Travel

The Coolest Things to See on a Drive Through Death Valley

Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park | Margaret.W/Shutterstock
Death Valley National Park | Margaret.W/Shutterstock

Death Valley is a place of extremes. It’s the largest national park in the Lower 48. It’s the driest place in the country. It’s the lowest point on the continent. And as far as we know, it’s the hottest place on earth: On July 10, 1913, the mercury hit 134 degrees -- the highest air temperature ever recorded. 

A place so vast and inhospitable, Death Valley got its name from a group of California-bound pioneers in 1849. (The pessimistic nomenclature continues throughout the park, in places like Desolation Canyon and Last Chance Mountain.) Behind the intimidating name, however, you’ll find remarkable desert scenery, deep solitude, and astonishing perseverance -- from the once-a-decade wildflower “superblooms” to the schools of tiny pupfish that eke out a tenuous existence in America’s driest desert.

death valley
Put Death Valley on your road trip bucket list. | Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

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.)
MORE: Spectacular areas to hike and explore in Vegas’ backyard

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.

The best time to visit Death Valley? Not summer.

Unless you’re an extreme ultramarathon runner, we see no reason to visit Death Valley in the summer when temperatures are regularly above 120 degrees in the shade. If you find yourself there during extreme heat, stay in your car as much as possible, and drink water and electrolytes like your life depends on it -- because it does!

Early spring and late fall are more reasonable times to visit. Spring brings the possibility of wildflowers, and although large scale “superblooms” are a rare occurrence taking place every 10-15 years, there are usually blossoms to be found somewhere in the park.

Visit in November and you may catch the 49ers Encampment, a week-long Western heritage festival with old timey amusements like wagon rides, pioneer costume contests, wheelbarrow races and Old West music. Winter evenings are chilly, but usually stay above freezing. It’s a good time to explore the valley floor, but steer clear of the mountains where you’ll find snow on the roads and hiking trails.

Basins salt flats
The salt flats in Badwater Basin stretch for 200 miles. | Michal Balada/Shutterstock

The most incredible things to see in Death Valley

Death Valley’s headline attraction is Badwater Basin, a 200-square-mile salt flat at the bottom of the valley. It’s claim to fame? At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point in North America. It’s roughly half-a-mile from the parking lot to the salt flat’s smooth white interior for the obligatory photo. There are no fences or trails so you’re free to roam for as long as you can handle the heat that gets trapped on the valley floor.

In the same section of the park, you can easily hit two great photo ops. One is Zabriskie Point, a hilltop lookout over barren yet beautiful terrain. It’s a panorama of canyons, cliffs and dense folds of earth in multiple shades of yellow, red, and brown. You can snap a pic and be on your way, or hike right into the otherworldly landscape along the 2.5-mile Badlands Loop trail.

Artists’ Palette
No, it's not an eyeshadow palette. It's Artists’ Palette. | Richard Nebesky/Lonely Planet Images/Getty

Even cooler is Artist Drive, a nine-mile scenic detour that takes you past a spot called Artists’ Palette. Whereas the rest of the landscape you’ll see in the park is essentially desert colored, here mineral deposits have made the rocks look like a dropped eyeshadow compact of pinks, purples, blues, and greens. 

Further afield are the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, aka the sand dunes of Tatooine from Star Wars. This isn’t the only dune field in the park, but it is the largest and the most accessible. Give yourself ample time to hike, board, and photograph the sandy hillscape. At sunrise or sunset, you can take amazing high-contrast shots of 100-foot-tall dunes with one side completely darkened by shadow.

If you like something offbeat and different (you are in Nevada after all), there is a rather out-of-the-way side trip you can do just outside the park’s eastern edge. Goldwell Open Air Museum is a mini-sculpture park founded in the ’80s by a group of Belgian artists. It has seven sculptures clustered around a tiny shack of a visitors’ center, which is often closed. Think of it as Nevada’s answer to Prada Marfa, only instead of a storefront, there’s a 25-foot female nude, pixelated and Lego-like, named “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.” It’s a lot of effort to get to, but worth it if you’re the kind of person who appreciates random art in the middle of nowhere.

If you have a real sense of adventure and a couple of days to spend in the park, there’s an even more under-the-radar spot called Saline Valley Warm Springs on the park’s western side. Getting there requires several hours of slow driving over bumpy, rock-strewn dirt roads -- it’s not a journey for the faint of heart or those who can’t change a flat. But you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a desert oasis: a surprisingly well kept campsite, three large spring-fed soaking pools, a bunch of friendly donkeys, and a free-spirited (clothing optional) vibe. Welcome to the weird, wild West.

death valley national park
Stay at a hotel or get some fresh air and pitch a tent on the campgrounds. | Dan Sedran/Shutterstock

Finding supplies and a place to sleep

Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle, or $25 per motorbike for seven days. Within the 3.4 million acre park, distances between sites are vast and phone reception is spotty. Before you enter, stock up on gas, food, and lots of water (the recommended consumption is a gallon per person, per day). Inside the park there are three areas to buy gas and food -- Furnace Creek, Panamint Springs Resort, and Stovepipe Wells Village -- but options are limited and prices are high.

There are three hotel options: the fancy resort accommodation at The Oasis at Death Valley, or the cheap(ish) and cheerful motel rooms at Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs Resort. All three also have campsites, some with RV hookups, and easy access to facilities like restaurants and swimming pools.

If you’re looking for a more affordable option or something closer to nature, there are nine NPS-administered campgrounds in the park. Emigrant campground is tent-only, while Furnace Creek has RV hookups. If you’re planning on spending more than one night, consider basing yourself in different sections of the park to cut down the driving time between sites.

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Sarah Theeboom is a freelance food, travel, and lifestyle writer. She's hiked the W in Patagonia, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Check out her hideous red hiking fanny pack (with special water bottle compartments!) on Instagram and tweet style advice @sarahtheeboom.