Dramatic golden canyons. Towering sand dunes. Pastel-colored hills. Surreal never-ending salt fields.
Death Valley National Park consists of 3 million acres of wilderness with some of the most unique and otherworldly landscapes that I have ever experienced.
It is also one of the most underrated parks in California while Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park usually get most of the attention.
As the hottest place on Earth, Death Valley National Park has a short season for visitors which lasts from late fall to early spring. During these months you can enjoy various hiking trails from easily accessible viewpoints to deeply carved badland canyons.
This travel guide covers 6 incredible day hikes to do at Death Valley National Park plus other tips to help you prepare for an incredible trip there!
Before we dive into the specific hikes, here are a few frequently asked questions about visiting Death Valley.
Why Is Death Valley So Dangerous?
Death Valley is dangerous because it’s a land of extremes.
Death Valley is one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places on Earth. In just 2020 Death Valley reached a temperature of 128°F. In 1913 Death Valley reached a temperature of 134°F, the hottest recorded temperature anywhere on Earth.
The best times to visit Death Valley are in February and November when temperatures stay in the 70s during the day and in the high 40s during the night. May to September is the most dangerous time to visit Death Valley when temperatures spike well above 100°F degrees.
Winter months bring colder temperatures but that also means you will need to pack warmer clothing, especially for camping overnight.
Death Valley has this name for a reason. As a hot, dry desert it’s very important to visit Death Valley at the right time and go prepared. But did you know that other dangers in Death Valley include flash floods, poisonous desert animals, cold weather, and vehicle accidents?
Here are a few safety tips things to keep in mind for your trip:
- Bring lots of water for your hikes. There are no water sources at the trails so get plenty of water before entering the park. The recommended amount is at least 1 gallon per person per day which is around 7-8 water bottles.
- Drive with caution. Car accidents are the largest cause of injury and death at Death Valley. Many of the roads have unexpected sharp turns that can send your car rolling so keep an eye on the speed limit and drive with extra caution.
- Download an offline map. Much of the terrain looks very similar and it’s easy to get lost without a hiking app. I recommend downloading Maps.Me offline app before leaving your home or hotel.
- Tell someone where you’re heading. There is limited reception at Death Valley so be sure to tell a family member or a friend which trails you’re planning to hike.
- Beware of flash floods. During thunderstorms flash floods can happen unexpectedly. Many of the hikes follow narrow canyons that overflood after rainfall so avoid hiking into canyons after storms.
- Watch out for rattlesnakes. At night poisonous desert creatures like rattlesnakes are more active. During sunrise/sunset/night hikes watch your step and always bring a headlamp.
- Fill up on gas, food, and water before heading into the park. There are two gas stations inside Death Valley National Park by Stovepipe Wells Campground and by Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Aside from that you will be driving long distances without access to a gas station so always fill up whenever you get the chance.
Where To Stay
Despite being such a large National Park, lodging choices at Death Valley are pretty limited, especially during the busy season. Here are the best places to stay within or nearby Death Valley National Park!
Camping is one of the cheapest and most convenient options, especially if you plan to hike early in the morning or stay for sunsets.
Furnace Creek Campground. The main campground at Death Valley is called Furnace Creek and it’s located next to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. This is the most popular campground at the center of the park and usually fills up first.
Sunset Campground. If Furnace Creek Campground is full, you can also look for open camping spots across the street at Sunset Campground. Sunset Campground works on a first come – first serve basis so it’s best to get a spot as soon as you arrive at the park. This is where we ended up camping.
It cost us $14 to camp at Sunset Campground and the only amenities offered were restrooms and a large spot to park our Promaster campervan. While it did the job and provided us a place to spend the night, it was essentially a giant parking lot with no fire pits, grills, picnic tables, or any seclusion between the sites that you typically get at a campsite.
Stovepipe Wells Campground. If these campgrounds are full, you can also try your luck at Stovepipe Wells Campground in the northern part of Death Valley National Park.
See more here for the list of developed Death Valley campgrounds!
