When you think of Death Valley, what do you imagine? A dry, crackling desert floor, stretching for miles? Before visiting Death Valley, we conjured up the same image. And while such a place does exist in Death Valley, there is so much more. Death Valley National Park contains a vast assortment of crazy landscapes, from snow-capped peaks to rolling sand dunes, just waiting to blow away your expectations. In this article, we’ll lay out our top 9 favorite things to do in Death Valley, including off the beaten track adventures and tips for escaping the crowds.
Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!
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Overview | Best things to do in Death Valley
Death Valley completely blew us away with its beauty. During our time there, we explored some of the most popular destinations, but we were mainly in search of off-the-beaten path adventures. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite experiences in the park, and we hope you’ll love them as much as we did:
- Venture to the tallest point in the park, Telescope Peak
- Backpack to the Panamint Sand Dunes
- Trek to Corkscrew Peak for 360 degree mountain views
- Go dispersed camping on Racetrack Road
- Hike the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands and Zabriskie Point Loop
- Discover a real-life desert oasis at Darwin Falls
- Hike to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater
- Catch the sunrise at Badwater Basin
- Admire the crazy colors of Artist’s Palette
The list is ranked by epic-ness, a precise and scientific metric developed by us…
Although less crowded than other more popular national parks, the most popular sights in Death Valley can still get very busy during peak season. Throughout this article, we will be recommending off the beaten track adventures, where you are sure to find some solitude. For the more popular spots that you still must see, we’ll provide our best tips for escaping the crowds.
Map | Best things to do in Death Valley
To help you plan your trip, the map below displays the location of each of the best things to do in Death Valley:
Details | Best things to do in Death Valley
1. Venture to the tallest point in the park: Telescope Peak
Hiking distance | 14 miles (+ 4 if the road to Mahogany Flat Campground is closed)
Elevation gain | 3300 feet (+ ~1600 if the road to Mahogany Flat Campground is closed)
Total time | 7 – 9 hours (+2 if the road to Mahogany Flat Campground is closed)
Epic-ness rating | 9
Difficulty | strenuous
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Telescope Peak Trail
Death Valley National Park is best known for its extreme temperatures, vast desert and low altitude. But did you know that Death Valley is also home to snow-capped peaks? The amount of elevation change in the park is mind-blowing!
Telescope Peak is the tallest point in Death Valley, rising to an altitude of 11,043 feet above sea level and can be reached via a challenging 14 mile hike. Those ambitious enough to reach the summit are rewarded with unbeatable, and somewhat disorienting, views overlooking Death Valley all the way down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.
On a clear day, you can also spot Mount Whitney, the tallest point in the lower 48 states. That’s right, from Telescope Peak, you can see both the highest and lowest point in the contiguous United States!
2. Backpack to the Panamint Sand Dunes
Hiking distance | 7 miles roundtrip (to the base of the dunes)
Elevation gain | 859 feet
Total time | 3 – 5 hours roundtrip hiking time (plus additional time at the dunes)
Epic-ness rating | 9
Difficulty | moderate
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Panamint Dunes Trail
Backpacking to the Panamint Sand Dunes is an amazing way to experience a remote and often-overlooked part of Death Valley National Park. Getting to the dunes requires a little work, but your efforts will be paid off with solitude you won’t find at the larger and more popular Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. In fact, you are likely to have the breathtaking area entirely to yourself!
With epic views and ever-elusive solitude, backpacking to the the Panamint Sand Dunes is truly an unforgettable experience.
3. Trek to Corkscrew Peak for 360 degree mountain views
Hiking distance | 7 miles
Elevation gain | 3100 feet
Total time | 4 – 7 hours
Epic-ness rating | 9
Difficulty | strenuous
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Corkscrew Peak
Find this hike on AllTrails: Corkscrew Peak
If you are up for a real challenge, the 360-degree views from the top of Corkscrew Peak cannot be beat! While the mileage may seem doable, don’t be fooled. The hike to Corkscrew Peak is extremely steep, strenuous and not for those afraid of heights.
