Death Valley Hikes: the ones you shouldn't miss!

Death Valley is famous for holding the record for the highest air temperature ever recorded on Earth (136 F, 57C), but it is also home to an incredibly diverse landscape and - surprisingly - epic hiking trails!

In this huge national park you can explore canyons, candy coloured rocks, stunning viewpoints and huge salt flats.

Add to this rolling sand dunes, dramatic craters and snow-capped mountains and you have a place that is so diverse, it’s hard to believe it’s all one park.

The ridge just in front of Zibriskie Point


Death Valley Hikes - the ones you shouldn’t miss!

You could spend a week here exploring all the nooks and crannies, however, as most trips here are short we’ve put together our favourite hikes in Death Valley that you can fit into an action packed two day trip.


Death Valley Orientation

Death Valley National Park is huge and it can take hours to drive from one side to the other, so working out a plan before you go will make it a lot easier to do all the trails you want.

The hikes in Death Valley are primarily split between the two major areas in the National Park: Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek is the most convenient base as all the walks tend to be a maximum of 30 minutes away. We would recommend combining several walks around either Furnace Creek or Stovepipe Wells at a time. This will mean you cut down on the amount of time you’ll spend driving.

However, you can easily hike around one area and then go for sunset in another if you don’t mind putting the miles in.



Hikes around Furnace Creek

The majority of walks in Death Valley are south of Furnace Creek and down the Badwater Road. There are plenty of hikes here and you could spend days just exploring this area alone.

The hikes along Badwater Road go in order (from north to south and distance from Furnace Creek): Golden Canyon (3 miles) - Desolation Canyon (3.7 miles) - Artist’s Drive (10 miles) - Badwater Salt Flats (18 miles).

Be aware that Zibriskie Point and Dante’s Lookout are along a different road and will require heading all the way back to CA 190 to reach. This means a very, very long journey to Dante’s lookout if you’re at Badwater Basin!

Sunset at Badwater Salt Flat


Our favourite - Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop & Zibriskie Point

Distance - 12.5 km (7.8 miles)

Time - 3 hours 20

Elevation - 77 metres

Difficulty - Moderate

Type of walk - Loop

Starting & End Point - Golden Canyon Car Park, Badwater Road (you can also start this track from Zibriskie Point).

This walk is actually four shorter trails put together to make the most epic hike in the whole park. Ever gone to a viewpoint and wished you could get in and explore the area you can see from the lookout? Well this hike is just that. Don’t just settle for the view at Zibriskie Point, hike through the colourful ridges and canyons in this stunning loop track. If you only have time for one walk in Death Valley - make it this one.

Just one of the many incredible views on this trail

This walk changes continuously, from the canyon at the start, to the ridges in the middle and the valleys at the end. You’ll get stunning views and a good work out from this hike. It is also incredibly quiet after the first mile through the Golden Canyon, we rarely saw another soul and it was hard to believe we had this incredible landscape to ourselves.

Part 1 - Golden Canyon

The trail starts at Golden Canyon and is by far the most popular part of the track (which in winter, still wasn’t very busy). The trail heads from the car park immediately into the steep canyon walls and winds around for a mile or so. You’ll be able to see the deep red cliffs of Red Cathedral in the distance which looks like an ancient city. It is a pleasant walk, but not the highlight.

The views of the Red Cathedral in the distance

This part of the track is flat and easy, though the canyon is not narrow and is exposed to the elements - on our visit this meant severe wind but in summer would mean intense sun. Make sure you don’t miss the side trail to Red Cathedral which is well signposted (you actually just continue walking along the canyon floor rather than taking the trail on the right hand side which is signposted Gower Gulch).

The valleys in the Golden Canyon

Read next: Hikes in the Grand Canyon which show just how stunning this place is

Part 2 - Red Cathedral

This side trail provides some incredible views, but is pretty steep and slippery at the very end. It is worth doing, but only if you have a reasonable head for heights!

The trail continues to wind through the Golden Canyon and soon becomes pretty narrow, requiring you to duck under some ledges and squeeze through some gaps (nothing difficult though).

