Despite its name, Death Valley is a land of life. The national park, which spans more than 3.4 million acres, protects some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes on earth. It’s known for its extreme temperatures and dry conditions, but it is also home to more than 1,500 species of plants and animals. In addition, the park is known for its dramatic landscape features, including canyons, mountains, dunes, and salt flats.
I had an opportunity to visit this park last year, and it was an amazing experience. So if you’re planning a trip here, I’ve prepared a list of the 16 Top Tourist Attractions and Things to Do in Death Valley that I would recommend.
Best Things to Do in Death Valley, California
1. Badwater Basin
Anybody who has ever been to Death Valley National Park will tell you that Badwater Basin is a must-see. It is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. The basin is a large, dry lake bed covered with a salt layer.
So what is this landscape due to? Well, between 200 and 400 years ago, here was another of the lakes of Death Valley. This lake was about 9 meters deep and after evaporating, left behind a layer of salt of a meter and a half. This salt is what you see today when you visit Badwater Basin.
There is a wooden boardwalk that leads you out onto the salt flats. It is about 2 miles long and provides great views of the basin and the mountains beyond.
All in all, the basin is one of the top attractions in Death Valley since it is so otherworldly. And to get a sense of just how vast and empty this place is, I recommend hiking a few steps beyond the short boardwalk.
2. Zabriskie Point
Another one of the most popular places to visit in Death Valley National Park is the Zabriskie Point. This huge panorama of colorful badlands is believed to have formed over millions of years as water from rain and snowmelt eroded the soft sedimentary rocks. As a result, you’ll see a landscape of colorful hills and canyons.
The best time to visit Zabriskie Point is in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is softer, and the colors are more saturated. However, it’s the most popular spot for sunset as it offers one of the most beautiful views in Death Valley.
Keep in mind that Zabriskie Point is one of the most popular attractions in Death Valley National Park. So it can get quite crowded, especially at sunset. However, if you walk a little ways off the main path, you can find some quieter spots with just as stunning views.
3. The Racetrack
The Racetrack is a playa (a dry lake bed) that is famous for its “sailing stones.” These rocks seem to move across the playa’s surface, leaving trails behind them. But how is this possible?
The mystery of the sailing stones was solved in 2014 when a group of scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography used time-lapse photography to figure out how these massive rocks move. It turns out that a combination of wind and ice pushes the rocks across the surface of the playa.
When you visit The Racetrack, you can see the trails left behind by the sailing stones. And if you’re lucky, you might even see a rock in motion. Just keep in mind that this is a remote location, and it can be difficult to get to. 4-wheel drive is recommended, and you should come prepared with plenty of food, water, and gas.
4. See Darwin Falls
When I first heard of a waterfall in Death Valley, it sounded too good to be true. I mean, how can there be a waterfall in the middle of the desert? But Darwin Falls is very real, and it is an oasis in the middle of the desert.
This waterfall is located on the western edge of Death Valley near the town of Panamint Springs. The falls are about 18 feet tall and flow all year round. This is the perfect spot to cool off after a long day of exploring Death Valley.
Unfortunately, swimming in the pool at the base of the waterfall is not allowed since this is the source for Panamint Springs Resort. Plus, pets are not allowed in the area either. However, this is one of the top tourist attractions in Death Valley simply because it’s such a contrast to everything else in the park.
5. Hike the Eureka Dunes
The Eureka Dunes are the tallest dunes in California, and hiking them is definitely one of the most popular things to do in Death Valley National Park. The dunes are located in the remote Eureka Valley, which is only accessible by a long, bumpy dirt road.
The best time to hike the dunes is in the morning or evening when the temperatures are cooler. There is no clear trail to the top of the dunes, so you’ll have to pick your own route upon parking your car. Note that the hike to the top is pretty strenuous, so be prepared for a workout.
The first part of the hike is a gentle incline as you make your way to the base of the dunes. Once you reach the dunes, it’s a steep climb to the top. But trust me, it’s worth it! Once you reach the top of the dunes, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the valley below. Just be sure to bring plenty of water and sunscreen since there is no shade on the dunes.
