The world is full of fascinating destinations, and one such destination which has captivated many eyes is Death Valley National Park.
Contrary to its forbidding name, Death Valley National Park is a stunning desert wonderland and one of its most visited national parks. It is full of strange structures that make you feel as if you’ve arrived on another planet. Strange pebbles that seem to move on their own; mountains splashed with different pastel colors, towering mountains, bright white salt flats, and jaw-dropping peaks soaring 11,000 feet above nearby valleys characterize this tremendous and legendary terrain. A visit to Death Valley National Park will offer you memories that will last a lifetime.
Doesn’t all these things induce you to explore this otherworldly landscape this vacation? So in this post, we will talk about how you can plan your perfect trip to Death Valley National Park.
1. About Death Valley National Park
Before you start packing up your backpacks, let’s discuss some things you may or may not know about Death Valley National Park. Death Valley National Park is located in southeastern California, and east of the Sierra Nevada, near the California–Nevada boundary. It is a magnificent but challenging region where endemic wildlife have adapted to this arid and harsh desert environment. It is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, with approximately 1,000 miles of roadways providing access to popular and secluded areas.
The name ‘Death Valley’ does give a mysterious vibe; doesn’t it make you wonder how it got this name? Well, there is a story behind it. It has been said that during the 19th-century winter, a group of venturing pioneers lost their way here. Although only one person died, the rest of the pioneers thought they would share the same fate. Somehow the group was rescued; while they were rescued, one pioneer exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” giving rise to this name.
Death Valley National Park contains Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the North American continent, while it is also the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. The Badwater Basin is an endorheic basin approximately 280 feet below sea level. It is considered the hottest spot, with the most significant temperature ever recorded. It’s also one of the driest spots on the planet, with an annual rainfall of fewer than 2 inches.
Death Valley is a realm of extremes, where the intense heat is a force of nature, and the air dries everything it comes into contact with. With this, not everyone can imagine people living in such a place. Not everyone can envision humans living in such a location. But, the Death Valley has been an ancestral land to the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. What’s more, the location of the Death Valley area has a long mining history. The last mine ceased to operate in 2005.
This place started becoming famous as a tourist spot after being declared the ‘Death Valley National Monument’ in 1933. It was officially designated as a National Park in October 1994. This place is full of records and history, but it is also a place that holds magnificent beauty. So, now let’s move toward all things you can’t miss out on in Death Valley National Park.
2. Death Valley National Park Amazing Sites and Trails
This park is too large to explore on foot, so the first thing you ought to do is get a map. Then what? Where should you go first, or what activity should you participate in first? To save your time and energy, let’s make a list of sites and the fun things you can’t miss out on when visiting Death Valley National Park.
2.1. Sunrise at Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point is the most popular site for watching sunrise or sunset at Death Valley National Park. It offers a surreal view of meandering, tricky ridges of golden, yellow, and brown mud. The shades of ridges look even more spectacular in the morning and evening. The dawn sun casts beautiful pinks and purples across the valley on the Panamint Range. You will find yourself immersing in the beautiful view.
Zabriskie Point is one of the favorite sites for photographers. Furthermore, this is a place where anyone can go. You only need to hike a little, and it just takes 5 to 10 minutes to walk to get there from the parking lot. You could also get to Zabriskie Point by driving four miles east from Furnace Creek on Highway 190.
Even if you can’t reach it at sunset or sunrise, you shouldn’t miss out on this place. It’s still worth visiting and does not require much of your time to explore the Zabriskie Point. The view from Zabriskie Point will make you wonder how stunning the combination of ridges and sky could be.
2.2. A Drive Down to the Badwater Basin
As I mentioned earlier, Badwater Basin is the lowest point on the North American continent. It’s around 280 feet below sea level, and you would have guessed that it’s pretty hot there, even in the summer months.
Once you reach here, you will see a land covered with white surface. Unfortunately, it’s not snow; the ground is covered with salt crystals making them look like snow. Badwater Basin is a lake, but the number of times you will find water in it is pretty less. In either case, this place is fascinating. When there is no water, you can roam around. The surrounding mountain ranges get reflected on the lake surface when there is water. The view of the water surface is spectacular and great for photography.
This place is easily accessible from the parking lot off Badwater Road, but you have to walk a little to get a good view of salt polygons. Some history about this place suggests the name Badwater Basin was kept after a mule surveyor refused to drink from here. Though the water is not bad, it’s too salty for humans to consume. Despite this, many it is a home for many organisms.
2.3 Best Overview of Death Valley from Dante’s View
Dante’s View is another spectacular vista, especially in the morning when the rising sun illuminates the Panamint Mountains in pink and gold. It offers visitors an unrivaled view of Death Valley National Park, churning white salt flats below, and the Panamint Range to the west. Even the night view is as beautiful as the day view. It is one of the favorite spots for photographers. Enormous mountains surround death Valley, and if you want to get the best view of them, there is no place better than Dante’s View.