Camping Tip: For those who plan to camp in tents, do note that it can get very windy at Death Valley, especially in the Spring. During our visit, there were lots of people camping in tents but many were struggling just to keep their tents secured during high winds.
For our favorite camping tents, check out our detailed guide here!
Here are a couple of hotels located near the main road that travels through the Death Valley National Park providing convenient access for visitors.
Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel. Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel is a western-style hotel and a saloon at the beginning of Death Valley National Park. Established in 1926, the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel is rustic yet comfortable and has an on-property restaurant, a heated pool, and a general store. The rooms are equipped with basic travel amenities including a fridge, coffee maker, and TV.
The Inn at Death Valley. The Inn at Death Valley is a luxury hotel at the center of the park. As you drive through Death Valley it’s impossible to miss – the unexpected palm tree grove and beautiful hotel facade stand out against the bare desert landscape. The property also features an outdoor pool, a sauna, a fitness center, and an on-property restaurant & bar. This hotel offers everything for a relaxing vacation and more!
Check out the Inn at Death Valley on Booking.com
Outside of the park, the closest big towns to Death Valley are Lone Pine on the west and Pahrump on the east, both located about an hour from the park entrance. Here you can find more hotel options along with vacation rentals to stay at.
Mount Whitney Retreat. Located near Lone Pine town this vacation rental offers some seriously epic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains right from the property. The spacious outdoor patio is decked out with plush furnishing and hammocks that are perfect for lounging and reading. This home sleeps 4 and comes stocked with everything you need for a relaxing, cozy stay.
Check out Mount Whitney Retreat on VRBO
Rustic Lodge In Pahrump. On the outskirts of Death Valley lies the Rustic Lodge, a gorgeous vacation rental on a tree-lined property with a private pool. This cabin was built with cedar plank ceilings, a wooden spiral staircase, and a large fireplace which add to the charming ambiance. The Rustic Lodge is an excellent option for those who want to be close to Death Valley yet also want to enjoy the comforts of a peaceful property.
Check out more from the Rustic Lodge
What To Bring
When visiting Death Valley it’s so important to prepare for the right weather conditions such as extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
Before heading out on any trails be sure to bring the basics:
- Plenty of water. Hydroflask is my go-to refillable water bottle for desert trips like this because it will keep your water cold even during the hottest of conditions.
- Sunscreen. This is an absolute must that we overlooked for our trip in February. It can be hot and sunny in Death Valley even during the winter months and you can get sunburned easily.
- Sunglasses. Polarized sunglasses will help battle the harsh desert sunlight and reduce glare reflected off roads when driving.
- Lip balm. Your lips will get very dry with the hot desert sun so you’ll want to keep a lip balm handy.
- Headlamp. Whether I’m heading out on a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip, I always bring a headlamp with me. It’s also useful for walking to the bathroom at night.
- Portable phone charger. It’s always a good idea to bring a phone charger just in case your phone runs out of battery mid-hike.
- Camping knife. Another good-to-have emergency item.
- Emergency kit. REI sells compact lightweight emergency kits that are easy to bring in a day pack.
For clothing, your list will depend on the time of the year when you plan to visit Death Valley.
We visited Death Valley in February and we mostly wore hiking clothing like leggings, flannel shirts, and t-shirts, plus we brought a few cute outfits for photos.
For clothing I packed:
- Leggings. Simple leggings are my favorite go-to pants for hiking. My favorite brand is Nike because their leggings typically last for years and their cuts are more flattering than other brands I’ve tried out.
- Hiking Boots. I am pretty clumsy so I prefer wearing ankle-height hiking boots on trails that prevent my ankles from rolling on rocks. But any walking shoes will do it for the easier hikes.
- Socks. I like merino wool socks because they wick away moisture and regulate temperature to prevent your feet from sweating.
- Day Pack. I have a small lightweight day pack from REI that fits all my essentials, water, and camera gear.
- Comfortable shirts. You’ll feel hot, sticky, and sweaty during the hikes so you might want to pack extra shirts to change into.
