Just two hours from Las Vegas is stunning Death Valley National Park. Despite its foreboding name, is a place of diverse wonders. From palm groves to breathtaking purple and red mountains, here are our top stops in the national park. With some of these spots, you don’t even have to leave the parking lot to admire the views.
After you enter the park, Zabriskie Point is your first major scenic stop. A fantastic sunrise or sunset location for photographers, Zabriskie Point is one of the park’s most iconic features and it’s just minutes from The Oasis at Death Valley, a collection of hotels and restaurants. You’ll have to walk a very short but fairly steep paved hill up to the point to see the view. When you reach the point, you’ll see striking badlands with bands of purples, reds, oranges and tan colors. For a short, moderate hike, do the 2.7-mile roundtrip Badlands Loop that leaves from the parking lot.
It becomes very apparent why the area along Artist’s Drive is called Artist’s Palette because it looks as though an artist swept her brush across the hillsides. After passing The Inn at The Oasis on your right, take a left onto Badwater Road. On Artist’s Drive, a one-way road, you’ll go about 5 miles until you arrive at Artist’s Palette. Take in the views from the parking lot or walk as far as you want to up the dirt trail to see even better views. The rest of the drive to Badwater Road rolls through some wonderful up-and-down hills that feel almost roller coaster-esque.
Devils Golf Course
Continue south on Badwater to see this curious sight. The ground is covered with thousands of jagged spires made from rock salt eroded from the valley’s wind and infrequent rainfall. The park service recommends taking in the scene from the parking lot to avoid damaging the fragile landscape. What makes it really unusual is the Rice Krispies-like sounds you’ll hear if you listen carefully or put your ear to the ground. It’s the sound of tiny salt crystals popping as they shrink and expand with fluctuating temperatures.
Up next? Farther south, you’ll find yourself 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America. While you won’t be submerged, you’ll be surrounded by polygon-shaped salt flats. Take the mesmerizing views in from your car in the parking lot or, if it’s cool out, walk a quarter-mile past the wooden boardwalk to the packed white salt flats. Be careful if you visit here in summer as the temperatures can be scorching and can lead to heath exhaustion.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Head back to 190 North to reach awe-inspiring and super accessible gorgeous dunes located right near Stovepipe Wells. You can get to them via Hwy. 190 or via the unpaved Sand Dunes Road. From Hwy. 190, you literally pull up in front of the dunes, the highest of which is 100 feet tall. The best photos of these dunes are at sunrise and sunset. Get out of the car and explore them with covered shoes because the sand heats up as the sun rises higher in the sky.
Located on the far western edge of the park near Panamint Springs, Rainbow Canyon offers more than views of the Panamint Mountains and a deep crease of a canyon. The majority of people flock here with the hope that they will spot a fighter jet zooming through the canyon, which stretches for more than 5 miles with walls that stretch some 1,000 feet upwards to the sky. It’s one of the few places where photographers can take photos of fighter jets from above. Sometimes, you can even see the highly skilled pilots’ expressions in the cockpits. The pilots must stay a minimum of 200 feet above the ground, according to an agreement with the park service.
Since World War II, the U.S. military has used this restricted military airspace for fighter jet training. Whether you’ll see fighter jets is unpredictable, but they come through on weekdays. Park at Father Crowley Vista Point, which has a bathroom and overlook, and don’t pull over on the illegal pull outs along Hwy. 190. Dogs are only allowed in the parking area. Bring a chair if you want to wait it out in case the jets come through.
Four Road-Travel Tips
1. Check Your Battery
Before you set out on your road trip, check your battery’s charge. Because heat saps its strength, you’ll want to make sure you have a full charge, especially driving through Death Valley.
2. Inflate Your Tires
Avoid a tire blowout or wasting gas mileage by inflating each tire to your car’s recommended tire pressure. That number is usually located in your car’s owner’s manual or on a sticker inside your passenger door.
3. Examine Your Treads
Be sure you have adequate depth on your tire tread. It should not be shallow. To determine how shallow your treads are, stick a penny in a tire tread with Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see his whole head, you need new tires. The shallower it is, the less responsive your tires are to wet, snowy or icy conditions.
4. Have a Spare
Pack a spare and make sure it is properly inflated and has solid tread depth.