Racing a setting sun in Death Valley

Death Valley

As I was planning my trip to the USA, Death Valley was high on my list of must-see locations. However, my excitement was quickly dashed when I learned that just a day before my arrival, the park experienced a once-in-1,000-year flood due to unprecedented rains. The flooding brought a massive influx of debris that damaged and ultimately closed all roads in the park, stranding 1000 visitors. It was a shocking turn of events, especially considering Death Valley’s reputation as one of the hottest places on Earth. 

As I frantically searched online, I held out hope that the park might reopen in time for our planned visit two weeks later. However, until the very day, we were unsure if we would be able to see Death Valley as planned. I kept checking the National Park Service website for updates, and just before we set out on the road, we learned that the main road had reopened! We had to modify and adjust our plan a little, but we got to see the Valley and didn’t have to take a humongous detour to get to our hotel on the other side of the desert. Talk about incredible luck!

Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is a place of extreme beauty and rugged and barren wilderness. Located in the Mojave Desert of California and Nevada, this vast and unique park is home to the lowest point in North America, the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth (~57°C in 1913), and a diverse array of geological and biological wonders. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a nature lover, or just want to relax under starry skies surrounded by nature’s beauty; Death Valley has something to offer for everyone. 

Despite its inhospitable environment, Death Valley is a fantastic place to visit, with its breathtakingly beautiful landscape. The valley floor is covered with salt flats, sand dunes, and rugged mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see. The first thing you notice when you arrive in Death Valley is the heat. Temperatures can reach up to 50°C during the summer months. The air is dry and dusty, and the sun beats down relentlessly. We arrived at Furnace Creek around 6 in the evening, and the thermometer at Visitor Center was showing 50°C, and we could feel the heat radiating off of the sand!!! 

If you visit in the summer like us, remember to bring a sufficient amount of water in your car for emergencies and to drink at least 2-4 liters per day, especially if you will be engaging in physical activity in the heat. Hiking in the summer is best done during the early morning or in the mountains when temperatures are cooler.

Once you arrive in Death Valley, there are plenty of things to see and do. 

Natural phenomena

Dust Devils

As we approached Death Valley, we were treated to the sight of a dust devil – a swirling column of air that is commonly found in dry, desert regions. These phenomena are formed when hot air near the ground rises rapidly through a cooler layer of air above it, creating a rotating vortex that can lift dust, sand, and small debris from the ground.

Although dust devils are generally not dangerous, it’s always a good idea to observe them from a safe distance. These spinning columns of air can be an impressive and fascinating sight to behold, and they offer a unique glimpse into the forces of nature at work in the desert.

Wildflower bloom

One of the most notable events in the park is the annual wildflower bloom, which typically occurs in the spring when temperatures begin to rise, and the winter rains have provided the necessary moisture for plants to grow. During the bloom, the desert comes alive with a dazzling array of colorful flowers, including desert gold, sand verbena, and desert five-spot.

The best time to see the wildflowers in Death Valley depends on the weather conditions from year to year, as the timing and intensity of the bloom can vary. It’s always a good idea to check with a park ranger or visit the park’s website for the most up-to-date information on the wildflower bloom.


Zabriskie Point

We arrived from Las Vegas, and Zabriskie Point was the first must-see attraction on our route. As we approached the viewpoint, the landscape began to change. The flat, featureless desert gave way to a jumbled, chaotic mess of rock and sediment stretching out in every direction. It was easy to see why this place was such a popular attraction – the views were simply breathtaking. 

To our left, we could see Furnace Creek and the Golden Canyon, their layers of rock and sediment exposed by the forces of nature. To the right, the landscape seemed to go on forever, with the jagged peaks of the mountains rising up in the distance.

Furnace Creek 

Furnace Creek was our next stop. We passed by a small Oasis full of palms and arrived at the Visitor Center. We hoped to get a stamp to add to our collection, but the center was closed due to recent flooding. 

We took a picture with a thermometer showing a crazy high temperature and started to race with the setting sun to see as much as possible. 

Badwater Basin

At 86 meters below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. As we stood at the edge of Badwater Basin, we saw a vast expanse of salt flats shimmering in the hot desert sun, stretching for miles, with the Panamint Mountains in the distance. 

