California’s Death Valley is known as “the land of extremes” and is full of unique landscapes and natural phenomenons. The vast national park has 3.4 million acres of desert and mountains and is one of the hottest places on earth in the summer. It’s also the driest and lowest place in the USA, with less than 2 inches of rainfall a year and certain areas up to 282 feet below sea level.
With this fascinating geology, you’ll find many incredible things to do in Death Valley. From scenic hikes to mind-blowing viewpoints and endless distinct landscapes, this Californian national park is a true natural wonder. So, to help you put together an epic Death Valley itinerary, here are all the best things to do and see here.
What to Do in Death Valley
With sand dunes, craters, canyons, and even a waterfall, discovering what to do in Death Valley is always a surprise.
Hold-up: I didn’t want to miss the other must-read Death Valley guides, like where to stay in Death Valley! Oh, and there are many more California national park guides too!
Experience the lowest point in North America
The ultimate Death Valley must-see is Badwater Basin. This huge area of salt flats is made of almost pure salt and descends to 282 feet (85 meters), the lowest elevation in North America. As Death Valley rarely gets any rain, there is usually just a thin sheet of water here so you can walk directly over the flats.
You can reach Badwater Basin via the mile-long boardwalk trail from the car park on Badwater Road. Because it’s one of the most accessible Death valley attractions, Badwater Basin does get pretty busy during peak season. However, most visitors don’t venture far out, so the further you go, the more peaceful and tranquil your experience here will be.
Drive up to Dante’s View
There’s no doubt that the best vista of the park can be found at Dante’s View, so unsurprisingly, it is one of the most popular places to visit in Death Valley. Dante’s View sits above Badwater Basin in the central part of the park, and you’ll be pleased to hear that you can reach it by car.
Dante’s View gives an unobstructed panoramic of the park and an incredible vista over Badwater Basin, making it one of the most memorable places to visit in Death Valley. Aside from admiring the view, you’ll find a few short trails leading off into different directions, all of which give unique perspectives. It can be a bit cold up here, especially during the winter, so be sure to take an extra layer with you.
Embark on the Artist’s Drive road trip
Artist’s Drive is an incredibly scenic 9-mile (14.4 km) drive through the national park, showcasing some of the valley’s most unique landscapes and photogenic spots. The road is one way, running from south to north, where it then rejoins onto Badwater Road, 6 miles (9.5 km) from Furnace Creek.
Artist’s Palette is one of the highlights of this road trip, consisting of pink, aqua, and purple colored rocks. These pastel colors are due to the oxidation of different metals in the soil, such as iron, mica, and manganese. This is only one of the colorful sights you will see as you drive through this unique area full of chemical weathering and hydrothermal alteration.
Check out the salt formations at Devil’s Golf Course
Another of the most iconic things to see in Death Valley is the large salt pan full of unique formations, known as Devil’s Golf Course. These rough and lumpy salt flats were formed by the erosion of minerals of a past lake. You might hear quiet popping sounds if you listen carefully here. The unusual noise is the salt crystals expanding and bursting from the heat.
The crystal rocks are super intriguing, so you’ll surely want to get a glimpse of them up close. But be careful as they are sharp enough to cut through your clothing, shoes, and skin. In fact, their prickliness is how the area got its name, as it is said only the devil could play golf on a surface like that.
Walk around the rim of Ubehebe Crater
Ubehebe Crater is a 2100-year-old volcanic crater and the aftermath of a gigantic volcanic steam eruption. Today, you can see the result, a 600-foot (182 meters) deep hole although it was initially 800 feet (242 meters). Plus, you’ll spot the debris that spreads out as far as 15 miles (24 km).
The best way to explore the area is by walking around the rim. This is a 2 mile (3 km) hike, and as there is no shade here, I recommend doing it early in the morning or late afternoon.
Marvel at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
If taking incredible photos is one of your favored things to do in Death Valley, you’ll love the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The landscape is so impressive that it has been the movie set for various films, including Star Wars, and the mountain backdrop makes it look even more spectacular.
