Exploring colorful mountains, sand dunes, and the lowest basin in North America are just a few of the awesome things to do in Death Valley National Park in California.
I admit that before I traveled to Death Valley, I was skeptical about the place. “What is there to see besides a bunch of desert and rocks?,” I wondered.
But it turns out that Death Valley National Park actually offers a lot of scenic places to check out!
Fun Death Valley activities include visiting dry salt beds, brilliantly-colored rock and mineral formations, and even – if you can believe it – snow.
If you’re heading to the national park, consider checking out as many of these Death Valley activities and points of interest as possible!
Quick Summary: The 5 Best Highlights of Death Valley
1 Badwater Basin
2 Artist’s Palette
3 Mesquite Sand Dunes
4 Zabriskie Point
5 Dante’s View
The Best Things To Do in Death Valley National Park
At more than 3.3 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 United States, trailing only four Alaska parks in size. That makes it difficult to see every attraction in the park.
But you should certainly try to see the major highlights. Let’s go over the best activities in the park!
The Best Natural Wonders in Death Valley
1 Badwater Basin
Every visitor to Death Valley stops by Badwater Basin, the must-see spot that makes the park famous.
At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest point 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.
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. Keep yourself hydrated!
2 Zabriskie Point
One of the best spots in the park for viewing sunrise or sunset is Zabriskie Point. From here, you can see the full expanse of the valley, with the mountains towering behind it.
You can also see the badlands, a section of rippled and creviced rock that seems otherworldly. Manly Beacon is a piece of rock that juts to an elevation of 823 feet.
You can easily drive here, with just a quarter-mile stroll needed to reach the viewpoint.
3 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 and serves as one of Death Valley’s top points of interest.
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 filmed scenes here, including multiple Star Wars films, so fans of that series should consider checking out the dunes. Sand dunes in national parks are rare!
There are other sand dunes in the park, but they are much less accessible. Here’s the full list.
The Eureka Sand Dunes, for instance, are much taller than the Mesquite Sand Dunes, but getting there requires more than 40 miles of driving on dirt roads.
4 Dante’s View
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.
It really brings home the scope of Death Valley when you’re looking down into the massive valley while viewing the mountains off in the distance. Such an impressive sight!
5 Devil’s Golf Course
The Devil’s Golf Course is a large salt pan on the floor of the valley. It almost looks like hardened lava, with its jagged bumps of uneven ground.
Actually, the ground is made of rock salt, which gets eroded by wind and heat.
You can get to Devil’s Golf Course with a half-mile drive on a dirt road. This road does not require a four wheel drive vehicle.
There’s a dirt parking lot, so you can get out and walk around this area, but be careful, because the salt peaks can be jagged and sharp.
6 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!
Most people have to settle for viewing Telescope Peak from a distance, because getting to the peak itself requires driving along a gravel road to the trailhead at 8,000 feet, then hiking seven miles to the peak.
The round-trip is a strenuous, seven- to nine-hour trek. Go during summer, because it’s covered in snow and ice during winter.
Scenic Drives in Death Valley
7 Artist’s Palette
Artist’s Palette is a section of the Black Mountains where the rock is colored brilliant shades of green, orange and purple. This is a can’t-miss Death Valley attraction!
The colors emerge due to weathering and the oxidation of various metals in the area. It’s one of the coolest places to see in the park.
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.
8 Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Twenty Mule Team Canyon is a dirt road that goes through the badlands. It’s a very cool place to see up close. The unpaved road is suitable for most cars, except those with low clearance. Find it just east of Zabriskie Point.
Star Wars scenes were also filmed here, back in the ’70s before such filming was permitted was banned in the national park.
9 Charcoal Kilns
The Charcoal Kilns are ten beehive-shaped structures created in 1877 by a mining company to store fuel. They were only used for about 20 years and then abandoned, and they are still in great shape today.
This area of the park sees far fewer visitors than the main tourist spots.
Visiting them requires a bit of a detour, as they’re 90 minutes from the main visitor center. Located in Wildrose Canyon, the kilns sit at an elevation of 5000 feet, so they’ll give you an opportunity to explore a different side of Death Valley.
Death Valley Activities: The Best Hiking Trails
There are lots of good hiking trails in Death Valley, but don’t consider using them unless you prepare adequately for the heat and lack of water.
Visitors are strongly encouraged to plan hikes during the cooler winter months rather than during the blazing heat of summer, and hike during early morning if possible.
The National Park Service says that October through April are the ideal months to hike in DV. You’ll find much more tolerable temperatures at that time of year.
10 Natural Bridge Canyon Trail
Natural Bridge is a rock formation that was evidently formed thousands of years ago by rushing water. Visiting this spot is one of the coolest things to do in Death Valley National Park.
And you can grab some awesome pics here! The round-trip hike is only about one mile, or 45 minutes total. That’s about as long as you want to be hiking in the heat of Death Valley anyway.
11 Mosaic Canyon Trail
Here’s a good moderately-challenging hike, at 3.5 miles total with less than 1000 feet of elevation gain.
Mosaic Canyon is a hike that anyone in good shape can do, assuming you avoid the hottest hours of the day. The canyon walls do provide some shade.
