You can see the heat of Death Valley before you feel it. The world takes on a sandy tint upon entering this basin of natural extremities as the glare of the sun illuminates distant sandy hills into blinding, blurry mounds. Death Valley’s 5,270 square miles straddle Eastern California and Nevada. This national park doesn’t dress things up with abundant greenery or sparkling streams. It is rock and dust and desolation. It is home to the lowest and the hottest places in the country. Despite the physical challenges of facing these superlatives, this place begs to be explored by foot.
Death Valley’s temperatures soar well into the triple digits in the summer months, which makes hiking potentially dangerous in the heat of the afternoon. There is very little shade, and resources are sparse. But with ample precaution and proper timing, hiking Death Valley can fill you with awe for the intense contrasts and unforgiving elements brought together by Mother Nature. She shows her true colors here, without much consideration for your comfort.
So pack extra water, the strongest sunscreen, a park map, and even more water. Hiking Death Valley will leave you loving this place, even if it doesn’t love you back.
1. Mosaic Canyon
Rushing water carved out this smooth canyon millions of years ago. Now the marble walls are polished and cool to the touch, providing rare moments of shade along a four-mile, round-trip hike.
Mosaic Canyon is accessed via a gravel road about a quarter of a mile west of Stovepipe Wells. It’s only a two-mile drive from the main road to the start of the hike, but the narrow lane of potholes makes it slow moving. Be kind to your tires and take it slow.
The hike is leisurely and flat, encouraging you to appreciate the multitude of colorful stripes and mosaic patterns that run along both sides of the path. Certain sections open up so you can imagine a time when a wide, powerful river ran through. Other sections are just narrow enough for one person to press themselves against the gloriously chilly rock walls.
A steep, dry waterfall marks the end of the hike for most. But if you’re willing to pull yourself up the slippery rockslide, you can continue on for another one to two miles, scrambling across rock piles and squeezing through crevices. The long history of water erosion makes these scrambles extremely slick, so it’s not advisable to tackle alone. A twisted ankle could leave you stranded, and although the evidence of rushing water is everywhere, there is none to be found if you find yourself injured and trapped today. Know your limits, and watch your footing.
2. Telescope Peak
This walk in the park is no walk in the park. Telescope Peak is the tallest point in Death Valley, and the hike is a challenging 14-miles round-trip. While the incline and elevation gain will punish your calves and strain your lungs, the cool temperatures you’ll discover as you climb toward the sky are welcomed relief from the desert floor. Patches of snow can be found toward the peak, even in the summer, which reaches 11,049 feet above the park’s lowest point.
While the thought of snow might make you ecstatic while you’re melting in the heat of the park’s ground level, be aware that a drastic shift in climate brings additional risks. You might find yourself sweating at the start of the hike, and becoming chilled toward the middle. That combination of moisture plus much cooler temperatures can be dangerous, so wear moisture wicking layers and pack extra dry options. You don’t want to find yourself with a sweat soaked shirt when the temperatures drop.
At the summit, you’ll be rewarded with a view of Death Valley’s incredible diversity. The park might seem largely monochromatic when you’re walking through it, unable to differentiate one greyish rock formation or sandy yellow field from the next, but from above, those colors and topographic details come to life. Mount Whitney pokes through the clouds in the distant Sierra Nevada range, bringing together views of both the lowest (Badwater Basin) and highest (Mount Whitney) points of the country, together in one frame.
Since you won’t spend much time at sea level on this hike, you don’t have to complete it at the crack of dawn to avoid the heat—although earlier is advisable, to get down before sunset.
3. Wildrose Peak
The second highest peak in the park is perfect for those looking for a challenge but don’t have time to commit a whole day to a 14-mile hike. You’ll find similar views from the top of Wildrose, with the addition of being able to view both the lowest (Badwater Basin) and the highest (Telescope Peak) points in the park.
The trail to summit Wildrose Peak begins at the Charcoal Kilns. You can walk into these massive, beehive shaped structures and still smell the charcoal that was once produced here. The trail entrance is just behind the first kiln.
Wildrose lures you in with a gentle, flat walk at the start. You might question whether you’re actually climbing a mountain, or simply circling the base of it. But not to worry—about two miles in, the trail gets real, with sharp switchbacks that keep you sweating even as the temperatures drop. Wildrose is shorter than Telescope, at 9,064 feet, but the condensed incline makes it comparable in difficulty. Similar precautions should be taken on this hike, with layers to protect against the change in temperature as your climb.
Wildrose is an excellent option for escaping the summer heat of the park.
4. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
The soft edges of rolling sand dunes are where the wind and earth play. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes stand out from a distance, the light island of silt surrounded by darker hills. The formation of dunes that have been pulled and pushed is a stunning visual representation of impermanence. Footprints that mark your path as you sink along a smooth ridge will disappear quickly when a sudden gust whistles across the sand, leaving only an echo of your momentary passing.
The dunes are regularly dotted with groups of hikers. But it’s easy to find solitary moments with so many dips and rises to hide the crowds. There is no trail—just pick a direction, or a distant dune, and start walking. Distance is deceiving here, and hikers should be careful not wander too far. The energy needed to walk through sand can quickly suck you dry.
Early mornings or evenings are best for this hike, as the scorching sand and sun are relentless throughout the afternoon. Bring plenty of water, no matter what time and how you plan to go.
5. Artist’s Drive
OK, it’s more a drive more a hike. Artist’s Drive is a nine-mile, one-way road, about halfway between Furnace Creek and Badwater Basin. But the striking visuals of Artist’s Drive require close-up inspection. Being in the car offers respite from physical exhaustion, but there are opportunities to leave the vehicle to get up close and personal with the substance of this park.
Bands of rust red, burnt orange, and soft yellows streak across the barren hills of Artist’s Drive. It’s the oxidation of various metals that bring out the colors in this section of the Black Mountains, but let’s give Mother Nature some credit here; she knows how to paint a perfect scene. The contrast between the stark earth and the endless blue sky makes it look like a painting you might be able to touch from the top of a distant hill.
Since you won’t want to wander far from your car, a short hike around the colorful hills is doable in the afternoon, when the sun is at its highest. However, the lighting is best for photographing this stunning palette in the late afternoon and early evening.
Britany Robinson is a travel and culture writer. She resides in Portland, Oregon but her home is the world.