Death Valley

Death Valley National Park | The hottest, driest, and lowest national park in the United States

Death Valley National Park is an American national park that straddles the California–Nevada border, east of the Sierra Nevada. The park boundaries include Death Valley, the northern section of Panamint Valley, the southern section of Eureka Valley and most of Saline Valley. The park occupies an interface zone between the arid Great Basin and Mojave deserts, protecting the northwest corner of the Mojave Desert and its diverse environment of salt-flats, sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons and mountains. Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, as well as the hottest, driest and lowest of all the national parks in the United States. It contains Badwater Basin, the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and lowest in North America at 282 feet (86 m) below sea level. More than 93% of the park is a designated wilderness area. The park is home to many species of plants and animals that have adapted to the harsh desert environment including creosote bush, Joshua tree, bighorn sheep, coyote, and the endangered Death Valley pupfish, a survivor from much wetter times. UNESCO included Death Valley as the principal feature of its Mojave and Colorado Deserts Biosphere Reserve in 1984

A series of Native American groups inhabited the area from as early as 7000 BC, most recently the Timbisha around 1000 AD who migrated between winter camps in the valleys and summer grounds in the mountains. A group of European Americans, trapped in the valley in 1849 while looking for a shortcut to the gold fields of California, gave the valley its name, even though only one of their group died there. Several short-lived boom towns sprang up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to mine gold and silver. The only long-term profitable ore to be mined was borax, which was transported out of the valley with twenty-mule teams. The valley later became the subject of books, radio programs, television series, and movies. Tourism expanded in the 1920s when resorts were built around Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Death Valley National Monument was declared in 1933 and the park was substantially expanded and became a national park in 1994.

The natural environment of the area has been shaped largely by its geology. The valley is actually a graben with the oldest rocks being extensively metamorphosed and at least 1.7 billion years old. Ancient, warm, shallow seas deposited marine sediments until rifting opened the Pacific Ocean. Additional sedimentation occurred until a subduction zone formed off the coast. The subduction uplifted the region out of the sea and created a line of volcanoes. Later the crust started to pull apart, creating the current Basin and Range landform. Valleys filled with sediment and, during the wet times of glacial periods, with lakes, such as Lake Manly.

Death Valley is the fifth-largest American national park and the largest in the contiguous United States. It is also larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and nearly as large as Puerto Rico. In 2013, Death Valley National Park was designated as a dark sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association.

How Death Valley Got its Name

Death Valley National Park got its name from a group of pioneers called the 49ers who perished while trying to cross this desolate stretch of land. Today Death Valley National Park can be visited safely as long as you follow precauthions and carry plenty of water.

Details of Death Valley National Park

Location: California

Established: October 31, 1994

Size: 3,408,395.63 acres

Visitation: 1,146,551 (2024)

Safety Tips for Death Valley National Park

  • Make sure to have an ample supply of water before visiting
  • Stay on paved roads, and let people know where you are going and when you plan to return.
  • If you plan on visiting any remote places in Death Valley, consider conveying with two or more vehicles should a breakdown occur.
  • Make sure you have a full tank of gas and carry a paper map along with your GPS and cell phone.

Top things to do in Death Valley National Park

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are Death Valley’s most popular and easily accessible sand dunes, and some dunes tower as high as 100 feet. Even if you don’t fancy sandboarding, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are a great place to release your inner child and attempt to run down the sandy slopes.

  • Artist’s Palette

Artist’s Palette is located on Artist’s Drive loop located, just off Badwater Road. There is a tiny trail from the parking and toilet facilities to the viewpoint itself, and it is very easily reached if you are short on time. The attraction sits along the 9-mile Artist’s Drive loop, which is an attraction in its own right. It is worth allowing extra time to enjoy driving Artist’s Drive at leisure.

  • Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is a vast, jagged arch that towers 35 feet above the canyon floor. Natural Bridge was formed by a rare series of flash floods over thousands of years. Visitors can hike to the bridge to walk underneath and admire the geological formation in all its glory. Visiting Natural Bridge is one of the most impressive things to do in Death Valley.

