Situated on the arid landscape that straddles the California/Nevada border, there’s no shortage of incredible things to do in Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley spans over 5,000 square miles of otherworldly vistas and is the largest national park in the continental United States.
No, seriously, Death Valley holds the record as the hottest place on earth, the record for the lowest place in North America, and the driest place in the United States. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, it’s also the largest National Park outside of Alaska.
All this to say, trust me when I tell you that there’s a plethora of epic things to do in Death Valley National Park and good planning is the name of the game. But that’s where I come in.
In this article we’ll cover:
- Our Travels to Death Valley National Park
- Things to know before visiting Death Valley National Park
- Best Things to Do Death Valley
- Getting to Death Valley
My Travels to Death Valley
I visited Death Valley National Park for the first time on a whim in 2008 while on a road trip with friends. It was during the winter months and we found ourselves amazed by the heat (the park averages 80° in the dead of winter).
Since then I’ve returned six times because I simply can’t get enough. There is something seriously magical about this desert wonderland that I cannot resist. Make no mistake, a lot of our national parks are otherworldly but this one takes the cake.
Things to Know Before You Visit Death Valley
$20 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass(which you can purchase here) which gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which we never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
Cell Service is pretty much non-existent in Death Valley so download your maps and plan accordingly.
Fuel up before you enter the park (even if you’re at like 3/4 of a tank) because the park is massive (we’re talking the largest in the contiguous 48 states). You do not want to run out of gas in the desert.
Death Valley Guide Book
The Best Map
We like this map best for Death Valley.
Drink it. Lots of it. Don’t forget it in the car.
Food options are limited in Death Valley
So, plan accordingly. There is a general store at Stovepipe Wells that is fairly well stocked. Panamint Springs also has a store as does Furnace Creek. There are a couple of restaurants but keep in mind they are located hours apart from each other.
Best Time to Visit
Death Valley National Park is in the winter and early spring when temperatures are manageable and visitation is down. During Summer Death Valley is often the hottest place on earth.
Where to Stay
Here is a listing of the best places to stay in Death Valley.
Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
1. Hike Eureka Dunes
Located in the remote Eureka Valley and situated at 3,000 feet elevation, Eureka Dunes is the most stunning dune field in the park. As such, I consider exploring Eureka Dunes as one of the best things to do in Death Valley National Park.
Eureka Dunes are the tallest dunes in California and perhaps the tallest in North America. But what makes this dune field even more impressive is the jaw-dropping backdrop of the colossal Last Chance Mountains.
And if that wasn’t enough to entice you to visit, did I mention they sing? No, really. Eureka Dunes sing underneath your feet. The phenomenon has puzzled scientists for years but under the right conditions there’s a bassy resonance resembling that of a pipe organ.
But take warning, these sand dunes are deceptively tall and climbing them requires quite an effort. It’s a difficult challenge and can be downright dangerous during the summer months when temperatures are blazing.
However, of all the best things to do in Death Valley National Park, hiking Eureka Dunes is my personal favorite, which is why I listed it first.
Interested in learning more? Eureka Dunes | How to Visit Death Valley’s Best Dune Field
2. Explore Badwater Basin
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, reason alone to visit.
This salty wonderland features dazzling geometric shapes and boasts record temperatures in the summer. Thankfully it is ripe for exploration and pretty easy to get to.
Simply park your car at the Badwater Basin parking lot (get there early, parking is limited) and walk across a wooden boardwalk to the salt flats. Make sure to read the informative plaques at the start of the hike to learn more about the interesting lifeforms that have learned to thrive in this desolate landscape.
When you reach the salt flats, take your time admiring the fascinating jumble of geometric shapes that create this sea of salt. Exploring Badwater Basin is one of the best things to do in Death Valley National Park simply because it’s so otherworldly, it’s an experience you have to see to believe.
Tip: Most visitors just hike out a few steps beyond the short boardwalk but to truly get a sense of the scale of the salt flats one can do the entire 1.8 mile path.
