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California: Death Valley National Park

Death Valley on the surface is a dry and inhospitable place but like most desert landscapes there is a beauty that lies below

Some may call us foolish for visiting Death Valley National Park in the summer months, but we really wanted to experience the extreme conditions that are on offer there. We had journeyed from the relatively cool conditions of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the visit the lowest point in North America! The mountains provide a rain shadow for the deserts to their east. It takes a relatively short drive from the Sierra Nevads to the desert ranges, which are made up of mountains, canyons and large flat plains.

About Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is the lowest, dryest and hottest of all the National Parks in the United States of America. The area receives a measly 2-inches (5cm) of rain annually and has a record high temperature of 134F. It also has the lowest point in the United States at 282-feet below sea level. Despite this, the Park receives over 1 million visitors each year.

Native Americans, most recently the Shoshone, found ways to adapt to the more recent and forbidding desert conditions that exist here now. Rock art and artefacts indicate a human presence dating back at least 9,000 years.

From 1883 to 1889, wagon teams hauled powdery white borax from mines since fallen to ruin.

What to see in Death Valley National Park?


If you enter Death Valley from the west you’ll most likely hit the small wayside station of Stovepipe Wells. This is a good place to stop for some provisions and snap some early photos of your visit to Death Valley.

Below sea level
The mecury is rising at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley


The next day we wanted to explore the landscape of the fascinating natural wonders of this Death Valley. This place is vast, with over 3 million acres of designated wilderness. We decided we wanted to try a few hikes but in the summer more than any time of year your need to take precautions. A hat and sun cream are essential items, and as there is no escaping the heat and we made sure to carry water plenty of water.

Our first stop was a short hike just to get us acclimatized to the heat. The Harmony Borax Works is only a short ride from the Oasis and played a key role in the history of Death Valley. Borax is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, and enamel glazes. It was discovered in the valley near Furness Creek Ranch in 1881, and the mine went into operation in 1883. The mined borax was transported out of the valley on mules. In its heyday, Harmony Borax Works employed 40 people. In the summer when the temperatures were at their highest the borax crystallized, which made it unusable, so the Works went on hiatus for a couple of months and the workers were temporarily relocated to other plants in California. The life of the Harmony Borax Works was short-lived, and 5 short years after opening it was closed in 1888.

Posing for a picture at Harmony Borax Works


Feeling buoyed by our short hike we felt up for a more challenging adventure and headed out to Mosaic Canyon. This 4-mile round trip starts out flat then starts to climb before disappearing into a canyon hidden in the barren mountains. The trail is not too tricky but the passage does get narrow in a couple of spots and there is a bit of scrambling but the reward is the sight of some amazing rock formations and structures. The closeness of the canyon walls at the end of the trail make the intensity of the early afternoon heat all the more overbearing and we are glad when we finally reach the sanctuary of the car and the blissful air conditioning.

Mosaic Canyon
Hiking into Mosaic Canyon
Take plenty of water with you on any hike in Death Valley
Taking a rest
Mosaic Canyon narrows as you pass along it


As evening descended on us we decided to head out to Artist Palette & Artist Drive, which as the name suggests has rock formations with some of the most incredible colours. We, of course, had to stop and admire these and snap some photos as the fading lights brought out the diversity of colours even more dramatically.

Artist Palette formation in Death Valley


To finish our day we head to Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America. We decided to take the short walk on the boardwalks out onto the salt flats but waited until the relative cool of dusk to do this, which also gave us the chance to see an amazing sunset.

Badwater basin is the lowest point in the United State of America
The slat flats of Badwater Basin are a little cooler as the sun does down
The sun setting over Badwater Basin
A photo opportunity


Zabriskie Point is one of the most famous views in the park. There is a short walk from the parking lot to an overlook which gives you a panoramic view over colourful badlands, distant mountains, and the salt flats in the valley way below.

Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point in the late day sun giviing contrast the to undulating hills


What is the not to love about sand dunes. The Mesquite Flat Sands Dunes are a great place to walk across sand dunes and run or roll down them just of the heck of it! 

These dunes are the best known and easiest to visit in the national park. Located in central Death Valley near Stovepipe Wells, access is from Hwy. 190 or from the unpaved Sand Dunes Road. Although the highest dune rises only about 100 feet, the dunes actually cover a vast area. This dune field includes three types of dunes: crescent, linear, and star-shaped. 


Dante’s view is a terraced viewpoint that offers terrific views across Badwater Basin. The names came about due to the terraces and is a reference to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy), in which there are described the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine spheres of Paradise.

