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20 places to see in Death Valley before you die

An evening view from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon, Death Vally National Park Death Valley National Park is a place of varying terrain, from canyons and badlands as seen here from Zabriskie Point, to salt flats and even a year-round waterfall. Photo by Oleksiy Sobol/stock.adobe.com

Death Valley is a land of extremes. It holds the world record for the highest air temperature recorded (134 degrees) and has seen entire years without rain. It’s also home to otherworldly sand dunes, surreal salt flats, and colorful badlands. Wondering where to start your exploration of the vast Death Valley National Park? Here are 20 sights (listed alphabetically), both natural and man-made, that will help you appreciate the region’s striking landscape and pioneer past.

1. Amargosa Opera House and Hotel

A detailed mural of an audience on the walls and cherubs on the ceiling inside the Amargosa Opera House

Ballerina Marta Becket’s detailed mural of an audience fills the walls of the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. Photo by Ben Pipe/Alamy Stock Photo

Ballerina Marta Becket refurbished this theater in 1967 and performed a one-woman show here for more than 40 years. She was also an artist: She painted a mural depicting an audience on the walls to ensure she always had a “full house.” Now, the theater hosts plays and concerts on weekends October through May. Twice-daily tours are available (adults, $15), and the hotel still welcomes guests.

2. Artists Drive

Artist's Palette

Volcanic and mineral deposits color the mountainsides along Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park. Photo by Gary C Tognoni/stock.adobe.com

The 9-mile, one-way Artists Drive highlights brilliant colors created by natural pigments, volcanic ash, and mineral oxidation in ancient, eroded sediments on the face of the Black Mountains. About halfway through the drive, you’ll reach Artists Palette, where you can immerse yourself even more in the landscape on a 0.4-mile hike.

3. Badwater Basin

A close-up of the Badwater Basin salt flats

Evaporated floodwaters formed the miles of Badwater Basin’s salt flats. Photo by Universal Images Group North America LLC/DeAgostini/Alamy Stock Photo

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. For a perspective of just how low this is, look across Badwater Road and search the mountain face for white letters marking sea level. Walk out onto the salt flats to find a mosaic of crystalline shapes formed by the evaporation of rare floodwaters.

4. Dantes View

The most famous of all the valley viewpoints, Dantes View is best experienced in the cooler morning before the sun is high in the sky. Directly below, you’ll see Badwater Basin and miles of salt flats, while across the valley, the Panamint Range’s sheer wall forms an imposing (and often snow-covered) barrier.

5. Darwin Falls

The highlight of this moderate 2-mile round-trip hike is a 20-foot waterfall. A signed trail begins in a dry wash and continues through a narrow canyon to the falls. The spring-fed desert oasis is popular with migratory birds and hikers alike. Be prepared to cross streams and climb boulders. Access is by dirt road.

6. Devils Golf Course

Devils Golf Course

Wind and rain sculpted crystallized salt into the rugged Devils Golf Course landscape. Photo by Patrick J. Endres

As ancient lakes evaporated, they left behind salt and gravel deposits on the valley floor—some more than 1,000 feet deep—that cover the 200-square-mile Devils Golf Course. While not an actual golf course, of course, the name comes from a 1930s National Park Service guidebook that claimed, “Only the devil could play golf on such a surface.”

7. Furnace Creek Visitors Center

Visit Furnace Creek Visitors Center for up-to-date information on roads and trails, hiking and backcountry permits, ranger programs, and a gift shop. The center also has museum, a relief map of the park, shaded picnic structures, and a large outdoor thermometer—perfect for a photo op.

8. Golden Canyon

The trails at this hiking spot lead to 3 scenic areas: Red Cathedral, a 3-mile round-trip to a natural amphitheater; Manly Beacon, a 2.7-mile round-trip to the clay pinnacle named for a pioneer who led lost emigrants out of Death Valley; and Gower Gulch, a 4.3-mile loop through tight canyons and colorful badlands. Ranger talks and tours are available.

9. Harmony Borax Works

Harmony Borax Works wagons

The 20-Mule Teams once pulled massive wagons from Harmony Borax Works to the railhead in Mojave. Photo by Bill Flynn

A paved footpath leads past the refinery, a set of rare mule-team wagons, and outlying buildings used to process borax in the 1880s. The famous 20-Mule Teams transported the minerals from this site 165 miles over rugged desert to the town of Mojave.

10. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

To capture ripple patterns and deep shadows, photograph the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes near sunrise or sunset. Photo by Valeriya Zankovych/shutterstock.com

The sinuous contours of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes contrast with the sharp-edged mountains to the east and west. The tallest dunes, at 100 feet, are easy to access and are the most visited in the park. Mountain barriers combined with opposing winds prevent these deposits of eroded quartz from moving cross-country.