To learn more about this location check out our Badwater Basin post.
3. Sunrise from Zabriskie Point
This location is perhaps *the* best place in the park to watch a sunrise in Death Valley.
This iconic location features panoramic views of the valley and stunning rock formations.
As one of the parks most popular locations crowds here can be quite large especially during the popular seasons.
Be sure to show up early for sunrise to get a good spot!
There is a short, steep paved pathway that takes visitors from the parking lot to the viewpoint.
NOTE: Zabriskie Point is located at a much higher elevation than the valley floor so depending on the time of year you may want to bring a jacket.
To learn more about this location check out our Zabriskie Point post.
P.S. You might enjoy this video on Death Valley (it took a month to film!)
4. Mysterious Rocks at Racetrack Playa
The Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park features rocks that mysteriously move across the cracked desert floor leaving long trails and lots of intrigue.
It is strongly advised that if you are planning to go the the Racetrack Playa that you do so using a high clearance vehicle as the road is pretty rough.
Make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, water, & a snack as the closest services (or service) are a minimum 2-3 hour drive from the Racetrack Playa.
Damage to Racetrack Playa
This location is special and sadly has not always been treated as such. In recent years incidents have occurred with park visitors driving a vehicle on the Racetrack Playa.
Despite extensive efforts to repair the damage done the scars are still visible and will be for many years to come.
DO NOT drive off marked roads here or anywhere else in the park.
If you see someone doing so be sure to take photos, record their license plate number, and file a report at the closest ranger station.
To learn more about this location check out our Racetrack Playa post.
5. Kaleidoscopic Cliffs at Artists Palette
Located near the hub of Furnace Creek, Artists Palette is one of the most photographed spots in Death Valley.
The colorful colors visible in the soil is the result of the presence of rich metals and minerals.
The best time to visit Artists Palette is in the evening when temperatures are cooler and the sun hits the rocks just so to really make their color pop.
Harsh midday sun mutes the vivid colors and should be avoided if possible. Cloudy days make for great photos at Artists Palette.
To learn more about this location check out our Artists Palette post.
6. Play in Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Dunes is the most popular of the five dune fields located in the national park.
Seemingly endless golden dunes roll off toward the horizon with a backdrop of purple mountain majesty.
Located next to Stovepipe Wells village, Mesquite Flat Dunes is an easy stop and a must-see for anyone visiting Death Valley.
Make sure to layer up with sunscreen prior to hiking into the dunes and bring plenty of water.
There is no natural cover from the sun and the sand can be extremely hot to the touch.
To learn more about this location check out our Mesquite Flat Dunes post.
7. Discover the Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest
When most folks think about the park for Joshua Trees, Joshua Tree National Park is the one that comes to mind.
Well, it turns out Death Valley has massive Joshua Tree forests and perhaps none as large as the Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest located near the west entrance to the park.
Lee Flat is situated at a much higher elevation than the valley floors and as such has a very different feel.
Temperatures can be 20 or more degrees different from what visitors find at Badwater Basin.
Sunset is an especially beautiful time to visit this area to watch the light turn colors and sweep across this vast landscape.
To learn more about this location check out our Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest post.
8. Gaze Upon Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater, pronounced “YOU-BE-HE-BE”, was not created by a meteor strike but rather volcanic activity.
Located toward the northern end of Death Valley National Park near Scotty’s Castle, this site is worth the stop.
Make sure to visit Little Ubehebe Crater while stopping by as many visitors find it more photogenic and stunning than it’s larger namesake.
Distance: 2.2 miles roundtrip
Time: 1-2 hours
To learn more about this location check out our Ubehebe Crater post.
9. See Darwin Falls
When we first heard there was a year-round waterfall in Death Valley National Park we thought it was too good to be true too.
The trailhead to this waterfall starts just down the road from the Panamint Springs area of the park.
The whole way in keeps the suspense alive as to whether there is actually any water to be seen in the hottest place on earth.