Dante’s View is reached by a 13-mile spur road that runs south from CA 190, just inside the eastern park boundary – the route is fairly level at first, heading along the wide Greenwater Valley then climbing quite sharply, from 3,000 feet to the summit at 5,450 feet.

In summary …

  • Death Valley National Park is a place of extremes, which is of course what draws visitors. If you want to experience a true desert environment then this a great place to do it in relative safety.
  • Death Valley is easy to get to from Las Vegas and California – so can be a place you can realistically get to for a quick side trip on a vacation itinerary.
  • You will need a car to really explore Death Valley.
  • This is a desert location so plan accordingly if you intend to hike and explore the more remote parts of the Park. Take plenty of water, sunscreen and hats. Perhaps save the hiking for earlier in the mornings or later in the day during the summer months.

Planning your visit

Car is the most common way visitors access Death Valley, National Park. Most people will drive from Los Angeles and enter the park through the west entrance (4.5-hour drive to Furnace Creek), or from Las Vegas and enter the park through the east entrance (2.5-hour drive to Furnace Creek).

  • Las Vegas – 126 miles 
  • Los Angeles – 220 miles
  • San Francisco – 460 miles
  • Phoenix, AZ – 400 miles
Location:North-west of Las Vegas
Hours:24 hours, 7-days a week year around
Fees:Private vehicle $30. Individual (on foot or bicycle) $15. Motorcycle $25.
Park NewsletterDownloadable pdf

Best time to visit Death Valley National Park

The best time to visit Death Valley National Park is from October through April when temperatures are more moderate. Outside of these months, Death Valley can be extremely hot, and the summer months can be downright dangerous. Temperatures in July average a high of 103 degrees, and people have died of heat exposure due to lack of water and shade

Death Valley is famous as the hottest place on earth and driest place in North America. The world record highest air temperature of 134°F (57°C) was recorded at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913. Summer temperatures often top 120°F (49°C) in the shade with overnight lows dipping into the 90s°F (mid-30s°C.) Average rainfall is less than 2 inches (5 cm), a fraction of what most deserts receive. Occasional thunderstorms, especially in late summer, can cause flash floods.

In contrast to the extremes of summertime, winter and spring are very pleasant. Winter daytime temperatures are mild in the low elevations, with cool nights that only occasionally reach freezing. Higher elevations are cooler than the low valley. Temperatures drop 3 to 5°F (2 to 3°C) with every thousand vertical feet (approx. 300m). Sunny skies are the norm in Death Valley, but winter storms and summer monsoons can bring cloud cover and rain. Wind is common in the desert, especially in the spring. Dust storms can suddenly blow up with approaching cold front

Other places close by (sort of …) worth visiting


Las Vegas is a high-octane, but fun place to visit but after a few days there you simply feel the need for something more sedate and relaxing to recharge your internal batteries. Located just 17-miles west of Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Red Rock Canyon was designated as Nevada’s first National Conservation Area, which lies in the Mojave Desert. It’s known for geological features such as towering red sandstone peaks and the Keystone Thrust Fault, as well as Native American petroglyphs.

Find out more from my blog post on the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.


As the crow flies Giant Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks are not too far from Death Valley but unfortunately the Sierra Nevada range sits between the two so you will have to take a big detour! 

High-up in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains are two of the USA’s most spectacular National Parks, Kings Canyon and Sequoia. Sequoia National Park gives you the chance to get up close to the largest trees on the planet whilst in Kings Canyon you can explore the most incredible alpine scenery with the backdrop of some of the tallest peaks in the lower 48 States.

Find out more from my blog post on the Giant Sequoia and Kings Canyon Parks.

Where to stay near Death Valley?


The Inn at Death Valley is a luxurious oasis in the heart of Death Valley National Park. There is a restaurant on site serving American cuisine, which is just as well as the nearest restaurants are some distance away.

There is a splendid pool to cool off in at the end of a hot day. There is also a wellness centre that offers spa treatments.


Also located at Furnace Creek the Ranch at Death Valley is another option if you are looking to stay inside the National Park and have easy access to Ranch the main sights. It is less luxurious than the Inn at Death Valley and therefore less costly.

There is a restaurant on site serving American cuisine, a small grocery store and a spring-fed pool to cool off in.  If the weather allows there are tennis, basketball and volleyball courts to get rid of any excess energy. There is also the World’s lowest elevation of course at Furnace Creek.


Just 45 minutes from Furnace Creek is the Amargosa Opera House & Hotel. The hotel is listed as historic, which you can read as old! Whilst it might look old it is clean and tidy and it is definitely not cookie cutter. So, if you are interested in something a bit more unusual then this place is worth checking out.

At the time of writing the adjacent opera house and cafe are closed due to the restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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