- Light jacket. It can get chilly and windy at night. I used my Mountain Hardwear jacket while camping and heading to the restroom at night.
- A travel hat. A hat can help protect you from getting sunburned plus I love them for photos especially when my hair starts getting messy from camping.
While this is a compact list with a few of the basic items, we do have longer-packing articles that dive into more details!
For car travelers: Check our guide covering all the essentials that we bring for road trips in our car.
For van travelers: Check out our guide covering 85 essentials that we bring for road trips in our campervan.
Passes & Fees
Death Valley is a National Park so there is a fee to enter the park.
Entrance Fee to Death Valley costs:
- $30 per car
- $25 per motorcycle
- $15 for bikers or people on foot
As an alternative, for $80 you can also purchase an annual park pass that will grant you unlimited access to any US National Park for a year. This is the option that I chose to go with since I plan to go on other trips this summer.
Most National Parks in California typically have a ranger booth at the beginning of the park where you drive through and pay for the entrance fee. However, at Death Valley, you have to pull aside at one of the designated ranger stations, get out of the car, and walk up to the pay window to purchase the park pass.
It was a little bit confusing at first but you can pay the entrance fee at the:
- Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station in the north
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center at the center of the park
It also cost us $14 to camp at the Sunset campground per night. Aside from that, we didn’t have any other costs except for gas and groceries that we brought along in our campervan.
Pssst! Be sure to check out some of our other popular National Park posts below:
- 18 Amazing Things To Do In Yosemite For First Time Visitors
- 6 Incredible Day Hikes At Kings Canyon National Park
- Guide To Visiting Sequoia National Park In the Winter
Are Dogs Allowed At Death Valley?
While dogs are allowed at National Parks, they are typically restricted to paved grounds like roads and campgrounds. Dogs are not allowed on any of the trails which limits where you can take them.
Death Valley is located in an extremely hot desert so you can’t leave your pet in the car while you go on a walk. Because National Parks are not very dog friendly we usually don’t bring our dog with us.
Is There Hiking In Death Valley?
Yes, there are many beautiful day hikes that you can do at Death Valley National Park ranging from short stops to 14-mile-long trails.
Because of the heat and lack of water sources, most people only do quick day hikes at Death Valley. The longest hike that we did on our trip was 3 miles long, and even in February, we were struggling from the heat.
Here are 6 Incredible day hikes at Death Valley National Park:
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats
- Zabriskie Point
- Artists Palette
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Natural Bridge
- Golden Canyon
1. Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Badwater Basin is one of the most popular points of interest at Death Valley National Park.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats are located at the lowest point in North America sitting at 282 feet below sea level. This salt field also consists of unique geometric formations so you don’t want to miss this one!
Badwater Basin is located on the southern end of Death Valley so it was one of the last stops on our road trip, but it was by far the most interesting one.
There is a large lot where you can park your car and easily access the trail. The first section of the Badwater Basin trail is ADA accessible and there is also a restroom for visitors near the trailhead.
The Badwater Basin trail starts on a wide path. As you head out into the salt field you will notice a small pool of water on the right that can be viewed from a boardwalk. The salt flats here earn their name as “Badwater” because back in the day this water was considered “bad” and undrinkable due to the salt minerals in it.
As you head further into the salt flats, you will come across chalky white formations that span in every direction. The further you go, the denser the salt gets.
As the lowest point on Earth, this area has collected minerals from floods for thousands of years that turn into salt when the water evaporates in the heat. What we see here now are high amounts of sodium chloride which is essentially table salt that has formed into unique shapes with the help of water, wind, and heat.
Visitors are allowed to walk across the Badwater Salt Flats freely but be aware of where you step because the salt crusts are fragile and can break easily.
- Location: Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA 92328
- Length: 1 – 2 miles long
- Elevation: flat
- Time needed: 1-2 hours
2. Zabriskie Point
Zabriskie Point is a highly visited overlook at Death Valley National Park that provides easy access to panoramic views of the colorful badland mountains.
Zabriskie Point is located within a short 10-minute hike from the parking lot but there are additional trails that loop through the endless maze of canyons here.
