Death Valley is a land of superlatives. It holds the distinction as the driest, the lowest, and the hottest National Park in the US, and it is also the largest National Park in the lower 48. Not only does it stand out among its fellow parks, it is the site of the lowest point in North America (Badwater Basin – 282 feet below sea level) and it holds the record for the hottest recorded temperature on earth (134 °F in 1913). Summer temperatures often exceed 120 °F…in the shade. It’s an oppressive heat unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You know the feeling when you get into a car that’s been baking in the sun for hours on a hot summer day and it feels like you can’t breathe? That’s the feeling you get in Death Valley when you get OUT of your car. There are signs at all of the hiking trails discouraging visitors from hiking after 10:00 AM due to the dangerously hot temperatures….this is limiting to say the least.
Despite Death Valley’s mind-blowing natural beauty, the intense heat makes it so that experiencing the park during the day is best done from the comfort of an air conditioned vehicle, thus making the park an ideal candidate for a drive-through. Not only that, but it’s only a slight detour for travelers from any of the major California cities to make a pit stop in Death Valley on their way to Vegas. Sure, you could easily spend a week exploring Death Valley, but it’s just too hot to be enjoyable. If you’re just passing through and have a few hours to kill, here are the hot spots (pun intended) you should make sure to see.
If you’re entering the park from the East on route 190, Zabriskie Point is the first major landmark you’ll encounter. There’s a small parking lot right off the road, and a short paved trail that leads you to the view point. You can either elect to take in the incredible views of the striated badlands formations from the designated lookout point, or you can hike the 2.7 mile Badlands Loop trail to get more up close and personal. Again, if you’re hiking, it’s best to stay off the trail in the middle of the day and bring copious amounts of water. We were at Zabriskie Point just before midday, but it is well known as one of the best sunset/sunrise view points in the park.
Badwater Basin is the most popular destination in Death Valley. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, but it’s much more than just a statistic. The vast landscape of salt flats surrounded by mountains on all sides is a sight to behold. You have the option of waking out along the salty path for 10 minutes or so until the salt flats spread out in all directions providing some spectacular views. Even though it’s a short stroll along flat ground, the heat is still a factor. We brought water bottles with us that were cool/cold when we left the car and 20 minutes later were legitimately hot.
Devil’s Golf Course
Devil’s Golf Course is located just down Badwater Road road from Badwater Basin. It’s essentially another massive salt flat that has been eroded over time into a field of small rocky spires. There’s an easily passable dirt road that leads you down to the parking area.
Located just off Badwater Road, Artist’s Drive is a 9-mile, one-way scenic drive through a series of colorful hills. Although Artis’t Palette is the most popular view point on the drive, the winding road itself is equally impressive. It makes the most sense to do the drive on the way back from Badwater Basin since it is a one-way road that runs South to North.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are an example of the incredible diversity of landscapes in Death Valley. The dunes are located about 45 minutes from Badwater Basin and they are the only dunes in the park where dune boarding is permitted. If you’re entering the park from the West on Route 190, this will be one of the first major attraction’s you’ll encounter on your drive.