When reading a list of the most visited parks in 2020, I was surprised this national park didn’t make the top 10. It’s called Death Valley because there’s no cellular reception so millennials die. Just kidding! Quite the opposite in fact, it was named after a group of pioneers who died there in the mid-1800s when they were lost during the winter. It’s the hottest, driest, and lowest–hottest place on Earth, driest National Park, and lowest point in North America. Considering the conditions today, it’s important to take precautions for a trip out to the Mojave Desert, where Death Valley is located. I learned so much about Death Valley National Park while visiting, with my mom, that I am excited to share with you.
I haven’t always been the type of person who needed a lot of context until the past 5 years, so I share my full experience of visiting Death Valley, including the less photogenic part of planning. If you’d prefer just to see the highlights of my trip, click here.
When planning for this trip, I was excited because the National Park Service released a new integrated parks app in early 2021; previously each park had their own app and sources for information. The NPS app is great for a number of reasons. My two favorites are that you can track parks visited and view all sorts of information about each park, including what to see, things to do, hiking trails, and general information. Parks can be saved for offline use too, which is great for a park like Death Valley where cell service is hard to come by. Another great app for National Park trip planning (or hiking in general) is AllTrails. AllTrails provides overviews, stats, maps, photos, and reviews of trails. There is detail in this app to know what to expect and help navigate a trail. Maps and details are available offline for Pro accounts only. Finally, Google Maps is my preferred map when traveling due to the ability to save offline maps in more remote areas. It is also more detailed and you can actually view trail paths.
When visiting a National Park you have a few options for lodging. Camping is popular; however, recognizing neither my mom nor I have much experience, we figured it would be better to look at alternatives. Death Valley is about an hour’s drive wide and long, at least the road that’s paved. While there are many small towns near the park, the largest cities and common access points by plane are Las Vegas (a 2 hour drive) and Los Angeles (a 4 hour drive). Because of the distance to towns outside the park, I opted to book a hotel in Death Valley. This seemed like the most logical option from a time perspective due to our visit was only a few days. You pay the price for the convenience of being in the park. That being said, we really enjoyed our stay at the Ranch at Death Valley in the Furnace Creek part of the park. At the time of this writing, that was the more reasonably priced of the two (and only) hotels in Death Valley (owned by the same Oasis chain). Even though we weren’t camping, we planned out some food and snack options for our visit. Since we visited during the pandemic, the onsite Last Kind Word Saloon was open but for take out or dining on the outside patio only. The food was expensive–I spent $40 (including tip) on some average pesto pasta for dinner one night. The breakfast was excellent though and worth including with the room rate when booking.
To get to, from, and around Death Valley, we rented an intermediate level car (a Toyota Corolla or similar, or in our case a Nissan Sentra) from Avis. There were a few places in the park where a 4×4 car is recommended (specifically, Darwin Falls and the Natural Bridge). Even though we didn’t have 4WD and we still managed to make it work. We only made it half a mile towards Darwin Falls before I realized the ride was a little sketchy, but was relieved to see a like-sized car at the trail head once we made it the full 3 miles. When driving to the park, I would recommend filling up your gas tank just before entering to avoid paying increased gas prices. We spent 3 days in the park without refueling.
Now to the fun stuff! You can really get a lot done in a few days. We were able to see 5 of the 9 must-see locations (the others were much further) and hike 5 trails highlighted in Death Valley National Park’s Winter Visitor Guide. Enjoy my perspective and photos of the sights, in order in which we visited each. (Note: what I include in quotations are borrowed language attributed to sources provided by the National Park Service.)
