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20 Fun & Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? If you can get past the name, Death Valley National Park is one of the wildest experiences in the western United States. The brave visitors who make their way into this California desert are in for a truly surreal landscape and potentially a very hot afternoon.

Death Valley is the largest national park in the mainland US, and one can easily spend three or more days exploring its dirt roads and hiking trails. The lowest point in the country sits below the sand dunes and rocky mountaintops, and ghost towns dot the desolate countryside. The unique natural features of this valley can create an other-worldly atmosphere, to the point that films like Star Wars have been filmed here.

However, one of Death Valley’s most famous claims to fame is the fact that the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was measured within it. It was 134 degrees Fahrenheit in July of 1913! If that sounds like something you need to experience, summer is your season – but if you’re an air-conditioning lover, stick to winter and spring.

There is quite an extensive amount of things to do in Death Valley National Park, many of them being hikes and outdoor activities. However, even the less adventurous can take in the natural beauty of this place, as the various viewpoints and attractions are often just along the roads.

Whether you have a few hours or a few days to explore Death Valley National Park, you’ll find plenty to do. Read on to see what you won’t want to miss and everything you need to know.

TL;DR

  • Most significant landmark – Badwater Basin
  • Best free activity – Rhyolite Ghost Town
  • Best activity for kids – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
  • Best activity for adults – Devils Golf Course
  • Best food – Last Kind Words Saloon & Steakhouse
  • Best nightlife – Stargazing at places like Dante’s View or Ubehebe Crater
  • Best all-around accommodationThe Ranch at Death Valley

Best & Fun Things to do in Death Valley National Park

When visiting Death Valley, keep in mind that cell service will rarely be available. Grab a National Park Service map before venturing out into the desert, just to be safe. Once you have that, look for some of the Death Valley things to do from our list below!

1. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes Scenery
image by NPS/C. Augustson

Let’s start with something that you might think of as typical in a scorching-hot desert: sand dunes. The Mesquite Flat Dunes are a top attraction right in the center of the park, with easy access off of the main road.

Driving down the highway, you’ll be in a vast valley between mountains in the distance, and in the center, find golden sand dunes up to a hundred feet tall. In fact, this is a relatively rare phenomenon in nature, as conditions have to be just right. There need to be mountains on one side, the wind blowing the eroding sand off of them, and more mountains on the other to trap it – just like here.

Mesquite trees thrive here, and you’ll notice their twisted trunks growing in response to sand that traps them and later reveals them as it shifts. Rats and rattlesnakes inhabit this area, and since there are no marked hiking trails, watch your step while exploring!

Road trippers will find an easy-to-get-to parking lot at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. If you want to visit on a day tour from Las Vegas, this full-day excursion will take you to this amazing phenomenon.

See Related: Best Places to Travel in Your 20s in the US

2. Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek Visitor Center
image by NPS/E. Hoerner

One of the most exciting highlights of visiting this national park is seeing the place where the hottest-ever temperature recorded on Earth was measured: Furnace Creek. This Death Valley town is one of the few places that people live in the park, and it’s a great stop on a Death Valley drive.

The elevation of the town is exceptionally low at 190 feet below sea level, with signs throughout the town to see how “low” you are. Stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to learn about how the high temperatures and low elevation affects the locals of this town.

Furnace Creek is one of the few places within Death Valley with hotels for those interested in staying overnight. The Ranch at Death Valley is one of the most popular thanks to its beautiful amenities, great dining options, and, most importantly, a swimming pool and air conditioning! There’s also the Last Kind Words Saloon & Steakhouse nearby, one of the only restaurants in Death Valley, but a fantastic, western dining experience.

3. Devils Golf Course

Devils Golf Course Scenery
image by NPS/E. Hoerner

Just south of Furnace Creek, you’ll find a massive, flat area known as the Devils Golf Course. There are a few informal parking areas to stop at, but most visitors simply find a spot to stop on the side of the road.

It’s called the Devils Golf Course because the valley floor is so jagged and rough that only the devil could play golf there. This unique phenomenon occurs because of the wind and rain eroding the rock salt, forming jagged spires. If you listen closely, you can actually hear the popping of salt crystals expanding and contracting from the heat.

These salt flats are actually an ancient lake bed. While that may sound nice to explore, do not attempt to walk around here – the rocks are seriously sharp, as well as fragile.