The badlands here consist of very dry, heavily eroded mountains. Millions of years ago this area was covered under a lake filled with volcanic ash and silt but as the area shifted and changed, it uncovered these colorful hills.
Zabriskie Point is named after Christian B. Zabriskie, a vice president, and general manager of a mining company that used to operate in Death Valley. Although Death Valley was used for borax mining, by the 1930s the land use switched from mining to tourism. Death Valley was officially declared a National Park in 1994.
If you’re looking for something a bit more challenging, from the parking lot you can head out on the 2.5-mile-long Badlands Loop that travels through the base of the canyons.
You can also keep going and walk out on the other side of the mountain range at the Golden Canyon Trailhead which is located 3 miles in distance (each way). Just be sure to bring lots of water for longer day hikes and set aside plenty of time to return.
- Location: Zabriskie Point, CA-190, California
- Length: 0.2 miles to Zabriskie Point
- Elevation: 50 feet
- Time needed: 30-45 minutes for the viewpoint, longer if you plan to hike any of the nearby trails
3. Artists Palette
Although a very short hike, Artists Palette was one of the most fascinating places that we visited in Death Valley.
The Artists Palette trail can only be reached by taking a detour on a narrow 9-mile-long road called Artists Drive. This drive passes through colorful mountains that look like real-life paintings earning it its fitting name.
Artists Drive travels one way so once you enter the road, you are committed to driving the entire loop which takes around 20 minutes. Artists Palette trail is located at the center of the loop and is the main attraction, although there are some other viewpoints that you can see along the way.
The best views of Artists Palette are located within a short walk into the colorful mountains. Some of the colors found here are unbelievable from pastel pinks and greens to deep browns and oranges.
Similar to Zabriskie Point, these hills formed millions of years ago and are made of volcanic deposits and various minerals. Heat and water caused chemical reactions in the landscape-altering it into cotton candy-looking colors.
Depending on the time of day and weather conditions the mountains can look vibrant or colorless. We drove to Artists Palette several different times and sunrise was our favorite, especially for photography.
- Location: Artists Palette, Furnace Creek, CA 92328
- Length: : .3 miles
- Elevation: 100 feet
- Time needed: 1 hour
You May Also Like:
4. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the first major attractions as you enter Death Valley National Park from the north. You can’t miss them – the towering dunes can be spotted from afar.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are located at the base of Tucki Mountain which traps and collects the sand here. Strong winds can add more sand and shift the placement while erasing previous visitor footprints.
You can easily see the giant dune field from the car but they’re best explored on foot.
These sandy hills sprawl across 14 square miles of land but most people hang around the first 1-2 miles where the tallest dunes are located at 185 feet in height. Do keep in mind that walking across the sand dunes is a slow journey and your shoes will get filled with sand.
Once you enter the sand dunes you can go in all directions and you really can spend hours exploring this area. The further you go, the better the views will get and the fewer people you will encounter.
We visited the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes during the day, but the weather was scorching hot making it difficult to trek across the dunes for longer than a couple of hours. For the best weather and lighting, we recommend visiting the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise or sunset when dramatic shadows form across them.
You can also visit the sand dunes overnight for night photography but keep in mind that poisonous desert animals like sidewinder rattlesnakes live in the dunes and come out at night.
- Location: Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA 92328
- Length: 1-2 miles
- Elevation: Up to 185 feet
- Time needed: 1-3 hours
5. Natural Bridge
For an easy day hike at Death Valley National Park, head over to the Natural Bridge. This is a quick 1 mile out and back trail that leads to a large rock formation.
To get there you will need to drive on a narrow 1.5-mile-long gravel road that can be difficult to navigate for larger vehicles. Once you reach the parking lot there is a straightforward hiking path that will lead you directly to the Natural Bridge formation through a deep canyon.
Death Valley’s Natural Bridge is a large rock arch that connects both sides of the canyon. This 35 feet wide bridge formed as the result of flash floods and erosion.
You can also keep going past the Natural Bridge formation to a dry waterfall and other geological attractions but most people turn around and head back after taking a few photos of the rock bridge.
