In the Furnace Creek area of the park, the panoramas from Zabriskie Point and Dante's View are justifiably famous.
The Scotty's Castle area is known for "the Racetrack," where boulders that mysteriously traverse the dry lake bed leave behind long trails. Also in this area is Death Valley Ranch, better know as Scotty's Castle, a Spanish-style home that appears mirage-like in Grapevine Canyon. Worth taking: a Living History or Underground Mystery Tour of the ranch.
In the Stovepipe Wells area, check out a ghost town, Indian petroglyphs, bighorn sheep, and multicolored volcanic deposits in Titus Canyon. www.nps.gov/deva/faqs.htm
Badwater Road is the most popular drive in the park. Along it lie Devil's Golf Course, a big salt pan marked by jagged salt-crystals that caused a writer to remark that only the devil could play golf there, and Badwater, a salty pool close to the lowest point in the park—and in North America. For the return trip to Highway 190, follow nine-mile Artist's Drive, which takes in eons-old volcanic ashfalls colored in blues, greens, and reds thanks to weathering and oxidation.
Another popular drive is Twenty Mule Team Canyon, a 2.7-mile loop winding through otherworldly badlands. Though unpaved, it is accessible to standard vehicles.
Golden Canyon Trail is a moderate, two-mile round-trip interpretive hike through a colorful canyon.
Badwater Salt Flats is an easy to moderate hike onto a surreal landscape of white salt flats 282 feet below sea level. Avoid this trail in the summer because of extreme high temperatures.
Salt Creek trail features a wooden boardwalk along a small stream, where in spring you may spot rare pupfish. Wheelchair accessible.
Natural Bridge Canyon is an easy half-mile hike to a massive rock span.
Dante's Ridge is a moderate eight-mile round-trip hike past Dante's View, which offers expansive vistas across Death Valley to Telescope Peak. Also visible: Badwater Basin, more than a mile below the ridge. Hike this trail in the early morning with the sun at your back for more dramatic photos.
Thanks to the range of elevations contained within the park (from 282 feet below sea level to 11,049 feet above), it's home to a diverse roster of some 50 mammal species, 307 bird species, and 36 reptile species. You'll likely see roadrunners, ground squirrels, and lizards while visiting the park. If you're lucky, you may spot desert bighorns at higher elevations. In spring, the pupfish, the only landlocked fish found in the U.S., can be viewed along an earthquake fault at Salt Creek, the smallest habitat for a vertebrate animal in the world.
Upending many visitors' expectations that the park is a lifeless wasteland are the 1,000 species of plants that grow here, 50 of which are endemic to the park. Mainstays include cacti, yuccas, and other succulents; creosote brush, desert holly, mesquite, and shadscale; and Joshua trees, pinyons, junipers, and sub-alpine bristlecone pines.
For a spectacular sunrise shot, position yourself at Dante's View, Zabriskie Point, or at the Mesquite Flat sand dunes. Great sunset shots can be had from Zabriskie Point, the sand dunes, Artist's Palette and Aguereberry Point. Artist's Drive, with its hills of colored volcanic and sedimentary rock, is especially photogenic in late afternoon. The jagged rock-salt spires of Devil's Golf Course make for some surreal shots.
Smart Traveler Strategies
If you only have two hours to explore this sprawling park, drive along Badwater Road, the park's most popular. Stop by Devil's Golf Course and Badwater. Take the Artist's Drive on your return trip along Highway 190. If you're continuing east after your time in the park, visit Zabriskie Point. If heading west, check out the sand dunes.
Hand-held GPS systems containing a self-guided ranger tour to more than 80 GPS hot spots in the park are available for rent at the Furnace Creek visitors center. Ranger-guided programs are available mid-October through mid-April.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
For something different, plan your visit to coincide with the fall or spring migration of the many birds that pass through the park, which, with its wide diversity of habitats, constitutes one of the most impressive ornithological biomes in the entire National Park system.
Excursions Outside the Park
There is more to the Amargosa Hotel than just accommodations: It also is home to the Amargosa Opera House, where floor-to-ceiling murals depict everything from royal figures to monks, nuns, and bullfighters, and weekly dance, comedy, and mime shows are held.
For a glimpse of art off the grid, head to the Goldwell Open Air Museum, situated in a ghost town just east of the central section of Death Valley, near Beatty, NV. Here a group of Belgian artists sited seven unusual sculptures, among them a life-size interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper" and a 25-foot-high representation of a woman rendered with pink cinderblocks. Admission is free.
Guided nature tours and geological walks along the Old Spanish Trail are just some of the offerings at the China Ranch Date Farm in Tecopa, a unique family farm in an unusual setting of cottonwood trees and willows along a meandering stream.
Formed tens of thousands of years ago, the Trona Pinnacles, a National Natural Landmark, consist of more than 500 tufa (calcium carbonate) outcroppings rising up to 140 feet above the Searles Dry Lake basin. The strange landscape is especially dramatic in the early morning, in the evening, and on nights with a full moon.
An abundance of national park system sites are within driving distance of Death Valley. California-based sites include Joshua Tree National Park, Manzanar National Historic Site, Mojave National Preserve, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, and Yosemite National Park. Nevada-based sites include Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Great Basin National Park.