Death Valley is so big and its terrain so challenging that the only way to do it right is to set up a base camp and fan out. And that's where Cottonwood Canyon comes in. About 18 miles west of Stovepipe Wells, Cottonwood is blessed with a perennial stream and a cluster of grand old cottonwood trees for shade. Camping is permitted anywhere after mile eight on the 17.7-mile canyon road, which, by the way, requires a high-clearance vehicle. Once you're established, plan to explore nearby Marble Canyon. You can drive or mountain bike about three miles, then proceed on foot. In the narrows, if you look closely, you'll find Native American petroglyphs. Three miles farther, look for an old miner's sign indicating the way to Goldbelt—a worthy five-mile detour if you're feeling ambitious. In the following days, mountain bike the Panamints' network of abandoned mining roads and make the three-mile scramble out of Cottonwood Canyon. Looking south from the rim, you'll see the Panamint Sand Dunes down on the valley floor. As you poke around, you might come upon ruins, wild horses, or hidden springs. Death Valley, you'll find, is all about exploration.
Free permits are required for backcountry camping; register at any ranger station (nps.gov/deva).
Death Valley is mysterious enough by day. By night, it's otherworldly. Two hours after sundown, walk 30 minutes into the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes outside Stovepipe Wells. If there's a moon, it's a klieg light. If not, the stars alone are enough to walk by. Get up as high as you can. Then just sit and admire the silver sea.
Plunk down a Spanish-style hacienda in the heart of Death Valley and you've got the Furnace Creek Inn. The 66-room indulgence butts up against a palm oasis and boasts, among other delights, a huge swimming pool perpetually refreshed with springwater (doubles from $305; furnacecreekresort.com).
Best of Death Valley in Three Days
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Without the aid of camels (frowned upon by the authorities), backcountry epics are logistically daunting in sere Death Valley. And even if they weren't, the landscape is so varied you'd want to take day trips to experience it all. First spend a morning driving between the park's most famous sights: Zabriskie Point for sunrise over the folded yellow badlands below; Dante's View for an eagle-eye peek at the valley floor; and Badwater for the lowest spot in North America (282 feet below sea level). After lunch, head north to Fall Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains. From the Titus Canyon parking lot, take the Fall Canyon Trail three miles up a wash surrounded by metamorphosed marble and dolomite to a dry waterfall, then another three miles, if you dare, through a narrow slot. The following day, hike into Ubehebe Crater, once a steam-spewing volcano (2,000 years ago) that has collapsed into a 770-foot-deep cinder-strewn pit. Then stop by the sand dunes east of Stovepipe Wells to watch the stars emerge before heading back to base camp. On the third and final day, make the seven-mile climb to Telescope Peak (11,049 feet) in the high Panamints on the mountain's namesake trail. From the rocky summit you can take in North America's most extreme view—it stretches nearly 15,000 vertical feet from the depths of Badwater to the top of the highest peak in the contiguous United States, 14,496-foot Mount Whitney.
Fall through spring is the best time to visit, though the park is open year-round. Seven-day entry pass, $20. Campsites, up to $18 (nps.gov/deva).