- Visitor Centers
- Furnace Creek and Surrounds
- Stovepipe Wells and Surrounds
- Scotty's Castle and Surrounds
Over 3.4 million acres (14,000 km square) of desert, mountains and plains make up the Death Valley National Park. It is the largest national park in the contiguous United States, so as you can see, the possibilities for exploration and discovery are unlimited! Listed here are a few of the most popular points of interest in the park, most are easily accessible via paved roads but you may have to walk or 4WD into some.
For the purposes of this guide, the park's attractions are divided into three sections. Firstly, Furnace Creek and Surrounds which covers the park's southern mid section, the most popular area; Stovepipe Wells and Surrounds which covers the center region; and Scotty's Castle and Surrounds which covers the more remote northern section of the park.
Before venturing out, stop at a Visitor Center or Ranger Station to obtain your park permit, get a map and inquire about current road conditions.
There are two Visitors Centres:
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center & Museum This is the primary Visitor Center, located in Furnace Creek on CA 190. Furnace Creek is 30 miles from Death Valley Junction and 24 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village. It's open daily 8am-5pm.
- Scotty's Castle Visitor Center This is the Visitor Center for the northern section of the park, as well as handling Scotty's Castle tours. It's 55 miles from Furnace Creek and about 45 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village.
Furnace Creek and Surrounds
Furnace Creek is a small town in the center of the park and a former mining outpost. It forms the base for operations in the the park, housing the the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, a museum and the headquarters of the Death Valley National Park. It’s surrounded by a number of public campgrounds and holds two of the park's major tourist facilities, the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Ranch, which even has its own golf course! Furnace Creek lies on the junction of CA 190 and Badwater Road, with portions of CA 190 heading north and south-east, and Badwater Road heading south.
Attractions off CA 190 North of Furnace Creek:
Mustard Canyon is a brilliantly-colored canyon located just north of Furnace Creek; follow the turn-off down Mustard Canyon Drive/Borax Mill Road from CA 190 to get there. There's a popular hike through the canyon with the best view at the very end of the trail, which requires traversing through some narrow canyon walls and over ladders. Star Wars fans may recognize this place as Jawa hideouts from Episode IV! While there, you can also take the short Harmony Borax Mill Interpretive Trail.
Salt Creek is a spring-fed salt creek (shock!) down an easy two mile dirt road which runs off CA 190, 15 miles north of Furnace Creek between the Beatty Rd and Scotty's Castle Rd junctions. What is a shock is that there are fish there, in the middle of the desert! Long ago Death Valley was a lake full of them, and as the lake dried up and salinity increased the fish evolved to cope. Now they are restricted to a short, salty creek which springs up out of the desert, flows for a few hundred yards, and then disappears back into the sand. Outrageous.
Attractions off Badwater Road South of Furnace Creek:
Desolation Canyon offers solitude even beyond that of Death Valley in general! It isn't much to look at for the first half mile of the hike from the parking area, but beyond that, there is much to explore. Desolation Canyon Road is (poorly marked) off Badwater Road, a few miles south of Furnace Creek before the Artist's Drive turn-off. Take a map and don't get lost.
Artist Drive is a scenic loop road which starts about nine miles south of Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. It twists through hills of multi-hued rocks which have been naturally stained by the sedimentary minerals within them to resemble the colors of an artist's palette. The late afternoon light it particularly complementary to this area so have your camera handy! Artist Drive is a nine mile, paved, one-way road and only takes vehicles shorter than 25 feet (7.7 m) in length.
Devil's Golf Course is a bizarre landscape consisting of a vast field of salt crystals. Please admire these carefully as a slight touch can break them, and they take years to re-form! You’ll see how it got it’s name, the bizarre structures could hide all the golf balls in the world! The road in is Salt Pool Road which turns off Badwater Road south of Furnace Creek, between Artist's Drive and the Natural Bridge turn-off.
Natural Bridge is a massive rock arch in a narrow canyon, created when erosion managed to undercut a section of the former stream bed. The turn-off to Natural Bridge Road is off Badwater Road, south of Furnace Creek and between the Devil's Golf Course turn-off and the Badwater Basin. It's a half mile walk from the bridge to the trailhead, which lies at the end of Natural Bridge Road.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. A boardwalk and signs provide info on the local environment, and a trail leads out onto the salt flats. It’s 17 miles south of Furnace Creek.
