Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park

15 Best Things to Do in Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is a place of records. It’s the largest national park in the continental US, with over 3.4 million acres. It’s also home to the lowest point in the contiguous US, Badwater Basin. And as of July 1913, it holds the record as the hottest place on Earth, as it reached a whopping 134°F. 

When you think of Death Valley, you might imagine a wasteland devoid of life. After all, what could survive in such extreme temperatures?

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only will you find unique wildlife in Death Valley, including its famous (though non-native) burros, but throughout the year, you’ll find blossoming flora, hot springs, waterfalls, and much more that you’d never picture would be located in such a desert. 

Visiting the hottest place on Earth and don’t know where to start? We’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in Death Valley – from incredible, can’t-miss vista points to uniquely colorful canyons. Stick to this Death Valley bucket list, and you’re bound to have an amazing time in this one-of-a-kind destination!

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1. Take in the Sights from Dante’s View

Unique Things to do in Death Valley: Dante’s View

Death Valley is filled with scenic views you can’t see anywhere else. And there are few better places to take in the sights than Dante’s View. If you are looking for something ultra-special, enjoying either the sunrise or sunset from Dante’s View is easily one of the best things to do in Death Valley.

Standing tall at 5,575 feet above the lowest point in Death Valley, Badwater Basin, Dante’s View lets you take in the white salt flats of the national park below you and the Panamint Range of mountains to the west. To get to Dante’s View, you’ll take an out-and-back trail that runs about a mile, which isn’t too difficult for most hikers. 

Aim to arrive at the top at least 30 minutes before sunrise or sunset. That way, you’ll get to see as the sky comes alive with color and light dancing on the mountains. If you choose to arrive at sunset, stick around after the sun goes down for some stargazing.

2. Cruise Down Artists Drive

Must do things in Death Valley: Artists Drive

Speaking of color, Artists Drive offers one of the coolest Death Valley activities, thanks to the explosions of color that dot your drive. What’s so special about this trail? Along the nine-mile, one-way drive, you’ll spot multicolored hills that were formed by volcanic deposits. The deposits created an array of colors, with swirls of red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green on the eroded hills.

Although you’ll see these colors throughout your trek down Artists Drive, the biggest highlight of the trail is the Artists Palette, where these colors are most apparent. Also during the drive, you’ll get scenic looks at the Black Mountains and the white salt flats. 

Artists Drive does not have any trails for you to walk along, but there are several pullouts along the journey where you can stop and get a closer look at the Artists Palette and other amazing vista points. The afternoon tends to be the best time to really see the colors, as you want the sun to be high to illuminate the hills.

3. Listen Closely at Devils Golf Course

What to do in Death Valley: Devils Golf Course

Hear that? No, it’s not the sound of people hitting golf balls in the desert. Devils Golf Course isn’t a golf course at all. Instead, it got its name from a 1934 National Park Service guidebook that claimed that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.”

One of the most unique Death Valley attractions, the “golf course” is actually a vast area of rock salt that’s been eroded by the wind and rain, causing it to take strange jagged shapes. You can choose to hike to get to the golf course, or you can simply take your vehicle along a half-mile dirt road that most cars shouldn’t have trouble with. From there, you’ll come across a stretch of serrated ground that would indeed make for a difficult day of golf. 

As you approach, listen carefully. You’ll hear little popping sounds, which are billions of salt crystals bursting, thanks to the heat causing them to expand and contract.

4. Experience Badwater Basin

Cool Things to do in Death Valley: Badwater Basin

Like Devils Golf Course, exploring Badwater Basin is a rather surreal place to visit and is one of the most unique things to do in Death Valley. It’s one of the hottest points in Death Valley. And, standing at 282 feet below sea level, it’s not only the lowest point in Death Valley but in the entire continental US. 

Once an ancient lake known as Lake Manly, Badwater Basin is now an expanse of salt flats covering nearly 200 square miles. The lake had no outlet, which led to sediment and salt increasing over time. When Lake Manly evaporated tens of thousands of years ago, it left beyond the salt deposits.