You have to hike to Natural Bridge, but the route is only a 2-mile round trip. It is the perfect hike if you don’t want to walk long distances in the heat, are in a rush, or traveling as a family. You also get a beautiful view of the salt flats on the return hike, sure to keep your spirits up.

Natural Bridge Trailhead is accessed via a dirt road off Badwater Road. You’ll find plenty of parking at the end but beware that the dirt road conditions can be rough. It is worth checking the road conditions on the National Park Service website before you attempt it. It is best suited to 4WD because of the likelihood of deep potholes.

  • Devil’s Golf Course

The attraction is a salt pan, but the floor is so jagged and uneven that an old National Park Service guidebook quipped that ‘only the Devil could play golf there’. The salt pan floor is a far cry from its smooth salt flat neighbor Badwater Basin (which we’ll look at in more detail later), and you’ll find endless stalagmites. Some salt spikes are two feet high, so you’ll be carefully picking your way around a boardwalk rather than walking across the salt pan itself.

The Devil’s Golf Course was once covered by a lake, which evaporated and left behind a thick layer of salt and minerals – creating the natural phenomenon you see today. We highly suggest bringing a camera for this attraction, as it is easily one of the most striking things to do in Death Valley.

  • Twenty Mule Team Canyon

Twenty Mule Team Canyon is one of the most scenic dirt tracks you’ll see in your life. The short 2.5-mile road takes you through a range of stunning badlands, which are full of pastel colors and uniquely shaped by erosion. The drive may be short, but you’ll want to stop for photographs, so allow at least half an hour to experience it.

  • Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon Trail is a stunning route through a honey-colored ravine on a clearly marked trail. You’ll want your camera for this one; Golden Canyon’s good looks have attracted the likes of Star Wars movie producers.

Golden Canyon is also located just outside of Furnace Creek. The trailhead is just a 7-minute drive from Furnace Creek Visitor Center – making it an easy addition to a busy itinerary. You’ll find a large parking lot and restrooms at the Golden Canyon Trailhead, accessed on a turnoff from Badwater Road.

  • Zabriskie Point

Visiting Zabriskie Point is one of the most beautiful things to do in Death Valley National Park. The viewpoint overlooks hilly, wrinkled badlands tinged in pastel, sandy colors. If you want a sunrise or sunset spot – Zabriskie Point is the one for you.

Zabriskie Point was formed when Furnace Creek Lake dried up around 5 million years ago. The sediments left behind formed the stunning hills, and erosion over the years shaped the landscape into what it is today.

Zabriskie Point is practically on the roadside. You drive on the 190 from Furnace Creek towards Death Valley Junction, turning off into Zabriskie Point Parking Lot to hike the short trail to the viewpoint. It is easy to access and is an excellent place to start your day, conveniently nearby Furnace Creek and the Visitor Center.

  • Badwater Basin

Visiting Badwater Basin is one of the most fascinating things to do in Death Valley. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. Badwater Basin has around 200 square miles of salt flats to explore – the largest protected salt flats in the world.

After it rains, Badwater Basin can appear mirror-like as the water reflects off the salt crystals. Badwater Basin looks like snow when it is dry, and the salt flats are arranged in small circular patterns along the valley floor.

Badwater Basin is accessible via a short trail off Badwater Road. You’ll find a toilet block and parking area near its trailhead. Badwater Basin is located extremely close to the Devil’s Golf Course and Dante’s View. Consider combining these three attractions if you drive down Badwater Road to reach Badwater Basin.

  • Scotty’s Castle

Death Valley isn’t all geology and hiking trails, and Scotty’s Castle is proof of that. The ‘castle’ is not so much a castle but an enormous mansion, and its story is a blend of history and local culture. Visitors can book guided tours of the building today and discover the story in person, but we’ll give you a quick rundown here.

The mansion was built by Albert Mussey Johnson for himself and his wife to use as a luxurious vacation home. However, Walter Scott brazenly convinced the community that he had built it by making money through secret mines in Death Valley. The mansion coined the name Scotty’s Castle, and a cloud of mystery about the mansion’s ‘real story’ is kept alive by local legends.