The narrow path on the way to the Red Cathedral

Then the short uphill trudge begins. The track becomes narrow and slippery, but after about 100 - 200 metres you’ll reach the top and this sweeping view!

The view from the Red Cathedral

A couple of people going off-track at Golden Canyon

The hardest part is coming down if you’re unsteady on your feet, but it is well worth the effort for a view that not so many people hike to (I managed and I hate these slippery sections).

Follow the track back the way you came and you’ll see the turnoff towards the Badlands Loop (marked Gower Gulch). This pass is one of the most exposed parts of the track, taking you over ridges and into the wide open landscape.

The pass to the Badlands Loop from Golden Canyon

On a windy day, this section feels the full force of the gales and we were subjected to sand and small stones being whipped up and flung in our faces. Ideally don’t pick a windy day for this trail! However despite the elements, it is a very beautiful section and there was no way we were going to turn back.

Be careful on this section if it is windy! There’s a steep drop to the side

Part 3: Badlands Loop - Zibriskie Point

The Badlands Loop can be completed from Zibriskie Point, but is a great addition to the Golden Canyon trail. This loop takes you into the heart of the view you get from Zibriskie Point through valleys and ridges made up of bright yellow sandstone.

The start of the Badlands Loop section

Every part is different and you’ll be going up and down ridges, getting a different perspective at every turn. To say this section has the wow factor seems an understatement. We were truly in awe of it and on a less windy day could have lingered for hours!

The ridges of the Badlands Loop

One of the huge ridges near Zibriskie Point

This is probably the most tiring part of the walk as there is quite a few uphill climbs and little relief, especially in the final uphill section to Zibriskie Point. Persevere though as it is well worth it! The views from Zibriskie Point (and the trail before it are amazing).

Part 4: Zibriskie Point - Golden Canyon (via the other part of the Badlands Loop)

The good news is that after Zibriskie Point it is virtually all downhill. Follow the path down the way you came until you come to the dried up river bed and then follow the river bed rather than head back on the uphill path you came on (leading back towards the Golden Canyon). This will ensure you take a different path to the one you came on and it is all downhill.

This section of the path isn’t as interesting as the rest of the track, but is still nice enough. You’ll see the car park in the distance after an hour or so.

Getting to Golden Canyon Trailhead

The start of the track is just over three miles from Furnace Creek (8 minutes) and 27 miles from Stovepipe Wells (32 minutes). The car park can get pretty busy, but you should be able to find a parking spot if you wait a bit as most people are only there to see the Golden Canyon.

 

Best quiet walk - Desolation Canyon

Distance - 5.7km (3.5 miles)

Time - 1 hour 30

Elevation - 177 metres

Difficulty - Easy to moderate

Type of walk - Return (out and back)

Starting & End Point - Desolation Canyon Car Park


We’re not sure why but when you pop into the visitor’s centre this walk isn’t marked anywhere (although it is in the leaflet you can take away) so it sees way less people than the Golden Canyon, despite being in our opinion a more interesting walk. Whilst the Golden Canyon car park was full when we passed by, the car park for Desolation Canyon had only one other car in it! Perfect for those who want to avoid the crowds.

The start of the Desolation Canyon Trail

The are no trail markers in this canyon, you just follow it until you reach the end and then head back the way you came. The first part of the walk is flat and easy walking up to and then along the canyon floor. You’ll notice that some of the rock has similar colours to those at the more famous Artists Palette. Around halfway through you’ll come to a point that requires a bit of a scramble to get up - it’s around 1.5m and there are a couple of foot holds which make it a bit easier.

After that it’s a little more flat before an uphill climb up a sandy slope until you reach the top of the canyon and an absolutely stunning view!

The top of the Desolation Canyon Walk

The views from the top of Desolation Canyon

This a great spot to sit and soak up where you are without anyone else around, it was incredibly peaceful, especially in the late afternoon light. It did look like you could carry on a little further up a hill opposite the canyon for an even higher view but we weren’t sure it was an official trail and we didn’t want to disturb the potentially fragile environment if you weren’t supposed to walk there - you could check with the visitor’s centre before your hike.