Attractions off CA 190 South-East of Furnace Creek:
Echo Canyon cuts into the Funeral Mountains on the east side of the valley. It is accessed by a 4WD-only road which intersects CA 190 just a few miles south-east of Furnace Creek. This track is for prepared and skillful four wheel drivers who know what they're doing! About eight miles along there is a turn-off to the Inyo Mine ruins.
Zabriskie Point is a much-loved viewpoint four miles east of Furnace Creek along CA 190. It's a place which incapsulates the sparse beauty of Death Valley; loved by photographers and famous among park visitors as the place to see interesting weathered canyons. It truly is spectacular and one of the iconic images of the park. It’s only a two minute walk from the parking lot off CA 190.
Dante's View is an awesome lookout point just a mile or two away from Badwater, but 4,000 feet taller! It's accessed by traveling 10 miles south-east on CA 190 from Furnace Creek, turning onto Furnace Creek Wash Rd for eight miles until a fork in the road (take the right fork) leads to Dante's View Road. It's another five miles along; making the trip quite long but definitely worth the effort to get there. If you are towing a trailer, a parking lot is provided at the road fork for you to leave it behind before ascending the most difficult part of the road.
Saratoga Springs provide a marsh habitat for many birds, fish and plants, a welcoming change from all the rock and...rock of Death Valley National Park. This rare desert wetland supports a rich community in its bubbling waters, including endemic species like the the Saratoga Springs pupfish, the Amargosa Spring snail and the Death Valley June beetle. These fertile waters rise near the southern boundary of the park, 54 miles south of Badwater.
Barker Ranch is the famed hideout of Charles Manson and his followers, who were captured here in 1969. The backcountry road up - which includes several rock falls - will make you wonder how Charles Manson got a school bus through. Many visitors who make the difficult trek stay overnight in the cabin here, although it's pretty much charred ruins after a fire in 2009. It's not exactly near Furnace Springs and a bit of a mission to get there, as it lies on the south-western edge of the park, just south of Ballarat ghost town. You will definitely need a 4WD.
There are numerous trails within the park, ranging in difficulty from short loops to overnight, mountainous treks. Many people walk off-trail, which sounds intimidating, but in such a desolate place you often don’t need a trail, you just walk to where you want to go! The best time to hike in Death Valley is from October through April as the Summer temperatures get ridiculous. Always bring sufficient water when hiking in Death Valley; the heat can kill. For a list of walks and maps go to the Visitors Centre or see: www.nps.gov/deva/planyourvisit/hiking.htm.
The clear desert air, scarcity of clouds and great lack of nearby light pollution, makes Death Valley an ideal spot for stargazing. Ideally you'll visit during a new moon so as to fully appreciate the darkness of the night sky.
Death Valley has numerous back-country roads that offer a challenge for 4WD enthusiasts. Driving off-road is not permitted, but with over a 1,000 miles of roads in the park, you won’t be tempted! It is imperative that you have current, up-to-date maps, and don't rely on a GPS. In 2009, a woman followed her GPS and was lost in the mountains for five days, resulting in the death of her six year old son. No joke, get a map. Many of the attractions in this guide, such as the Racetrack Playa and Eureka Sand Dunes, are only accessible by 4WD roads, so before you head out make sure you're driving a vehicle that's appropriate.
Bicycles are allowed on all roads in the park, including the rough backcountry roads, so you have the option of taking a nice smooth journey or having a mountain biking adventure. As with motor vehicles, riding off-road is not permitted.
Only for the truly insane, the 135 mile (217 km) 'Badwater Ultra-marathon' from Badwater (282 feet below sea level) to the Mt Whitney trailhead (8,360 feet above sea level) is billed as the world's toughest race. Adding to the difficulty, the race is held annually during July, the hottest month of the year. In 2010, 80 people toed the starting line, and 73 battered, burned and exhausted souls officially finished by crossing the finish line within 60 hours (the course record is just over 23 hours). For those with a death wish, more info can be found at: www.badwaterultra.com.
The odd geologic formations in the park are great for early-morning and late-evening photography, as during the day the harsh sun tends to wash out most photographs. During March and April the wildflowers are in bloom, making it a particularly photogenic time of year. Couple this with the abundance of ghost towns, desolate roads, Joshua trees, crazy lookin' sheep and colorful alluvial fans, and you've got yourself a photographers playground!