12 Golden Canyon Trail
Golden Canyon lives up to its name, with golden rock walls that soak up the sun. The basic hike is pretty easy and covers 2 miles, though it’s possible to continue further for motivated hikers.
You can sort of explore on your own here, as there are plenty of side canyons and other areas to walk around a bit.
13 Darwin Falls Trail
This trek used to be one of the coolest in Death Valley, as it leads to a surprising waterfall! But with recent flooding, the 2.5-mile access road was washed out, turning the 2-mile hike into a 7-mile journey.
And the pool that used to sit at the base of the waterfall is mostly gone. At this point, Darwin Falls shouldn’t be a top priority hike, unless you have several days in the park.
14 Fall Canyon Trail
Fall Canyon is a cool hike through open landscape into narrows and a canyon. It covers 6 miles with about 2400 feet of elevation gain.
This hike is recommended only for experienced hikers, as it’s not well-marked. You’re basically walking on loose gravel through a wash. Follow the park’s specific directions.
Historic Sites in Death Valley
15 Eureka Mine
Death Valley NP is home to a lot of abandoned mines. Many are not particularly accessible, but Eureka Mine is an exception. With a 2-mile drive down a dirt road, you can reach the mine and see the old mill and rail tracks.
16 Harmony Borax Works
One mile west of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center on CA-190, find the 0.4-mile road to Harmony Borax Works, the remains of an 1880s borax production plant.
Part of the building and an old wagon sit on display at the site, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
17 Rhyolite Ghost Town
Just 10 minutes from the eastern edge of Death Valley sits one of the coolest ghost towns in the Southwest. Rhyolite, Nevada is an old mining town that was abandoned decades ago.
Some of its old concrete buildings remain standing. It’s a really cool place to explore. A lot of people miss Rhyolite because it’s not well-known, but I highly recommend visiting!
Guided Tours in Death Valley
There are many guided group tours of Death Valley. Nearly all of them are 1-day tours that begin and end in Las Vegas.
These are the top three tours that we currently recommend for Death Valley visitors who want to leave the driving to someone else.
18 Death Valley Self-Guided Audio Tour
This is a simple phone app that will help guide you around the park via GPS. This hits more than 10 of the spots on my list. It’s great for a one-day park visit. Check pricing and availability.
19 Death Valley Small Group Adventure From Las Vegas
Here’s an all-day tour that lasts 11-12 hours. You’ll leave Vegas very early in the morning, head to Rhyolite, and then enter the park and see all the highlights. Check pricing and availability.
20 Death Valley Sunset & Starry Night Tour
This all-day tour from Vegas lasts until after sunset, so you get some time to see the stars before returning to the city. Check pricing and availability.
Other Death Valley Points of Interest and Activities
21 Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Be sure to stop by the Furnace Creek Visitors Center when you arrive to inquire about points of interest or any other questions you may have about Death Valley activities.
You can also pick up additional park maps and information, watch a 20-minute park film, and visit the bookstore, which sells sandwiches and snacks.
There’s virtually no light pollution in this part of the desert, so it’s a very cool experience to watch the stars all night long.
The park is recognized as a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, making it an ideal place to observe the nice skies. Park programs often host special events where rangers lead astronomy programs.
Death Valley has seven established campgrounds. Camping in the desert can be a fun experience.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Death Valley offers a wealth of experiences and sights, from surreal landscapes to star-filled nights. Visitors often have questions about the unique opportunities available in this national park.
How much does it cost to visit Death Valley National Park?
Currently, the park entrance fee is $30 per vehicle, or $25 per motorcycle. The pass is good for seven days.
Are dogs permitted in Death Valley NP?
Yes, but only in very limited areas. Leashed pets are permitted around paved roads and visitor centers. See a full list of pet-friendly locations here.
The park does not encourage visitors to bring dogs, because they’re not permitted on hiking trails, and it’s definitely not safe for dogs to stay inside vehicles, given the extreme heat here.
What’s the best time to visit Death Valley National Park?
Keep in mind that a January or February Death valley visit is very different than a visit during July or August.
Because summer temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees F, the best time to come to Death Valley is from October through April. During those months, temps are more comfortable.
So be aware of the weather and come prepared with plenty of water and the appropriate type of clothing for the season.
Where can you see wildlife in Death Valley?
Wildlife in Death Valley can often be spotted around water sources like Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, and Saratoga Springs. Furnace Creek has a bird-viewing platform that our feathered flying friends frequent.
Desert bighorn sheep are seen frequently on the drive and hike to Telescope Peak, and in other mountainous regions of the park. They blend in with the rocks, so look closely.
Coyotes live throughout the park, so keep an eye out while you’re driving around or hiking. Look for roadrunners scampering across the road or the desert ground.
Lizards, jackrabbits and desert tortoises are occasionally seen as well.
What is best itinerary for a one-day trip to Death Valley?
For a one-day trip, start early at Zabriskie Point for sunrise, then visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.
Afterward, take a drive through Artists Palette and Dante’s View. If there’s still time, head over to the Rhyolite ghost town.
What else is there to do near Death Valley?
What are your favorite things to do in Death Valley National Park?