Its name is not particularly inviting — Death Valley. Even with its sometimes-snowcapped mountains reaching toward the sky, the desert landscape lies below sea level and is known for its steady droughts and record summer heat, with temperatures topping out at well more than 100 degrees. Why in the world would anyone want to visit a land of such extremes?
Easy — it is beautiful. Though it is a desert, the landscapes in Death Valley are as varied as the people who visit, and those people who visit come from all around the world to do just that. Death Valley National Park spans 3.4 million acres (5,300 square miles) in California, and juts out a bit into Nevada, and has plenty of places to see.
The National Park Service named its Must-See Highlights within the park, which can be seen within a day and from the comfort of your car. Let’s take a look.
The lowest point in all of North America is found at Badwater Basin, which sits at 282 feet below sea level. The salt flats may become a temporary lake after a heavy rainstorm, and the NPS suggests visitors not walk out onto them during hot weather. Otherwise, if the weather is cooperating, get out of the car and take a walk around — it is really remarkable.
Another spot to get out and about in cooler weather is the 2.7-mile, one-way Twenty Mule Team Canyon loop drive. The unpaved drive is accessible by car if there has not been any recent rain, and is terrific for biking or hiking, especially if your dog is along for the fun.
Devil’s Golf Course is a fascinating stop — a massive area filled with rock salt formations created over the years by wind and rain. Its jagged landscape prompted someone to say that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links,” and so the name was born. If you hear soft popping and pinging sounds whilst gazing about, have no fear — the sound is that of billions of tiny salt crystals bursting as they expand and contract in the heat.
The largest dune field in Death Valley National Park is at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes about 30 minutes west of Furnace Creek. Three types of sand dunes are found here — crescent, linear and star-shaped — and Mesquite trees have created large hummocks.
Photographers will want to time their visits right to be at Zabriskie Point for sunrise and/or sunset; it is the most famous viewpoint in the park. Stay at the viewing point overlooking the badlands, or hike from the point around the Badlands Loop for a different perspective. Connector trails lead away from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Red Cathedral — just be sure you’re well-prepared with drinking water before setting out.
Artist’s Drive is another spot that’s a must-shoot for photographers, especially as the afternoon light hits the multicolored hillsides. The one-way drive that winds through is 9 miles in length, so you will want to make sure to give yourself enough time to make stops along the way to capture its beauty. Star Wars fans may recognize Artist’s Drive, as well as Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, from scenes from the original trilogy.
Make reservations at The Oasis at Death Valley, in the inn or the ranch, and take some time to explore this American wonder. Just remember, the No. 1 thing to do in Death Valley is to hydrate!