Stovepipe Wells and Surrounds
Death Valley National Park is roughly bisected into a north and south section by two roads: the CA 190 which runs from the park's border at Panamint Springs, past Stovepipe Wells to its junction with Scotty's Castle Road, and the Daylight Pass Road (NV 374) which runs off Scotty's Castle Road and travels to the park's border near Beatty. The following attractions run off these two roads.
Stovepipe Wells is a small way-station roughly in the center of the park, 29 miles north-east of Furnace Creek along on CA 190. This tiny village is home to a ranger station, gas station and general store, the Badwater Saloon, the Toll Road restaurant, the Nugget Gift Shop and the Stovepipe Wells Hotel. Just outside of town you can also see the Historic Stovepipe Well which gave the settlement its name.
East of Stovepipe Wells:
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are about two miles east of Stovepipe Wells; turn onto Sand Dunes Road to the viewing area. This is one of only a few areas in the park with dunes, and definitely the most accessible, so they're a popular attraction. The largest dunes are the Eureka Dunes at the parks's northern tip, but they are accessible only to adventurous backcountry folks. Although smaller, the Mesquite Flat dunes are still quite impressive.
Grotto Canyon is a popular place for some strenuous hiking. Get there via the Grotto Canyon Road which heads south off CA 190, 2.5 miles east of Stovepipe Wells (just after the sand dune viewing area). The road heads up the hill for a mile before dropping into the wash of Grotto Canyon. It’s a very pretty canyon with multiple fun climbing challenges.
Devil's Cornfield is located east along CA 190 from Stovepipe Wells, about half a mile west of the Scotty's Castle Road junction. There is a pull-off on the side of the road where you can park. Officially, the main attractions here are the stacks of arrow-weed which resemble a cornfield from certain angles. Not the most interesting of places in the park, but it's has a certain ambience about it at sunset, and there are often coyotes in the area.
Death Valley Buttes These large rocks are off Daylight Pass Road and a fun place to go hiking, just set out from the Hell’s Gate parking area. It’s about 1.2 miles to the top of the first butte; there's no trail but it's hard to get lost. Just mind the steep drop-offs and you'll be rewarded with some super views!
West of Stovepipe Wells:
Cottonwood Canyon and Marble Canyon are accessible via the Cottonwood Canyon Road, which has the Stovepipe Wells Airstrip on it and travels east out of the Stovepipe Wells Village. There is a turn-off to Marble Canyon at the end of the road, or you can keep going through Cottonwood Canyon, which is about eight miles long. At the end of the canyon is a pleasant spot with a flowing stream lined with Cottonwood trees.
Marble Canyon has some of the finest canyon narrows in the park and is a popular hiking destination. While accessible only by a long, sandy road followed by a technical rock crawl through a wash, this hike is worth the headache (or fun) of getting to the base of the trail. Before you go, consult rangers about the location of various petrogylphs (images incised in rock) along the canyon walls. Though some have been vandalized (jerks), many are in pristine condition.
Mosaic Canyon is a narrow, varicolored canyon in the centre of the park, just south of Stovepipe Wells along Mosaic Canyon Road. There is a popular hike which winds through the canyon; just walk in about a mile and back again. Some climbing and scaling of slick marbled rock is required.
Emigrant Canyon Road is one of the most popular scenic drives in Death Valley. It begins eight miles south-west of Stovepipe Wells along CA 190, and winds its 21 miles past a few places of interest. Firstly, the Skidoo ghost town turn-off (4WD only), then the Aguereberry Point turn-off, then it's a steep climb over Emigrant Pass (5,318 ft) and through Nemo Canyon and Wildrose Canyon. At the end are the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Thorndike Campground and Mahogany Flat Campground. Notice the change in vegetation as you gain elevation.
- Aguereberry Point is a stunning lookout point at the end of Aguereberry Point Road, an 11 mile narrow dirt road off Emigrant Canyon Road. The last part of the drive is a precarious climb with no barriers and a 6,000 foot drop below, so be careful! On the way you'll pass the Eureka Mine site, an old miner's house and his diggings. You can go into the mine, at your own risk, but avoid it in Winter as it’s a home for many bats who don’t wish to be disturbed!
