Death Valley National Park in Southern California is one of America’s most unique national parks and one of the most desolate places on earth. Five minutes spent at the park—or even flipping through images on your phone—is enough to make you feel like Death Valley is on another planet. The incredible heat, the bone-dry landscape, and the beaming sun all make the park feel like no other you’ve ever visited.
If you’re planning a trip to Death Valley or are curious what it’s all about, read to article to learn:
Let's get to it!
Before we look at the top trails, let’s take a quick bird’s eye view of the park with these fast facts.
Without a doubt, the best time to take a trip out to Death Valley is in the winter months—October through February. In these months, average temperatures only enter the 90s a few times. In fact, December (the coldest month at the park) has average high/low temperatures of 64/41.
Hiking Death Valley in the winter makes it possible to go longer distances and see more of what the park has to offer without contending with the extreme heat. In the summer, the National Parks Service recommends that visitors bring 4 liters of water. Even then, they still don’t advise hiking after 10 a.m. Yes, it’s that hot.
If you’ve already made your travel plans or you can’t avoid visiting the park in the summer, we’d recommend sticking to the first three trails on our list. They’re short and not too strenuous; you should be able to complete them at an average pace without overexerting yourself or staying out too long. The final three trails are a bit longer and are best for winter trips where staying out all day is more feasible.
Distance: 1.9 Miles Elevation: 6 feet Difficulty: Easy
Visiting Death Valley without seeing Badwater Basin is, by nearly all accounts, a big no-no. One of the park’s most famous landscapes spreads out before you in strange, desolate glory on this sub-2-mile trail. Badwater Basin is the lowest point anywhere in the United States at 282 feet below sea level. The basin itself is an expansive salt flat, formed after an ancient lake completely evaporated. The surface of the basin is very salty, leading many curious hikers to see how it tastes (spoiler: it’s salty).
A small pool of water still stands near the parking lot (which also has a public restroom), and a short boardwalk marks the beginning of the trail. It’s a simple but hot walk out onto the dried lakebed, where you’ll be able to get some stunning photos of the “salt polygons”—the shapes formed by cracks in the super-dried ground.
The physical characteristics of this hike (the fact that it’s short and has no elevation gain) might disappoint those hikers who love hard climbs, but there is something completely unique about Badwater Basin that makes it unforgettable. If you’re heading out to Death Valley, put this hike on your list.
Distance: 0.4 Miles Elevation: 52 feet Difficulty: Easy
This is another trail that is much more about the destination than it is about the journey. At less than a half-mile long, it hardly even counts as a trail—but Zabriskie Point is a bucket list view, so it’s worth penciling into your schedule. It's a great place to watch the sun as it rises or sets, with deeply eroded hills and mountains spreading out in front of you.
This trail is the perfect way to warm up or cool down on a day full of mini-hikes (which, by the way, is a great way to beat the heat and see the sights). It’s not going to challenge your body, but Zabriskie Point’s views are well worth ignoring your love of grueling hikes.
Getting there is relatively simple, too. There is a parking lot on Highway 190 (that includes a bathroom) just a few miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Once you get there, you’ll see the vast and desolate landscape that has made Death Valley such an enticing place. If you’re looking for a quick hike that over delivers on spectacular views, this is it.
Distance: 3.6 Miles Elevation: 770 Feet Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
This trail is, more or less, the longest you should hike at Death Valley in the summer, and even then it should be in the morning or evening. If you're a movie buff, you'll be interested to know that this canyon is part of the Star Wars universe. A treat for sci-fi fans and nature lovers alike, scenes from the movie that take place on the planet Tatooine were shot right on this trail in 1977 and 1983. Desolation Canyon is also a great place for finding shade—while it won’t completely solve the heat’s danger, it will provide some much-needed relief from the beating sun.
The out-and-back Desolation Canyon Trail is a mostly simple climb, but there will be a few rock scrambles near the halfway point before you turn back. Scrambling is a type of hiking that requires you to use your hands and feet to climb over rocks, but isn’t so steep or dangerous that you need ropes or climbing gear. If you’re looking for a moderately challenging hike that you can complete any time of the year, look no further.
The trailhead starts on Badwater road, a 10-minute drive from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. From the trailhead, you can follow the well-beaten and well-marked trail through the canyon, rocks towering over you on either side. The views on this hike are spectacular and truly otherworldly. It’s an enjoyable, relatively easy walk (most of the way), and one that is sure to give you more Instagram material than you know what to do with!
Distance: 12.7 Miles Elevation: 3,323 Feet Difficulty: Hard
Sitting more than 11,000 feet above sea level, Telescope Peak is the highest point in the park, towering above Badwater Basin. This trail is one of the few places in Death Valley where you can log some serious elevation. If you’re visiting during a season with favorable weather (October through March), this hike is an absolute must. Being that high up, right next to the lowest place on earth, gives you views that are nearly unparalleled. You can see for miles, and miles, and miles, and just a few miles after that.
