provides blessed air conditioning.
If you’re interested in camping, there’s a total of nine campgrounds, operated by the National Park Service, in Death Valley (you can see a list here, which outlines whether they’re for tent- or RV-campers, how much each costs, and whether they take reservations).
Justin and I tend to prefer dispersed (cough, cough- free) campsites and, during our visit, stayed at The Pads, which is an odd, seemingly abandoned half-built RV campground right outside of the park. The landscape here is insanely gorgeous, but be careful if you try to stay here as well- there’s tons of construction debris, like nails and screws, lying on the ground just waiting to pop your rig’s very expensive tires.
Death Valley is such an underrated national park- I hope you love this gem as much as I do. Did you try anything else in the park that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!