From the parking lot off Badwater Road, you can take in the view there, or you can trek along the boardwalk. You’ll need to take a two-mile round-trip walk if you want to reach the best views. From there, you’ll get up close to the salt flats and see the Black Mountains beyond, creating an incredible contrast you’ll want your camera for!

5. Hike the Golden Canyon

Death Valley Bucket List: Golden Canyon

As the name suggests, the Golden Canyon is a colorful place to hike that definitely belongs on your Death Valley bucket list! The out-and-back trail for this canyon runs about three miles. 

However, there are several trails that run through the Golden Canyon, and you can include many other highlights of Death Valley during your time exploring the canyon. One of the biggest highlights is the Red Cathedral. 

Though the Golden Canyon is known for its rolling yellow hills, the Red Cathedral soars above it with beautiful red rock, creating a breathtaking contrast. If you’re going to hike through Golden Canyon, be sure the Red Cathedral is on your itinerary.

6. Enjoy the View from Zabriskie Point

Death Valley Things to do: Zabriskie Point

For another great vista point, you’ll want to visit Zabriskie Point because sightseeing here is one of the best Death Valley activities. 

Particularly ideal for seeing the sunrise or sunset, Zabriskie Point is a perfect place to start or end the day. It was named in honor of Christian Zabriskie, a prominent figure in the heyday of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. As you exit the parking lot for this vista point, you’ll walk along a fairly easy quarter-mile paved trail to reach Zabriskie Point. 

At the top, you’ll see the badlands below, with the uneven hills dotting the landscape. Beyond the badlands, you’ll also see views of Death Valley’s iconic salt flats, as well as the Panamint Mountains off in the distance towering over everything. Keep your eyes peeled for the Manly Beacon, a massive structure that reaches 823 feet and is known for being particularly beautiful during sunrise and sunset. 

7. Explore the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Cool Things to do in Death Valley: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Nearby Stovepipe Wells, you’ll find the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Walking around these dunes is one of the best things to do in Death Valley, especially if you’re visiting early or late in the day.

These sand dunes are named for the mesquite trees that grow in abundance here. Throughout the massive dunes, you can see the brown trunks of the trees twisting their way out of the sand and reaching toward the sky. In the spring, these trees often bloom with yellow flowers.

There are several dunes throughout the area, but the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are truly one of the most unique Death Valley attractions. The eroding mountains in the north create the sand, while the mountains in the south create a barrier to prevent the sand from being blown away. The result is a range of enormous sand dunes you could easily spend hours walking around if it wasn’t for the intense heat, which may cut your visit short. 

There are no trails at these sand dunes, so you’re free to explore on your own. But keep in mind that many animals, including sidewinder rattlesnakes, call the dunes home, so be careful to watch where you step.

8. Marvel at Mosaic Canyon

Must do things in Death Valley: Mosaic Canyon

Visiting Mosaic Canyon is one of the most unique things to do in Death Valley. From the parking area, which is nearby Stovepipe Wells Village and the western entrance of Death Valley, you’ll go up and into the canyon, where smooth marble walls will surround you, formed by years of flash flooding. As you venture further, you’ll find outcroppings of the canyon’s namesake formation: the Mosaic Canyon Breccia.

The Mosaic Breccia is composed of many different kinds of parent rock, which form colorful mosaics. A natural cement holds the fragments together, which is what gives it the appearance of a tile mosaic. 

While some portions of the trail may be difficult for inexperienced hikers, those who wish to continue will enjoy the sight of more breccia hidden within canyon bends. Less experienced hikers should stick to the lower section of the canyon.

9. See Darwin Falls

Death Valley Things to do: Darwin Falls

When you imagine the hottest place on Earth, you likely don’t picture there being water there, let alone a year-round waterfall. But that’s exactly what Darwin Falls, one of the best Death Valley attractions, is! 