The trailhead is located near Mahogany Flat Campground, and it’s 6 miles out and 6 miles back. This means that, unless you want to lug a couple of gallons of water up the mountain, hiking this trail in the summer is a non-option. If you do head out on this trail, no matter the month, make sure you check trail conditions to make sure the peak isn’t covered by snow. If it is snow-covered, it’s still safe to hike, but make sure you bring microspikes or crampons from your winter camping gear stash to give you better traction in the snow.
This trail takes you from Zabriskie Point through the canyon to Gower Gulch, a deep ravine that cuts a 1.5 mile-long hole in the earth. This 6-mile trail is like getting Death Valley’s “greatest hits” in a morning hike. Starting from Zabriskie Point, you’ll follow a well-marked trail to Red Cathedral (pictured below), a brilliant cliff face that would dwarf the Notre Dame if it were a real house of worship.
The elevation on the trail, while considerably more than many Death Valley trails, is still very manageable. This trail is perfect for people who only have a short window of time to visit the park. If you’ve only got a day, Golden Canyon, Red Cathedral, Zabriskie Point, and Gower Gulch can all be yours on this one trail.
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are a vast and striking ocean of sand, looking every bit like the deserts you’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. This trail is your opportunity to wander through the wilderness like Lawrence of Arabia (or Tony Stark, if you’re more of a superhero fan). This trail comes in just under three miles—walk 1.4 miles out into the sand, snap some pictures, have lunch, and walk 1.4 miles back.
Outside of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, this kind of experience is very hard to get, at least in America. It’s worth the effort, the sweat, and the sand in your shoes to experience this trail.
Death Valley National Park has one visitor’s center, Furnace Creek, and a few ranger stations scattered throughout. Before setting out on the trail, it’s a good idea to stop by the visitor’s center (or call ahead) to check on current trail conditions. If it’s too hot or cold, your hike can be affected, so always make sure to check in before you head out.
In or near the park: Death Valley is, for the most part, as barren as it gets. There are no towns for miles—the nearest city with a population over 5,000 is 120 miles away. Luckily, however, there are a few hotels (even some very nice ones) that dot the border of the park, and they range from more affordable to more luxury.
One hotel in particular ranks among the most luxurious places to stay near any national park in the United Stated. The historic luxury inn at The Oasis at Death Valley is open year-round and is a desert escape for movie stars, nature lovers, or anyone else who has a bit of money to spend. The Oasis resort also boasts a more family-friendly ranch on its vast property.
Vegas: Las Vegas, Nevada is just a 2-hour drive away. Many visitors fly in and out of McCarran Airport and stay at one of the thousands of hotels there. Though it may be the city of high rollers, there are many affordable and decent hotels in the Vegas area if you’re traveling on a budget. Just make sure you don’t get trapped at a card table and miss out on the great outdoors.
Riverside and Bakersfield: These two mid-sized cities in California are about 150 miles from the park. They’re full of hotels, shopping options, and restaurants. If Vegas isn’t your style or you’re coming from the California coast, you can stay in Riverside or Bakersfield for a reasonable price.
If we’re starting to sound like a broken record about when to visit this park, it’s because we can’t stress enough how inhospitable the Death Valley climate is—and that extends to camping. While there are quite a few campgrounds in the park, many of them close during the summer because it’s simply too hot to camp safely.
If you do want to camp when the option is available, you can browse and reserve campgrounds by visiting the Recreation.Gov portal. There are nine total campgrounds at Death Valley and three of the four most popular ones close during the summer. There is a reservation fee for the campgrounds near Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, but other campgrounds are free and don’t require a reservation.
Backpacking in Death Valley National Park is a lot of fun and is perfect for those who are craving some serious adventure. The park is massive, and much of it lacks roads or established trails. If you’re planning to visit in the cooler season, you can have a lot of fun on a 3-4 night trip in the wilderness.
Death Valley’s backcountry roads are also a fun place for overlanding and moto camping! So, load up your backpack with a down sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a few liters of water, and have a great time. You can probably leave your hammock and hammock compatible sleeping bag at home, though; there won’t be many trees available for you to string up a hammock.
One of the best things about finishing a long or strenuous hike or backpacking trip is your first taste of real food upon entering civilization. In Death Valley especially, you’re going to be craving salty foods and an ice cold drink. Here are some of the most popular joints in the area.
Here are some important safety measures to consider before setting out on your Death Valley adventure:
Here are some helpful resources for planning out the rest of your trip:
Ready to face the heat, desert landscapes, and beating sun? The unique and challenging aspects of Death Valley may turn some away, but many other people absolutely love the one-of-a-kind experiences the park offers. Which trail do you think you’ll try first? Have time to try them all? Leave your trip itinerary in the comments section below.
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