Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Sights To See

There is a lot to do and see in Death Valley National Park—just make sure you have access to a car because you will want to cover a lot of ground! The park's long list of attractions includes mysterious sliding rocks, a massive blast crater, ghost towns, remnants of gold and borax mines and other natural and historical points of interest. Nature lovers can savor stunning wildflower displays, see fascinating wildlife and observe unusual desert ecosystems. Geology buffs can tromp through glistening sand dunes, brightly-colored badlands and eerie salt deposits. For history lovers, there are old charcoal kilns, a living history tour at Scotty's Castle, and interpretive exhibits about Death Valley's rough and tumble past. In the largest park in the contiguous United States, there is truly something for everybody.

Furnace Creek Area

View aprons of pink, green, purple, brown and black rock at Artist's Drive, a visual feast and a geologic tour of one of Death Valley's most explosive volcanic periods. Artist's Drive is a dipping, diving, curving, one-way road that weaves through striking ravines and colorful rock formations. The highlight of the nine-mile loop occurs at the Artist's Palette where sea green, lemon yellow, periwinkle blue and salmon pink mineral deposits are splashed across the barren background like brilliant dabs of paint from a giant's brush. The effect is most intense during the evening as the colors change rapidly with the setting sun. Artist's Drive is off of the Badwater Road, 10 miles south of the visitor center.

With the Black Mountains in the background, visitors can stroll through a shimmering expanse of nearly pure white table salt in Badwater Basin; at 282 feet below sea level, it is the lowest point in North America. Two to four thousand-years ago the basin was the site of a 30-foot lake that evaporated and left a one- to five-foot layer of salt in its wake. A briny pond, four times saltier than the ocean, still remains in the basin during the winter—but during the hot summer months, it shrinks to little more than a puddle. Visitors are asked to stay on the boardwalk (and away from the pool's edge) because the edge is home to tiny Badwater snails, a species that lives under the salt crust and feeds on algae that are often crushed by unknowing waders. Badwater basin is located 18 miles south of the visitor center.

Dante's View, a popular unworldly lookout point offers a striking example of the distinctive basin and range topography that extends from Eastern California to central Utah. The steep, elongated mountain ranges alternate with flat, dry, desert valleys—the result of an intense stretching of the crust that has resulted in a series of north-south faults. These faults separate the basins from the ranges. Dante's View is more than 5,000 feet above the valley floor; at this high altitude in the dry desert air you can see across most of 110-mile-long Death Valley. With a short hike north to Dante's Peaks, the views up and down offer an unparalleled vantage point, as you can spot the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. The white salt flats far below is Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level. Dante's View is certainly one of the most extraordinary sights anywhere in California. It is located on Dante's View Road off Route 190, 26 miles south of Furnace Creek.

The floor of Death Valley is a vast evaporating dish covering more than 200 square miles. It is crusted over with a variety of salts, and nowhere is this more apparent than at Devil's Golf Course. Here, gnarled crystalline salt spires dot the landscape and look like coral reef run amuck. The lumpy salt pinnacles are the residue of Death Valley's last significant lake, which evaporated 2,000 years ago. Though there is no official hiking trail, visitors can tromp through this strange and rugged terrain for a closer look at the spectacular formations. As you do, however, be careful not to hurt yourself on the jagged structures and make sure not to damage the crystals. During the summer, listen for tiny pops and pings as billions of the salt crystals contract and expand due to fluctuations in temperature. Devil's Golf Course is located 15 miles south of the visitor center. Note: The road leading to Devil's Golf Course is often closed after rain. 

Wander between the rusting remains of buildings, machinery, tanks, and piping at Harmony Borax Works, a mining operation that dates back more than 120 years. After borax was found in 1881, William Tell Coleman built the Harmony plant and began to process ore in late 1883 or early 1884. When in full operation, the Harmony Borax Works employed 40 men who produced three tons of borax daily. Learn how early miners used those famed 20-mule teams to haul borax 165 miles to the railroad town of Mojave. The teams averaged two miles an hour and required about 30 days to complete a round trip. The Harmony plant went out of operation in 1888, after only five years of production, when Coleman's financial empire collapsed. The Harmony Borax Works is located just off Highway 190, one mile north of the visitor center. The Borax Museum is located at the Furnace Creek Ranch, two miles south of Harmony Borax Works.

Peer from one of the park's most popular lookouts at Zabriskie Point, for an unforgettable view of Death Valley's wildly eroded and vibrantly colored badlands. A short uphill hike from the parking area is all that's required to enjoy a panoramic view of golden-brown mudstone hills riddled with rills and gullies from the occasional, but intense, times when water rushes down these bone-dry slopes. The desolate, unearthly landscape surrounding Zabriskie Point is ideal for viewing sunrises and sunsets, so bring your camera! Zabriskie Point is located five miles south of Furnace Creek. 