See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November

4. Natural Bridge Trail

Natural Bridge Trail Scenery
image by NPS/Jason Gray

If you’re looking to do some hiking, there’s a great trail just minutes away from Devils Golf Course called Natural Bridge. While you’ll have to drive down a gravel road to get to the trailhead, it’s generally no problem for sedans and other non-4x4s.

It’s also not a marked trail, but as you’ll see, it’s quite easy to make out the path. A flat ground makes its way through a deep canyon that shortly ends up under a giant, natural arch, seemingly forming a natural bridge between the two sides. It’s another great example of the spectacular landscapes that can be found in Death Valley.

This is an easy hike and spans just a mile round trip, but more adventurous hikers may be willing to go past the bridge to see even more amazing sights. Wherever you turn back, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the salt flats in the distance.

5. Twenty Mule Team Canyon

Twenty Mule Team Canyon Scenery
image by NPS/E. Hoerner

Some of the best sights of Death Valley National Park can be seen by simply driving its roads. A perfect example is Twenty Mule Team Canyon if you don’t mind an excursion off of the blacktop.

This route departs from the paved road and follows a dried-up, ancient riverbed as it twists around the yellow hills. A top recommendation is to drive the road in the morning or afternoon when the sun isn’t high in the sky, creating shadow and color contrasts that make for a photographer’s dream.

While this is a dirt road, visitors will be pleased to know that most vehicles can handle it, as long as conditions are not particularly bad and the car’s clearance isn’t very low. It’s always best to check with a ranger to make sure you aren’t in for any unpleasant surprises.

See Related: Most Beautiful Valleys in the US

6. Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point Scenery
image by NPS

This iconic viewpoint is one of the most visited spots in Death Valley, and for good reason. Zabriskie Point is a place to gaze out at the most spectacular landscape of badlands, salt flats, hills, and mountains in the park.

Closest to the viewpoint are the yellow-brown badlands hills, carved by the powerful ancient forces of water, whose path can still be made out on the landscape. These hills suddenly flatten out to form a bare valley floor for many more miles until the Panamint Mountains suddenly jump up, towering above.

Zabriskie Point is especially magnificent at sunrise and sunset when colors become extra pronounced, and shadows dot the hills. For those driving to Death Valley, access is easy, with the Zabriskie Point parking lot available on GPS, leading to a short hike to the point.

If you aren’t taking the road to Death Valley yourself, there are plenty of guided tours with transportation from Las Vegas. They will definitely make a stop at Zabriskie Point.

7. Badwater Basin

Salt formations at Badwater Basin
image by NPS

One of the other “extremes” you can find in Death Valley National Park is the lowest point in North America, sitting at 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin. This expansive area of salt flats is just south of Furnace Creek and has a nice parking area allowing for easy access.

Its name comes from a story about one of the first official surveyors of the area, whose mule would not drink the water from a spring in the basin, leading him to believe the water was bad. In fact, it is just extremely salty, as all of the surrounding sediment collects at the bottom of the basin with no drainage point. This spring is still there today, varying in location and depth depending on rainfall.

One of the most popular Death Valley things to do is to explore Badwater Basin, as it has a raised deck hiking trail through the salt fields. You’ll find a sign displaying the negative elevation for a great photo op, and if you look up at the surrounding mountains, another indicates where sea level is and just how low you are.

To learn all about this interesting place, consider purchasing an affordable Death Valley self-guided audio tour to listen to while driving through. It’s especially useful for information about all the places in Death Valley we’ve discussed so far, as they are generally close together and make for an easy driving loop.

See Related: Best Road Trip Games For Couples

8. Racetrack Playa

Racetrack Playa
image by Jeffery Aiello

Now that you’ve been to the lowest possible place in Death Valley (and America), let’s go up a bit higher. One of the coolest places up in the mountains is the Racetrack Playa, or simply, The Racetrack.

A playa is, besides the Spanish word for beach, a dried-up lake bed. This area was once a lake at more than 3,700 feet above sea level but is now an extremely flat and dry landscape. There are, however, two “islands” at the northern end, which are clearly visible as dramatic formations of rocks jutting up from the flatness.

Besides being home to some great views, visitors come here to see the “racetracks” formed naturally by stones that sail across the mud. When the thin layer of ice on the surface melts just enough, winds can blow rocks right across, leaving streaks that lead to the playa’s name. It’s yet another mysterious but interesting phenomenon of Death Valley National Park.