Corkscrew Peak is located in the Grapevine Mountains, towards the northeastern side of Death Valley National Park near the Nevada border. Those dedicated enough to reach the summit will be rewarded with unimpeded 360-degree views of the surrounding red and purple-toned mountains.
The trail to Corkscrew Peak is very lightly trafficked, meaning you are likely have the summit all to yourself and see only a handful of other hikers the entire day. Hiking to Corkscrew Peak is a great way to escape the bustling crowds of tourists and relish the best views in Death Valley National Park in peace.
4. Go dispersed camping on Racetrack Road
While the amenities that come with a campground (restrooms, fire pits, picnic tables, running water…) are nice, they all too often come with crowds and noise – not exactly the wilderness experience you may be looking for.
One of our favorite things about Death Valley was the abundant opportunities for dispersed camping – primitive car camping outside an established campground. Although you won’t get some of the “luxuries” a campground provides, you will certainly get solitude, stunning views, peace and quiet.
The most beautiful place we disperse camped was off Racetrack Road, in a stunning valley with mountains on either side, conveniently located just minutes from Ubehebe Crater. Racetrack Road is a 27 mile, washboard dirt road. Dispersed camping is permitted anywhere beyond 2 miles from the start of the road, and there are sporadic areas to pull off.
The road is quite rough, and while we managed in our 2WD Jeep Cherokee, we did briefly get stuck trying to find a spot to park (we managed to get out with a little digging and rearranging of rocks). At the minimum, a high clearance vehicle is necessary. Additionally, the road condition gets progressively worse the further you drive, so 4WD may be necessary depending how far you go.
Learn more about where dispersed camping is permitted in Death Valley here.
5. Hike the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch and Zabriskie Point Loop
Hiking distance | 6 miles
Elevation gain | 1100 feet
Total time | 3 – 4 hours
Epic-ness rating | 8
Difficulty | moderate
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Golden Canyon & Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point
The Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point Loop is a classic Death Valley hike. This moderate 7-mile hike combines several incredible trails into one spectacular loop, showing off some of the most unique landscapes in Death Valley National Park and giving you a behind-the-scenes tour of the view from the famous Zabriskie Point.
Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular viewpoints in Death Valley, offering a stunning view of Manly Beacon, a massive sharply pointed rock formation, and the surrounding striped hills of the Badlands. The Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point loop hike gives you an up-close experience with the amazing landscapes that can be seen from Zabriskie Point.
While the views from Zabriskie Point are stunning, you don’t want to miss exploring the peaceful valley and interesting formations that lie below.
6. Discover a real-life desert oasis at Darwin Falls
Hiking distance | 1.9 miles
Elevation gain | 230 feet
Total time | 1 hour
Epic-ness rating | 7
Difficulty | easy
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Darwin Falls via Old Toll Road
Death Valley is full of surprises. We could hardly believe that a lush forest and rushing waterfall could exist in the hottest place on earth!
This easy 2-mile roundtrip hike is located just past Panamint Springs, on the outskirts of the park. It’s a bit of a journey from Furnace Creek, and most tourists don’t venture this far. Lucky for you, this means you may get this little slice of heaven entirely to yourself (like we did!).
From the trailhead, the landscape is exactly what you picture Death Valley to be: barren, sandy desert. As you begin the hike, various forms of life slowly start to emerge, beginning with low desert brush, followed by greener grass and bright yellow flowers. Eventually, low lying trees appear, growing gradually taller as you approach the falls.
When you arrive at Darwin Falls, you are completely surrounded by trees and vivid plant life. The environment is a complete 180 from the beginning of the hike. As you sit on the banks of the pond, listening only to the sound of the waterfall splashing down the moss-covered rocks, you could almost forget that you are in Death Valley!
