Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It’s so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.
This is surprising to me because I’ve always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America’s deserts.
Whenever anyone finds out about my quest to visit all 400+ units within the National Park Service, they ask which one is my favorite. I hate that question because it’s real hard to answer, because every single park has its own magic, because it’s not easy to pick just one.
But. Death Valley, you guys. It might be my favorite. It’s that good.
I saw a lot in the few days I spent inside the park, but Death Valley is huge, the largest U.S. National Park outside of Alaska with 3.4 million acres and almost 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads. The terrain is rugged, varied, strange and unlike any place I’ve ever seen or imagined.
Here’s what made me fall in love with Death Valley National Park.
At 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point on the continent. The Badwater Salt Flat spreads across more than 200 miles of the valley floor in veiny hexagons and was created by movements in the earth’s crust. It gets its name from the nearby spring-fed pool full of “bad water.”
How To See It: Badwater Basin is located 17 miles (27 km) south of Furnace Creek and it’s a half mile from the parking lot to the edge of the salt flat. If you want to go further, you can hike five miles to the other side. It’s one of the hottest and driest places on the planet, so exploring Badwater is best left to the early morning or evening.
MESQUITE FLAT SAND DUNES.
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the most famous and accessible of the seven sets of dunes within Death Valley National Park. There’s no real trail through the dunes and visitors are welcome to scamper as they please, over and in between the dunes.
How To See Them: The Mesquire Flat Sand Dunes are located right next to Stovepipe Wells, about 30 minutes west of Furnace Creek. The trek to the summit of the highest dune is one mile each way.
Yes, Virginia, there is water in the desert.
I meant to visit Darwin Falls my first full day in the park, but got up and started heading in the opposite direction before remembering my plan. So, when I left my sweater at the hotel closest to the falls, I figured it was fate sending me back that way. Darwin Falls is probably one of the most underrated spots in the park.
How To See It: The trailhead to Darwin Falls is down an unmarked, unpaved road west of Panamint Springs. There’s a small, marked parking lot and the trail to the falls in one mile each way. There are sometimes burros in the area who can occasionally be aggressive if threatened, although I didn’t encounter any wildlife other than a cow and her calf, just chilling the desert doing their moo-cow thing.
DEVIL’S GOLF COURSE.
The Devil’s Golf Course is a salt pan eroded by wind and rain into jagged, salty spires. Essentially, it’s a giant, dried up lakebed. And it’s constantly changing. You can even hear the salt expanding and contracting. It’s so weird.
You can scamper out onto the salt formations to get a closer look at it all, or, fuck it, even taste the salt. Just be careful. Salt is sharp.
How To See It: The Devil’s Golf Course is located south of Furnace Creek, off Badwater Road, right between the Artists Drive and Badwater Basin.
Have you heard about the place at Death Valley where rocks move themselves across the desert floor? That’s the Racetrack. For years, this was an unexplained mystery of the desert until 2014 when a group of scientists (probably) figured out what was moving the rocks.
Magic moving rocks aside, the Racetrack is a great place to enjoy some solitude as it’s both hard to get to and far from the park’s main attractions.
How To See It: The Racetrack is located down a 26-mile gravel road of occasional chaos and wretchedness. It is far away and I wouldn’t recommend the trek out there for anyone without a high-clearance vehicle or who is short on time in the park. I spent most of my first day getting to the Racetrack, hiking and exploring in the area and then getting back to “civilization.” The park service estimates the Racetrack is at least a 3.5 hour drive from Furnace Creek and reminds visitors that there is no cell signal out here and if you get stuck, you might be on your own for a while.
The Ubehebe Crater is a volcanic crater half a mile across and around 600 feet deep. The crater was possibly formed as recently as 300 years ago when steam expanded in the maar volcano until the pressure caused an intense explosion.
How To See It: The Ubehebe Crater is located eight miles west of Scotty’s Castle and just past the Grapevine Ranger Station, which is a bit off the main drag, but worth the drive if volcanoes are your thing. You can hike the rim of the crater – it’s a 1.5 mile loop – although it’s not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.
Zabriskie Point is one of the most famous viewpoints in the park. It overlooks golden badlands and is one of the most popular spots for taking in a sunrise or sunset.
How To See It: There’s a viewing area on SR-190, just a little south of Furnace Creek. If crowded viewpoints aren’t your thing, you can hike through the badlands to Zabriskie Point via the Golden Canyon trailhead and then loop back through Gower Gulch for a 5-6 mile desert scamper.
Dante’s View sits on top of the Black Mountains at 5,475 feet above sea level and offers one of the most spectacular views in the park. You can see Badwater Basin, the Panamint Mountains and, if you squint, the Sierra Nevadas.
I was so overcome by the view I immediately started cussing under my breath, asking the air rhetorical questions such as, “Are you fucking kidding me, how is this real?”
(Star Wars fans might also recognize the view. It was used in Episode IV: A New Hope.)
How To See It: Dante’s View is located south of Furnace Creek and is accessed by taking Dante’s View Road off SR-190 on the eastern side of the park. You can take in the view from the parking lot or scamper down a trail running along a ridge to get a different view of the valley.
HARMONY BORAX WORKS.
Borax was discovered in Death Valley National Park in 1881 and large-scale borax mining took off from there. There are quite a few mine-related sites in the park, including a bunch of random mines in the wilds of the park, but Harmony Borax Works is the easiest to visit and it does a great job at explaining the park’s mining history.
How To See It: Harmony Borax Works is located just north of Furnace Creek on SR-190. There’s a parking lot and a short loop trail with signs explaining the history of borax mining.
Often rated as one of the top things to do in the park, Artists Drive is a one-way, nine-mile scenic drive through a colorful array of eroded hills. If you’re short on time or need an accessible way to experience the park without steep or rocky climbs, Artists Drive is perfect.
How To See It: Artists Drive is located 20 minutes south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. The road is narrow, steep and winding and the drive is only open to vehicles less than 25 feet in total length.
Death Valley National Park is located in southeastern California along the Nevada border. Admission to the park is $30, good for seven days, or you can get an annual parks pass for $80 (or for free if you're a member of the military), which allows free entry into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Death Valley National Park is open every day, all day.