Death Valley National Park is one of the most unique parks I’ve been to. It seems as if the popularity of this National Park has been blowing up over the last year and after visiting I definitely understand its appeal. Death Valley is the hottest and driest national park, it is also one of the largest, so planing accordingly is essential.
Planning a DV trip can be overwhelming, there are so many things you can see. I wanted this National Park trip to be a bit more lax than some of our jam-packed ones so I chose to do a small handful of things that seemed to have views we’d enjoy most. Lucky for us a lot of these things were located fairly close to one another, so we didn’t feel like we were driving too much, which is typically people’s complaint when visiting this park. I recommend using this post as a starting point because these spots barely touched the surface of the park and I believe there is quite a few more things you can explore. This list was just what seemed like the best things to do in Death Valley, including the best photo ops 🙂
Death Valley is located in Eastern California, not too far from the Nevada border. If you are needing to arrive by plane, I recommend flying into Las Vegas, McCarren International Airport. Although there is absolutely nothing to do within a 2 hour radius of the park, there are so many other places worth exploring if you have the time. It’s only about a 2 hour drive from Las Vegas so Valley of State Fire and Red Rock Canyon State Park are great additions to this road trip. On the California side, there is also Alabama Hills and Joshua Tree that can be added onto this trip. Because we were visiting just for the weekend, we only had time to explore Death Valley, but had we had more time, I would’ve made my way out to Alabama Hills.
When to Visit:
Ok, listen listen. If you take one piece of advice from this blog, please let it be the time of year to visit. This is so important for this park because like I mentioned earlier, it is one of the hottest and driest places in the world. May through September sees average temperatures of 100+ degrees, and if you’re anything like me, that’s about 25 degrees TOO hot. November-March is the best time to visit temperature wise. We went in February and I thought it was perfect, crowds were minimal even for President’s Day and it was a solid 65-70 degrees. Living in the PNW with constant rain and gloom in the winter, this felt like pure heaven to me :).
Where to Stay:
Believe me when I say that Death Valley is in the middle of no where. We had to drive over an hour outside of the park just to get cell service so keep that in mind! Make sure you download all your offline maps prior to arriving. There are not a ton of accommodations near by, so if you’re able I actually recommend staying inside the park.
The Oasis at Death Valley and The Inn are both great options; however, they are definitely not cheap. We actually opted to rent a campervan for this trip because accommodations for this park were hard to come by. We rented through Native Campervans and had such a fun experience. After paying for extra miles because we were worried about going over, it came out to about $750 for three days, but because this served as both our vehicle and a place to sleep, I thought the price was fair.
Top Things to See in Death Valley
Mesquite Sand Dunes
This was my fondest memory of Death Valley. I know I was going to love the sand dunes but I underestimated how much. When planning the trip, I was actually intimidated by them because I know how difficult it is to hike in sand but they 10000% blew me away!
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are some of the best known sand dunes in the park, they’re also the easiest to get to, so it’s a win-win. The highest dune only reaches 100 feet, but do not underestimate the level of exhaustion hiking them. The further you hike, the better the views get so I recommend hiking at least a mile out. The best time to visit this spot is either at sunrise or sunset. We visited during sunrise and we had the dunes almost to ourselves.
Golden Canyon Trail to Red Cathedral
Golden Canyon trail is a relatively easy and flat 2.9 mile hike through some of the most unique landscapes, including golden rock formations and slot canyons. Time of day for this spot didn’t seem to make too much of a difference, we did this after the sand dunes and it wasn’t too crowded, especially at the top. There’s quite a bit of exploring you can do by going off trail into the canyons. We chose to do the red cathedral route and found it wasn’t super clear when you arrive at the cathedral. There is open space and according to the mileage you’ve arrived, but you haven’t. Look for a little tunnel that brings you to the top of the rock formations, that’s when you’ve arrived.
The views were amazing! You see layers and layers of gold canyons. Something to note is that the gravel is SO slippery. We didn’t plan on doing much hiking that weekend so I brought my running shoes and I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I wanted to walk to the edge of the canyons to get a photo and even on relatively flat ground with a slight descent I was sliding, so just be careful as you’re exploring. You can see in the photo below my butt was all dusty from trying to slide down on all fours so I didn’t fall off the cliff, LOL I was fine mom.
