Visiting and Photographing Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is a landscape of extremes. Surrounded by major mountain ranges that block the rain, Death Valley is the driest U.S. national park, receiving a little over two inches of precipitation every year. It is one of the hottest places on Earth, having set a world record with a temperature of 134°F in July 1911. The valley’s Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level.

It is precisely these extremes which make it such a stunning place to visit and photograph. But visiting Death Valley can be a bit of a challenge, so it’s essential to learn about the park before you arrive.

Sunrise at Salt Creek, Death Valley

When to visit Death Valley

One of the biggest challenges with a visit to Death Valley is the heat. From about May through September, average daily high temperatures exceed 100°F and peak at 117°F during July. Those visitors who come during the summer are typically limited to driving tours in air-conditioned vehicles with short stops at viewpoints.

For this reason, visitors and photographers who want to spend more time outside their cars may wish to visit during the cooler seasons of late-fall, winter, and early spring. April and October see average daily highs in the low-90s, while November through March sees daily highs in the high-60s to low-80s. The advantage during these milder months is the ability to spend more time hiking or searching for great photos.

Keep in mind that the park remains quite busy during the cooler off-season months. In particular, the wildflower season (typically around mid-February to mid-April) is a popular time to visit. In some years, a sea of colorful flowers inundates the valleys and alluvial fans. The extent of wildflowers each spring is entirely dependent on the amount of rain during the preceding winter. Thus, it’s difficult to plan far in advance to see this fantastic sight. But if you get lucky or can depart on short notice, the visuals are definitely worth it!

 

Where to stay at Death Valley

Visitors to Death Valley have a few options when it comes to overnight stays, with hotels, resorts, and campgrounds located both inside and outside the park. Inside the park, there are three lodgings and a dozen NPS and private campgrounds. Because of the limited lodgings inside the park, most visitors will stay in places like Lone Pine, CA, Beatty, NV, or Las Vegas. The park service maintains a detailed list of options on this webpage.

 

Where to go in Death Valley

At 3,000 square miles, Death Valley is the biggest national park in the continental U.S. There are so many great places to visit, choosing which ones to stop at can be a challenge. That said, here are some must-visit locations worth considering.

Many visitors will want to see Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. This is a great spot to visit and photograph, given its scenic landscape of vast salt flats surrounded by looming mountains. Another scenic spot is Zabriskie Point. This stop has several short walks, with one leading up to a viewpoint and others leading into the water-carved badlands.

Nearby is the famous Artist’s Drive, a 9-mile scenic loop road through multi-colored hills. The rainbow-like colors—including yellow, orange, red, pink, blue, and green—are caused by volcanic deposits rich with iron oxides and chlorite. About five miles into the drive, there’s a particularly colorful area called Artist’s Palette, where you can walk through the most vibrant section of hills.

Located near Stovepipe Well Village, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes make for another scenic stop. The many dunes rise about 100 feet from the surrounding flat. You can view the dunes from your vehicle, or, during cooler weather, you can walk into the dune field for a closer look.

If you come during cooler weather, there are many excellent hiking trails to consider. One very short trail, just 0.4 miles long, is the Harmony Borax Works, which offers a glimpse into Death Valley’s mining history. Other popular trails include Natural Bridge, a one-mile round trip hike to a natural stone bridge. And Mosaic Canyon is a moderately challenging out-and-back hike, up to 4 miles round-trip, through polished marble narrows. The NPS maintains an excellent webpage that offers information about hiking in the park.

Several high points around the valley allow for spectacular views. Resting at an elevation of 5,475 feet, Dante’s View overlooks Badwater Basin and Death Valley and can be reached by vehicle in one hour from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

For the more adventurous, one of the most challenging hikes in the park is Telescope Peak. The hike starts from Mahogany Flat, which requires a 4-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicle to reach. The trail is 14 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet, but the reward includes spectacular views of the region from the summit of Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet.

For those with 4WD vehicles, the Racetrack is a rough 3.5-hour drive from Furnace Creek. The attraction here is the mysterious moving rocks, which leave trails in the hardened mud of the playa. The source of this movement remained a mystery until 2014, when scientists witnessed the mechanism. During winter, a small lake forms in the playa basin. When temperatures drop, the surface of the lake freezes and encases the rocks in floating ice sheets. When temperatures rise, these ice sheets break up into smaller pieces and are blown by the wind, which pushes the rocks through the mud. Because of the sensitive nature of this site, it’s vital to preserve the area for future visitors. Only walk across the playa when it is dry to avoid leaving muddy footprints that disrupt the visual and impede the rocks’ movements.

 

Sunrise, Sunset, & Stargazing

Because of the many scenic views, dramatic mountains, and wide horizons, Death Valley is a popular place for viewing and photographing sunrises and sunsets. Many of the locations mentioned above offer great views at these times. When selecting a place to watch the sunrise, look for vantage points with views to the east. These include Dante’s View, Zabriskie Point, and Mesquite Sand Dunes. For sunsets, look for views to the west, including Badwater Basin, Father Crowley Vista Point, and the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

Stargazing and night photography is also popular at Death Valley, given the park is an International Dark Sky Park with very low levels of light pollution. Most of the above locations offer great vantage points for stargazing; all you have to do is find a safe place to stop and look up!

Lunar Star Show