Desolation Canyon

The return journey is quicker and easier as it’s almost all downhill or flat.

Getting to Desolation Canyon

Desolation Canyon is slightly tricky to find as it is along a dirt road. Head 3.7 miles south down Badwater Road (from the junction) and look out for the 3 mile sign. From here you’ll see a dirt track on the left of the road which leads to the car park for the trail.

 

Sunsets and Stargazing - Badwater Salt Flat


Distance - 1.6 km (1 mile) each way

Time - 15 minutes

Elevation - 0

Difficulty - Easy

Type of walk - Return (out and back)

Starting & End Point - Badwater Basin Car Park


As with Mesquite Sand Dunes by Stovepipe Wells you’ll step on to the salt flats pretty much as soon as you leave the car park but the pristine dazzling white section is around half a mile away. It’s completely flat and very easy to walk on and well worth taking the time to get out to the further section. Once you’re out there you could walk for miles but most people stick to the first unspoilt bit they come to. Photographers tended to head further out.

Badwater Salt Flat at sunset

It’s a fantastic place to be at sunset when the soft light makes the salt flats even more photogenic. It gets pretty busy but there is so much space that it isn’t hard to find your own little patch. If you wait around it’s also an incredible place to go star gazing.

The salt flats at sunset


Getting to the Badwater Salt Flat

This hike starts at the car park for Badwater Basin and is one of the furthest away from any settlement in Death Valley. Badwater Basin is 18 miles south of Furnace Creek (taking about 24 minutes to drive) and 42 miles away from Stovepipe Wells (taking about 50 minutes).

 

Most unusual sight - the multi-coloured rocks, Artist’s Palette

We have never seen coloured rocks like this anywhere in the world! We didn’t visit at the best time of day (late afternoon) and the colours were still really vivid. Most people tend to stick to the lookout at the car park, take a few pictures and move on. If you want to get up close to the rocks that’s allowed too and we highly recommend it.

One of the more colourful sections of Artist’s Palette

There’s a little staircase down and then a path that takes you right in between the multi coloured cliffs. It is one of those places that you don’t expect to be able to walk around and it feels all the more special because you can.

You can’t go far without actually rock climbing but even venturing a little way in is well worth it.

Getting to Artist’s Palette

Artist’s Palette is along the Artist’s Drive which starts 10 miles south of Furnace Creek. From the turn off, Artist’s Palette is approximately 4 miles away (about 25 minutes from Furnace Creek). The journey from Stovepipe Wells should take about 50 minutes.

 

Best lookout point in Death Valley - Dante’s View


Almost everyone who visits Death Valley will stop off at Zibriskie Point but not everyone makes it out to the best lookout of them all, Dante’s View. It’s a little further away than anything else (around 35 minutes further on from Zibriskie Point) and up an incredibly steep road but it’s well worth the effort.

The best time to visit according to the visitor’s centre is sunset which is when we went but we’ve heard it’s good for sunrise too. The panoramic view is incredible and it’s the only place you can really get a good idea of the scale of the Badwater Salt Flats.

The view from Dante’s Lookout

If it is windy down in the main part of the park then expect it to be ferocious up here. Despite the fact there were lots of little mounds you could climb up to watch the sunset and get different views we could only manage around five minutes before feeling like we’d be blown away. If you can try and save this for a calm day!

Getting to Dante’s View

Getting to Dante’s lookout is a bit of a mission and is a long way away from anywhere! The road is slow, winding and gets pretty steep at the end (trailers aren’t allowed all the way to the top). The lookout is 25 miles away from Furnace Creek but takes about 45 minutes to get to. It is 50 miles away from Stovepipe Wells and takes over an hour.

 

Only if you want a bit of history - Harmony Borax Works

The Borax works isn’t really a walk at all (they claim it is but it’s only 0.25 miles!) however, it is an easy way to see some of the industry that mined Death Valley. There is the last remains of the famous “20 mule team” and a couple of other things to look out.

We weren’t too fussed about it really, but it is only short and if you want to see some history in Death Valley, this is the place to go.

