Death Valley, California, is the largest national park in the contiguous United States: 3.4 million acres of desert vastness. At first glance it appears to be a barren wasteland, to be hurried through as quickly as possible, but the alert visitor soon recognizes that there is much here to see and experience.
Some of its curiosities and historical sites are best accessed in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but these top sights are accessible by any passenger vehicle and involve only short walks.
If you start early, you can cover them all in a day if you get an early start and don't spend too long in any one spot. Because the valley is hospitable only during the cooler months and days will be short, take a picnic lunch to make the most of the daylight.
Scenes from Death Valley
Enjoy some of our best shots on this Photo Tour
This Death Valley day tour itinerary assumes you start in the Furnace Creek Ranch area.
First Things First
Death Valley can be baffling to the first-time visitor, with its unusual geology, plants and animals. Make the Visitor Center near Furnace Creek Ranch your first stop. Take a few minutes to browse through the exhibits and talk to the rangers, and you'll get a lot more out of your trip.
The Valley, Furnace Creek to Badwater
If you only have time to do one thing in Death Valley, California, take the 18-mile drive south on CA Hwy 178 from Furnace Creek to Badwater. Here you'll encounter fantastic salt formations, colorful views and the lowest place in the western hemisphere. The best stops include:
- A few miles south of the Furnace Creek junction, take a short side trip on West Side Road toward Dry Lake into the foreign landscape of the valley's Salt Flat.
- At the Devil's Golf Course, so-named because it's so rough that only Lucifer himself could try for par here, tread lightly and look carefully for delicate salt structures.
- Badwater is the lowest place in western hemisphere. Although the precise location of the lowest point (292 feet below sea level) isn't marked, a walk from the parking area leads past the salt-laden, bad-tasting watering holes that inspired the dire-sounding name. Across the valley, Telescope Peak towers 11,039 feet above, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. To get an idea of how low this spot is, look for the sea level marker on the cliff above the parking area.
- Artist's Drive leads to the colorful view called Artist's Palette, a landscape smudged with pastel colors. It's especially colorful in early morning or late afternoon.
Get a View from Above
Back at the highway junction near Furnace Creek, go south to get an aerial view of the valley and its surroundings.
If you've only got a day, stop at Zabriskie Point for a look across Golden Canyon, then turn back north.
If you've got more time, take the approximately 50-mile round trip to Dante's View. More than a mile above Badwater, it offers more expansive vistas and is 15 to 25°F lower than on the valley floor. While you're here, stop and be quiet for a moment. You'll most likely hear... absolutely nothing. This is one of the quietest places in the state.
The rest of these top sights are in the northern part of Death Valley, reached via CA Hwy 190 north from Furnace Creek.
It's an easy walk on a 1/2-mile-long boardwalk to see one of the wettest places in this arid landscape. The seasonal stream of salty water is the only home of the rare Salt Creek Pupfish, but even if you don't spot the little critters, it's a very interesting place.
The most easily-accessible sand dunes, Mesquite Dunes are just east of Stovepipe Wells. On a short hike from the roadside, look for tracks of the kangaroo rat (a meandering line with small tracks on either side) and other desert creatures. Scramble to the top of a dune and enjoy the view.
If you only have a day, it's probably used up by now. If you're leaving the park, you'll find directions out here.
If you have more time, continue north to see:
Why is it called Scotty's Castle if businessman Albert Johnson owned it and Scotty lived elsewhere? Are the tales of hidden gold mines, shady deals and general trickery true? A living history tour of the Spanish-style home in the desert examines the unusual relationship between a desert rat named Scotty and a Chicago businessman that resulted in this improbable structure. Other special tours will take you the the basement or out to Death Valley Scotty's cabin.
Ubehebe Crater is the result of a tongue-twisting event called a cryptovolcanic eruption - a big word for a violent explosion of superheated groundwater. The 2000-foot deep crater offers photo opportunities and hiking. Its name means "windy place" and with good reason. A warmer jacket or shirt (zipped or buttoned to keep it from turning into an impromptu sail) will make you more comfortable here.