Shortly down the trail however, a creek appears and the suspense builds.
Seemingly out of nowhere song birds start singing, crickets start chirping, dragonflies begin buzzing, and even frogs start to croak!
Darwin Falls Hike
Distance: 1.9 miles round trip
Time: 1-2 hours
Looking down at what started as a tiny sliver of water one realizes that they are looking at a full blown creek now. And then it’s there – Darwin Falls in all her beauty.
We highly recommend this hike to everyone visiting the park as a great way to refresh, cool off, and witness a desert miracle firsthand.
To learn more about this location check out our Darwin Falls post.
10. Sunrise at Aguereberry Point
The most popular sunrise spot in Death Valley National Park is Zabriskie Point.
However if you want to see the most spectacular (says us) sunrise in the park you’ll have to cross the valley and view it from the other side at Aguereberry Point.
Whereas Zabriskie faces away from the sun, Aguereberry Point looks directly at it creating a more dazzling display of colors and light to usher in the day.
Aguereberry is certainly more remote than Zabriskie and as a result far less crowded.
When we visited we were the only ones there versus Zabriskie which is almost always packed.
Visitors can drive right up to the point without a hike.
To learn more about this location check out our Aguereberry Point.
11. Play a Round at the Devils Golf Course
Death Valley National Park is the king of things with morbid and foreboding names, like Devils Golf Course.
Don’t let that deter you!
Devils Golf Course is many park-goers favorite spot in the whole park.
Devils Golf Course is situated on the valley floor near Furnace Creek.
Here the very earth itself seems tormented, twisted and cracked in all sorts of ways. It’s mesmerizing.
To learn more about this location check out our Devils Golf Course post.
12. Venture Across Ibex Dunes
Ibex Dunes are perhaps the most photogenic dunes in the park (right up there with Eureka Dunes) and almost as remote.
These dunes are located on the southern end of the park off of a rough, high clearance road.
These dunes are a blast to explore but make sure to do so early as they heat up fast, even in winter, and can create dangerous situations for hikers.
One of the coolest parts of exploring Ibex Dunes is finding the abandoned mine on the far side set against the mountains.
This eery spot is a remnant of a bygone era for the park and makes for a great photo opportunity.
To learn more about this location check out our Ibex Dunes post.
13. Walk Under the Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge is a pretty cool spot in Death Valley featuring (drum roll) a natural bridge!
This is a great hike to avoid direct sun by walking on the shadowy side of the canyon (depending on the time of day.
Natural Bridge Hike
Distance: 2 miles round trip
Time: 1-2 hours
The hike to the bridge is all uphill to the bridge and all downhill back to the parking lot, 1 mile each way.
Once you get to the bridge the view back down the canyon is pretty cool giving one a great view of the valley in the distance.
To learn more about this location check out our Natural Bridge post.
14. See the Charcoal Kilns by Night
The Charcoal Kilns are a cool spot to visit, easily mistaken for an abandoned village of windowless conical, beehive shaped homes.
The kilns were used back in the park’s mining days to create charcoal.
We decided to visit the kilns at night under a waxing moon to try and grab a cool night photo.
The kilns are located in the Wildrose section of the park.
The road leading to the Charcoal Kilns is notoriously bad and high clearance vehicles are a MUST, if not 4wd.
To learn more about this location check out our Charcoal Kilns post.
15. See Panamint Dunes from Afar
The Panamint Dunes are a less-traveled dune field in Death Valley National Park that most visitors see from afar rather than actually visit themselves.
The dune field is located in Panamint Valley and the trailhead for the dunes is accessed off of a long dirt road.
Panamint Dunes Hike
Distance: 7 miles roundtrip
Time: 3-4 hours
The hike to the dunes is a longer one at 7 miles and should only be attempted during cooler temperatures as the heat can turn life-threatening in a hurry.
To learn more about about this location check out our Panamint Dunes post.
16. Hike Through Surprise Canyon
The aptly named Surprise Canyon is a real treat for park visitors featuring a lovely creek, some small waterfalls, and even burros!
