Death Valley, located on the CALIFORNIA-NEVADA border, is known for being the hottest, driest and lowest National Park in the USA. This land of extremes was one of our favourite stops in California and we can’t wait to show you why!
With vibrant volcanic deposits, narrow canyons, expansive sand dunes, and unworldly salt flats, Death Valley National Park is one of the most unique places we have ever been. This desert valley is full of beauty, diversity, and challenges.
Before visiting, we read several blog posts with intimidating titles like “How to Survive Death Valley”. While we don’t want to scare you, there are several things you need to take into consideration before your visit.
Death Valley National Park is NOT a summer destination.
It is famous for being the hottest place on earth, after all. With the highest temperature ever recorded at a whopping 134°F (57°C), a summer visit puts you at a higher risk of dehydration, sunstroke, and vehicle breakdowns.
This is a great place to visit from November to March when the weather is cooler and sightseeing is more manageable. If it’s rainy or cold in other parts of California, consider Death Valley for some winter sunshine!
Stock up on water, food, and fuel before entering Death Valley National Park.
While there are 3 gas stations in the park, the prices were almost DOUBLE what they were in Nevada just across the border. It’s a good idea to fill up beforehand to save yourself the soul-crushing price gouge.
Similarly, there are a handful of locations where you can get food and water, but options are few and far between. We would recommend loading up before your visit to make life easier.
IMPORTANT TIP: Make sure to bring at least 4L of water per person per day!
There is NO cellphone service in Death Valley.
Seriously! The only place where we had luck connecting to wifi was at a hotel called The Ranch. The wifi wasn’t bad, but you need to either be staying at the hotel/campground or pay to use it.
Our advice? Download the entire area on maps.me (an offline map service) so you don’t run into any issues getting around. If you have any medical conditions or an unreliable vehicle, you will want to stick to popular areas to ensure you are close to help if needed.
Accommodation is limited.
There are only a few hotels and campgrounds in Death Valley National Park. Depending on when you are visiting, you may need to book in advance to ensure you get a spot. We stayed at the campground at The Ranch which includes access to their pool, shower, and wifi.
Death Valley National Park is completely exposed.
This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but there is zero shade on most of the hiking trails. Even if you visit in January, bring a hat, sunscreen, and layers. It is rare to have a cloudy day here, so plan for sunshine!
Now that we’ve got the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff! Here are all of our favourite things to do in Death Valley National Park.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
For your first sunrise in Death Valley National Park, I would highly recommend visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Covering 14 square miles in the middle of the park, this was one of our favourite stops in all of California!
If you’re thinking “huh, this place looks really familiar…” you may recognize it from its feature on Star Wars!
You can obviously visit at any time of day, but the lighting at sunrise is pure magic. From the parking lot, you don’t have to walk far to get to the dunes. These are the most popular sand dunes in Death Valley and for good reason. They are the easiest to access and absolutely STUNNING!
The further you get from the parking lot, the larger and more distinct the dunes become. The tallest one is around 120 feet, but they change a bit each day depending on shifting gravity and wind patterns.
6.3 kilometres & 318 m of elevation
Sidewinder Canyon was one of our favourite hikes in Death Valley National Park BUT it does require some advanced planning. Every other hike in the area is extremely well-signed and easy to follow, however, Sidewinder is the exception.
There are about 6 canyons accessible from the parking lot and zero signage indicating which trail to take. Many people (including us!) were walking around confused, hiking down the wrong canyons, and even giving up out of frustration.
Our advice is to download an offline map for the area or grab a hiking map from the visitor’s centre to ensure you can find the correct trail. The entrance for this hike is 1 slot over from the furthest visible canyon to the right of the parking lot.
Along the way, there are a total of 5 slot canyons, though 3-5 are the most impressive.
Go early and spend some time exploring the hidden nooks and crannies of each one. This is a lesser-known hike meaning you are likely to have many parts of the trail all to yourself!