  • Darwin Falls

Darwin Falls is a stunning sight, and the waterfall drops 18 feet in a pretty cascade. Darwin Falls is accessed by a two-mile round trip hike, which takes around two hours to complete and has an elevation gain of 450 feet. The general advice is to avoid hiking after 10 am in hotter months. You can’t swim to cool off, so aim to hike in the early morning when it is nice and cool.

  • Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town is located just on the outskirts of Death Valley, on the eastern side of the park across the Nevada border. Rhyolite is an old, abandoned mining town, and light and power were turned off for the town in 1916 following the closures of mines and banks. However, nowadays, there is still so much left behind to explore.

The old bank is (just about) still standing, as is the train depot and Tom Kelly’s Bottle House. It is also worth stopping by Goldwell Open Air Museum for an outdoor sculpture garden. Rhyolite is the perfect spot for those interested in history and visiting abandoned sites.

Rhyolite Ghost Town is quite a drive, just over an hour from Furnace Creek. We suggest breaking the drive up by stopping at Hell’s Gate on the way. Hells Gate is a scenic stop to admire Daylight Pass Road’s stunning surroundings and visit the Death Valley National Park Information Area.

The best time to visit Death Valley

Death Valley makes a great destination in early spring. The temperatures are cool, the wildflowers are out, and it is the best time to comfortably enjoy all the things to do in Death Valley National Park. It can get a little busy, as this is the most popular time to visit Death Valley, but it is worth the crowds for the beautiful conditions. Late March and April are the best months in spring.

October is your month if you have your heart set on avoiding crowds. You won’t get the wildflowers. However, autumn brings cooler weather that is perfect for exploring the valley floor. Visiting Death Valley in October is a pleasant, quieter experience.

Where to stay in Death Valley

Budget: Panamint Springs Resort

Panamint Springs Resort is a budget traveler’s ideal spot in Death Valley. The resort is family-run and offers an impressively flexible range of accommodation choices, including a campsite, a selection of cabins, and standard hotel rooms.

The resort has its own gas station, general store, and shower facilities for campers. Plus, there is a breakfast buffet served daily. It is the perfect place to base yourself if you want budget-friendly accommodation within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park.

Mid-Range: Delight’s Hot Springs Resort

Delight’s Hot Springs Resort sits just outside Death Valley and is the perfect base for easy access to the national park. The resort has four spring water swimming pools – two indoor and two outdoor to which guests have 24-hour access. There is also a free parking area and a 24-hour reception desk.

Delight’s Hot Springs Resort has a perfect balance of affordable luxury, attentive hospitality, and a convenient location.

Luxury: The Inn at Death Valley

The Inn at Death Valley might be listed as a three-star property but don’t be fooled; this is the best luxury option in the national park. The location is dreamy, and you’ll be in the center of Death Valley, just outside Furnace Creek. The property offers a range of rooms, suites, and a bungalow, so you can always splash out for a bit of extra luxury.

Guests receive access to a sauna, a fully equipped gym, two spring-fed pools, a golf course, and tennis courts. Death Valley isn’t known for its urban amenities, so having a hotel with plenty of recreational activities is a huge bonus.

How to get to Death Valley

First off, let’s establish Death Valley’s location. The national park straddles the California/Nevada border, although most of the park falls in California.

Because of Death Valley’s inland location, the easiest way to reach the national park is to fly into Las Vegas. Those wanting the quickest way to Death Valley should fly into Las Vegas Airport, hire a car to drive to Death Valley, or book a guided tour.

Of course, if you aren’t on a time limit, you could get your adventure on and take a California road trip, perhaps exploring Northern California along the way. If you are really up for an adventure, you could extend your trip and finish in Las Vegas – where you can fly home. Death Valley is ideally located for a road trip; if you have the time, this is the most fun way to get to the national park.

Getting around Death Valley

s the largest national park, Death Valley’s public transport system leaves much to be desired. You won’t find any public buses or shuttles, so your only option is to purchase a guided tour or rent a car to drive around.

Allow a day to get around Death Valley and see your top few attractions. And, if you don’t want to drive for so many hours in a single day, it is worth finding overnight accommodation to maximize your experience.

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