How to Spend Two Days in Death Valley National Park

From sand dunes to salt flats, beautiful rock formations to epic hiking trails, this park is a must-see.

Photo by Carter Baran
Published on

Death Valley National Park, located in the desert of California near the border of Nevada, is one of the hottest places on the planet. The hottest temperature recorded there was on July 10, 1913, at a raging 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, you don’t want to visit this park in the summer. During the winter however, the temperatures can drop down to five degrees Fahrenheit in certain parts of the national park. Despite the dangerous conditions, when explored safely and correctly, this desert can be a meditative place to be. From sand dunes to salt flats, beautiful rock formations to epic hiking trails, this park is a must-see. Here is how I spent two days exploring the park.

A view of rolling hills in Death Valley
Photo by Drahomir Posteby-Mach

Day 1

First, make a pit stop at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to get a map of the park, stickers, firewood, snacks, and more. Get everything you need to have an amazing first day in the park!

Next, hit up Badwater Basin. You will feel like you left the planet. This is a very large salt flat that is known to be the lowest elevation in North America, sitting at -282 feet below sea level. There is a short path that is about a quarter of a mile long. Follow this path to see salt polygons. Look around, enjoy the vastness, and be humbled by how big the world is and how small you are! It is truly an inspiring and quiet place.

Stop by Devils Golf Course—once you get there you will understand the name! Essentially, the “golf course” is so difficult and unfair that only the devil could play it. What you will see is a vast area of rock salt in jagged (and very sharp) formations. If it is quiet enough, you can hear tiny “bongs” that are salt crystals exploding from the heat.

The unusual rock formations of Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley
Photo by Christian Garcia

After that, hike Golden Canyon, a maze of golden rock formations that will take you through narrow canyons. There are many routes, ranging from easy to difficult hikes. If you pair trails together, you can hike a 4.5-mile loop that will give you a great view of the Golden Canyon.

If you are still in the mood for hiking, hike up to Zabriskie Point. Definitely hike the Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point. This hike is in the Golden Canyon and connects to places like Gower Gulch and the Red Cathedral. The Red Cathedral is a must-see in Death Valley. When I first saw the entire formation, my jaw dropped. Sit here for a quick snack break and enjoy the view. If you aren’t up for the entire hike, you can drive right up to Zabriskie Point and enjoy the panoramic views.

Lastly, drive the Artists Tour right before sunset to see beautiful rock formations that are so colorful they almost appear to be painted. It is a nine-mile drive that takes around 45 minutes and is only open to vehicles less than 25 feet in length—beware of the narrow canyon and tight turns. Through the canyon you will arrive at the Artists Palette viewpoint where you will see the most photogenic section of the canyon. Go during California’s golden hour (the afternoon light) to best enjoy this scenic drive.

The vibrant colors and rolling hills of the striking Artists Palette viewpoint
Photo by Carter Baran

Finally, find your campsite, pitch your tent, eat some yummy food, and call it a night. Listen for the coyote yips! When I camped there, in the middle of the night I heard a coyote yip and saw it about 200 feet from my tent. The next morning, we saw three or four run down from a hill and further into the park, so make sure to properly hide your food.

We camped at Furnace Creek Campground, which is just across the street from many stores and an inn. It wasn’t my favorite campground, but the central location was great for accessing a lot of the park. We were lucky and had some really fun neighbors that night. Those stories are for a different time and place!

Day Two

Good morning, sunshine! I hope you had some great morning oatmeal (with a lot of peanut butter and banana). First things first, go play in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Prepare to get sandy! These dunes are a short drive from Furnace Creek and so much fun. There are three types of dunes: the star-shaped, linear, and crescent dunes—all are fun to roll down. Make sure to bring supplies, regardless of how long you expect to be there. Walking in sand dunes is tiring and harder than some think, so bring an extra water bottle, a hat, and some sunscreen. We were planning on hiking up to the furthest peak and back, which is about a mile-long trip. It took us a lot longer than imagined and my quads and calves were very sore the next day!

If you make it to the highest dune, sit on top, enjoy the view, and drink more water.

Sand dunes in Death Valley with two hikers strolling across
Photo by Yuval Levy

Next, hit up Dante’s View. Does it seem familiar to you? That is because it was used in a scene in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Crazy. Sitting at 5,475 feet, this is one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the park. Hope you’re not afraid of heights. From the peak you will see Badwater Basin at -282 feet. To the far western horizon is the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just barely visible from the peak.

After lunch, head to Keane Wonder Mine for some history. In the early 1900s, this was the most successful gold mine in Death Valley and now acts as a historical gold-mining operation. There is a well-preserved tramway with the cables still attached and cared for. The mile-long tramway traveled almost a thousand feet down. By 1912, the mine was mostly empty and shut down. However, almost one million dollars in gold was found at this site.

Lastly, drive through Twenty Mule Team Canyon, where more Star Wars scenes were filmed. Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi was filmed here. Specifically, Jabba the Hutt’s palace was located here. Check the road conditions before you drive this 2.5-mile, one-way road and get ready to see some colorful rock formations and vast badlands.

Did I miss your favorite part of Death Valley National Park? Hit me up through my profile and let’s chat about it.

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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