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Beyond Los Angeles: Death Valley National Park
Take a side trip from Los Angeles to Death Valley National Park and you’ll witness one of the starkest, most extreme environments in North America. Named by the California gold seekers who mined the area’s gold fields in 1849, this shadeless wilderness near the California-Nevada border is the largest national park in the USA outside of Alaska, and is famously known as one of the hottest, driest, lowest places on earth.
A seemingly inhospitable landscape, Death Valley is home to an overwhelming abundance of natural beauty. Towering peaks loom over vast arid salt flats. Narrow canyons brush up against ‘painted’ mudstone hills. Shifting sand dunes ripple out to the horizon, changing from pink to gold to bronze before your eyes, and in the springtime, a sea of yellow wildflowers blankets the parched desert floor.
A five-hour drive from Los Angeles, Death Valley is best tackled as a 2-3 day trip, during which you should be able to squeeze in most of the major highlights, along with a hike or two. In the park itself you’ll find most hotels, campgrounds and RV parks in Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Outside the boundary, check out the towns of Death Valley Junction and Beatty, Nevada on the eastern side, and Lone Pine, Big Pine or Bishop to the west.
Must see highlights
The park is enormous and we can’t cover it all here, but these are our recommended highlights for a 2-3 day visit. Before you set off, remember you are in the desert and conditions can be extreme – temperatures frequently hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher in the summer. Regardless of the season, always ensure you have a plentiful supply of water in your car, and take extra care during the middle hours of the day.
- Accessible from Route 190 between Stovepipe Wells and Beatty Junction, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the perfect introduction to Death Valley. Used as a location in the Star Wars movies, this wind-sculpted landscape is home to lizards, owls and sidewinder rattlesnakes and is almost entirely surrounded by mountains. Come at sunrise or sunset for the best contours and colours.
- Shimmering Badwater Basin is where you’ll find the park’s 200 square miles of salt flats. This former lake bed is the lowest point in North America – a fact given context by the ‘Sea Level’ sign affixed 282 feet above you on the cliff face behind – and walking out onto the endless expanse of crusty white salt is one of Death Valley’s most unforgettable experiences.
- Off Badwater Road, scenic Artist’s Drive is a winding 9-mile one-way loop through the painted sedimentary hills of the Amargosa Range. You’ll pass through a spectacular multi-hued area known as Artist’s Palette, where vivid rainbow streaks of oxidised mineral deposits stain the earth, as though daubed on the landscape by a giant geological paintbrush.
- Not far from Artists’ Drive and still part of the Amargosa Range, Zabriskie Point is one of the most extraordinary viewpoints in the park, offering a startling vista over waves of sun-baked badlands and canyons. A short drive from Furnace Creek, the light is best in the very early morning or late afternoon. This is also a great time to walk the stunning 2.5 mile Badlands Loop trail into Gower Gulch and back again, which starts just north of the Zabriskie Point car park.
- The high, sweeping walls of Mosaic Canyon are composed of stripy polished marble worn smooth by untold flash floods and rainfall running through the faultlines. Considered an “outdoor museum”, the canyon is easily navigable by hikers, though some minor rock scrambling is required as well as single file walking through the narrowest sections.
- South of Furnace Creek, Dante’s View is a mountain overlook which offers perhaps the best overall panorama of Death Valley. At more than 5,000 feet above sea level the views extend for miles, from the spine of the Black Mountains in the south, to the Funeral Mountains in the north, and across the Badwater Basin salt flats to Telescope Peak beyond. In fact, from here you can see both the lowest and the highest points in the contiguous United States.
For more information on Death Valley National Park, including maps, trail info and accommodation options, visit the US National Parks Service website.
Written by Maxine Sheppard