- Wildrose Charcoal Kilns These crumbling kiln ruins are in Wildrose Canyon, very near the Thorndike Campground. Each of the 10 kilns stands about 25 feet tall and held pine logs which, after burning for a week, produced 2,000 bushels of charcoal. They were operational until 1878 and have a lovely ancient, out-of-place feeling to them.
- Telescope Peak This is highest point in the park at 11,049 feet. The hike to the summit is 14 miles return (23 km) and extremely strenuous, so only attempt it if you have a good level of fitness. It begins in the Mahogany Flat Campground.
Darwin Falls is a 15-foot waterfall off Old Toll Rd, which intersects with CA 190 just west of Panamint Springs. From the parking lot, hike about a mile further into the canyon to see the falls, which are particularly nice in Spring. This is the drinking water supply for Panamint Springs, so resist the urge to jump in!
Scotty's Castle and Surrounds
Scotty's Castle is a two-story Spanish villa built in the 1920's near the park's north-eastern border. It lies off Scotty's Castle Road, 55 miles north-west of the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. Tours of the house are run daily from 9am until 5pm, departing at least once an hour and lasting for fifty minutes. Hear the strange story about the creation of this elaborate mansion from guides dressed in '30's costume; it involves fun things like sickness, fraud and tall tales! Tickets are sold at the on-site Scotty's Castle Visitor Center on a first-come, first-served basis and cost $11 per adult. There may be a wait for tickets, so try to purchase them several hours in advance.
Titus Canyon is a narrow, deep and spectacular canyon in the north-east section of the park. The Titus Canyon Road runs through it and can be accessed by either Scotty's Castle Road at its westen end, or Daylight Pass Road at its eastern end. Due to the canyon's narrowness parts of the road are one-way, so if you'd like to see the whole thing start at the Daylight Pass Road end, which is about 45 mi from the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. You don't need an off-road vehicle, but don't bring the RV.
Rhyolite is a ghost town just beyond the park's border, about four miles west of Beatty and 30 miles north-east of Stovepipe Wells along Daylight Pass Road. It sprung up in service of a nearby gold mine and in its heyday, from 1905-1911, it was the largest settlement in the area with a population of 5,000 people. It's a wonderful place to take some stark photos of moldering ruins, and many movies have used the town to set the scene for their desert adventures. It's very near the Titus Canyon Road turn-off, so you may want to combine them into one trip.
Ubehebe Crater is a giant volcanic crater located just west of Scotty's Castle. Walking trails lead into and around the crater, but be warned - going down into the crater is a difficult undertaking, and it may be best to enjoy the view from the top!
Racetrack Playa is not easily accessible, as with many points of interest within the park! From the Ubehebe Crater, continue on down Racetrack Road for 27 miles. It's a bumpy dirt road and 4WD recommended, but ask about road conditions before you go and you may be able to use a normal car. The effort is well rewarded, however, with a site of twilight-zone proportions.
A playa is a dry lake-bed, and this one is nearly three miles long and a mile wide; so flat that it was once used as a landing strip for drug smugglers! But the Racetrack is most famous for its "moving rocks": boulders which mysteriously move themselves around the lake-bed, leaving erratic tracks which remain visible for years. Though their movement has been tracked with GPS, no adequate explanation for it has been found. In the Spring months, brine shrimp - which hibernate when the water dries up, only to emerge months or even years later - are sometimes visible in the muddy puddles.
Teakettle Junction is in the backcountry on the road to the Racetrack Playa. It's a signpost decorated with numerous tea kettles and makes for a rather odd sight in the vast desert. Oh desert humour, how fickle ye are.
Eureka Sand Dunes are tucked away in the north part of the park. They're the second tallest in the US and accessible only by tens of miles of dirt road. Don't let their out-of-the-way location deter you from visiting, however; the solitude only adds to the otherworldliness of the wind-swept sands, the highly rare Eureka Grass blades grasping for life in the dry mounds, and the panoramic view of the colorful Last Chance and Saline Ranges which flank them either side. To get there travel north along Big Pine Rd from Scotty's Castle, veer left at Crankshift Junction and skirt the surfur mine, then turn left onto S Eureka Road. You'll definitely need a 4WD for this one.
Crankshift Junction is the place to see old metal car parts abandoned and rusty! Woo! It’s north of Scotty's Castle along Big Pine Road at the junction next to the old Crater Sulfur Mine.