Dante’s View is sited around 5500 ft above the Badwater Basin, in the black mountains. You can quickly head towards the east side from the Zabriskie Point on Highway 190, or if you are at Furnace Creek, a 40-minute drive on Highway 190 is all required to reach there. It’s a pity you don’t go hiking when you are up there. There are short and easy hikes along the ridge to the north. One can also continue along the ridge to Mount Perry if you want an adventurous hike.
Do note that the temperature on the valley floor and up there can be different. It is often cold and windy up there. So, do take some extra clothing with you, if you plan to visit there.
2.4. Explore the Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Before starting your Death Valley adventure journey, Furnace Creek Visitor Center is the first place you must visit. It is one of the most significant examples of modern architecture, built under California’s Mission 66 in the 1950s. Located between the Stovepipe Wells Village and Death Valley Junction, it serves as the central hub for everything in Death Valley, from paying entrance fees to inquiring about information.
You will first see a sign in front of the building showing the day’s temperature. The building contains a museum; you can explore exhibitions and check out the planned route on the scale model of the national park. It’s a great place to learn about the Death Valley’s intriguing history and geography. You can also get help from rangers on how to explore the Death Valley, National Park. Brochures and maps are also available here. You can also participate in ranger programs if you visit between December and April.
Furnace Creek is usually open from morning till early evening. Do not forget to try out the books and watch the 20-minutes film explaining the national park’s history.
2.5. The Ghost Town: Rhyolite
Who wouldn’t have imagined a haunting place when listening to the name of Death Valley for the first time? When I heard the name ‘Death Valley’ for the first time, I thought it would be something like a haunting valley or maybe some ghost town. To my disappointment, it wasn’t a haunting place. But, the disappointment was only for a while, as it turned out to be such a fascinating place, and there are some ghost towns there.
You may stumble across ghost towns on your Death Valley National Park trip. Most of these towns were built for mining purposes, and when the industry dried up, so did their bustling populations. One such ghost town is Rhyolite.
Rhyolite is an old abandoned mining town with crumbling and deteriorating historic buildings that bear witness to its golden days. You would surely be surprised if I told you that ghosts actually live in this town and you can even see them! But don’t worry, they may look real but are just sculptures.
In the Rhyolite ghost town, you will see the old unpaved Main Street, the remnants of abandoned homes and businesses that are now unrecognizable, sometimes with only a mound of stones left, a signboard of ‘Rhyolite’ sign that was double-painted with ‘Rhyolite Ghost Casino,’ the old general shop and an old railroad depot. The life-size ghost figures add an even more haunting feel to it. A dwarf figure holding a mining ax is a tribute to Shorty Harris’s abstract metal sculpture depicting a desert prospector’s life with a pickaxe and a penguin.
You will also find some ghostly hollow figures congregate on a wooden platform, and somewhere nearby, a mysterious hooded shell figure hunching over flat-tired bikes, hinting that there is no way out. You can also take photographs with these ghosts, and if you aren’t too scared, you can also take a selfie from under their open hoods. These ghost structures were built by a group of Belgian artists in the 1980s and added more versatility to the Death Valley National Park. It may be a bit far to travel, but it’s worth trying.
2.6. Trail Along the Rim of Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater is a spectacular reminder of Death Valley’s destructive volcanic past. Hundreds of years ago, a massive amount of hot lava collided with the groundwater, forming a giant steam pocket that abruptly exploded. These giant steam pockets formed the craters we see today, known as maar craters.
It may sound like there is nothing but some shallow and eroded craters. But believe me! The view from the rim of the Crater is breathtaking. The Ubehebe crater hole has colorful strips because of sedimentary dirt; there are other smaller craters with similar appearances; they are predominantly black and ash-colored, with eroded walls displaying bright bands of orange and rust minerals. The Ubehebe Crater Trail is a spectacular path within the Death Valley National Park. The trail circles the massive and highly stunning Ubehebe Crater, providing amazing views of the remarkable volcanic structure. Visitors enthusiastic about hiking can also trail to the bottom of the crater.
Hikers of all ages can enjoy this place. The trail takes 50 minutes to explore, and it can be considered a moderately challenging route. There are 3 ways to explore the Ubehebe crater:
2.6.1. The Ubehebe Crater Rim Trail
As you would have guessed, you have to trail along the rim in this way. It’s a 2-mile round around the crater; you have to move in the anticlockwise direction to complete it. The sandy rim is primarily flat, but the west side of the crater is 270 feet higher. Once you arrive at the high point along the rim, you will better view the vast debris field left by Ubehebe’s climactic birth. This is the best if you are with family or want something more than a stroll.
