Death Valley Artists Palette Overlook

Enjoy Death Valley without the heat

California mountains, desert, history and pupfish

I think most people would like to step outside for one minute to experience the shock of 128 degrees. But would you plan a vacation to achieve that?

We did not. So instead, my wife and I explored Death Valley National Park in mid-March and enjoyed highs of 75 degrees and early morning lows of 50. The park surprises on many levels, delivering the harsh landscape implied by the park’s name but also flaunting a dazzling array of textures, colors and vistas. And with sites called The Devil’s Cornfield and The Devil’s Golf Course, the park will surely play with your imagination.

Surprisingly, the extreme summer heat attracts a lot of tourists who want to check off the experience from their bucket lists. I understand the appeal. Consider this true story: rangers bake cookies inside their sweltering vehicles, on what is known as “Dashboard Cookie Day.” But interesting sidebars like that can distract visitors from heeding the number one threat in Death Valley: dehydration, which can occur rapidly and disastrously. You should enjoy the park using a sense of foreboding caution.

Death Valley hikes and overlooks

This park includes good hiking for the active park goer and impressive overlooks for the more passive visitor.

First, the overlooks. Walk the short distance to Zabriskie Point in the morning while the sun glances off Golden Canyon and the Panamint Range – one of my favorite scenic spots. Artists Palette features incredible color in this arid land, along a nine-mile paved drive – great photo ops in the afternoon sunlight. And you can park a feet away from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and absorb their beauty, or walk a couple of blocks or few miles along their crests.

Now, the hikes. Golden Canyon topped our list, with multiple loops from which to choose. If you’re a photographer, hike this trail from Zabriskie Point in the morning, or from Badwater Road in the afternoon. Mosaic Canyon is also fun, but in the morning you’ll be hiking into the sun and will barely notice the colors and scenery – start late morning or afternoon if the temps permit. And while Twenty Mule Team Canyon doesn’t offer trailheads, I highly recommend pulling off the road and simply hiking up the hills and ridges. Keep your car in sight while you peek over the hills and gullies at a variety of hidden views.

Titus Canyon should be on your list of top things to do in Death Valley.
Titus Canyon should be on your list of top things to do in Death Valley.

Scenic and challenging drives

Rent an SUV or 4×4 for Death Valley. The park features some very interesting drives on rocky and narrow roads. We drove a mid-size SUV and it barely cleared several of our excursions. The highlight? Titus Canyon. It’s a 27-mile drive with a huge payoff in the middle. We also loved the shorter drive into Twenty Mule Team Canyon, which was much smoother. And if you decide to drive the Racetrack, you’ll definitely need a four-wheel drive vehicle, advice from the visitors center and nerves of steel. But these locations are fantastic.

It's a surprise to many that Death Valley includes a few water features like shot of Darwin Falls.
It's a surprise to many that Death Valley includes a few water features, like Darwin Falls.

Yes, a waterfall

My biggest surprise? The park’s water. It’s sparse but interesting. Hiking to Darwin Falls is a bit of a novelty because you’re in a famous desert. It’s no Yosemite or Niagara falls, but we enjoyed the short trek. Hummingbirds buzzed by as they enjoyed one of the few green riparian areas inside the park. We drove to this west side destination early in the morning and gawked at the snow-covered landscape near Pinto Peak.

We also became enthralled with the pupfish that live in Death Valley. They have survived since the Ice Age – quite an accomplishment. The pupfish have adapted to live in warm waters, where other fish cannot. And its playful nature and antics led to its naming. We watched them goof off for a long time along the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail.

Mining Death Valley history
Mining played a big role in Death Valley's history.

Mining and its history

The park showcases mining history, including the excavating of lead, silver, gold, borax and iron. We visited the outdoor Borax Museum within the grounds of The Ranch resort, plus we walked the Harmony Borax Works interpretive trail. But there’s more, including mining ghost towns, the Charcoal Kilns and the tram tours of the Keane Wonder Mill and Mine site. Mining history also gives you insight into the park’s amazing rock and landscape colors created by oxidation of metals and volcanic remains.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Rufuge is a short drive from Death Valley
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Rufuge is a short drive from Death Valley.

Nearby Ash Meadows and Vegas

At nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, you can visit the stone cabin of gunslinger Jack Longstreet, a mysterious man of the Wild West. The refuge also features a series of springs with colors reminiscent of Caribbean lagoons, which attract birds and other wildlife.

We flew into Las Vegas and arrived in Death Valley after a two-hour car ride. You have several options for accommodations inside the park, including the opulent Inn at Death Valley and the more conservative choice, the Ranch at Death Valley. No matter where you stay, eating lunch or dinner at the Inn should be tops on your culinary list.

Death Valley is an amazing destination. Tie your visit into a Vegas or Grand Canyon vacation. And drink lots of fluids!