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Before Hope and I visited Death Valley National Park in California, we had heard good things about the park but had no idea just how breathtaking the landscapes would be. From salt flats to sand dunes to slot canyons, Death Valley has it all. While I had seen most of these landscapes before, I had never seen all of them inside one park. While you’ll be hard pressed to find a bad view in Death Valley, if you’re trying to prioritize how you spend your time there, you’ll want to check out these 7 best things to do in Death Valley National Park. You can easily fit this list into two full days in Death Valley – or even one full day if you’re extra ambitious and don’t mind skipping the hikes.
1. Badwater Basin (Salt Flats)
If I had to pick one absolute best place to visit in Death Valley, it would be Badwater Basin. The salt flats in Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni) have been on my bucket list for a long time, and I was pretty bummed about having to nix my plans to go there after my Peru trip in May 2019. However, Badwater Basin exceeded any expectations I had for any salt flat I would visit. And, at 280 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America.
From the parking lot at Badwater Basin, you’ll have to walk for quite a while through what at first looks like not very much, to dry salt flats, to finally salt flats covered in a thin layer of water, if you’re lucky. Death Valley had just gotten a bout of rain several days before we arrived, and there was still about 1-2 inches of water covering the salt flats when we arrived. The views were absolutely breathtaking, with the mountains and clouds reflected in the water. There was a decent size crowd when we went around 3pm, but since I had waterproof boots on, I was able to walk farther out into the water-covered salt flats and get some photos without any people in the background.
2. Artist’s Palette
The aptly named Artist’s Palette looks like someone splattered buckets of paint onto the mountain and canyons. You’ll catch glimpses of the colored rocks as you make the winding drive to the parking lot at the base of the mountains. If you’d like to hike here, there is a short 0.4 mile out-and-back hike you can do. We got distracted by all the colorful rocks and started climbing them, losing track of the trail. It was an equally beautiful hike. Whether you choose to follow the trail or not, you’ll see some pretty incredible sights as soon as you enter the colored slot canyons near the parking lot. Walk a little farther in, and you’ll see larger, sweeping views of the colorful mountains.
3. Golden Canyon
Near the Golden Canyon trailhead, you’ll find many offshoots that lead you to some beautiful slot canyons. Most of the offshoots climb up a pretty steep incline. There is also a lot of loose sand and gravel here, so I would recommend wearing hiking boots rather than sneakers, which won’t give you as much traction. The good news is that you won’t have to hike very far in to get some good shots of the slot canyons.
If you choose to hike here, I would recommend taking the Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral trail, which is 3 miles out-and-back. The hike is pretty flat most of the way until the very end. Per usual, Hope and I got lost on our way to the Red Cathedral outlook. We found ourselves behind some pretty steep rock scrambles, but once we reached the top (pictured above), we we were able to find the actual trail and take that back down.
4. Mosaic Canyon
The slot canyons at Mosaic Canyon were even more beautiful than those at Golden Canyon, and the scrambles were more fun as well. In fact, Mosaic Canyon might have been my favorite hike at Death Valley. This 3.5 mile out-and-back trail climbs over 1,000 feet in less than two miles, so it is not a beginner course. It also requires some minimal scrambling over some pretty slippery rocks. I would rate this hike moderate to difficult.
We got lost several times (again) during the hike, and I’m actually not sure if we even made it to the end. We turned around when we approached a tall rock wall that seemed pretty impossible to climb over without climbing gear. However, when I checked Google Maps, it looked like there was still a bit of trail left. We just couldn’t figure out how to continue on past the rock wall. If we did reach the actual end of the trail, it’s a pretty anticlimactic finish, but the hike itself was fun enough to still make this a worthwhile hike.
5. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Death Valley has it all – salt flats, slot canyons, and even sand dunes. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located a few minutes from Mosaic Canyon, so it’s a good idea to visit these two spots back to back. I would recommend setting aside 2-3 hours for your hike at Mosaic Canyon, followed by the sand dunes at dusk. Sunset over the dunes is a beautiful sight that you won’t want to miss.
If you happen to have skis or a snowboard or even a cardboard box with you, bring it to Mesquite Flat. Sliding down the sand dunes is a blast. If you hike farther into the dunes, you’ll be able to get away from the crowds and find some taller sand dunes to slide down.
6. Dante’s View
If you don’t feel like taking the 14 mile trek up to Telescope Peak, the tallest point in Death Valley, but still want incredible panoramic views of the park, then Dante’s View is for you. The drive up to Dante’s View takes you through over seven miles of dirt road followed by steep, winding mountain roads, but it’s all worth it when you get to the top. As soon as you park your car in the parking lot, you’ll see sweeping views over Coachella Valley. From there, you can hike either to the left or to the right for more 360 degree views over the valley and Badwater Basin. At over 5,000 feet, Dante’s View is about a mile higher than most other points in Death Valley and, as a result, quite a bit colder and windier. Thus, if you’re visiting in the winter, make sure to bring a jacket up here with you so you can walk around outside without freezing.
7. Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point has some of the most iconic views of Death Valley and is a must visit. Try to make it here at sunrise if you can. After watching the sunrise from the top of the lookout, start the short 0.4 mile out-and-back hike through the badlands before the crowds arrive. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even hike from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon, and further to Red Cathedral, before looping back to Zabriskie Point. If you want to complete the entire loop, you’ll want to set aside time for the 5.8 mile trek. Distance aside, however, it’s not a difficult hike.
Death Valley National Park is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in the U.S. and also in the world. If you’re still in the early stages of planning your trip, click here for our ultimate guide to two days in Death Valley. These are the 7 best things to do in Death Valley National Park through our eyes, but let us know in the comments below if we’re missing any of your favorite spots!
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