Death Valley National Park has turned out to be one of my absolute favorite places in the world, and definitely my favorite California national park so far. The landscapes are bizarre and unique, and the park is large enough that you can have complete silence. We will definitely be back soon! (But not in the summer!)
I have to admit that I had high expectations for Death Valley. I've been seeing pictures all over Instagram and just drooling in my sleep about all the amazing places and how we were going to photograph them! We were not disappointed! The main issues with visiting Death Valley National Park stem from its size. It's 3,000 square miles! It's the second largest national park in the United States.
This makes planning your trip difficult, because you want to see all the spots, but have to realize the distance between them! Additionally, there are minimal options for staying within the park. There are three hotels, all with pretty bad reviews and exorbitant prices. Don't fret! There are some other spots. We stayed in Tecopa Hot Springs, taking us about 1 hour to enter the park. Plus we had the benefit of 108 degree mineral springs at night, and look at this view!
Couple important tips:
Our first stop was Badwater Basin. This was an especially unique spot as it's the lowest point in the U.S., 282 feet below sea level. On our visit it was nice and windy, and decently chilly! Salt flats run as far as the eye can see, with absolutely beautiful formations and mountains in the background. From the east entrance of Death Valley off the 190, this is about 30 minutes. We made it our first stop so we could back track to some other spots.
Tip: Get here early! We arrived around 8:30 AM and had the place to ourselves, by 9:30 AM the parking lot was getting full and many more tourists were around. The lighting is also just right around this time for photos.
Just a quick 15 minute drive from Badwater Basin is Devil's Golfcourse. This is also a salt flat, but with a unique landscape of halite salt crystal formations. This whole area was once a lake, which was isolated and then dried up, leaving these mineral formations. If you listen closely on a warm day, you'll hear the salt crystals popping as they evaporate! Because it's so much higher in elevation than Badwater Basin, the wind has been a powerful force in shaping these beauties.
Tip: be careful!! These formations are sharp and I can imagine dangerous if you were to fall. Watch your step, not just for yourself, but to preserve their beauty in the park for others to see.
On our first day, our last stop was Zabriskie Point, which is an easy stop on the way out of the east entrance to the 190. This was my favorite spot of the day. The stunning rock formations reminded me of giant tree limbs reaching out for light.
Believe it or not, Death Valley used to be at a higher altitude, but it sank! Over 9 million years ago a large lake formed here, over millions of years, sediments collected from mus gravel, and what was once a volcanic field onto the bottom, creating these "Furnace Creek Formations" that the valley is now famous for.
Tip: Don't just walk up the paved trail. If you head off to the right, you can easily do some hiking up for much more beautiful views!
Day two started at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This one is a bit north, but the scenic drive is beautiful. All of a sudden you see the sands in the distance, they look so small. When you finally get to them you realize just how big they are. Only 1% of this amazing park is covered with these dunes and while they're not the biggest at 100 feet tall, they are the most accessible.
Don't be fooled by the simple parking lot and trails. This is not an easy hike! Hiking in sand is extremely difficult, plus, if you want to make it to the tallest peaks, you will be hiking about 45 minutes or so one way. Doesn't sound bad, but the ups and downs of the dunes, plus the sand, make it a difficult trek. The best part of difficult hikes is that they are rewarding! We made it to the top and back in just over an hour. Bring water!!!
Tip: Don't give up. Keep on trekking to that far off, giant sand dune in the distance. Why? Because very few people will, so you will have it all to yourself at some points!
About a half hour south of the sand dunes are a bunch of wonderful hikes. The most popular seemed to be the Golden Canyon hike, but we flew by that parking lot and about 1/4-1/2 a mile later we turned left down a small dirt road with a tiny sign that said "Desolation Canyon." Golden Canyon was absolutely packed, Desolation Canyon was empty. Ironic, right?
This was a wonderful little hike. We were a bit exhausted and crapped out after about a mile, but it's a 3.7 mile hike that takes you into the beautiful rock formations and painted mountains of Death Valley. I highly suggest this hike! It's one of the few with no bathrooms though, so stop by Golden Canyon first!
Yes, this is real! About 10 minutes south of Desolation Canyon on Badwater Rd. is the Artist's drive. It's a windy drive through the painted mountains, with a stop off at Artist's Palette. These beautiful colors are caused by the oxidation of metals like iron, mica, and manganese. They are as beautiful in person as in these pictures and drew quite a crowd. Somehow, I was still able to get up there alone!
Tip: Everyone says sunset here is key, but that's when tourists flock. I would suggest hitting Artist's palette mid day and return for sunset later if you're so inclined. We had wonderful private opportunities with these beauties.
All in all, I have to say that Death Valley National Park is officially one my "favorite places in the world" list. It has topped Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia for my favorite park in California thus far. It has the most incredibly unique terrain and the most Instagram worthy spots.
If you have 4 wheel drive, you can explore much more than we did in the north including the famous sliding rocks and larger sand dunes. There are even waterfalls in the Panamint Springs area, which is the west entrance. Take your time to plan out the distance between sites and make sure to bring yourself enough food and water. I promise you will have a magical experience!
For help in planning your itinerary to Death Valley, reach out to Sash@WanderingSash.com