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Most Americans have heard of Death Valley, though few of us know much about it. The name conjures images of a flat, barren, and frankly, boring landscape. Or at least it did for me when my friend suggested a day trip from Las Vegas to the Death Valley National Park.
To my pleasant surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Actually, the park has so much to offer you can’t see it all in a day. However, it is enough time for the highlights, and they are spectacular.
This post will provide you with a little insight on the park, plus a half to full-day itinerary.
Where Is Death Valley National Park?
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. Though Death Valley straddles parts of Nevada, the majority of the park is in California, just east of the Sequoia National Forest.
From Las Vegas it takes just over two hours to get to Death Valley. Though you may want to consider leaving early and visiting the unique desert oasis of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on the way.
Did You Know?
When To Visit Death Valley National Park?
It’s best to visit the park in spring or fall, when temperatures are more pleasant. You’re also more likely to see wildlife. Reptiles typically hibernate in winter, and most desert animals become nocturnal in summer to escape the heat of the day.
However, don’t let the heat discourage you from a summer visit if that’s all you have. There’s no humidity, so if you make friends with the shade and keep hydrated, you’ll find it tolerable.
Most visitors drink a gallon of water on a warm day in the park. Make sure you bring plenty for everyone in your group.
You’ll also want to cover your skin with light, but long clothing, and of course a hat.
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
The main visitor center for the park is Furnace Creek. Stop in here first to pick up a map and pay the park fees. It’s $30 per vehicle (2020), but the pass provides park access for seven consecutive days.
For an impressive panorama, head to Dante’s view. Below this cliff top ridge, a sea of white salt stretches into the distance. The area below is known as Badwater Basin, the lowest point in all of North America.
Devil's Golf Course
Just before you get to Badwater Basin, there’s a little pull off called Devil’s Golf Course. Apparently, the name comes from one of the old guide books which said, “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” From there, the name stuck.
Listen closely, on a hot day you can hear the popping and crunching as the salt expands and contracts with the heat.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. Look up to the cliff side for the “sea level” sign, providing a perspective on just how low this spot is.
You might be surprised to see water here. The area is fed by a natural spring. The spring mixes with the surrounding salt making it undrinkable.
As you walk out on the salt road across the flat, you will notice the intensity of the heat and brightness increase as the suns rays reflect off of the white surface.
Keep a lookout for the hexagon shapes in the salt, caused by changing temperatures and evaporation.
Artists Drive is a 9-mile one-way road which winds through a spectacularly colored canyon. At the 5-mile marker is Artists Palette. Produced by the oxidation of various elements, this is where the colors are the most vibrant.
Though not a hiking area, it’s worth making a few stops to get out and enjoy the impressive terrain.
No longer on the tourist maps, this unusual rock has a sad story. A victim of tourism, over the years this large basalt formation was chipped away for souvenirs, stood on, and generally abused by visitors. To salvage what’s left, the Death Valley National Park removed all indications of the site.
Historically known for borax mining, today Zabriskie Point is a picturesque location for photography. The elevated area accessed from the parking lot gives a prime position to capture the surrounding views.
Ideally save this spot for sunset. The contrast of the growing shadows with the colors of the rocks are phenomenal.
If you have more time before sunset, consider taking a drive over to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. It’s about 45 minute from Artists Palette. We didn’t make it on this trip, but it’s definitely on our list for next time.
As we were leaving the park, on our way back to Las Vegas, we came across one last beautiful sight. A pack of around 10 wild horses grazed along the side of the road.