I love national parks. They are truly one of the greatest gifts Americans have given themselves and (hopefully) our children. Despite being a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, and a six-hour drive from Los Angeles, I’d never been to Death Valley aka the mother of all national parks. Needless to say, I was excited about this trip (Like, I flailed in the ranger station level excited).
It is recommended you visit Death Valley in the cooler months for a reason. Before going I thought the difference between 107 and 127 degrees was negligible. After a point, hot is hot, right? I was so wrong it’s funny! Heat aside, Death Valley is a treasure, so if you are like me, and the best time for you to travel is during the summer months, go! Don’t skip this, even if it is a million zillion degrees.
Our first stop was the Furnace Creek Visitors Center, and I encourage you to make it your first stop too. The ranger station has a small museum that is fun for both kids and adults. There we learned about the wildlife inside of the park (yes, things live there) and what makes the geological features unique. We also learned about the region’s mining history and, more importantly, about the Timbisha Shoshone, the native people who call the valley home.
Make time to watch the half hour movie in the auditorium, it’s super informative and beautifully shot. Also, chat with the park rangers – who are the best part of a ranger station, duh! Not only did the ranger help outline a route that let us make the most of the park with our limited two days, but they had all kinds of helpful tips.
Pro Tip: Pick up several massive water bottles and plan to refill them only at the ranger station. There are very few places that have water hookups and you need to drink a lot of it.If you are drinking enough water you will sweat. Like, my slightly terrifying, but very helpful park ranger said several times, “Water is life!”
It took us about five hours to complete the handy-dandy loop outlined by the ranger. Our route included:
2. Golden Canyon
Aptly named, these narrow canyons are a lovely way to stretch your legs after being in the car for a couple hours.
3. Devil’s Golf Course
The road to this wonder is incredibly bumpy, so unless you are in an SUV plan to drive it at a fresh 15 mph. Looking like a post-apocalyptic moon, the Devil’s Golf Course is so craggy that it led one earlier visitor to remark only the Devil would play there.
The lowest point in the continental US, Badwater Basin and the salt flats sit 282ft. below sea level. I hauled us out into the middle of the flats where you can see Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in CA at 14,505ft. Once part of a prehistoric lake, the coolest thing about the salt flats is that you can still feel the water you are walking on top of, and see the tiny fish that live in its salty goodness. If you are curious (like me) give the ground a lick and get a feel for just how much salt you are standing on!
5. Artists Palette
This brightly colored formation is breathtaking and I have yet to see a photo, NatGeo or otherwise, that truly does the color justice. Like many of the amazing formations in Death Valley, Artists Palette has a unique mineral makeup. But unlike rocks anywhere else in the park, the oxidized iron compound has turned the mountains, pink, purple blue and all shades of color in between.
6. Zabriskie Point
You may recognize this one from the U2 album Joshua Tree and then feel violently misled (At least I did. While there are joshua trees on the way to Death Valley, the actual national park, Joshua Tree, is not nearby. Lies!). This spot features craggy lookouts that almost remind you of the way a dirt pile looks when you dumped water on it as a kid, only on a much larger scale. Get ready to feel like a divine child is playing with water when you see these things.
7. Dantes View
I recommend ending your day here. For one thing, it is out of the way of our initial loop. For another, it is one of the higher, accessible peaks in the park. From the peak, you have a central view of everything on the route. At over 5,000ft, carefully wander a bit off the trail and enjoy sitting at the top of the park, overlooking the natural wonders.
Pro Tip: There is no cellphone reception in the park, so plan to rely on your map skills to get from A to B. This particular park is pretty easy to navigate, so keep some music saved on your phone and don’t be afraid to revisit the 90s while driving.
Since we planned this trip last minute, we weren’t able to book a room in the park, and while I enjoy camping, 100 degrees at night just sounded miserable. Instead, we decided to stay in Beatty, a town about eight miles outside of the park’s entrance. It also happens to be right next to a ghost town!
A former mining town founded in 1905, Rhyolite was home to about 4,000 people in its hay day. It even featured a stock exchange and train station. Like many mining towns in the West, it went under when the mines dried up and the town was abandoned just 11 short years later, in 1916. The majority of the town is in stages of ruin, however, the little Bottle House is still maintained and can be visited. The other sites are just fun to poke around.
This was an unexpected gem. The museum’s caretaker was willing to share a lot about the art, which was installed by two prominent Belgian artists. The open air park remains free and the Red Barn offers residencies to other artists. But the real treat was the caretaker, who hand carves replicas of indigenous flutes and gave us a little lesson about the work and the history of the instruments he carves. Make time to spend in this spot and chat with him–you’ll learn a lot!
Pro Tip: If you stay in Beatty, know that the only place open late is a Denny’s in a casino. The walk to that Denny’s is along a highway that is not well lit and features sporadic sidewalks. That said, there isn’t much in the way of traffic, so take a moment to stand in the road and look up. Without light pollution, you can see the Milkey Way. Aren’t stars amazing!
After checking out the art, we headed back to the park for our final day of exploring. My camera is jammed with pictures from driving over the mountains and we pulled over about 45 times to enjoy the view before getting to our final sites.
10. Sand Dunes
This is another one, where I think only pictures taken from a helicopter might do these massive sand dunes justice. Bring a garbage can lid and you can sled down them. I felt like I was in a Star Wars movie the entire time I was trekking up and down their ridges.
11. Mosiac Canyon
This canyon is up several miles of unpaved road, so like the Devil’s Golf Course, if you decide to go up this one without an SUV, plan to drive 2mph. It was well worth our fear of busting a tire because the canyon is mind-boggling. Eons of running water have polished the canyon in to perfectly smooth, as times extremely narrow walls.
Pro Tip: Before entering the park, stop and get lots of trail mix and fruit. We did this, and it ended up being the right call because places to grab a bite are scarce on the ground and food was the last thing we wanted to make time for!
Bonus Pro Tip/Warning: Pay attention to the signs posted about hiking in the heat. Both of us are extremely active, and we did not hike more than 20 minutes in any one direction, including shade breaks. Please be careful. I cannot stress enough that even as two women who are a) a fitness instructor and b) someone who marathoned the Great Wall for fun, we felt the heat. This isn’t a matter of fitness or pride, so stay hydrated and safe.