Five things to see and do at Death Valley National Park

Before I traveled to Death Valley, California last year, I wasn’t too excited about the place. “What is there to see besides a bunch of rocks?,” I wondered. But Death Valley actually offers a lot in the way of scenery, including dry salt beds, brilliantly-colored rock and mineral formations, and even – if you can believe it – snow.

Death Valley welcome sign

If you’re heading to Death Valley National Park, consider checking out these five spots.

1 Badwater Basin

Every visitor to Death Valley stops by Badwater Basin, the spot that makes the park famous. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest elevation in North America. The temperature rises to well over 100 degrees here during the summer, but it’s not as dry as you’d think. There’s a small pond here called the Badwater Pool. The water is much saltier than the ocean, and only a few small marine organisms can survive in it.

Badwater basin sign

Visitors are encouraged to walk out on the basin, but during the summer months when the temperature routinely reaches 120 degrees, you should take care not to walk too far from your vehicle and to have plenty of water on hand.

2 Telescope Peak

I never expected that I could stand in Badwater Basin in May with the temperature at 107 degrees and look over and see snow on a nearby mountain, but that’s one of the surprises Death Valley offers. Telescope Peak in the Panamint Mountains has an elevation of 11,049 feet.

If your vehicle is up for it, you can drive along a gravel road to the trailhead at 8,000 feet, then hike seven miles to the peak. The round-trip is a strenuous, seven- to nine-hour trek. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep during your journey. Go during summer, or you’ll need an ice axe, crampons and other professional gear.

3 Black Mountains

Artist’s Palette is a section of the Black Mountains where the rock is colored brilliant shades of green, orange and purple. The colors emerge due to weathering and the oxidation of various metals in the area.

Artist's Palette Death Valley

You can see this section of Death Valley by following a nine-mile one-way road through the edge of the mountains. Feel free to pull over and hike into the hills to see even more magnificent colors hidden from the view of the road.

For a wonderful view of Badwater Basin and the surrounding mountains, head to Dante’s View in the Black Mountains. The viewpoint more than 5,000 feet above the basin provides some of the best views in Death Valley.

Death Valley overlook

4 Mesquite Sand Dunes

The Mesquite Sand Dunes were formed by years of wind blowing sand into an area nearly surrounded by mountains. The highest dune stands about 100 feet tall. Hike through the dunes or take photographs and enjoy the scenery. Sunset is said to be the best time to take photos. Just watch for the sidewinder rattlesnakes in the area.

Several Hollywood movies have been shot here, including scenes for multiple Star Wars films, so fans of that series should consider checking out the dunes.

Ryan from Pause the Moment has some great photos from the dunes in an article about his weekend trip to Death Valley.

5 Campgrounds

There are some primitive campgrounds in Death Valley National Park. Because of the extreme heat, many are not staffed during the summer, but you’re still welcome to pull in and set up camp.

Death Valley campground

During my visit in May I grabbed a spot at the Furnace Creek campground. I thought I might be the only crazy person camping there since it was already summer, but at least a dozen other travelers had the same idea. Sleeping under the stars while coyotes howled throughout the night was one of the most memorable experiences I had in Death Valley.

Things to see and do in Death Valley: Summary

Check out Death Valley’s official website for more ideas on things to see and do and be sure to stop by the Furnace Creek Visitors Center when you arrive.

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

12 comments on “Five things to see and do at Death Valley National Park

  1. Kali camped in Death Valley years and years ago with his family. There was an awful sand storm that night and sand came pouring under the flaps of the tent. Apparently they had to put his baby brother in the middle with a blanket covering his head so sand didn’t get into his eyes, then Kali and his parents had to spend the night sleeping in the corners of the tent so it wouldn’t blow in on them!

    Which has made me a little wary about camping in Death Valley, lol.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..Creole Cuisine in New Orleans

    • In the summers Thorndike, Wildrose, and Mahogany Flat are great places to camp. You’re crazy to try and camp at furnace creep from may-september! go up to the mountains, its beautiful, the stars are even better, and best of all, it’s FREE!

  2. My favorite national park. Soooo much to see. And so many things that just can’t be experienced anyplace else. I recorded two podcasts on Death Valley and it just made me want to book a flight and rent a 4wd vehicle to head up to the racetrack to see where rocks mysteriously travel across the flat cracked earth.

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