The remnants of the 20 mule team

Getting to the Harmony Borax Works

The Harmony Borax works are 2 miles north of Furnace Creek and should take about 5 minutes to drive to. They are 23 miles away from Stovepipe Wells and should take 25 minutes.

 

Hikes near Stovepipe Wells

Sadly some of the big ticket walks around Stovepipe Wells were closed when we visited. The road to Mosaic Canyon was closed and there was heavy snowfall on both the Wildrose Peak and Telescope Peak trails which made it impassable for anyone but passionate alpine hikers!

If these were accessible during our visit they would have no doubt made the list. Give them a google if you aren’t visiting in winter.

One of the many angles at the Mesquite Sand Dunes



Best hike for sunset - Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Distance - (2-3km) 1 -2 miles

Time - 30 mins (but we spent longer exploring)

Elevation - 45 metres

Difficulty - Easy to moderate

Type of walk - Loop

Starting & End Point - Mesquite Sand Dunes Car Park


There isn’t a trail as such within the Mesquite Sand Dunes, you can walk for as long as you like and you’ll probably go further than you think as the landscape is the kind that makes you lose track of time. In order to reach the larger and more pristine section of the dunes you’ll need to walk for at least a mile (each way).

Walking on the ridges of the Mesquite Sand Dunes at sunset

The large dunes look a lot closer than they actually are because it is pretty tricky walking in the soft sand and you’ll also have to walk up and down quite a few dunes to get to them. It is definitely worth making the effort though.

Once you reach the higher dunes the amount of people around (which to be fair weren’t even that many) thins out and you can grab a spot on the top of a dune and enjoy a gorgeous desert sunset more or less to yourself.

The top of the biggest dune at Mesquite


Getting to the Mesquite Sand Dunes

The Mesquite Sand Dunes are very close to Stovepipe Wells (2 miles, 4 minutes), but a bit of a distance from Furnace Creek (23 miles, 27 minutes). The walk to the dunes starts just outside the car park.

 

Pleasant short walk - Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

Distance - 1.2 km (0.75 miles)

Time - 20 minutes

Elevation - 0

Difficulty - Easy

Type of walk - Loop

Starting & End Point - Salt Creek Interpretive Trail Car Park (down a dirt road)


This was an interesting short walk mainly because it is pretty amazing to see a creek like that in the otherwise parched desert environment. The walk is flat and easy on even boardwalk and winds its way around the creek with pretty views throughout.

If you’re visiting in the spring you might even spot some resident endangered Pupfish who call the stream their home. We read they can sometimes be seen as early as February so kept an eye out but didn’t spot any.

The boardwalk on the Salt Creek Walk


Getting to the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail

The Salt Creek Interpretive Trail is down a short dirt road and is 12 miles away from Stovepipe Wells and should take about 18 minutes to drive to. Alternatively, it is 15 miles north of Furnace Creek and should take about 22 minutes.

 


A great view on the way into the park from LA - the road from Panamit Springs

The roads all over the park are gorgeous but this one was particularly photogenic. There is plenty of space at the side of the road to pull over and take a photo.

The view from the road at Panamit Springs

The view from the road at Panamit Springs

The snow capped mountains from Panamit Springs


Best time to visit Death Valley

As we said at the start, Death Valley has recorded the highest air temperatures in the world, so visiting in summer will mean hiking is potentially dangerous. Your best bet are the high peaks that are often impassable in winter (Telescope and Windrose).

The ideal time for other hikes is during the winter (November - February) as temperatures in the day are a very pleasant 10-20C.

Spring and Autumn aren’t bad options, but we’d recommend starting your hikes early as temperatures can still reach 38C in the day.

Read next: All of our favourite Sedona hikes

Death Valley Camping

With some of the clearest night skies, camping in Death Valley is the perfect way to star gaze and have the unique experience of sleeping below sea level! We wouldn’t recommend camping in the summer as it will be a blisteringly hot experience (the minimum temperatures can be as high as 31C at night!).