To get to the trailhead visitors must drive outside the park and then back up the canyon.
Suprise Canyon Hike
Distance: 6.3 miles roundtrip
Time: 3-4 hours
The hike itself is mostly uphill on the way up and mostly downhill on the way back. Every turn features new sites and adventures.
To learn more about this location check out our Surprise Canyon post.
17. Take a Scenic Drive
Death Valley is the largest national park in the US outside of Alaska.
As such, there happens to be some very, very long drives throughout the park.
Regardless of whether you have 4WD capability there are so many great roads to explore in the park.
Make sure you have a good spare tire if you’re heading off road and have a plan in case you break down.
Service is spotty at best throughout the park and it can be a very long time before someone else comes across your vehicle.
Pack plenty of food & water and drive safe!
Planning a trip to Death Valley National Park? Learn how to do it right with our comprehensive Park Guide that covers what to see, campgrounds, lodging, dining, seasons & weather, and so much more.
> Death Valley National Park Guide <
18. Ascend Telescope Peak
Telescope Peak is the highest point in Death Valley National Park and is regularly snow-capped!
I never thought I would see snow in the park so this was a real shocker for me.
One of the best places to see the sunrise over telescope peak is from just past the Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest off Hunter Mountain Road.
19. See Death Valley’s Elusive Burros
Imported by miners during the 19th century, burros are actually an invasive species to the National Park.
As such the park service is actively working to reduce/remove the current population in the park.
Eventually these feral donkeys will be completely removed. Until then they are pretty cool to spot in the park.
We saw several in Surprise Canyon and near the Wildrose area.
Drive slow and keep a keen eye out and there’s a good chance you’ll see some!
20. Avoid Sandstorms
One of the coolest and most mesmerizing things I’ve ever seen in Death Valley was a sandstorm at sunrise.
The way the light illuminated the sand as it hurdled across the valley floor was spectacular.
It also hurt quite a bit as it got close so make sure to take cover if you see one approaching.
High winds can sometimes pick up in the valley. When this happens seek higher ground and you just might get lucky!
21. Find the Famous Death Valley Mud Cracks
Death Valley is famous for scenes like the one above – a valley floor beautifully cracked with geometric shapes.
There are many places all over the valley floor where different shapes, colors and sizes of mud cracks can be found.
Where I Found the Best Mud Cracks in Death Valley
The best mud cracks in my opinion are located on the floor of of the valley. Driving down the Badwater Road south of Furnace Creek there are lots of great spots.
Searching for the best ones is most of the fun!
22. Venture Out to Saline Valley Dunes
If you’re looking for an isolated Death Valley experience, Saline Valley dunes are perhaps the most remote in the park.
Located in Saline Valley, these dunes are beautiful but probably the least striking of all the dune fields in the park.
Death Valley actually has 5 separate dune fields to choose from – my favorite are the Eureka Dunes located on the north end of the park.
23. Explore Little Ubehebe Crater
To get to Little Ubehebe Crater start at the parking lot and follow the rim trail to the right.
Eventually you’ll find a turnoff for Little Ubehebe which is less than a mile walk on a nice path.
We found Little Ubehebe to be the more photogenic of the two and were glad we made the extra effort to hike over to it!
24. Find the Abandoned Historical Remnants
Death Valley is chocked full of abandoned remnants of bygone eras in the land’s history.
You can find all sorts of interesting artifacts from abandoned cars to mining equipment, tunnels (do not enter these), and more.
You are legally required to leave these objects and artifacts just as you found them.
Please resist the temptation to take any of these things from the park or move them from their current positions.
25. Marble Canyon
The hike through Marble Canyon is a great hot day time activity (so long as you’re prepared) as there is typically ample shade and places to rest.
This hike is a short and cool jaunt winding through marble canyon with some fairly narrow passageways.
The entire trail is extremely long at about 31 miles so I recommend just walking a mile or two into the canyon and then picking a point to turn around.