The route to Darwin Falls is one of the most beloved in Death Valley, despite there technically not being a marked trail at all. The two-mile, out-and-back trail is rocky and gravely, but it’s worth the trek.

What to do in Death Valley: Darwin Falls

Keep in mind that when you get to the falls, swimming is not allowed, so you, unfortunately, won’t be able to cool off from the hot hike. Stick to traveling this trail when it’s not the hottest part of the day, as it is one of the warmer walks in Death Valley. 

Once you reach Darwin Falls, you’ll be greeted by beautiful lush vegetation, thanks to the spring-fed waterfall. You don’t expect to see much greenery in Death Valley, but in nearby Darwin Falls, you’ll see thriving trees, aquatic vegetation, and ferns, as well as wildlife that depend on the water’s flow. If you visit in the spring, you’ll also likely see wildflowers growing along the trail.

10. Take a Dip in the Saline Hot Springs

Looking to go a little off the beaten path? The Saline Hot Springs in the Saline Valley make for one of the most fun things to do in Death Valley, provided you’re able to get there. These clothing-optional hot springs are a true hidden gem. 

The Saline Hot Springs are three pools that offer incredible views while you relax in the warm water. The middle and lower hot springs are concrete soaking tubs lined with stones, while the upper pool has been left undeveloped. Temperatures vary with the season, but they can reach upwards of 105°F.  

Getting to the hot springs requires a bit of a trek. You’ll ideally need a vehicle with four-wheel drive and high clearance. Even with such a vehicle, you should expect to be driving for upwards of two hours before you hit the springs. And that’s assuming the road conditions are good. Keep in mind that there is also no cell reception or Wi-Fi, so be sure you have all the necessary supplies before you begin your journey.

11. Tour Rhyolite

Best Things to do in Death Valley: Rhyolite

Just outside of Death Valley National Park is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in America, Rhyolite. Visiting this once-bustling town is one of the coolest things to do in Death Valley, especially if you’re a history buff.

In 1904, Shorty Harris and E. L. Cross were prospecting the area and discovered high-grade gold ore. A rush began, with several camps setting up to mine the gold. A townsite was set up nearby, dubbed Rhyolite in honor of the silica-rich volcanic rock that surrounded it.

Rhyolite blossomed quickly, with hotels, stores, schools, hospitals, and much more. The citizens had active lives. They played baseball games, attended dances, listened to the symphony, spent Saturday nights at the opera house taking in variety shows, and continued to help Rhyolite thrive. 

It continued to thrive until 1907, when a nationwide financial panic took its toll on the community. The mines began to close, banks failed, newspapers went out of business, and the number of residents dwindled. In 1916, the light and power in the town were turned off for good. 

Today, you can find many pieces of buildings still remaining in the once-busy town, like parts of the bank building and the old jail. The train depot is still fully standing. You can also see the famous Bottle House, once built by a miner out of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles. It was fully restored by Paramount Pictures in 1925 and left for visitors to see today. 

12. Pay a Visit to Scotty’s Castle

Must do things in Death Valley: Scotty’s Castle

Technically called the Death Valley Ranch, Scotty’s Castle offers one of the most unique things to do in Death Valley. And it all started with a man who wasn’t Scotty at all.

Albert Mussey Johnson was a well-respected insurance magnate, while Walter Scott was, well, less than trustworthy. Scotty convinced Johnson to invest in his gold mine, which never quite panned out.

Eventually, Johnson decided to come to Death Valley himself to see what was going on. Scotty thought Johnson would want to get out of the desert as quickly as he arrived, but he didn’t expect that Johnson would fall in love with what he saw.

Though Johnson was most likely being swindled, he came to like Scotty almost as much as he loved Death Valley. He returned to Death Valley year after year with his wife Bessie and eventually decided to build what would become Scotty’s Castle, with its lavish style and beautiful Spanish-Mediterranean features. 