Darwin Falls is located at the far end of the park when coming in from Nevada. It’s also one of the less common places people visit. We first stopped at the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to purchase an annual park pass. I’m very excited to officially be an annual pass holder! However, like all National Parks, you can also pay a single visit, 7-day entrance fee. We stayed on the road that would take us right out of the park into California. The city nearest that exit is called Darwin and it’s located in Darwin Hills. “Named for an Army physician, Erasmus Darwin French, who came to the west in 1846 during the Mexican American war and prospected for silver in the area.” The road leading to the falls is unpaved, and a high clearance/4×4 vehicle is recommended. I didn’t realize this until we were already on the road and managed it anyhow. “Flowing water cascades into a shallow pool surrounded by lush green vegetation” is how the NPS app defines this spot. Further, “at around 18 feet tall, Darwin Falls is one of only a handful of year-round waterfalls in the Death Valley National Park. The spring-fed water…allows for the growth of trees, cattails, aquatic vegetation, and even ferns.” It was quite interesting to observe the scenery change from desert into greenery. The hike was an easy walk with one tricky spot where you have to climb up some large rocks in order to continue. On the way to the falls we took the higher right path and returning we stayed to the right to complete. This spot is pictured on the far right below (click the photo to enlarge).
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is recommended for both sunrises and sunsets because of the way shadows hit the dunes. They are centrally located in the park, meaning the view isn’t blocked by the surrounding mountains. We ended up here on our first evening for sunset. We arrived about an hour prior to sunset which gave us enough time to enjoy the dunes while the sun was still up and make it to the highest dune. My mom’s not a regular mom, she’s a cool mom! She insisted we make it to the tallest dune in the flat and we did! The pano below was taken towards the beginning of our hike, and the following 3 photos are while we’re perched up highest dune. Unlike normal hiking, hiking up was the hard part, especially where the sand was soft. Hard sand is much easier to walk on. Getting back down was both easy and fun! Although much higher from the top looking down, we employed a trick I learned in the Sahara Desert in Egypt. It’s a lot easier to go down when you just commit, full speed ahead. I gave it a trial run and the trick worked just as I had remembered. After resting from the hike up and snapping some pictures, of course, we headed down about 30 minutes before the sunset so we wouldn’t have to make our way down in the dark. We still were able to catch the beautiful sunset that reflected off the surrounding mountains as we looked back (last photo below).
Zabriske Point is one of the most photographed spots in Death Valley, as you might guess from the photos below. It is also highly recommended for either sunrise or sunset. Located only a few minutes from Furnace Creek, we got up early our first morning in the park to catch the sunrise at 6:15 AM. We got there before sunrise for the full experience. In the first photo below the sun is just starting to rise and reflecting off the beautifully wispy clouds, while in the photo on the right the sun had risen enough to reflect onto the Panamint Range in the distance. We lucked out, as a woman leading a photography group shared, the clouds and sunrise aren’t always at the level as we experienced. In Death Valley, the days started out pretty cool. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo below or not, but it was fairly windy and chilly as we experienced the sunrise. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and to relax before continuing with the rest of our day.
Golden Canyon was our first involved hike of the day. The canyon is named for the gold color of the walls. “Ripples formed by ancient water, now preserved in stone, the history of a road reclaimed in a flash-flood event…” We got there around 8:30 AM so we had been up for a few hours already but others hadn’t yet gotten their start. For the most part, the hike to the Red Cathedral (pictured on the bottom right) was flat and reliable (pictured on the top left), until we got closer to the Cathedral. We had to maneuver through small crevices (me pictured below) then take on a steep incline (my mom pictured below). The trail is rated moderate difficulty for those last two qualities. We followed the trail to the Red Cathedral but there are other trails that stem from Golden Canyon, including to Zabriskie Point, where we saw the sunrise. If you look closely in the two photos immediately before and after this paragraph, you’ll see the same jagged rock formation peaking up into the sky.
