The name invokes a barren wasteland devoid of any life. That’s how it was in my imagination. Well, I couldn’t have been further from the truth! Death Valley is a fantasy landscape. Yes, there are areas of complete isolation and bareness; but, there are so many areas full of color, design, and utter uniqueness. I don’t think there is another place on earth quite like it.
But don’t let the colors and mountains fool you. It is also a landscape of scorching sun and excessive heat. But that shouldn’t deter you from exploring this fascinating place – just use caution and common sense, especially in the summer months. There are many areas where there is nothing to provide even a sliver of shade. It’s the hottest place on the planet (a record 134° back in 1913) and though it only reached 108 when I was I there, it felt like 134. But heat withstanding, this national park deserves to be explored.
Going during spring and summer months, once the sun is up, everything quickly warms up. All hiking should be completed by 10 a.m. (at the latest – I did some small hikes up until noon and how I regretted doing that). I discovered that you cannot drink enough water when in the park. Even a short stop out of the car will get you sweating. Luckily, I found water stations at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center and at the Ranger Station at Stovepipe Wells, but there are also general stores in those areas where you can stop and purchase water as well as Gatorade and enjoy some AC.
Below are some of the highlights of the park that no visitor should miss regardless of how long you spend in the park:
Zabriskie Point is stated as a must do from everyone who has been to the park and with good reason. The view point overlooking the badlands area of the park is spectacular. From here, you witness the colors and patterns of the park. It’s a popular destination in the park for sunrise/sunset. I caught sunrise here and it did not disappoint. Arriving about 30 minutes before actual sunrise allowed me to witness the colors in the sky and in the distant mountains. I found a spot on the mound just below the concrete vista area and it was the best place for photos. I sat down and just enjoyed the show mother nature put on. It’s well worth visiting Zabriskie Point at different times as there is always something different to see with the changing colors. I first arrived in the park around 4 p.m., and though I told myself to not stop as I’d be there first thing in the morning, well, I just couldn’t resist taking a peak.
The great thing about Zabriskie Point is that it does not involve a big hike to get to it. It’s a short climb up a paved hill to the lookout. There are several benches to take a rest or to just admire the view (as the view on the way up on both sides is incredible). There are also several vault toilets at the far end of the lot.
After catching sunrise, a short hike option is the Badlands Loop Trail, which weaves throughout the Badlands area in an easy 2.5 miles. Hiking the trail right after sunrise means you can finish before the heat of the day begins (although, I finished the hike at 8:00 a.m. and it was already 95 degrees!). If you love with the view from Zabriskie Point, then you will be in 7th heaven with the views along this trail. Just be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen as even early in the morning, there is little shade on the trail.
Here you get to stand at the lowest point in the continental U.S. – 282 feet below sea level.
This is a relatively flat hike that you can make as short or long as you want over the salt flats. From the carpark, it is a few steps down to the boardwalk where you can opt to stop at the overlook of Badwater Basin – a small pool of water supporting a fragile ecosystem. The boardwalk is short and soon you step out onto the salt flats. The beginning portion of the hike is well worn flat. However, the further you go, the path becomes noticeably uneven and, with every step, I heard the crunch of the salt underfoot. Best of all, you are more likely to have the place to yourself as many visitors opt to go only a short way out before heading back. I found it extremely difficult to gage how far I had gone as the view seems to never change. When returning to the car park, be sure to look up on the mountain in front of you as there is a sign indicating sea level giving you some perspective on the elevation.
The basin is located 18 miles down Badwater Basin Road. In summer, visits to the basin should be in early morning or late afternoon due to extreme heat. There is zero shade in the area. There are vault toilets at the end of the car park.
Devils Golf Course
I have never seen anything quite like Devils Golf Course. What an utterly fascinating place! Unlike the salt flats of Badwater, the area is covered by small salt encrusted pinnacles that are still being shaped by weather and time. Each formation is unique and it is so much fun getting up close to examine the salt. I couldn’t help but stand there in the middle of these formations and just smile. They seem to extend on for forever. Hands down, this spot was my favorite in the park. The turnoff is on Badwater Basin Road and then it is a short drive on a dirt road to the parking area.
I found this one-way, 9 mile road so much fun though it took me an hour to drive it as I kept pulling over to take photos. Mountains that look as if they were painted in watercolor loom in front of you as soon as you make the turn onto the drive. They were amazing! Happily, around the first big bend, there is a parking lot where you can walk up a small mound to really admire the views. I found that many people chose to stop as soon as they got on top of the mound. But you can walk a bit uphill further along the mound, and this I highly recommend. The view of the mountains plus the salt flats are incredible and completely worth the bit of sweating you will do to get there.
It isn’t long before there is a turnoff to get to the parking for Artist’s Palette, which is the most colorful spot on the drive. The multitude of colors in the hills is due to the oxidation of the various metals found in the earth. You can admire the colors from the overlook (where there is a vault toilet) or you can hike down and up to take a closer look. From there, the road becomes extremely curvy as you go through the remaining canyon before emerging out onto Badwater Basin Road.
Though somewhat out-of-the-way from everything else in the park (it’s a 13-mile drive), the overlook from Dante’s View over the salt flats makes it worthwhile. I opted to visit this spot to witness sunset and it was the perfect choice. Once you make your way up the windy road and park, you have several options – sit right at the edge of the parking and enjoy the view or take a path either on the right or left and hike to a good spot. I opted for the path on the left as it goes on for a bit jutting out into the valley for some amazing views in either direction. I settled in on a rocky outcrop and enjoyed watching the sun fall behind the mountains. The muted pastels in the sky and the valley were picture perfect. It was the ideal spot to sit, take it in, and reflect.
Mesquite Sand Dunes
In the middle of the park stand the Mesquite Sand Dunes. I made the colossal mistake of exploring them around noon time, when the temperature was an oppressive 106° F. Everyone was staying close to the parking lot. Everyone but me. I wanted to get some good photos of the dunes undisturbed. But, I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen as the bigger dunes were too far away. In that heat, walking in sand, I knew I would never make it. At one point, I knelt in the sand to frame a photo and it felt like my knee just went into a fire pit. I’m looking forward to my next visit to Death Valley so I can fully experience these dunes at sunrise.