Scotty told everyone that he was the one building the $2 million home from his gold-mining profits. Though far from the truth, Johnson backed him up, saying that he was simply Scotty’s banker. Construction stopped in 1931 when Johnson realized he was building on federal land. Scotty’s Castle remains incomplete today. 

Sadly, Scotty’s Castle is currently closed due to unprecedented flooding that took place back in 2015. Though the storm only did minor damage to the main house, many other buildings and facilities, including the Visitor Center and Historic Bridge, were heavily damaged. 

These repairs remain underway, but there’s no timeline for when they’ll be completed. In the meantime, Scotty’s Castle’s collection of 139,000 artifacts has been moved to a temporary location outside of Death Valley for safety, but you can take a Flood Recovery Tour to see the castle itself with a ranger to guide you.

13. Question Everything at the Racetrack Playa

Death Valley Things to do: Racetrack Playa

The Racetrack Playa, also known simply as the Racetrack, is one of the strangest and best sights in Death Valley. The playa is a large, dry lakebed characterized by its mud hexagons. But the thing that makes the Racetrack so unique is the existence of the “sailing stones.” 

When you visit the Racetrack, you’ll see rocks that have trails behind them, as if they’ve been moving on their own through the mud. Though there were many theories as to how such a thing could happen, the mystery was solved by a group of researchers in 2014. 

When it rains, the Racetrack becomes a shallow lake, which freezes at night in the winter, trapping the rocks in ice. When the lake warms up, the ice breaks and the wind blows the rock over the still-wet surface. As a result, when it’s hot and the water is gone, it looks like the stones have moved all on their own.

Like the Saline Hot Springs, the Racetrack Playa is in a remote part of Death Valley and requires a vehicle with four-wheel drive and a high clearance. There is no cell service or Wi-Fi in this area of the park, so be sure you have all the supplies you need before you start the drive over. 

Expect that you may be driving for upwards of three hours to reach the Racetrack. Also, be prepared that you may have to do some searching to find the real sailing stones, as some visitors create faux trails. 

14. Visit the Ubehebe Crater

Cool Things to do in Death Valley: Ubehebe Crater

The Ubehebe Crater is a massive volcanic crater that you can visit on your way to the Racetrack. It’s 600 feet deep and a half-mile across. This crater is actually known as a maar. It was created when hot magma rose up to reach groundwater. Steam then expanded until the pressure was too great and caused a huge explosion. 

When you visit the Ubehebe Crater, you’ll be able to look down and see beautiful stripes of color mixed in with black tar, making for a striking sight. While you can view the crater from the parking area, you can also hike around or into it.

The Ubehebe Crater is just one of about a dozen craters in the Ubehebe volcanic field, but it is the largest. However, many visitors also recommend checking out its little sibling, Little Hebe, which some say is more astonishing than the larger Ubehebe Crater.

15. Go Stargazing

Must do things in Death Valley: Stargazing

Stargazing belongs on every Death Valley bucket list. This national park is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky. In fact, it’s ranked at Gold Tier by the International Dark-Sky Association, the highest level. 

While you can see constellations anywhere in Death Valley as long as you’re away from campgrounds, hotels, and other areas with more light pollution, there are a few spots that are known for their particularly good stargazing. Top stargazing locations include the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Ubehebe Crater, Harmony Borax Works, and Badwater Basin. 

Pick a night when the sky will be darkest, like during a new moon, and be sure to bring a night sky almanac so you know what you’re looking at. You’ll also likely want to bring along a telescope or a simple pair of binoculars. 

You can also attend the annual Dark Sky Festival, where you’ll watch the night sky during ranger-led expeditions, listen to scientists’ lectures while exploring Death Valley, learn to take night sky photos, and participate in various hands-on activities that are fun for the whole family. 

There you have it—the 15 best things to do in Death Valley. What’s your favorite thing to do in Death Valley? Drop us a note and let us know!

About the Author

  • Jacqueline Gualtieri

    Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.

    When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.

    Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.

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