Death Valley National Park
If you thought the desert was dead, boring and not worth your time, you’re missing out – big time. Enter Death Valley National Park; easy to get around, easy to see the sites and you can explore the best parts of the park in a weekend. I wouldn’t say everything in Death Valley is amazing, so I’ve put together a list of spots within the park that are definitely worth your time. All it takes is a quick drive to get to each location, so I won’t bore you with driving directions, but you can click HERE for a map of the park. For all you Star Wars fans, a handful of scenes from episode IV were shot at Death Valley and the locations just so happen to be many of the same sites I’d recommend to visit below (Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Artists Palette and Dante’s View).
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: This is by far, the best place to visit in the park; you’ll have the most fun here. If running up and down the dunes like a little kid isn’t your thing (it is for me), you can always try your hand at boarding down the taller dunes. These are the only dunes in the park where boarding is allowed. In my opinion, the best time to visit the dunes is early in the morning – head out when it’s still dark and watch the sunrise at the highest dune. Early morning is better because there’s more of a chance of seeing smooth, untouched dunes that have been reshaped by the winds overnight (no footsteps in the sand other than your own). Both sunrise and sunset will give you great shadowy views and photos that will last a lifetime. Oh, and take your shoes off when you get further out on the dunes, it’s a great feeling and much easier than emptying your shoes all the time.
Eureka Sand Dunes: These are the tallest sand dunes in California and possibly the tallest in North America - they're more than 680 feet high - that's taller than a 68-story building! The only problem is, you really need a 4x4 if you want to get there safely. A good portion of the road is nothing but dirt and it's about a 3 to 4 hour drive (one-way) from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, so your car will definitely take a beating. The benefits of it being so far? Less people, more pristine. You'll have most of the dunes, which is about 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, all to yourself. According to the National Park Service, the isolation of Eureka Dunes from other dune fields has led to the development of endemic species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world - 5 species of endemic beetles and 3 plants have their entire range limited to this island of sand. Keep your eye out for the old sulfur mine and the amazingly bright Mountain Bluebirds on your way there and don't forget the beautiful backdrop of the Last Chance Mountains when you arrive!
Zabriskie Point: A photo is worth a thousand words, see below:
Artists Palette: The colors at this location are wild! Greens and purples - hard to believe. This area serves as evidence for one of Death Valley’s most violently explosive volcanic periods.
Badwater Basin: Made up of almost pure table salt, this salt flat is a must see. It’s also noted as the lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. You won’t see many places like this in your lifetime. The huge white expanse gives great opportunities for some creative photography. Be sure to hike far out past the main entrance to the flat so you can see the more pristine, natural shape of the salt formations.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge: Technically only a small portion of this park belongs to the Death Valley National Park and it is located an hour outside of Death Valley. This place is awesome! There’s five natural hot springs (Fairbanks, Rogers, Longstreet, Crystal and Point of Rocks) that are full of clear turquoise colored water that will blow your mind. I’ve never seen such clear colorful water in my life and it’s pretty amazing that they exist in the middle of nowhere. In addition, living within the springs are the small endangered Ash Meadows Amargosa Pupfish. Look for the blue-colored males defending their territories and the smaller greenish females - they get to enjoy the relaxing 86 degree water all year round. Most of the springs are just a short walk from where you'll park. You can find a map of the springs HERE. My favorites are Crystal Spring, Longstreet Spring and the Crystal Reservoir. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to swim in the hot springs.
Ubehebe Crater: Death Valley is just full surprises, there's even a volcanic crater that's half a mile across. It was created by steam and gas explosions when hot magma rose up and reached ground water.
Devil's Golf Course: This location received its name because "only the devil could play golf" here. The large halite salt crystals stretch for miles and make you feel like you're on another planet.
Catch the sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and the sunset at Dante’s Peak.
Get out at night and watch the stars!
When you get to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Badwater Basin and Dante’s Peak, hike out further than others are and you will get to experience the more untouched and more pristine areas of each location – also makes for better photos!
If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the park when there’s a wildflower bloom – do it! It’s so rare and full of color. When I went during a bloom, the southern part of Badwater Road was the best place to see the flowers.
Make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks if you plan to play in the sand at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Depending on the time of year it can get really hot really quick.
For the Eureka Sand Dunes, follow the same advice as above, but multiply your supplies times 5 just in case you get stranded from a few flat tires. Definitely have a full size spare tire with you and check to see if the tread on your tires is good.
If you don't feel like camping, there's always the affordable Motel 6, just outside of the park in Beatty, Nevada. There's also one the largest candy shops in the entire state right next door.