Plus, getting to Racetrack Playa is its own adventure. While a non-4WD car can usually make the trail, you will need a high-clearance vehicle, as the dirt road is bumpy and contains some large and sharp rocks. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of drive, but you still want to see the hard-to-reach wonders of Death Valley, consider jumping on a 4×4 tour from Las Vegas.

9. Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town

It’s always interesting to explore places in the West like the Rhyolite Ghost Town. This abandoned mining town sits just outside of the park’s boundaries in Nevada, near the town of Beatty, and is often added as a stop to a Death Valley trip.

Rhyolite was founded in 1905 after prospecting in its hills found rich deposits of quartz and gold. It quickly attracted thousands of miners and other residents to support the operation and had modern amenities like piped water, a train station, electricity, a hospital, and even a stock exchange. The boom was short-lived, however, as the hills were mined-out and a financial crisis hit the town hard.

By 1920, the population was close to zero, buildings and infrastructure were left in ruins, and everyone was eventually gone. It quickly became a place to shoot movies and for visitor exploration. You can still see the buildings, which are all in ruins, except for the train station and the Bottle House, which was built primarily using glass bottles.

The Goldwell Open Air Museum is a sculpture park nearby as well, which was added recently. If you don’t have a car for your Death Valley excursions, be sure to choose a day tour with Rhyolite Ghost Town as a stop. You can also stay in the town of Beatty at the Death Valley Inn & RV Park to be directly outside of Death Valley and the ghost town.

See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in a Small Town

10. Scotty’s Castle

Scotty's Castle Architecture and Scenery
image by NPS/Bob Greenburg

One of the more unusual finds in Death Valley is Scotty’s Castle, also known as the Death Valley Ranch. It’s a beautiful 1930s villa that has been described as an engineer’s dream home and one that provides a unique look into the early days of Death Valley settlement.

The villa was built by the Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson as a vacation home. He had a friend from the area named Walter Scott (Scotty), a local scammer-cowboy to who the “castle” did not belong. However, Scotty told everyone that it was his villa, built with the riches of his secret mines.

Until 2015, an extensive tour of the villa was available from the National Park Service. However, intense flooding and a fire made parts of the building unsafe. Now, the tour is sold as a flood recovery tour, visiting the still-accessible places until restoration is complete.

Visiting the villa provides a look into its amazing beauty and exceptional engineering, with a self-sufficient water system powerful enough to fill the swimming pool and an underground battery cell system for continuous power. It’s also a cool window into the past, with the Johnson family’s original furnishing, clothing, and other belongings still in place.

11. Artist’s Drive & Artist’s Palette

Artist's Drive Scenery
image by NPS

Hoping to see some of Death Valley’s most beautiful views without doing any hiking? Then you’ll be glad to drive Artist’s Drive, where you can take in an endless array of desert landscape colors from the comfort (and air conditioning) of your car.

This one-way loop leaves Badwater Road just south of Furnace Creek and is paved and passable for normal cars. It’s a bit twisty and turny but nothing too demanding. You’ll be treated to some amazing hills, badlands, and desert vistas on the drive that’s been called one of the best in Death Valley.

There’s a short turnoff to a spot called Artist’s Palette, where the colors of the canyon are so bright that it appears to have been painted. The vivid shades come from the oxidization of metals and are a photographer’s dream.

There is a parking lot here if you do want to get out and explore, but you’ll be able to see it all from your seat. Colors seem to be most pronounced under the afternoon sun.

See Related: Best Road Trips in California (+ Scenic Drives)

12. Mosaic Canyon

Mosaic Canyon Scenery
image by NPS/Dan Kish

On the other hand, many visitors to Death Valley are indeed looking to get out of their cars and explore its hiking trails, like the one at Mosaic Canyon. This journey through the canyons between giant marble rock formations is near Stovepipe Wells village, where there’s a general store and ranger station.

Mosaic Canyon gets its name from the mosaic-like walls of the slot canyons. The marble and other rock have been smoothed to a finish by the forces of water.

There’s also an abundance of breccia, a type of rock that contains large fragments of various other types of rock and minerals held together by a cement-like structure. All of this creates a beautiful natural environment that’s perfect for leisurely exploration and photography.

The Mosaic Canyon Trail begins at the end of a gravel road that is usually passable for all vehicles, with a parking area at the end. The hike is described as moderate to difficult and progressively becomes more challenging. Therefore, amateur hikers can try out the beginning parts of the trail and decide to turn back at any point.

13. Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater Scenery
image by NPS

Have you ever heard of a volcano that creates a crater and not a mountain? Well, the Ubehebe Crater is a giant one, with several smaller ones nearby. This giant, 600-foot-deep hole is located in a remote part of northern Death Valley but can be accessed on the road.

This type of crater is actually a maar volcano, which occurs when hot magma rises and heats groundwater, leading to huge steam and gas explosions. The surrounding earth is blown away, leaving a crater. It is believed that Ubehebe Crater was created this way as recently as 2,100 years ago.

There is a beautiful viewing area at the top of the crater, but those who want to take it further can hike around its rim. It’s also possible to hike down into Ubehebe Crater, which is not incredibly difficult, but note that the hike back up is much more challenging. Ubehebe Crater is a fantastic, remote place to view the night sky in Death Valley, too.

See Related: Sierra Nevada Mountains Travel Guide: Things to See & Do

14. Darwin Falls

Darwin Falls Scenery
image by NPS/Jason Gray

Springs and waterfalls aren’t often associated with the desert that is Death Valley. The main exception is Darwin Falls, a rare, year-round waterfall near the resort of Panamint Springs.

The falls are somewhat of a hidden treasure, tucked in a canyon that wouldn’t give any indications that deep inside, water flows, and lush vegetation thrives. Wildlife in the park, such as bighorn sheep, depend on the source, while the pond and area surrounding the cascades host unique wildlife like cattails and frogs.

Visitors can access this tranquil oasis by driving down a short gravel road near Panamint Springs, but it may not always be accessible for standard sedans – check with a ranger first. The hike after that can be moderately challenging, as it enters narrow canyons and requires some stream crossings. Capable hikers will find that two-tiered waterfall at the end well worth it, but do not swim here, as the water supplies the nearby Panamint Springs Resort.

If you want to spend some time in the western part of Death Valley, consider staying at the Panamint Springs Motel & Tents. It’s a simple accommodation that provides everything you need to explore the depths of Death Valley.

15. Eureka Dunes

Eureka Dunes Scenery
image by NPS/Dan Kish

Death Valley is home to the tallest sand dunes in California and possibly even all of North America. This title is held by the Eureka Dunes of Eureka Valley, in a remote part of northern Death Valley at an elevation of 3,000 feet.

The massive sand dunes rise to more than 680 feet above the dried lake bed that they sit in. It’s an impressive and majestic sight against the backdrop of the Last Chance Mountains in the distance, rising another 4,000 feet.

Eureka Valley is actually one of the wettest parts of Death Valley, receiving rain thanks to the mountain formations around it. However, when the sand dunes are completely dry, a fascinating phenomenon can be experienced: singing sand. It is not completely clear how this occurs, but it is believed that the varying textures of dry sand hitting each other in the wind produce a deep, organ-sounding hum that will have any visitor in awe.

The Eureka Dunes are a very special place to visit, and off-roading in your vehicle on the sand dunes is not permitted, nor is sandboarding. You can hike to the top of the dunes, but know that this can be very challenging as the sand collapses beneath your feet. Be sure to fill up at a gas station before heading in this desolate direction.

See Related: Most Exotic Places in California to Visit

16. Telescope Peak

Telescope Peak Scenery
image by NPS/Dan Kish

Chances are that if you’re making the trip to Death Valley, you’ll make it to Badwater Basin and enjoy the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. From there, you can see the majestic Telescope Peak towering above at more than 11,000 feet above sea level, but few visitors will actually get to experience being up there.

Only the most capable and adventurous hikers should consider this 14-mile, seven-hour trek up 3,000 feet of elevation to the peak. If you can take this on, though, you are in for some of the most panoramic views of Death Valley that exist and that only a small percentage of visitors will ever see.

The hike starts at the Mahogany Flat Campground, which is where it is recommended hikers spend the night to acclimate to the elevation and be able to start the hike early. Signs mark the beginning of the uphill path, which in the beginning travels through brush and tree tunnels, but eventually opens up to expansive vistas of the park.

As mentioned, the entire trail can be done in seven hours round-trip, but hikers can also choose to camp for a night along the way to take it slowly. At the top, enjoy gazing down at the other extreme of Death Valley and even further to the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a clear day.