Stovepipe Wells Area

Don't leave Death Valley until you have played and explored at Mesquite Flat Dunes! Tucked away in the north end of the park, these 150-foot dunes are nearly surrounded by mountains on all sides. The primary source of the sands is the Cottonwood Mountains, which lie to the north and northwest. The tiny grains of quartz and feldspar that make up the dune field began as much larger pieces of solid rock, but through erosion, became sand-sized. The dunes can be explored on foot. Like many of Death Valley's geologic highlights, the colors and contours of the Mesquite Flats Dunes are especially spectacular at sunset. The most popular place to access the sand dunes is about two miles east of Stovepipe Wells Village—23 miles northwest of the visitor center—on Highway 190. Mosaic Canyon, which is located just west of Stovepipe Wells is considered to be a geologic wonder, and is a moderate one to four mile hike.

Panamint Springs Area

Marvel at beehive-shaped kilns, at Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, erected by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company in 1877. The well-preserved kilns—each standing about 25 feet high with a diameter of approximately 30 feet across—were used to convert pinyon and juniper logs to charcoal for two silver mines located 25 miles away in the Argus Range. Each kiln held 42 cords of pinyon pine logs and, after burning for a week, would produce 2,000 bushels of charcoal. The Wildrose kilns are considered to be the best surviving examples of charcoal kilns found in the western states. They owe their longevity both to fine workmanship and to the fact that they were used for such a short time. The kilns can be reached via Wildrose Canyon Road and are four miles east of the intersection with Emigrant Canyon Road. 

Scotty's Castle Area

Take a tour of Scotty's Castle, a remarkable and exotic edifice that rises from the dust like a desert mirage. The castle takes its name from Walter Scott, better known as "Death Valley Scotty," an ex-cowboy, prospector, and performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Chicago millionaire Albert Johnson, who had been urged by his doctors to spend time in a warm, dry climate, was convinced by Mrs. Johnson to build the mansion. At the time, though, Scotty told visitors he financed the building himself with booty from a secret gold mine in Death Valley. Scotty's Castle is a great place to escape the heat and learn more about the strange and colorful history of Death Valley's only mansion; living history tours of the Castle ($11 for adults and $6 for children) run throughout the day. Be advised there are often lines. Scotty's Castle is located on Scotty's Castle Road in the northern part of the park. For more information, call (760) 786-2392.

Racetrack Playa

The mysterious sliding rocks of the famed Racetrack Playa are a sight. This dried lake bed, which is nestled between the Cottonwood Mountains to the east and the Last Chance Range to the west, contains boulders that have puzzled geologists for decades. Furrows in the mud indicate that these boulders—some of them weighing up to 700 pounds—have wiggled, jiggled, slipped and slid their way across the perfectly flat bed in what is truly one of the strangest rock dances of all time. 

Long-term studies of the moving rocks show that most move in a southwest to northeast direction. However, scientists have found some treading north to south and west, carving zigzag paths along the playa and even making complete circles. 

How do they do it? Most researchers believe that wind plays a role. Some geologists maintain that rain transforms the dry, coarse lake bed into a slippery mud strip that allows the wind to push the boulders; others believe snow or ice is the lubricating agent. No one really knows why or how they move. And, despite decades of research, not a soul has actually seen these rocks move. Look carefully and perhaps you'll be the first! The Racetrack Playa is located 28 miles southwest of Ubehebe Crater on a rough, unpaved road. High-clearance vehicles are recommended. Ask about current road conditions before attempting this drive.

Ubehebe Crater

Hike to the heart of Ubehebe Crater, a 770-foot steam-explosion crater and imagine the instant when water suddenly flashed to steam—shattering the rock above and ejecting a cloud of debris at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour! This 3,000-year-old crater will strike awe into those who clamor down its slopes. But, bring plenty of water along with you because the climb out is grueling. Ubehebe Crater is located eight miles west of Scotty's Castle.

Ghost Towns

No trip to Death Valley would be complete without visiting one of the area's many ghost towns! The conditions of the towns' ruins vary, but all serve as reminders of Death Valley's rough and tumble mining history. Remember that every piece of rusting machinery and bit of wood represents a part of the past. Please do not remove, burn or disturb any of the remains. 

Ballarat, a gold mine camp, was home to 400 people in 1898. Today, it is privately owned and the site of several adobe dwellings. Located off Panamint Valley Road, west of Death Valley. 

All that remains of Leadfield are the skeletons of wood and tin buildings, a dugout and cement foundations of the mill. Despite a brief influx of people in 1926, the town failed in 1927. This former lead mine is located on Titus Canyon Road (high-clearance vehi- cles recommended). 

Called the "toughest, rawest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for civilized," Panamint City boomed in 1874 with a population of 2,000 people. In 1876, a flash flood destroyed much of the town, leaving little more than the chimney from the mine's smelter. The town is accessible via a five-mile hike from Chris Wicht's Camp, located six miles northeast of the ghost town of Ballarat. 

The largest ghost town in Death Valley, Rhyolite boasted a population of nearly 10,000 people during its peak between 1905—1911. At its height, the town contained two churches, 50 saloons, 18 stores, two undertakers, 19 lodging houses, eight doctors, two dentists, a stock exchange and an opera. Many ruins remain today, including the Bottle House, the train depot, the remains of a three-story bank building and the jail. Rhyolite is located four miles west of Beatty on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, 35 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.