NOTE: The last kilometre of the trail doesn’t lead you to any viewpoints or canyons. It’s nice if you’re looking for more exercise, but not necessary.
5.5 kilometres & 293 m of elevation
The Mosaic Canyon trailhead is located on Highway 190 very close to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. This hike takes you through narrows, around boulder jams, and past some dried-up waterfalls.
We enjoyed hiking the entire thing, as we climbed over rockfalls and maneuvered our way to the end. If you are short on time, however, the most photogenic part of Mosaic Canyon is within the first half a kilometre. The trail narrows and you walk through a series of smooth white marble bends.
Artists Palette is incredibly surreal. The pastel pinks, greens, and blues took me by surprise when we arrived. They were even more vivid than I had imagined!
This kaleidoscope of colour is created by volcanic deposits rich in compounds like iron oxides and chlorite. Walking through these rainbow-coloured hills is something you do not want to miss in Death Valley National Park.
From the parking lot, you only have to walk about 50 metres before the earth starts changing below your feet. We were actually a bit shocked that everyone was allowed to freely roam the area, climb all over the hills, and explore!
TIP: If you are looking to photograph Artists Palette, go for sunset. When the hills are lit up mid-day, it can be a struggle to capture the pastels with a camera. As soon as the sun tucks behind the mountains, though, the different shades become much more apparent.
We visited Zabriskie Point for sunset and it completely blew us away. From the parking lot, there is a short 0.6 km trail to the main overlook and viewpoint. Once there, you can admire 360-degree views of Golden Canyon, Zabriskie Point, and the surrounding badlands in Death Valley National Park.
There is plenty of space to spread out and find different vantage points along the way. The swirls of colours in the rock formations were completely mesmerizing, especially during golden hour. We have heard that the sunrise here is also fantastic, and you may experience fewer crowds at that time.
If you are up for a bit more of a challenge, this viewpoint can also be reached via the Golden Canyon Trailhead. Roundtrip, this hike is 9.8 kilometres with 360 m of elevation gain. It begins with the Golden Canyon Trail, so this is a great way to combine two destinations for avid hikers.
4.6 kilometres & 145 m of elevation
Golden Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in Death Valley National Park and you don’t want to miss it! The trail winds through gorgeous badlands and rugged canyon cuts with a landscape we have never seen before.
These golden ridges look so otherworldly that they have been used to portray different planets in multiple films. This hiking area is very well signed with many slots you can venture into and explore.
As mentioned above, Golden Canyon can be done on its own or combined with a trail leading up to Zabriskie Point. Hiking to Zabriskie Point Lookout will add 5.2 kilometres and 215 m of elevation gain. If you plan to do this, line it up with either sunrise or sunset for the best viewing experience!
1.6 kilometres & 74 m of elevation gain
Dante’s View is a short hike that gives panoramic views of Death Valley and the surrounding area. From here, you can see Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, and well as Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48.
This is a fantastic place to come for sunset. Keep in mind that because of its elevation, this viewpoint can be quite a bit cooler than the valley floor. Make sure to come prepared with layers, especially in the winter months.
3 kilometres & minimal elevation gain
Badwater Basin has got to be one of the most unique places we have ever been. At 86 metres (282 feet) BELOW sea level, it is famous for being the lowest point in North America.
The salt flats here cover over 500 square kilometres and almost look like glistening water from a distance. Once you get close, though, you can make out the different salt formations. It’s super fascinating to see!
From the parking lot, you walk about 1.5 kilometres to reach the salt flats. After that, you can explore as far as you would like! We love visiting places like this where there is a ton of space to spread out and enjoy the scenery.
Natural Bridge Trail
2.25 kilometres & 150 m of elevation
Natural Bridge Trail is a short hike located between Badwater Basin and Golden Canyon. In our opinion, it is not overly thrilling, but the natural bridge is kind of cool to see.
We would not recommend going out of your way to hike this trail as we believe the other items on this list are more impressive. However, if you are in the area with extra time, it may be worth a stop.