Artist’s Drive and Palette
Death Valley is made up of over three million acres of astounding wilderness. Along the backcountry road known as Artist’s Drive, explore the rolling volcanic and sedimentary hills painted in a multitude of colors by the Earth’s natural calcium carbonate, manganese, and copper. Visitors can view this scene easily en route via the scenic loop or from the parking lot (no hiking required).
Sitting 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the country. The landscape features vast salt flats that make up a serene white blanket spanning for miles. The area usually remains quite hot, and sometimes, a temporary lake is visible after heavy rainstorms.
A short hike through Natural Bridge Canyon – one mile (1.6 kilometers) out and back – brings visitors to a remarkable rock formation carved by water millennia ago. The trailhead is reachable by taking the unpaved Natural Bridge Road, a route fairly easy to follow. But keep in mind that rocky terrain fills the trails.
At 5,475 feet (1,669 meters) high, Dante’s View boasts one of the – if not the most – incredible views in all of Death Valley. Sweeping panoramas feature the Panamint Mountains towering over Badwater Basin, a vision best seen at dawn.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Just east of Stovepipe Wells lies the largest dune field in the park. Rolling hills of sand – crescent, linear, and star shaped – stretch to the horizon, with mountains as a backdrop. Mesquite trees provide pockets for wildlife, while cracked clay that was once an ancient lake bed lies on the floor. Pro tip: don’t forget the water. This part of the valley gets extremely hot during most parts of the year.
The mystery of The Racetrack – named for the “moving” rocks that appear to have been dragged through the dried lake bed – has piqued the interest of researchers since the 1940s. The stones that tumble from the surrounding mountains to The Racetrack’s floor can weigh as much as 700 pounds (317.5 kilograms), some having traveled as far as 1,500 feet (457 meters). There have been many theories suggested over the years about how the stones move, but a recent study found that floating ice beneath the lake bed’s surface pushes the stones. Note: to reach this destination, you need a 4×4 vehicle.
A half-mile (.8 kilometers) wide and 600 feet (182.8 meters) deep, the Ubehebe Crater is the largest of the maar volcano clusters, created by a volcanic explosion about 300 years ago. When hot magma traveled to the surface and reached the groundwater, the heat turned the water to steam; it expanded, with the pressure released as an explosion of gas and steam. Dark cinder now covers the entire area, reached from the parking lot or northern end of The Racetrack (via the old miner’s trail at the Grandstand).
This location is the most famous viewpoint in Death Valley. Overlooking the surreal landscape of Furnace Creek, the badlands are most spectacular at sunrise and sunset when they are illuminated in colors of orange, gold, and brown. Visitors can get an up-close view along the Badlands Loop (be sure to return on the same track). For a more strenuous hike, opt to complete the 7.8-mile (12.5-kilometer) trail loop, or connect to other trails that lead to Red Cathedral, Golden Canyon, and Gower Gulch.
During spring, blooming wildflowers blanket most of the park. One of the valley’s biggest attractions, thousands of visitors head here during March when blooming is at its peak. For the most remarkable of displays, head to the southern reaches of the park (Badwater, Furnace Creek) where yellow buds cover the desert floor.
Devil’s Golf Course
The Devil’s Golf Course – ‘only the devil could play golf on such rough links’ – is a vast stretch of salt rock that has been heavily eroded by the wind, forming jagged spires across the floor. First-timers should listen carefully for sounds of pops and pings coming from the ground: this is the sound of billions of tiny salt crystals exploding as they expand and contract in the desert’s heat.