Tip: the road to the Darwin Falls trailhead is rocky and rough. You can make it with 2WD, but you should be prepared to handle a flat tire.
7. Hike to the bottom of Ubehebe Crater
Hiking distance | 2.2 miles (0.5 miles roundtrip to the bottom of the crater, 1.7 miles around the rim)
Elevation gain | 725 feet
Total time | 2 hours
Epic-ness rating | 7
Difficulty | moderate
- Find this hike on AllTrails: Ubehebe and Little Hebe Trail
Formed as the result of an explosion more than 2000 years ago, Ubehebe Crater is 2100 feet wide and over 770 feet deep. Peering over the edge is slightly nauseating.
The relatively flat trail around the rim of Ubehebe and it’s smaller counterpart, Little Ubehebe, provides incredible, if a little frightening, views straight down into the crater. There is no railing, and the trail gets fairly close to edge in parts, so take caution!
To get the full experience and shake the crowds, we highly recommend hiking down to the bottom of the crater. It’s a short but steep trek that’s totally worth the effort. On a busy Saturday afternoon, we were entirely alone in the crater – an otherworldly experience for sure!
8. Catch the sunrise at Badwater Basin
Badwater Basin, which sits at an elevation of -282 feet below sea-level and is the lowest point in the contiguous United States, is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in Death Valley. The crackled white salt flats are an iconic image. Even though the salt flats at Badwater Basin cannot be missed, the swarms of tourists can make the experience less than enjoyable.
To avoid the crowds and enjoy a bit of solitude in the beautiful spot, we highly recommend visiting for sunrise. We were the first people out on the salt flats on a Sunday morning and were accompanied only by a handful of others while we sipped our coffee and watched the sun peak over the mountains and slowly move across the vast plane. A truly magical experience!
9. Admire the crazy colors of Artist’s Palette
Artist’s Drive, a winding, 9-mile one-way road, leads you through the most colorful hills of Death Valley, speckled with pink and teal metallic sediments left behind by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. The drive is located between Furnace Creek and Badwater Basin, making it a quick and easy detour.
The colors are supposedly most vibrant during the afternoon, particularly at sunset, but you should also expect the most crowds at this time. We visited around 9 AM on a Sunday morning and were one of a handful groups at Artist’s Palette.
Fair warning: we were somewhat unimpressed by Artist’s Palette compared to photos we’d seen prior to visiting. We aren’t totally sure if it was due to over-editing in other pictures or because we visited in the morning (versus afternoon). That said, the hills were still beautiful! But the colors were not nearly as vibrant as they appeared in photos.
Tip: the road is one-way, so you must drive it South to North (starting closer to Badwater Basin).
Other things to do in Death Valley | Honorable Mentions
The following don’t make our top list of things to do, but are worth checking out if you have the time:
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: the largest and most popular (and thus, most crowded…) sand dunes in the park, which can be accessed via an easy 1 mile hike. We recommend putting in the extra effort to find some solitude at the Panamint Sand Dunes, but if you are pressed on time, the Mesquite dunes are worth a visit.
- Mosaic Canyon: a moderate 4-mile hike up a marble-walled canyon. While we didn’t think the views were the best we saw in Death Valley, the minor rock-scrambles were a ton of fun!
Other Death Valley Resources
Planning a trip to Death Valley? We think you may find some of these resources useful:
- The Ultimate Guide to Death Valley National Park: Camping, Hiking and Road Trip Logistics
- How to Hike to Telescope Peak: A Epic Journey to the Tallest Point in Death Valley National Park
- How to Hike the Golden Canyon, Gower Gulch, Badlands & Zabriskie Point Loop: One of the Best Hikes in Death Valley
- Backpacking to the Panamint Sand Dunes: A Complete Guide
- How to Hike Corkscrew Peak: Stunning Mountain Views in Death Valley
For all things California: California Travel Guide
Have you been to Death Valley? What was your favorite experience in the park?