6. Scotty’s Castle
The Scotty’s Castle is one of the top attractions in Death Valley National Park that you cannot miss. This is a beautiful Spanish-style villa that was built in the 1920s by Walter Scott, also known as “Death Valley Scotty.”
Death Valley Scotty was a bit of an eccentric character. He was a gold prospector who claimed to have found gold in the area. He then convinced his friend, Albert Mussey Johnson, to invest $2 million in his mine. Of course, there was never any gold to be found, but Scott managed to keep up the ruse for years.
Eventually, Johnson grew tired of Scotty’s lies and decided to visit Death Valley to see the mine for himself. However, when he arrived, he was so impressed with Scotty’s “castle” that he decided to finance its construction. And so Scotty’s Castle was born.
Interestingly, Scotty’s Castle was never actually finished. Construction was halted since the initial survey of the property was incorrect as it was built on federal land. This resulted in a lot of legal wrangling, and the project was eventually abandoned.
Nevertheless, Scotty’s Castle is an impressive sight in the middle of nowhere. You can tour the castle, including a visit to the grounds, the main house, and even the underground tunnels. The tour is about an hour long and costs $15 per person.
7. Artist’s Drive
Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile scenic loop that takes you through some of the most colorful landscapes in Death Valley National Park. The loop road was built in the 1960s and is named after the artists who were inspired by the area’s natural beauty.
The drive takes about 1-2 hours to complete depending on how many stops you make along the way. There are several pullouts with views of the different rock formations. I recommend stopping at Artist’s Palette, a hillside with colorful striations of pink, green, and orange.
The best time to drive Artist’s Drive is in the late afternoon when the light hits the rocks just right, and the colors are most vibrant.
8. Keane Wonder Mine
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of mining in Death Valley, then you should definitely visit the Keane Wonder Mine. This is a former gold mine that operated from the early 1900s until 1942. It was one of the most productive mines in Death Valley. At its peak, it produced about $625,000-$682,000 worth of gold.
Nowadays, the Keane Wonder Mine is a popular tourist attraction. You can take a tour of the mine and see what it was like to work in a gold mine. There’s also an old aerial tramway that was used to transport the gold ore from the mine. Plus, you’ll also see other structures that were once part of the mining operation.
I have to warn you that reaching the Keane Wonder Mine is not easy. You’ll need to drive down a 3-mile rough dirt road and then hike another a quarter of a mile moderately strenuous trail to reach the lowest section of the tram. But trust me, the effort is definitely worth it as this is one of the top attractions in Death Valley.
9. Twenty Mule Team Canyon
This canyon got its name from the teams of 20 mules that were used to haul borax out of Death Valley in the late 1800s. The mules would haul the borax 100 miles to the nearest railroad station in Mojave.
Today, you can take a self-guided driving tour of the canyon. The 2.7-mile road is unpaved, but it is well-maintained and suitable for any type of vehicle. The road winds its way through the canyon, with some areas bounded by rock walls while other areas offer sweeping views of the valley below.
The canyon is especially beautiful in the late afternoon when the sun casts a golden glow on the rocks. The drive takes about an hour, and it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Death Valley.
10. Harmony Borax Works
Another one of the best places to visit in Death Valley National Park is the Harmony Borax Works. This is a remnant of the borax mining operations that took place in Death Valley from 1883 to 1888
Borax is a mineral used in various ways, including as a detergent, an antacid, and even as a preservative. During that time, 20 mule teams were used to haul the borax out of the valley. In total, they hauled out over 500,000 tons of borax.
Today, the Harmony Borax Works is a popular spot for photography. The decrepit buildings and rusted machinery make for some interesting shots. It’s also a great place to learn about the history of borax mining in Death Valley.
11. Ubehebe Crater
My next stop on this list of top attractions in Death Valley is Ubehebe Crater. This volcanic crater is half a mile wide and 600 feet deep. It is believed to have been formed about 2,000 years ago when magma came into contact with groundwater. The resulting steam explosion created the crater.
Ubehebe Crater is definitely one of the most unique things to see in Death Valley National Park. The size of the crater is impressive, and it’s fun to hike around the rim. You can even hike down into the crater if you’re feeling adventurous. Just be sure to wear closed-toe shoes and bring plenty of water as it is a steep hike back up. It took me about 30 minutes to hike down and 45 minutes to hike back up.