You can walk as far out to the dunes as you like but be warned, trekking through the sand in the heat gets tiring quickly. A more fun way to explore the area is by sandboarding, but you’ll need to bring your own board. You’ll find this remarkable field of dunes in the north of the park, close to Stovepipe.
Hike to Darwin Falls
A waterfall is, for sure, one of the most unexpected things to see in Death Valley! However, there really is a waterfall in the middle of this uber dry desert. What’s more, the 18-foot (5.5 meter) Darwin Falls has water all year round, making it a much-welcomed oasis in the hot summer months.
To reach this hidden gem, you’ll need to hike for 2 miles (3.2 km), but thankfully, the trail is gentle and mostly flat and features some pleasant streams along the way. You’ll find it in Panamint Springs, on the park’s western edge. Turn off onto Old Toll Road from Nadeau Trail to reach the trailhead.
Walk through Mosaic Canyon
Mosaic Canyon is located by Stovepipe Wells and offers one of the most fun hikes in Death Valley. It gets its name from its smooth, polished marble walls enclosing the path. The 3.3 miles (5.3 km) route will take you 2 to 3 hours to complete, and you’ll need to first drive for 2 miles (3.2 km) on a gravel road to reach the trailhead.
What’s cool about this trek is that the canyon’s width constantly changes. Sometimes it’s narrow, and you’ll have to scramble over rocks. Then at other times, it widens, giving fantastic views of the surroundings. There are also many curves and obstacles, making it a somewhat challenging but exciting adventure.
Go rock climbing in Grotto Canyon
For avid rock climbers and adventure seekers, climbing Grotto Canyon is one of the best Death Valley activities for you. Grotto Canyon requires more scrambling and features more obstacles than Mosaic Canyon, so you won’t find more than a handle of tourists here.
The hardest part of the 2.1-mile (3.4 km) trail is the 8-foot (2.4 meter) chimney that stops many climbers in their tracks. You’ll find various videos on Youtube that show how to get past the most challenging obstacles, so I recommend watching them before attempting. You’ll find the canyon close to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Stovepipe Wells, and to access the trailhead, you’ll need to drive up a loose gravel road.
Watch the sunrise or sunset at Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular places to visit in Death Valley, especially at dawn and dusk when the sun illuminates the peaks in warm shades of pink and red. What’s more, getting here for sunrise is totally doable too if you stay the night. It’s located northeast of the park and is a 6-minute drive from Furnace Creek Inn. So, if you’re keen to catch the best sunrise in Death Valley, choose this historic hotel as your base.
Don’t worry if you can’t make it for daybreak, though, as sunset is just as beautiful. Of course, it will be busier at this time, but you’ll still enjoy splendid views of the sun disappearing behind the peaks. Some short trails from the car park also lead out into the hills, offering more peaceful viewing spots.
Explore Rhyolite Ghost Town
Rhyolite Ghost Town features the ruins of a 1905 gold-mining town, which is now a Hollywood movie set and a historic site with art installations. The village sits east of Death Valley, just a 10-minute drive from the Death Valley National Park sign, making it an excellent addition to your trip.
You can explore Rhyolite Ghost Town and Death Valley on a private guided tour. On this trip, your guide will take you to the eeriest spots, such as the cemetery, the train depot, and the famous ghost sculptures. You will also learn the history of the abandoned town and hear many spooky stories.
Explore the quirky Area 51 Alien Center
A 40-minute drive south from Rhyolite will bring you to one of the weirdest Death valley attractions, the Area 51 Alien Center. The unusual venue is an alien-themed souvenir shop and roadside diner where many Death Valley visitors stop off on the way home.
As well as all the extra-territorial style keepsakes you can imagine, the quirky store features many ‘out of this world’ photo opportunities. While this is not one of the typical things to do in Death Valley, if you’re a sci-fi lover, you’ll find it a fantastic and unexpected addition to your trip.