There are several campsites in Death Valley which vary in facilities. Only Furnace Creek, Mesquite Spring, Emigrant and Wildrose are open all year round, the others are open from mid-October to the following mid-April (basically closing for the summer/hottest time of year).

The smaller campsites higher up are free - Emigrant, Wildrose, Thorndile and Mahogany Flat - whilst the other campsites will charge between $14 and $36.

At peak season, campsites work on a first come, first served basis, but Furnace Creek recommends booking between 4 days and 6 months in advance due to its popularity. There are private campsites at Panamint Springs, Fiddler’s Camp and Stovepipe Wells that are open all year and charge between $10 and $35.

You can find out more on the NPS guide to Death Valley on this link. Simply go to the final page to find out more.

Entrance Fee for Death Valley

Death Valley is a National Park, so it is covered on the Annual Pass you can buy for $80 at any National Park. If you are wanting to buy an entry just for this park, then the following fees apply:

  • Entrance fee per vehicle: $30

  • Entrance fee per person on foot or bicycle: $15

  • Entrance fee per motocycle: $25

  • Annual Death Valley Pass: $55

Entry tickets can be bought at visitors centres in Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek or along the Daylight Pass Road to Beatty.

Getting to Death Valley

There are three entry points into Death Valley - Panamint Springs, Death Valley Junction or via Beatty on the Daylight Pass Road. Where you come from will determine which entry you use.

Los Angeles to Death Valley

This route is the longest, but the most popular. The journey from Los Angeles to Death Valley will take at least 4 hours 20 in a car and you’ll enter the park via Panamint Springs, so stop for that stunning view on the road in. The closest hikes to Los Angeles are based around Stovepipe Wells which is also where the nearest visitor’s centre is, so you can buy your entry there.

Las Vegas to Death Valley

The journey from Las Vegas to Death Valley is about 150 miles long and should take about 2.5 hours. You will enter the park via Death Valley Junction which will take you to Dante’s View, Zibriskie Point and the hikes near Badwater. The nearest visitor’s centre is the one in Furnace Creek to buy your entry ticket.

Beatty to Death Valley

Beatty is the closest settlement to Death Valley and is 32 miles from the walks around Stovepipe Wells in the park (taking about 40 minutes). The road from Beatty will take you halfway between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, giving you a choice of either area. There’s a place where you can pay your entry fee along the Daylight Pass Road so you won’t have to make a wild detour to buy your ticket.


Where to stay in Death Valley

There are four options in Death Valley which range from central but expensive, to far out, but a lot cheaper. This will be the choice you have to make (well, unless you fancy camping in the park!). The most central is Furnace Creek.

Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is the prime location for visiting Death Valley as you can reach almost everywhere of interest in a relatively short journey. The accommodation isn’t cheap, but you’ll be waking up to this incredible landscape in the premium location. If you can stretch your budget this is definitely where you want to be.

Booking.com

Stovepipe Wells

The second most preferable location in the park is Stovepipe Wells. Whilst it isn’t quite as good as Furnace Creek for location, you’ll save a lot more on the cost of the rooms, making it a really good balanced option. The hotel doesn’t get amazing reviews but is still a better bet for saving driving time than outside the park.


Beatty

If you don’t fancy camping, then Beatty is the cheapest option for accommodation when visiting Death Valley, and this is where we stayed. The hitch is that the journeys are much longer (it will take 40 minutes to get to Stovepipe Wells and 50 minutes to Furnace Creek) and the town has little going for it - only the RV park sells fresh food for example and even that was limited!

We didn’t stay at El Portal but wish we did. We went for the cheapest option in town and let’s just say you get what you pay for (we’ll spare you the gruesome details but it wasn’t a clean room!).

Booking.com
Booking.com

Pahrump

The final option would be Pahrump. We didn’t visit this location but read a lot about it ahead of time. It has a far greater range of accommodation and is probably a hell of a lot nicer than Beatty but as it was slightly further out so we chose Beatty. With hindsight that might not have been the best choice.

Booking.com
Booking.com

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Are you planning a trip to Death Valley? What’s your favourite hike if you’ve already been? Let us know in the comments below!


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