Make sure to pack plenty of water for the hike as even though there is shade, the extreme temperatures are not to be messed with here.
Map of Things to Do Death Valley
Summary of the Top 10 Things To Do in Death Valley National Park
- Eureka Dunes
- Badwater Basin
- Zabriskie Point
- Racetrack Playa
- Artists Palette
- Mesquite Flat Dunes
- Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest
- Ubehebe Crater
- Darwin Falls
- Aguereberry Point
- Devils Golf Course
- Ibex Dunes
- Scenic Drive
- Telescope Peak
- Surprise Canyon
- Panamint Dunes
- Charcoal Kilns
- Natural Bridge
- Mud Cracks
- Saline Valley Dunes
- Little Ubehebe Crater
- Abandoned Remnants
- Marble Canyon
Getting to Death Valley National Park
There are many ways to get to Death Valley National Park.
One of the most popular is flying into Las Vegas and making the 2 hour drive to the park. The second closest major city is Los Angeles at 4 hours away.
Four Wheel Drive: Four wheel drive isn’t an absolute *must* in but it sure opens up your options as to the things you can see.
I’d recommend renting a 4WD vehicle but you’ll be able to see plenty of amazing things without one.
Check out this helpful article for the best places to see in Death Valley with 4WD.
The Award-Winning Death Valley Video
We created this 3 minute video based on our travels to Death Valley.
It won some awards and was even featured by National Geographic.
If you’re planning a trip to the park we encourage you to take a few minutes and watch our film.
To make this film we spent weeks in the national park, mostly in February and March when the temperatures are more manageable.
We traversed hundreds of miles hiking most of the parks trails to capture the park like never before.
The History of Death Valley
According to the National Park Service, the history of Death Valley goes somewhat like this…
Native Americans & 49ers
The land that is known today as Death Valley National Park was inhabited by Native Americans (most recently the Timbisha Shoshone around 1000AD) prior to the arrival of Europeans.
In the mid 1800s trappers and explorers entered the valley on their way to the gold rush in California.
A wagon train group of 49ers (gold seekers) headed to California got lost and ended up in Death Valley.
Things got fairly desperate, so much so that they were forced to kill their own oxen and eat the meat for survival.
Eventually the party did make it out of the valley losing only one person along the way, but that was enough.
It’s said that upon leaving the valley one member of the group turned around and said the famous words, “Goodbye, Death Valley” and thus a park was named.
Mining Camps in Death Valley
In the late 1800s miners moved into Death Valley looking to exploit the land for its mineral value.
The most famous mining operation was that of the Borax works in the park and the famous “twenty mule team borax” named for the number of mules & horses coupled together to haul the loads out of the mines.
Mining would continue to go on in Death Valley for decades to come.
Establishment of the national park
On February 11, 1933 President Hoover set aside two million acres of land mostly in California but a small parcel in Nevada as well to create Death Valley National Monument.
In the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration, infrastructure was built in the park by Roosevelt’s CCC program.
Controversy over the mines in Death Valley came about in the 1930s onward as conservationists fought to close them down.
Finally, on October 31, 1994 the park was signed into law with an additional 1.3 million acres.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Death Valley I recommend this excellent book.
Death Valley National Park Map
Where is Death Valley National Park?
Death Valley National Park is located in the southeastern corner of California on (and just over) the Nevada border. The park is situated in the heart of the Mojave Desert.
Massive slanted valleys that go on forever and seem to lack only the crashed spaceship in the distance, snow-capped mountains, and a year round waterfall (insane, right?) is just the start. Expansive Joshua Tree forests, abandoned mines, conifer groves, and some of the most stunning dune fields in North America comprise this park with the most morbid name.
Best Time to Visit Death Valley
The best time to visit Death Valley National Park is during Winter when the park has sufficiently cooled from the extreme temperatures of Summer.
Winter is a wonderful time to escape the cold weather at home and head to the California desert.
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