Artist’s Palette Overlook
Artists Palette is probably one of the more photographed places in Death Valley. This spot is where you find the colored hills that look like spumoni ice cream. The colors formed from volcanic deposits that contain iron oxides and chlorite, which create the colorful effect. Keep in mind, the colors of these hills are not as vibrant as what you see in images, there’s quite a bit of editing that goes into those. They are still incredible and worth seeing, but just know the colors are less vibrant than what you may be imagining from photos.
To get to Artists Palette Overlook, you take Artist Drive to the end. You will notice most people pull over and stop before the overlook but I think the best views were towards the end. Try to do this place about 30-40 minutes before sunset, the colors pop more and the crowds will be lighter. This is another spot where you can do a lot of exploring because there’s numerous different routes you can take through the hills.
This spot blew me away!!! Zabriske Point is an elevated formation that expands from the badlands below. You get similar views as the golden canyon trail without having to work for it. You’ll see yellow and brown striped hills that were shaped by intense water pressure and in the far distance you get views of the salt flats. I highly recommend doing this spot at sunrise, seeing the light hit the canyons was beautiful. This was by far the most crowded spot in the park, there were probably about 50 people all lined up for sunrise. If you’re unable to make it for sunrise, sunset is another great option.
My biggest regret was not taking more time to explore at this spot. There were actually people hiking up Zabriske Point! I cannot imagine the views from the top of there. There’s so many little pathways you can take that will get you on top of the hills, just remember there’s a gravel layer on top and they’re slippery.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, sitting at 282ft below sea level. This area is covered in salt flats, 200 square miles worth, and the further you walk the more pronounced the geometric salt shapes get. It’s crazy to think that thousands of years ago this area was actually a lake. Because the lake had no outlet, the salt and sediment accumulated over time, leading to day’s salt flats.
The boardwalk leading to the basin is easily accessed through the parking lot; however, the best views of the basin are over a mile out. I remember feeling a little unimpressed as we made our way from the boardwalk, so be sure to keep walking. You won’t be able to spot the geometric shapes until at least a mile in.
Other Things Worth Checking Out:
- Dante’s View–an epic viewpoint that overlooks Death Valley. A great stop for sunrise or sunset.
- Ubehebe Crater–a large volcanic crater in the northern half of DV.
Packing List for Death Valley:
- Sunblock–An absolute essential, especially for this park! <<Check out Supergoop>>
- Hiking Boots–I recommend investing in a good pair of boots that’ll last you. I LOVE my danners. I personally didn’t bring my boots on this trip because we didn’t do any strenuous hikes, but if we did, these are my go-to boots 🙂 <<Shop Here>>
- Walking shoes–I loved these nikes for the short hikes we did. <<Check out walking shoes here>>
- Merino Wool Base Layers–Mornings and evenings were a bit cooler since we visited in the winter. I loved having this base layers. <<Check out Merino Wool here>>
- Dupe for Lululemon Shorts— I LOVE these shorts. They have pockets and underwear lining. <<Shop shorts here>>
- Dupe for Lululemon Tank–Another great dupe. Love this fitted long line padded bra/crop top.<<Shop longline bra here>>
- Jacket–Bringing a jacket is always important, even if it’s just for evenings when the temperatures drop. <<Shop my jacket here>>
- Day Pack–I loved having a backpack to carry snacks and my camera. I love the Osprey brand. <<Check out my day pack>>
- First Aid Kit–I always have this in my hiking bag in case of emergency. It’s always good to carry one. <<Check out first aid kit here>>
- Wilderness Wipes–These are perfect for road trips and allow me to freshen up quickly when on the road. <<Check out wipes here>>
- Camera— I love my sony alpha and have found it’s a great starter camera. <<Shop my camera here>>
- Lens–Great lens for landscape photography. <<Shop Tamron Lens Here>>
- Water Bottle–Highly recommend bringing a water bottle to avoid plastic waste. Hydro Flasks are worth the price. <<Shop hydro flasks here>>
- Snacks–Hear me out, yes these may be eaten primarily by children, BUT I love these. I always throw a couple of these in my backpack because they’re perfect when you need a quick snack. <<Check out smoothie packs here>>
That’s a Wrap:
That’s a wrap on our weekend trip to Death Valley! Overall I thought it was such a unique park. The terrain could not be more different than what we’re used to in Washington. Even if the desert isn’t really your thing, there’s something here everyone can enjoy. Hope this helps you plan your trip 🙂 Happy exploring!