Plan to spend at least an hour here, maybe more if you want to hike down into the crater. And if you have time, I recommend visiting the nearby Little Hebe Crater. It’s a smaller version of Ubehebe Crater but still worth seeing.
12. Devil’s Golf Course
This is another one of those places that are just as strange as it sounds. The Devil’s Golf Course is a vast field of jagged salt crystals that have been sculpted by the wind into sharp points. It looks like something you would see on another planet.
The Devil’s Golf Course gets its name from the fact that it is so rough and uneven that only the devil could play golf here. And I can see why. It would be impossible to walk (let alone swing a golf club) without getting cut by the salt crystals.
The Devil’s Golf Course is located on the main road heading towards Badwater Basin. You can easily spot it from the road. And it’s definitely worth a quick stop to take in this otherworldly landscape.
13. Dantes View
If you want to see Death Valley from above, then you have to visit Dantes View. This is one of the top tourist attractions in Death Valley, known for its stunning panoramic views. The viewpoint is located at 5,475 feet above sea level and offers sweeping views of Death Valley, the Panamint Range, and even the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day.
Dantes View is named after Italian poet Dante Alighieri since the landscape is reminiscent of his Inferno. But despite its eerie name, this viewpoint is actually one of the most popular places to visit in Death Valley. And indeed, when you stand at the edge of the cliff, it feels like you are looking into the depths of hell.
To get here, you have to drive about 25 miles south of Furnace Creek on Highway 190. The road is paved, but it is quite narrow in places. Once you reach the parking area, it’s a short hike to the actual lookout point.
One thing I loved about Dantes View is that the temperature here is much cooler than in the rest of Death Valley. So if you are visiting in summer, this is a great place to escape the heat for a little while. Plus, the sunset views from here are simply incredible.
14. Discover the Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest
I know you’re probably thinking of Joshua Tree National Park. But did you know that there is also a Joshua tree forest in Death Valley National Park? Well, there is, and it’s definitely worth a visit!
In case you didn’t know, Joshua trees are a type of yucca plant that only grows in the Mojave Desert. These strange-looking trees can live to be over a thousand years old.
The Lee Flat Joshua tree forest is located on the Western middle edge of the park. To get there, you’ll have to take a dirt road off of Highway 190. The road is pretty bumpy, but any car can make it. And once you arrive at the forest, you’ll be able to explore miles of hiking trails.
15. Play at the Mesquite Dunes
Traveling to the Mesquite Dunes is one of the best things to do in Death Valley if you want to experience its ethereal beauty for yourself. The Mesquite Dunes cover an area of about 3 square miles and rise to heights of 100 feet. They are constantly shifting due to the wind, which makes for some interesting patterns in the sand.
The best time to visit the Mesquite Dunes is in the morning or evening when the light is softer. During the middle of the day, the sun is so harsh that it is difficult to appreciate the beauty of the dunes.
There are a few different ways to enjoy the Mesquite Dunes. You can simply walk around and admire the patterns in the sand. Or, you can try your hand at sandboarding. This is basically like snowboarding but on the sand.
16. Natural Bridge
A visit to Death Valley would not be complete without seeing the Natural Bridge. And as the name suggests, this bridge is a naturally formed rock arch. It is believed to have been formed by flash flooding thousands of years ago, which eroded away the underlying rock over time.
Today, this bridge is one of the top attractions in Death Valley National Park because it is so unique. I guess it’s one of the most photogenic places in the park that you have to see to believe.
The best time to visit the Natural Bridge is early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is not so harsh. This way, you can get a nice photo of the Natural Bridge with the sun shining through it.
To get to the Natural Bridge, you have to hike about 1.5 miles on a relatively easy trail. The trailhead is located just off of Badwater Road. But if you only want to see the bridge, you can hike a half-mile trail from the parking lot, which is located just before the trailhead.
These are just some of the top attractions and things to do in Death Valley. This park is huge, and there is so much to see and do. So plan your trip carefully and make sure to include some of these must-see attractions on your itinerary.