Death Valley is sort of a sleeper national park. It’s not an obvious blockbuster like Yellowstone or Zion -- it’s a slow burn, a mood piece that’s more about atmosphere than action. And to really feel that you need to get out of your car. Death Valley is big, empty, and remote. In that immense desolation, the occasional signs of life that you do encounter -- an abandoned mine shaft, a 25-foot-tall sculpture of a nude Lego woman -- are all the more intriguing for the unlikely feat of being there at all.
This is a popular day trip from -- or en route to -- Las Vegas; it’s around three hours by car from LA, and two hours from Sin City. There isn’t a ton to see along the way, but the remoteness is part of the draw. (It’s also why dozens of films, including Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, were filmed here.)
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If you can, plan to stay at least one night. For one thing, the park is roughly the size of Connecticut, and attractions within it are very spread out. The other benefit of staying overnight is experiencing how beautiful the desert is when the sun and heat die down. Dawn and dusk are the best times to hike, when the yellow and gold-toned earth seems to glow at Zabriskie Point, and you can walk the tightrope that forms at the top of each sand dune where the light and shade meet.