2.6.2. The Little Hebe Trail
This hike is much easier and shorter than the rim trail. It’s a one-mile round-trip hike to a considerably smaller nearby crater called Little Hebe. There is a trail divide at 0.25 miles; taking the right side can be considered daring, but views of the grey volcanic tuff badlands along the way are worth it. After 0.3 miles, the left and right forks rejoin near the rim of Little Hebe Crater. One can also see the yellow and orange stone that divides the crater’s eastern side along the way, and the fantastic view of a vast cinder field darkens the desert floor beyond the crater.
2.6.3. Hike Into The Crater
If you want to appreciate the enormity of nature, this is for you. The trail to the bottom begins just at the viewpoint and descends at a 600-foot climb. Once reaching the bottom, you can explore the crater floor’s dry, broken mud and plants. The way downward is easy, but the hike back up to the crater rim on loose gravel is more complicated. It’s a beautiful experience, but the first and second options are much better if you are up for beautiful views.
Note: The hike and trail are pretty safe, but the crater sides are steep and loose, so watch your hiking steps.
2.7. Sand Boarding on Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
How does one define the beauty of the desert? I would say it’s the massive waves and sand textures that give it a touch of unique beauty. Mesquite Flat Dunes are not the tallest dunes, but you can quickly go there. The dune’s dark ripples and stark, beautiful curves add the Death Valley National Park’s most distinctive features.
A stroll across these dunes will convince you that you’ve arrived somewhere new. Because of the constantly moving desert sands, there are no established trails in the dunes. So, you can stroll as you want.
The best time to visit this place is shortly before sunrise or around dusk. The soft sunlight in the morning forms long shadows, which is just the best view for photographs. Many creatures live in these dunes, including nocturnal kangaroo rats and sidewinder rattlesnakes. Early in the morning, you can see animal tracks left by animals during the night, particularly the tiny footsteps of birds and rats. The night view is as stunning as the morning and sunset view; the moon and stars in the sky look fascinating. But it would help if you kept an eye out for creatures like rattlesnakes on summer nights.
The last and the most exciting thing about the Mesquite Flat sand dunes is sand boarding. On the other dunes, except for Saline Sand Dunes, sand boarding is not allowed. The best time for sand boarding is during the spring and fall, as the temperature won’t be too high. Bring plenty of water because the climb back up the steep sand dune will be exhausting.
2.8. Can’t Golf on the Devil’s Golf Course
The Devil’s Golf Course is a massive salt pan on the Death Valley floor in Death Valley National Park in eastern California. It is slightly higher than the lowest point at Badwater. Thus the saltpan stays dry, allowing the wind and weather to erode the mineral deposits into jagged shapes. The Devil’s Golf Course got its name from a park brochure that stated that “only the devil could play golf” here.
Devil’s Golf Course is not that far away from Furnace Creek and Badwater. No paths lead farther into the Golf Course, and none are required. The views from this vantage point are breathtaking. The Panamint Mountains rise above you and make an excellent background for the mysterious “golf course.” Although it is not restricted to roaming around the golf course, I recommend thinking before going there. The ground is uneven and sharp, rendering visitors vulnerable to cuts, sprained ankles, and broken bones.
Devil’s Golf Course is one of the most unique and fascinating sites in the Death Valley National Park. Do be careful while exploring this place, and please avoid going there if you have children on this trip.
3. Things You Shouldn’t Forget to Carry
Let me provide you all with an essential list you should never forget to carry on your trip to Death Valley National Park:
- Sunscreen – A lot of it! Death Valley is practically a desert area; you should put on a lot of sunscreens to avoid skin burns or rashes.
- Water and Food – Dehydration is expected in this place due to the hot climate. You are recommended to carry at least one gallon of water per person. Snacks are a must! You got to travel a lot and replenish the energy you need to have food.
- Sunglasses and Hats – The sun would be too scorching. It’s better to protect your protect yourself from the sun.
- Ice and Ice Chest – Again, because of the hot climate.
- Sturdy footwear and Light Clothing – You have to walk on sand and do a lot of hiking.
- Battery Pack and Satellite GPS – Death Valley is very lonely. Therefore, having a satellite GPS and a battery pack would be beneficial.
4. In the End
There are many more exciting activities and sites to visit in the Death Valley National Park. It’s no wonder since it is one of the largest national parks. So, if you want to explore most of it, you need at least two days.
Death Valley is not dead; it’s entirely alive with brilliant blooms, rare creatures, rich history, and beautiful scenery. So, share your favorite sites or travel experience to the Death Valley National Park in the comment section.