Artists Palette is located on a loop called Artists Drive. It is a 9 mile, leisurely 30 minute, one-way drive through “multi-hued hills”. The hills are “splashed with an array of colors (red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green from volcanic deposits rich in compounds such as iron oxides and chlorite, which creates a rainbow effect”. The hills were fun to drive! You can get a better sense for the terrain in the video at the top around the 0:45 second mark. Beware of expectations you may have from social media through edited and/or staged photos of this sight. I’m guilty for this as well. In doing research in advance for what to expect, Artists Palette in real life wasn’t as impressive as I expected. I thought the colors would be more vivid than they were; maybe they were somewhere, but I didn’t see it. For reference, the photos below were captured on my iPhone 12 Pro and not edited. There isn’t a single defined trail so visitors are encouraged to explore the landscape throughout on foot. I was surprised by the dimension and depth of the landscape. It’s hard to capture in photos but in the 3rd photo below, you can see the height of the hill compared to my mom as she cautiously descends. I, on the other hand, took the “run down because it levels out at the end” approach.
Natural Bridge a distinctive feature in this canyon along a short hike with a subtle incline of 86 feet. There is a more apparent incline at the beginning but then it tapers off. I was jealous of the man near us who had walking sticks! While named for the first rock formation on the trail, you can continue to follow the trail to a dried-up waterfall (pictured in the middle below) and as further back to explore other geological attributes.
Badwater Basin is located 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America. It’s probably one of the more popular locations in Death Valley. “Stories suggest [the name] comes from when a mule belonging to an early surveyor refused to drink from the spring-fed pool near the present-day boardwalk. However, the water here is not truly “bad,” just very salty.” The site, “Lake Manly…evaporated tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the 1849er for whom it was named.” This is another spot that after seeing photos online, I expected to be blown away by, but as we kept walking into the distance, I didn’t see what had been pictured. We walked out farther than many people, but it still may be possible that we didn’t go far enough. “The salt flats here cover nearly 200 square miles.” That being said, it was still an interesting feature in the park, and displays the varied geography throughout the 3,000 square miles this park covers.
Finally, we made it to Dantes View just before sunset. It was already much chillier than it had been at the peak of the day. At this vantage point, you overlook Badwater Basin 5,575 feet below. The 45 minute drive to get here is certainly indictive of the elevation gain from the lowest point below. The incline is so significant there are limitations to the length of vehicles that should continue on the high road. We arrived here shortly before sunset at 5:45 PM and strolled around reading the information plaques along the walkway, taking only a few steps out on the nearby trail. We spent the majority of the time sitting in the car, shielded from the wind and cold, waiting for the sun to completely set and the stars to rise. I was hoping to be knocked off my feet (though I was already sitting) by the visibility of the Milky Way and the infinite stars, like I have just one other time in my life on the way to Albuquerque. We still saw hundreds of stars, similar to what I’ve seen on a clear night in the city. Although they say it takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Hunger got the best of me so we made the trip back down to Furnace Creek after a few hours at Dantes View.
There is even more you can explore in Death Valley National Park if you have the time. Also, don’t be fooled by various points of interest as I was. For example, I didn’t make the turn for Devils Golf Course because we weren’t interested in golfing, but turns out that’s not what it was. I wish we made the stop, but that’s just the photos talking. I should have known something was up since there was an actual golf course next to our hotel and how would a National Park have 2 golf courses within it?! It wasn’t highlighted in the visitor guide or NPS app either.
What I enjoyed about this trip, was unintentionally going “off the grid” for a few days. As I mentioned at the get-go, there was no cellular service (at least for me on AT&T). It was also nice to spend this time with my mom. We hadn’t been on a trip together since 2013! I shouldn’t have been surprised that she was in better shape than me, because she is regularly more active.
Would you plan a visit to Death Valley National Park knowing what you do now? What sight looks the most enticing to you? For some quick Q&As, I found this page particularly interesting. When planning for this trip, I was deciding between Death Valley and Joshua Tree in southern California, time and time again the internet (sources: Reddit and Trip Advisor) pointed towards Death Valley. Though Joshua Tree made it to the 10th most visited national park of 2020, at 2.4 million visitors, per Condé Nast. I was extremely pleased with my choice and still looking forward to making my own comparison to Joshua Tree in the future.