The basin is a geological wonder, formed over millions of years as water from nearby mountains flowed down into the valley, leaving behind layers of salt and minerals. As we were there right after the flood, the salt formed interesting shapes, different from what you usually see in pictures from this place. 

Devil’s Golf Course

Devil’s Golf Course lies next to Badwater Basin. This bizarre and otherworldly landscape is made up of jagged salt formations shaped by wind and rain. The salt is so rough that it’s been said that only the devil could play golf on it.

Artist’s Palette

The Artists Palette is an impressive display of colorful rocks that range in hue from red and pink to orange, purple, yellow, green, and magenta nestled into a mountainous landscape. The colors depend on a variety of oxidized metals.

As we drove down the Artist’s Palette Scenic Drive, we couldn’t help but stop at each overlooks to take in the views. The landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen before – a riot of color and texture that seemed to change with every twist and turn of the road. The colors in the rays of the setting sun were simply stunning – vibrant greens, deep purples, and bright reds seemed to swirl and dance before my eyes. 

The evening and golden hour are the optimal times to visit Artists Palette. The setting sun illuminates the landscape during this time, creating beautiful light and shadow play along the drive. In contrast, visiting during sunrise or the early morning is not ideal, as the direct lighting can wash out the colors, and the sun rising behind the mountain leaves the scenery in shadow. 

Artists Palette is located off of a one-way loop road. If you miss the turn, you’ll have to ride all the way back.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

On our way out of Death Valley, using the last rays of light, we managed to see the last view – Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The warm glow of the setting sun was casting long shadows across the dunes that stretched for miles in every direction. Their soft, rippling surfaces starkly contrasted with the rugged, rocky terrain surrounding them.

Dante’s View

Dante’s View is located at an elevation of 1669 meters; Dante’s View offers breathtaking views of the park and the surrounding desert. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Unfortunately, we could not access Dante’s View due to a closed road. However, based on the pictures we saw online, the views looked terrific.

The Racetrack

The Racetrack Playa is a unique and mysterious place known for its “sailing stones” – large rocks that seem to move across the flat, dry lake bed, leaving long trails in the mud behind. 

Located in a remote area of the park, the Racetrack is only accessible by a dirt road and requires a high-clearance vehicle to reach. Standard rental cars are not recommended as they often get flat tires. Use extreme caution on this road in the summer heat. There is no cell phone coverage in the area, and the road is 27 miles long. 

The exact mechanism by which the sailing stones move is still not fully understood, but it is thought to be the result of a combination of factors, including wind, water, and ice. The playa is covered in a thin layer of water during the winter months, and when the water freezes, it creates a thin sheet of ice that the wind can push. As the ice thaws, it leaves the rocks behind, moving them slowly across the surface.



Star gazing

Death Valley National Park is an ideal location for stargazing due to its incredibly dark nights, which have earned the park the highest Gold Tier rating from the International Dark-Sky Association. This makes it possible to see celestial objects that can’t be viewed from anywhere else on Earth.

The sun was setting way too fast, and we still had several hours of driving ahead of us, and night eventually engulfed us with total darkness. After a while, we stopped the car in the middle of nowhere, stepped out, and looked up.

I had never seen anything quite like this. The sky was ablaze with stars, each twinkling brightly against the inky blackness. The Milky Way stretched overhead in a hazy, glowing band. It was as if the entire sky was alive, a pulsing, shimmering tapestry of light. Truly, a sight to behold.

Unfortunately, the picture I took does not fully capture the breathtaking beauty of the sky. I didn’t have any time to prepare and wasn’t expecting to take astrophotos. I am still pleasantly surprised that one of the shots turned out relatively clear. To be honest, the true magnificence of the sky that night can only truly be experienced in person.

More about star gazing, ranger programs, and night photography opportunities on the official website.

Hiking trails

In addition to these attractions, there are numerous hiking trails. Some of the best hikes include:

  •  The Mosaic Canyon Trail taking hikers through a narrow canyon filled with polished rock formations.
  • The Golden Canyon Trail taking hikers through a beautiful canyon filled with colorful rock formations, winding washes, and towering cliffs.
  • Marble Canyon Petroglyphs Trail – hikers, can see some petroglyphs left behind by Native Americans.


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