17. Golden Canyon

Hiking in Golden Canyon
image by NPS/Dan Kish

Perhaps a mega-hike that necessitates camping and elevation acclimation isn’t for you – and that’s totally acceptable, as Death Valley is full of easier hikes that are just as rewarding. Some of the best are in Golden Canyon, a beautiful area next to the popular Zabriskie Point with a great network of trails.

You can access the hikes of Golden Canyon from both the Zabriskie Point side or from another parking area and access point on Badwater Road. From the former, you can take on the trail known as the Badlands Loop, a moderate hike through the winding badland hills requiring 1.5 to 2 hours. From the latter, your options are Red Cathedral, the Gower Gulch Loop, or the Complete Circuit.

Red Cathedral will bring you up a wide, uphill walk along the rocks between the towering golden hills. Gower Gulch extends the hike through narrow badlands and ledges, while the Complete Circuit will have you traversing the canyon to Zabriskie Point and back on all of the trails.

See Related: Best Camping Spots in the World

18. Dante’s View

Dante's View Sunset Scenery
image by NPS/T. Vanderlay

For a view that’s been described as the best in Death Valley, make the diversion from the main road to Dante’s View. This viewpoint sits at the end of a long but paved road more than 5,500 feet above Badwater Basin and features a network of trails for those who want to explore even more.

Dante’s View is especially popular with photographers, who love the colors and shadows of sunrise and sunset. The best views can be found on a short hike to the north of the parking lot, where there is plenty of space to find your own spot to enjoy.

This is a great, one-stop spot to visit if you don’t have time for a full-day Death Valley excursion and are instead simply passing through. It’s just an hour from the nearby towns of Shoshone and Tecopa, where you can find vacation rentals like Dutch’s Retreat in Shoshone or the Death Valley Hot Springs 2-Bedroom in Tecopa to stay the night on the Death Valley route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

19. Harmony Borax Works

Harmony Borax Works Scenery
image by NPS

Death Valley has some pretty interesting history besides its amazing natural features. At its center is the Harmony Borax Works facility in Furnace Creek.

In 1881, the chemical borax was found nearby, leading to the construction of this processing plant that produced several tons of it daily. The remote location and intense heat made transporting the product out of Death Valley difficult, leading to the invention of the famous “Twenty Mule Teams.” They made the grueling trip over primitive roads in around 10 days, and you can see one of the actual wagons they hauled here today.

The operation didn’t last long and stopped production in 1888. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Today, it’s an interesting history lesson easily added to a visit to Death Valley’s most popular sites.

See Related: Most Famous Historical Landmarks in the USA

20. Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns Aerial View
image by NPS

Finally, there’s another fascinating piece of Death Valley history a bit deeper into the mountains and on the way to Telescope Peak. The Wildrose Charcoal Kilns are mysterious beehive-shaped structures that were used to process charcoal in the late 1800s.

Not a great deal is known about the kilns. A mining company had been operating in the hills about 25 miles away from the site, where they extracted lead and silver. Charcoal was needed as a source of heat to process the metals and was created in the kilns to be shipped to the site.

The kilns weren’t operating after 1879 for unknown reasons, but perhaps it became cheaper to ship the mined ore away for processing. Today, visitors can explore the abandoned structures and the trails that the mules would have used to get there.

FAQ

What is the best time to visit Death Valley National Park?

If you aren’t interested in the record-high temperatures the valley produces, you’ll want to avoid the summer. The wintertime produces very pleasant temperatures, hovering around the 70-degree Fahrenheit mark, but you also have a small chance of rain. Spring is a wonderful season to visit, and you might even catch the rare phenomenon of seeing Death Valley covered with blooming flowers.

How long is the drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley?

You can easily visit Death Valley from Las Vegas, as the drive is just about two-and-a-half hours. Death Valley makes for a great day trip from Las Vegas.

What are some of the best Death Valley hikes?

Death Valley is full of hikes for those who want some exercise. Some of the most popular include Golden Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, and the Badwater Basin area. For the super-adventurous, there’s a 14-mile trail to the top of Telescope Peak.

Should you visit Death Valley in the winter?

Winter brings very pleasant daytime temperatures, which plunge to very cold at night. And while Death Valley may be one of the driest national parks in the country, wintertime is when the yearly average of two inches of rain is most likely. Still, it’s a peak travel season, especially for Death Valley hiking.

Is Death Valley National Park in California or Nevada?

You’ll find the huge majority of Death Valley in California, but a small corner of it extends over the Nevada border. Most of the Death Valley locations we recommend visiting are in California.

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