11. Racetrack Valley

A migrating rocks at the end of its long track on the Racetrack Valley playa

The light at sunrise and sunset accentuates the tracks of migrating rocks on the Racetrack Valley playa. Photo by Pabrady63/stock.adobe.com

This dry playa, the remains of a 10,000-year-old lake, is roughly shaped like a racetrack. It’s the setting for an interesting phenomenon where rocks slowly move across the south end of the lakebed, leaving long, faint tracks. Do not drive onto the playa, walk on the playa when it is wet, or disturb or deface the rocks. High-clearance vehicles are required to access this area.

12. Rhyolite Ghost Town

This town enjoyed a few prosperous years following a nearby gold discovery, bustling with as many as 10,000 people at its peak in 1907. A few stone-and-concrete ruins, the old railroad depot, and a structure of glass bottles embedded in mortar are all that remain. Ghostly sculptures depicting The Last Supper were added in 1984, offering an eerie complement to the former boomtown.

13. Salt Creek

Freshwater Lake Manly covered this area more than 10,000 years ago. This creek is now home to the rare Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus), which has adapted to the heat, salinity, and intermittent scarcity of water in its present environment. In spring, schools of the fish can be seen from a boardwalk trail that parallels the creek.

14. Scotty’s Castle

This Spanish-Moorish–style mansion (formally named Death Valley Ranch) was intended as millionaire Albert Johnson’s winter home. Its popular name comes from Johnson’s friend Walter Scott claiming the “castle” as his domain. The property is closed due to a 2015 flood and a 2021 fire. However, the Death Valley National History Association offers limited flood-recovery tours in winter.

15. Teakettle Junction

Teapots and kettles on top of and hanging from the roadside sign

The Teakettle Junction sign is a whimsical point of interest for Death Valley visitors. Photo by Doug Meek/shutterstock.com

Teapots and kettles have decorated this remote junction sign for years. Some pots have inscriptions or contain paper messages. Photographing this piece of folk art is now a rite of passage for many Death Valley visitors heading to Racetrack Valley. High-clearance vehicles are required to access this area.

16. Telescope Peak

At 11,049 feet, Telescope Peak is the park’s highest point. From the summit, you can see the highest (Mount Whitney) and the lowest (Badwater Basin) spots in the contiguous United States. This difficult 14-mile round-trip trail has an elevation gain of 3,000 feet. Access is by a 4x4 road and a hiking trail.

17. Trona Pinnacles

Trona Pinncacles tufa spires casting looming shadows across Death Valley

Hundreds of tufa spires make up the Trona Pinnacles in Death Valley National Park. Photo by Michal/stock.adobe.com

A National Natural Landmark, these tufa (calcium carbonate) spires may be familiar thanks to their appearances in commercials, television shows, and films such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The towering formations, some reaching 140 feet high, were once known as Cathedral City. Access is by a dirt road.

18. Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe Crater

Orange stripes from oxidizing ores stand out against dark volcanic ash in Ubehebe Crater. Photo by Lakkana Savaksuriyawong/shutterstock.com

A volcanic explosion more than 800 years ago left this crater, nearly a half-mile wide and 600 feet deep. Oxidizing ores give orange tints to the dark volcanic ash of the crater’s eastern walls. A 1.5-mile hiking trail circles the rim, and a spur trail continues half a mile to the smaller, younger crater, Little Hebe.

19. Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

These beehive-shaped structures from 1877, each 30 feet in diameter and about 25 feet tall, were built to produce charcoal from the surrounding piñon pine forest. Enter the kilns for amazing acoustics and the lingering smell of smoke from over a century ago. Access is by dirt road.

20. Zabriskie Point

Golden Canyon Gower Gulch

You’ll be rewarded with an iconic view of the badlands from the Zabriskie Point lookout. Photo Hanna Tornyai/stock.adobe.com

This lookout features the strata of Furnace Creek Badlands, eroded yellow hills that are the remains of a lakebed whose sediments were deposited 5 to 10 million years ago. At sunrise, the hills in the foreground are highlighted with gold tones and shadows, while the mountains across the valley subtly change from pink to blue-gray.

Death Valley safety precautions

  • Check current road conditions in the park and call Caltrans Highway Information Service at (800) 427-7623 for current highway conditions.
  • Consult with park rangers before traveling on backcountry roads or hiking trails.
  • Watch your vehicle’s temperature gauge. If it’s overheating, turn off the air conditioner.
  • Since most of the park is protected wilderness, driving off established roads is prohibited.
  • Only experienced drivers in high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles should attempt 4x4 roads.
  • Always carry plenty of water. You may need at least a gallon per day, so keep extra in your car.
  • Do not leave pets alone in a vehicle. Pets are allowed in select areas of Death Valley National Park and must be on a leash at all times. Review the park's pet guidelines.

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Death Valley National Park maps

Pick up a Death Valley National Park map at an Auto Club branch

The map provides a helpful overview of the park as well as a 1-day itinerary of highlights if you are short on time.

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AAA travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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