Death Valley National Park is the largest US National Park in the lower 48 states. Do not be fooled by the name ‘Death Valley’ as this park is full of colorful and unique features at almost every turn. From the Badwater Basin Salt Flats to Artists Palette to Mosaic Canyon to Ubehebe Crater, you will not be disappointed with the variety of stunning sites this park has to offer. Also, if you are a Star Wars fan, you will recognize many of the sites from Episode IV and VI as both had scenes filmed here.
This National Park is more family and non-hiker friendly than most of the other National Parks we have visited. Most of the impressive scenery in the park can be accessed via driving and a relatively short walk.
We were pleasantly surprised with how much we enjoyed Death Valley National Park and hope our guide to exploring it helps you enjoy it just as much as well. The first part of this guide is our two day guide to visiting Death Valley National Park. The second part of this guide is a logistics section that includes how to access the park and where to stay.
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Day 1: Badwater Basin, Natural Bridge, Artist Drive, Devil’s Golf Course, Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View, Salt Creek Interpretive Trail and More
Visit Badwater Basin
1 mile, flat, out & back
Badwater Basin is an area full of unique looking polygon shaped salt flats that is unlike anything we have seen before. These salt flats are also located at the lowest elevation in North America at -282 feet below sea level.
You can briefly walk out onto these salt flats but we recommend walking out almost a mile to get the best views of them. The further out you are, the better appreciation you get for the vastness of these formations that seem to stretch on endlessly. We visited at sunrise and would highly recommend this time as well because there were few other people at Badwater Basin at this time and the lighting was fantastic.
Hike Natural Bridge Trail
1 mile round-trip, 180 feet of elevation gain, out & back
Next, on the Natural Bridge Trail, you hike up through a canyon to a natural bridge rock formation. This short hike is pleasant, fast paced and only about a 5 minute drive from Badwater Basin. You should have no problem accessing the trailhead on the unpaved road leading up to it in a sedan, but be mindful that the road may be in worse condition if there has been any recent rain.
After visiting Natural Bridge, head to Artist Drive. Artist Drive is a nine mile one-way road through various multicolored and eroding hills. The Artist Palette viewpoint is the main attraction on this drive. You can see this viewpoint from the pullout but we highly recommend walking around the Artist Palette area to get even better views and picture opportunities.
Artist Drive is beautiful whatever time of day you visit (we visited late morning) but afternoon lighting is said to make colors the most dramatic. Parts of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope were filmed in this area as well.
Devil’s Golf Course
Stop next at Devil’s Golf Course, which is a vast collection of jagged salt spires, named so because “only the devil” could play golf on such a rough surface. On a hot day, bring your ear to the ground to listen to the salt crystals make a popping noise as they expand/contract.
Note: This destination is a quick, 5 minute stop to view the area as there is no hiking or walking trail here. To access Devil’s Golf Course, it is only a very short drive off the main road.
Hike Desolation Canyon
3.6 miles round-trip, 600 feet of elevation, out & back
The trailhead to this hike is located less than 10 minutes up the road from Devil’s Golf Course. This hike is through a narrow canyon before leading to a ridgeline with vast views of Death Valley. Views on Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope were filmed here. This canyon was neat to see and very peaceful (we saw only 2 other hikers on it) but we would not rate this hike as a must do. However, it is along the way and if you have time, it is worth checking out. Also, be mindful of where the trail leads as we got off the trail for a short distance thinking we were on the correct path.
Optional Add-On: Hike Golden Canyon Loop
4.3 miles loop, 850 feet of elevation gain
This hike offers colorful canyon views and can be accessed from the Golden Canyon Trailhead or at Zabriskie Point. We chose not to do this hike because you can get very similar, if not the same, views of the Golden Canyon area from Zabriskie Point. Instead, we chose to hike Desolation Canyon as outlined above.
Next stop at Zabriskie Point that offers stunning views overlooking golden colored badlands. This spot is beautiful anytime of day but most popular at sunrise and sunset.
Drive Twenty Mule Canyon
After visiting Zabriskie point, head to Twenty Mule Canyon. This canyon is a 2.4 mile unpaved one-way road through colorful badlands. You may recognize the landscape here from Jabba the Hutt’s Palace in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. This trek is not a must-do either, but it is along the route we took and another iconic Star Wars spot. To add this drive, at most, will only take 10 extra minutes.
This location is the highest viewpoint in the park overlooking the Panamint Mountains and Badwater Basin. Dante’s View was used in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope as an overlook spot of Mos Eisley. From our research, it offers one of the best sunrises in the park but we opted to see the sunrise at Badwater Basin instead as it is, in our opinion, the most unique place in the park.
Hike Harmony Borax Works Trail
0.4 miles round trip, 50 feet of elevation gain, loop
Next, stop at this Borax Mine Site where you travel back in time to see where 20-Mule Team Wagons began their 165 mile journey south to the Mojave Railroad Depot to deliver borax salt. This spot is a good place to stop for families as it is a brief walk around the mining site with interesting artifacts and information.
