I’ve lived a few hours away from Death Valley for most of my life, but somehow never considered it a place I had to visit. That changed in 2020 when we were all forced to look much closer to home if we wanted to travel at all. For the last year I’ve made my way to dozens of incredible campgrounds in State Parks, National Parks, and National Forests within driving distance of my home just outside of Los Angeles, and I have been introduced to so many beautiful places I never knew existed. I know travel will not be for everyone right now, but for those of us who need to get away from time to time in order to recharge and maintain sanity, camping and hiking in the great outdoors is an excellent way to go. In January of this year I set a goal of visiting all nine of California’s National Parks by the end of 2021, and Death Valley was the first on the list. Read on to discover what spots you can’t miss in California’s Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, but even knowing that, it’s vast size needs to be seen first hand to be understood. There are a number of incredible spots that require high clearance or 4WD vehicles to get to, but I will only be discussing the can’t miss spots that all vehicles can reach. Death Valley is the hottest driest place in North America, and for this reason I would avoid spending extended periods of time there in the summer. The weather is often very mild and comfortable outside of the summer months, but during my trip in March I experienced a sand storm, rain, snow, and intense heat all within 3 days. So prepare for all possible weather outcomes as the desert climate can be unpredictable.
Zabriskie Point is probably the most well known can’t miss spot in Death Valley, and for good reason. The views from the point are absolutely stunning, and if you’re able to visit during sunrise or sunset hours you’re in for a treat. I went for sunrise on my first morning and was able to snag a prime spot before all of the photographers arrived. After you park in the small lot you’ll climb a small hill to arrive at the point. The views from here are beautiful, but for the best unobstructed view you’ll want to walk passed the point and down to a little dirt platform that looks over the valley. Be extra careful not to get too close to the edge if you’re there while it’s dark. There is no railing here and it’s a long way down. The parking lot is small and fills up quickly, so I recommend getting there as early as possible. You won’t be disappointed.
Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch
If there is only one hike you do while in Death Valley, make it this one. The Golden Canyon Gower Gulch Loop is a 5.8 mile trail that loops through some of the most beautiful rock formations in the park. I took this trail from the Zabriskie Point side, but you can also start and end your hike at the Golden Canyon side. Hiking this trail just after sunrise made it that much more enjoyable as I was able to watch the sun hit different peaks and formations along the way. If it’s a warm day be sure to do this hike in the morning or evening since there’s very little shade on the trail in the middle of the day.
Red Cathedral can be reached via a side trail on the Golden Canyon side of the Golden Canyon Gower Gulch Loop. If you have the time, this spot is so worth a visit. After about half a mile you’ll reach a spot that looks like a small slot canyon/rock slide area. From here you’ll have to do a small amount of scrambling and climbing through slots in the rock to get to the point pictured above. After the last scramble you’ll reach a fork where it looks like the path continues to the left, but before you explore that area don’t miss the small hill to the right that takes you to a platform with a lookout spot over this side of the valley. This is a great spot to sit for a bit, have a snack, and enjoy the views before continuing on the loop trail.
Artists Drive/Artists Palette
Artists Drive is a nearly 10 mile one-way drive through colorful rock formations off of Badwater Road. There are several spots along the way to stop for pictures or a hike, but the highlight of the drive is the vibrant Artists Palette. This would be a beautiful drive almost any time of day, but you will see the most vivid colors around mid-day when the sun shines on all of the surrounding area.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are near the Stovepipe Wells area of Death Valley. This is a popular spot for sand boarding and photography and can get rather crowded. The further away from the parking lot you walk, the more picturesque the scenery becomes. If you want to get away from the crowds just walk until you find your own sand dune and enjoy the quiet. This is a perfect sunrise or sunset spot, but can be enjoyed any time of day.
Badwater Basin was my favorite stop in all of Death Valley. I’m not sure I would feel the same way if I went at a different time of day, but the lighting just before and during sunrise was surreal. If you can get moving early, I highly recommend making this stop a priority for a sunrise visit. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America and covers almost 200 square miles. The hexagonal shapes created by the evaporated salts make for such a unique and serene setting. As with most popular spots, the further you wander from the parking lot, the better views you’ll get. I suggest walking at least half a mile past the boardwalk’s end in order to take in the scenery from all sides. The views stretch for miles and as the light changes so does the scenery. This is my number one can’t miss spot in Death Valley, so if you don’t have time for much else, make sure this is on your list!
Father Crowley Vista Point and Darwin Falls near Panamint Springs, Mosaic Canyon near Stovepipe Wells, Ubuhebe Crater and Scotty’s Castle in the north of the park, and Dante’s View 15 miles south of Furnace Creek are all worth a visit if you have the time. And if you have an off-road vehicle the possibilities are endless!
I stayed at one of the walk-in tent campsites at Furnace Creek Campground and found it a perfect starting point to get to all of the must see places around the park. There are no showers at this campground, but there are flush toilets and wash stations at each loop along with picnic tables and fire pits at each site. This is the most popular campground within the park due to it’s close proximity to tourist attractions and the fact that they are the only campground within the park that accepts reservations. There are several other developed and primitive campgrounds throughout the park, all of which looked like enjoyable places to stay depending on what you’re looking for. There are 4 lodges inside the National Park if camping isn’t your thing, and all look like really nice places to stay, but the Oasis at Death Valley was my favorite.
Death Valley is an incredible place to visit most of the year, but during the summer months it becomes much too hot for outdoor activities in the middle of the day. If you intend to spend time hiking or rock climbing I recommend going any time other than the summer months. No matter when you visit be sure to have good maps with you, follow trails, and always carry extra food and water.
As with all travel and planning during this pandemic, it would be wise to double and triple check the park website and campground and accommodation websites for closure information and safety protocols in effect before traveling. Be sure to stay flexible with your plans and have a back up or two in place before you leave, but above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!