For a land of great extremes like Death Valley, which remains the hottest, driest and lowest National Park in America, it is amazing to discover such a plethora of geological diversity.
Where else can you go and find lunar-like salt flats, deep crevice waterfalls, marble rock canyons, soft and voluptuous sand dunes, organically painted hills, panoramic vistas and a lava rock crater—all pockets of vastly different landscape created by chaotic cataclysmic forces continually forging, forcing and unveiling contrasting layers of shifting terrains—in one place? Not to mention the odd forms of life like the persevering pupfish or tiny beige colored foxes that all represent survival of the fittest. It’s not only a geologist’s dream but also a perfect place to visit for those who crave many different, authentic and natural experiences packed into one trip.
Planning an itinerary can seem overwhelming when there’s so much to do, but here’s one that covers all the high points, spanning a solid three days.
Note: Because there are no manned entry gates like in most national parks, you can buy a pass at various automated machines at different points along the way or at any Visitor Center inside the park.
Walk out onto the Badwater Basin Salt Flat, which is a great introduction to the park’s surreal environment. It is the lowest elevation in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level and considered the drainage system of the valley, made up of sodium chloride crystals that are continually creating, morphing and destroying themselves.
Visit Devil’s Golf Course to walk upon a massive and alien patch of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. Only the devil could play golf on such rough links.
Hike Golden Canyon Trail, which boasts a two-mile roundtrip review of stunning mineral rock walls studded with various bright yellows and deep greens. Go all the way to the end where you will suddenly and surprisingly become enveloped in a pocket of red cathedral rocks that stand towering above you.
Hike up to the Natural Bridge, which spans across a quiet canyon that ends at the mouth of a dry waterfall. The boulders that used to hide beneath rushing waters are now exposed and otherworldly gorgeous in miraculous colors of turquoise and viridian greens.
Take the nine-mile drive through Artist’s Palette. The scenic loop through multi-hued volcanic and sedimentary hills is especially spectacular right before sunset when the stark sunlight is gone and the colors are strikingly juxtaposed.
Tour Scotty’s Castle, a two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival villa located in the middle of nowhere featuring one-of-a-kind architectural details. Built by a faux gold huckster and his millionaire patron, the property is as intriguing as the story that surrounds its construction.
Hike 600 feet down into the awe-inspiring Ubehebe Crater and around its bowl of volcanic residue. It’s easy to slide down the slopes on foot and harder to get back up, but provides a great workout and experience. If you are shy you can walk around the top on a rim trail that is 1.5 miles long.
Hike Mosaic Canyon where a wondrous polished marble walled canyon waits at the end of the first half-mile. The trek through narrow slick rocks includes a bit of fun rock scrambling and the view is dotted with mosaics of fragmented rocks collaged together by nature.
Walk Salt Creek Trail, which is really a bizarre wooden boardwalk embedded within a small stream that spans out across the salt plain. At certain times of year you may catch a glimpse of the rare pupfish.
Visit Furnace Creek Visitor Center for some educational displays about the area.
Visit Zabriske Point to overlook a maze of hills - all eroded and colored in a patchwork fashion creating an enormous natural topographic blueprint before your eyes.
Drive the one-way Twenty Mule Team Canyon, which feels like one of those rides at Disneyland that has you coasting through pseudo-landscapes, only this is real. Your car on the soft road becomes almost boat-like as you crest hills and dip into troughs on this natural and benign roller coaster with great sandstone colored views.
Visit Dante’s View, which is the most breathtaking viewpoint in the park. Try to make it just before sunset. It’s a special treat to stand atop this mount looking down more than 5,000 feet into Badwater Basin as the dusty salt and sand mist wafts up to cover a retreating sun into the horizon line at the serene moment the day is swept away.
Visit the Harmony Borax Works site where a full-scale operation used to mill borax. Walk the small and simple trail around the ruins of the site complete with old rusting machinery to learn about its harsh production history.
Visit Rhyolite Ghost Town, which rises out of nowhere and is always open. A few buildings; including a school house, a bank and a mercantile; still stand, albeit in pieces, and if you close your eyes and listen carefully you can conjure the good old days when the saloon and train station rang with whistle-stop carousing.
Visit The Goldwell Open Air Museum, mere moments down the road from the ghost town. Here you will find the strangest seven outdoor sculptures in the land, complete with an eerie version of The Last Supper in which ghosts mingle atop a platform.
Drive by Devil’s Cornfield, another example of the area’s bizarre indigenous terrain, which looks like squat haystacks scattered across the dirt, while on your way to hike Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. You’ll want to put on some sunscreen before hiking across the soft dunes. Make sure to walk along the razor-back ridges whenever you have the chance as it’s not often you will feel safe doing so.
Hike Darwin Falls west of Panamint Springs, after driving down a curvy two and a half mile dirt road that rounds a mountain bottom. The mostly level one-mile walk to the falls involves some rock scrambling and river crossing but is worth it to see the spring fed waterfall that falls down at the end through a narrow gorge year round. This is one of the only places in Death Valley where you will find water, lush green willows and hear copious amounts of chirping from the resident birds.
Bid Death Valley adieu with a goodbye salute high up at Father Crowley Vista. This panoramic viewing site looks out over a landscape of solidified dark lava flows and cinder rock, giving way to a gash of rainbow-colored canyon. Walk the dirt track east of the parking lot for a grand overlook of northern Panamint Valley.
- Make sure to slather on the sunscreen at multiple points in the day.
- Travel with plenty of water and a hydration pack when hiking.
- Make sure your car is in tip-top shape for the many gravel and unpaved roads that lead to many of these destinations.
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes or boots as many of the more interesting spots have terrain that is brutal to your normal tennis or casual shoes.