If you are attempting to visit the must-sees in Death Valley NP in a single winter day, then there are 4 main sites to hit. I came from San Bernardino county, so driving to Death Valley took 3.5 hours coming from the South. My parents and I left a little after 6am and arrived at 10am. Since we visited in early December, sunset was at 4:30pm, which limits how many places we could see. But in exchange, we had great weather! These below are the places we hit, but of course there are other attractions we hope to see in the future.
1. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The most popular (and most accessible) out of the 5 sand dunes in Death Valley is Mesquite Flats. It’s right off the main road coming from the Southwest and you can’t miss it. It’s about a 30 minute trek to the taller sand dunes north of the parking lot, where you’ll find less footprints. I only ventured about 10-15 minutes in and grabbed these shots. I went in barefoot but watched where I stepped because I heard there are scorpions!
2. Zabriskie Point
A very popular viewpoint is Zabriskie Point, which overlooks the edge of the Black Mountain and the Badlands. The undulating hills are spectacular. It’s just a short walk to the top of the viewpoint from the parking lot.
2 1/2. Devil’s Golf Course
On the way to Badwater Basin, you’ll come across a small road leading to the Devil’s Golf Course. It’s made up of large salt formations that jut out of the barren landscape. The road is pretty rugged so be prepared to go 10-15 mph for a short while. This isn’t really too amazing, but you’ll hardly witness these types of formations anywhere else so might as well make a pitstop!
3. Badwater Basin
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is THE lowest point in North America. This is a large salt flat that has these intricate patterns on the ground. Since it’s such a popular spot, you’ll have to walk pretty far from the parking lot to get to the areas where there’s less foot traffic that’s already eroded these patterns. I didn’t go that far in, but I’ve seen some really great photos of people who did.
4. Artist’s Palette
My last stop of the trip was sunset at Artist’s Palette, a canyon that shows different colors produced by the oxidation of metals and elements. Colors range from green, blue, and purple. Unfortunately I hadn’t timed my arrival very well and got there an hour before sunset. I didn’t really feel like making my parents hang around until I could get a photo, so I left before golden hour really set in. The sun at the time was too bright and strong to produce the different colors. So I’d recommend visiting at a different time when the sun isn’t at such a harsh angle from the west.
Next time I’m in Death Valley, I’ll be visiting a few of the other sand dunes, plus these sites that were originally on my longer itinerary but had to be cut out. Check them out if you’re in the park for more than a single day!
- Ubehebe Crater – giant crater in the earth, formed by steam and gas explosions when hot magma rising up from the depths reached ground water.
- The Racetrack – to see the famous moving rocks.
- Dante’s View – another viewpoint on the Southeast side near Zabriskie’s Point.
- Wildrose Charcoal Kilns – these are 10 beehive-shaped masonry structures, built by a mining company in 1877.
Leaving the Park
I spent the sunset back at Zabriskie Point, where there were a bit more crowds due to its popularity. Then it took awhile to drive out of the park itself. If you’re not planning on staying in the park overnight, then I’d recommend leaving as soon as the sun sets because navigating in the pitch dark is not fun. We stayed the night at Bakersfield so that we could continue our road trip to Sequoia National Park the next day, so the drive was long and tedious in the night. Be sure to use your high beams as necessary and turn them off when there are incoming vehicles!