Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Death Valley National Park, sounds a little ominous, doesn’t it? It probably would be for those who ended up there by mistake, and it certainly was for the doomed gold rush pioneers. But with the rise of road trips and visits to national parks (thanks to covid), it's an otherworldly destination you may want to put on your radar screen. If you're in the SoCal or Las Vegas area, it's only a couple hours away, making it an easy day trip. So why would you want to visit some place that feels a little like a barren wasteland? Glad you asked.
Why you should visit Death Valley National Park
You should visit Death Valley National Park because it’s likely the closest thing you’ll ever experience to actually leaving the earth. It feels like a different planet completely, and that’s why it has been used in multiple films including Hollywood blockbusters like “Star Wars.” Death Valley is a land of brutal extremes; scorched and crackled earth, frigid nights and blistering days, poisonous snakes, beautiful wildflowers, some of the best star gazing in the country. Although this may seem like a little bit of a surprise to some folks, people have been trekking to the desert for thousands of years to turn their attentions inward. There’s a stillness there, it’s raw and unfussy, there are no pretenses or distractions making it one of the most sought-after places to have spiritual experiences or to find the answers to life’s most burning questions. Or maybe you’re hunting UFOs. Whatever the reason, you’ve probably never been anywhere quite like Death Valley.
What to know before going to Death Valley National Park
It’s a good idea to stop at the Welcome Center to take advantage of the last little bit of modern amenities you’ll see for the rest of the day, like the restroom. If not, you’ll likely be digging a hole and filling it with sand later. They also have WiFi, air conditioning, water, you know…the important stuff. You should take a minute to look around and learn a little bit about what you can (and want) to see. There’s some good information to gather from the staff, and it will help make the most of your visit so you’re not spending your time staring at things that don’t interest you.
You’re in for miles and miles…and miles of wide-open spaces. Which means you may as well put your phone on airplane mode, so you don’t drain the battery. While there isn’t much of a signal, it does go in and out a lot so you may bring an external battery for all the cool shots you’re going to take to commemorate your visit. You’re going to be carrying everything with you if you hike, so pack more water than you think you’ll possibly need and less “stuff.”
Things to see in Death Valley National Park
One of your stops in Death Valley National Park should be Zabriskie Point. It’s probably safe to say the name of the location won’t mean much to you, but if you are a “Star Wars” fan you’ll recognize it almost immediately. It’s one of the many filming locations for George Lucas’s blockbuster films. The stark and jutting terrain is a really interesting mix of burnt and bleached stripes set against a beautiful blue sky. And if you go first thing in the morning, it will feel about as isolated as the Tatooine Desert too.
Typically, you don’t think about seeking out places for their interesting elevations unless it’s somewhere like Machu Picchu or Everest. But the lowest point in North America is actually here in Death Valley at Badwater Basin. There’s not much water in Death Valley, but some can be found here…and it’s three times saltier than the ocean. It’s 282 feet below sea level and the salt has bloomed into crystals that look a lot like heads of cauliflower poking above the surface of huge puddles.
The Devil’s Golf Course
This is a lot like you'd imagine a bleached coral reef outside the ocean would be. The salt crystals here are razor sharp so it’s definitely not the place to lose your footing. However, against your own better judgement, you will likely tiptoe your way out a few yards or so to take a picture. You’re going to want to channel the concentration of a tightrope walker because the terrain is jagged and unforgiving. There’s an underground aquifer under the crusty salt formations so when you come across a hole in the salt, look down. Some of them are extremely deep, like wells, and the water is green and clear, like sea glass. Here’s a bit of a gross fun fact: if you decide to sample the salt at the Devil’s Golf Course, your tongue will in fact not rot off and you’ll be surprised at how much it resembles regular old table salt.
This is definitely one of the most well-known sites in Death Valley. And even though you’ll see a ton of highly saturated images of it on the internet, it’s still pretty impressive in real life, albeit not as vivid. The blue and green streaks will remind you a little of those old-school toothpaste tubes that have been squeezed and smeared across the sink. They are actually caused by the oxidation of different metals in the volcanic rock. You can hike up the mountain a little further in for a closer look if you’re able to, and we'd recommend it for a better view.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon
Here’s another Star Wars filming location for you, specifically from “Return of the Jedi.” In order to see these badlands, you’ll need to drive down on a pock-marked dirt road and slide around blind canyon corners, which makes it all the more fun. While you can do it in a regular vehicle, you’ll probably feel a little more comfortable in an SUV. You can also scale the colossal rocks to get a better view of the wavy light and dark contrast in the mountains. Some look like white cheddar-cheese puffs and the volcanic ash is as dark as crumbled Oreos.
Death Valley Super Bloom
This is a bonus because it's the wild card attraction. The Death Valley Super Blooms are rare, happening once every 10 years or so because the California droughts are getting worse. The environmental conditions have to be just right for the Super Bloom to occur, but you’ll know ahead of time because it depends heavily on how much rain they had the seasons before. The blooms are surprising in their vivid purples and yellows, but maybe even more impressive are the floral fragrances. When you get close to the fields of wildflowers, it smells like you’ve stepped into the middle of a fresh cut bouquet. If you’ve ever been to Death Valley before, you know very well the only aromas out there are the dust and quite possibly your own perspiration, so this is a real treat. If it’s not a Super Bloom year, the wildflowers are still lovely in spring and can be seen right along Badwater Road so you’re not traveling far to find them.