Hike Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
0.5 miles round-trip, flat, out & back
On your last stop of the day, visit the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. This unique boardwalk trail goes through a marsh that is home to rare and resilient pupfish. We did not see any pupfish on our walk but see if you do! It is neat to see this water source in the very dry and desolate Death Valley desert.
Tip: Budget more time at each spot (other than Devil’s Golf Course) than you would think.
There is up to a mile one-way walking at each of the sites to get to the best viewpoints. However, this walking is relatively fast-paced, flat and easy. Due to this park mainly requiring only light walking, it is a great park for families with young children, in comparison to some of the other parks we have visited, as there is a lot to see but not a lot of strenuous hiking required to do it.
Day 2: Mesquite Sand Dunes, Mosaic Canyon and Ubehebe Crater
Visit Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
2.0 miles round trip, 185 feet of elevation (depending on how many dunes you climb), out & back
These impressively large Sand Dunes can be viewed from the parking lot but we recommend trekking out onto the dunes to see some of the less visited (and with less footprints) Sand Dunes. We recommend visiting at sunrise or sunset for the best views, least amount of people and best lighting. We visited at sunrise and only saw 3 other people. These sand dunes reminded us of the ones we saw in the Sahara but not as large or expansive (see Top 3 Morocco Experiences for more on the Sahara). Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope filmed scenes here as these are the sand dunes of Tatooine.
Fun facts about the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes:
#1 These sand dunes can get up to 200 degrees on the surface in the summer. Most creatures only come out at night, even in the winter months, and otherwise stay in their underground dens.
#2 Sand is everywhere in the desert but sand dunes only occur in places where there is wind, something to stop the wind and a large supply of sand. You will not find sand dunes anywhere else in the park.
Hike Mosaic Canyon
4 miles round-trip, 1,200 feet of elevation gain, out & back
Next, hike the Mosaic Canyon trail. This trail was our favorite hike we did in Death Valley National Park. This canyon is filled with slick rock narrows as well as uniquely colored and patterned rocks.
Tip: Beware scrambling required.
After 1.25 miles, the trail becomes a bit unclear and confusing as you need to start scrambling. Look for arrows on the ground (made of rocks) to help point you in the right direction. These arrows are the only real markings/directions on the trail.
Note: To access this trail you have to drive on an unpaved road for about 2 miles. It is passable in a sedan but you have to drive on it pretty slow as it was more uneven than any other of the unpaved roads we traveled on in this park. Again be mindful of road conditions if there has been recent rain.
Visti/Hike Ubehebe Crater
1.5 mile loop hike, 500 feet of elevation gain, loop
After hiking Mosaic Canyon, head to Ubehebe Crater. This large volcanic crater is very impressive to see in-person. It is 600 feet deep and a half mile across. You can simply drive up to this crater or hike around it. We recommend hiking around it as you’ll get different views of the crater and see the little Ubehebe Crater as well.
The drive to this spot is about an hour from the Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek areas. The drive goes by fast though as you’ll see lots of interesting rock formations and scenery along the way.
Optional: Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek Visitors Center.
If looking for somewhere to get food in the park, stop at Stovepipe Wells or, if you are looking for some more history on the park, visit the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. We opted to relax at Airbnb this afternoon but both of these activities could easily be added onto this day.
Drive Home or Continue onto Joshua Tree National Park
Drive back to Las Vegas (or your point of origin) tonight or tomorrow. Another option is to drive southwest through part of the Mojave Desert, like we did, to continue your adventure and explore the iconic Joshua Tree National Park (see Four Days in Joshua Tree National Park).
How to Access
To access Death Valley National Park, fly into Las Vegas, which is about 2 hours from the closest town, Beatty, to easily access the park.
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Where to Stay
Set-up your home base in Beatty. It is about a 30+ minute drive (depending on where you are going in the park) into Death Valley National Park from this town. We highly recommend our one bedroom Beatty Airbnb as it was cozy yet very comfortable and with a full (small) kitchen. Use this link to get up to $65 off your first Airbnb
Beatty is an eclectic town of about 1,000 people that is home to the largest candy store in all of Nevada, Death Valley Nut & Candy, (which also sells delicious homemade ice cream that we most certainly enjoyed) and several small restaurants. There is a Family Dollar in town but this store only sells the very basic things so if you plan to cook your own food and need groceries, make sure to buy them in Las Vegas before driving to Beatty (like we did). Otherwise, you will be SOL.
For Best Experience, Arrive the Day Prior
We recommend arriving in Las Vegas the day prior to starting this trip as the first day is full day and you will want to start your trip into the park before Sunrise. Another option is to visit all the spots on our two day itinerary in one VERY full day but we do not recommend this as it will involve A LOT of driving and you will not have time for really any hiking.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Death Valley National Park. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!