This trail is very popular, especially during the day, but there is plenty of space in the canyon for hikers to disperse. Natural Bridge looks very impressive up close although we did overhear some of the visitors say “Is this it?”. The other locations at Death Valley look so otherworldly that in comparison it might not seem as epic.
- Location: Natural Bridge Trail, California
- Length: 1-mile round trip
- Elevation: 180 feet
- Time needed: 1-2 hours
6. Golden Canyon
Golden Canyon is a scenic trail that is located on the opposite end of the mountain range from Zabriskie Point. The landscape here travels through golden badlands and beautiful dramatic canyons.
Two trails start at the same trailhead here – the Golden Canyon Trail and the Gower Gulch Trail. You can also connect both trails into a 4.3-mile-long loop. Those who are feeling extra adventurous can even hike out to Zabriskie Point and back.
Since we already had visited Zabriskie Point the day before, we chose to hike the 3 miles long out-and-back Golden Canyon trail to the Red Cathedral. This was once a drivable road but now it’s only walkable on foot and only small sections of the asphalt remain.
The trail ends at towering Red Cathedral formations. At this point, it was the hottest part of the day so we decided to turn around and head back but you can also scramble further up the rock formations.
- Location: Golden Canyon Trailhead, Badwater Rd, Furnace Creek, CA 92328
- Length: 3 miles round trip
- Elevation: around 500 feet
- Time needed: 2 hours
I hope this post has helped you prepare for a trip to Death Valley and add a few places to your bucket list!
Looking for more California travel inspiration? Here are some of our other popular California posts that you may like:
- 20 Best Hikes In California For All Skill Levels
- Best Campgrounds In California For a Camping Trip
- Backpacking The Trans-Catalina Trail
- 5 Amazing Day Hikes At Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- Backpacking North Dome Trail In Yosemite
- 10 Amazing VRBO Rentals in Mammoth Lakes
Interested in stepping up your photography game? Here is the camera gear that I carry everywhere I go to create amazing travel photos:
- Main camera: Sony a7c Camera. The Sony a7c is tiny, light, full-frame, and durable – in other words, amazing!
- Polarizer Filter: Hoya 40.5 mm Filter. Polarizing filters reduce glare in water, protect the lens from getting scratched and bring out the best colors when it’s bright outside. Having a polarizing filter is a must-have if you plan to photograph lakes, oceans, rivers, and waterfalls.
- Wide Lens: Sony 16-35 mm F4. Great for capturing wide panoramas, nature landscapes, and cramped city streets. Mounts to any Sony mirrorless camera and features autofocus, image stabilization, and incredibly sharp images.
- Lightweight Travel Tripod: Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Tripod. A good tripod is essential for capturing images in low light conditions, such as during sunset and sunrise, or creating smooth water effects when shooting waterfalls. The Manfrotto Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod is very sturdy, light, and folds small so you can take it on all of your adventures!
- Memory Cards: SanDisk Extreme 256 GB. It’s always good to bring a few extra memory cards on trips. SanDisk Extreme is ultra-fast for capturing high-quality images, bursts, long exposure night shots, and 4k videos. This memory card is also durable and reliable yet very affordable.
- Camera Batteries: Wasabi Power Battery Set. I’ve made the mistake of getting to a location to realize my camera is out of battery. Always keep your batteries charged with this camera charger set.
- Camera Bag: Lowepro adventure shoulder bag. A camera bag is something you should definitely invest in! Without having a proper place to store it I would get my camera scratched, sandy, or even occasionally drop it.
Some of the links used in this blog may be affiliate links. At no extra cost to you, I earn a small commission when you book through these links which helps me run this blog. Thank you!
2 thoughts on “6 Easy Death Valley Hikes That You Shouldn’t Miss”
There’s a couple more place I would recommend: The Resort at Panamint Springs, which is a funky fun kind of place with a big porch where you can star gaze. Also, the Ranch at Death Valley (right across the street from the Inn, btw), which are cabin-like rooms.