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.
If you’re heading to Death Valley National Park, consider checking out these five spots.
Five things to do in Death Valley National Park
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.
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.
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.
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 filmed scenes here, including multiple Star Wars films, so fans of that series should consider checking out the dunes.
Death Valley National Park has some primitive campgrounds. Because of the extreme heat, many are not staffed during the summer, but you’re still welcome to pull in and set up camp.
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.