If the mere thought of visiting the hottest place on earth in summer freaks you out, think again. There are some great reasons to visit Death Valley in July or August. For one thing, there is the dearth of crowds. Unlike in winter, there are virtually no people anywhere. The few visitors you do encounter are most likely intrepid Europeans who have come to indulge in the desert at its most extreme. Also, unlike winter, days are significantly longer, allowing you to see and experience more of this massive and sprawling national park.
Sure, it may be hot enough to fry a lizard and the flies literally die from the heat, but come on, how often do you get to experience something as unique as this?
You’ll notice right away that the campsites are almost entirely empty except for a few air-conditioned RVs. But you don’t have to camp if that’s not your thing. There are a couple of nice resort hotels to be found in Furnace Creek, at the very epicenter of the park. With welcoming gardens, shaded palm groves, swimming pools, nice dining, and of course, air conditioning, these resorts are literal oases in the heart of Death Valley.
Death Valley was once a massive lake thousands of years ago, populated by the ancestors of the Shoshone who lived off the abundance of fish and game in the region. As the climate progressively became drier, the lake eventually disappeared. The unique geography of the surrounding mountains and the prevailing wind patterns have turned it into the hottest places on earth. Even so, the tribes have persevered. Today, descendants of these original inhabitants still live in and around the Death Valley region.
Here are top things to see and do during your Death Valley visit:
- Visit Badwater. It’s the lowest geographical point in the western hemisphere and considered to be the hottest place on earth. A record-setting air temperature of 56.7C (134.1F) was recorded here in July 1913. (Temperatures on the ground can get even hotter, but let’s not talk about that)
- Watch the sun set over Zabriskie Point. This famous and scenic point is a visitor’s favorite, and it’s even more special watching the sun go down beyond the jagged point on the summer solstice. (I fully expected to see a few Instagram-stars pose in various yoga positions as the sun disappeared, but much to my surprise, there were known to be found.)
- Take a tour of Artist’s Drive at dusk. If you want to experience breath-taking colors and shapes, take a tour of this 14 km (9 miles) one-way road that winds its way through some of the most amazing rock formations and canyons. Whoa, what a sight!
- Rainbow Canyon. Also known as Star Wars Canyon, this place lets you come face to face with jet fighters as they practice maneuvering through tight and narrow canyons at extreme speeds. Fighter pilots from all over the world come here to hone their skills and you’ll never get as close to a flying fighter as this. Check out this insane photo of an F35 screaming past photographers! You don’t have to be an avid plane spotter to appreciate this one. (The risk is real – just a few days after I visited, an unfortunate US Navy pilot died in a tragic crash in this very canyon.)
- Visit Scotty’s Castle. This beautiful desert mansion was built in the 1920s in the Spanish colonial revival style so popular in those days in southern California. It was developed as a vacation home for an ultra-wealthy investor. Today, over 100,000 people per year tour the building, mostly in winter. (Yet another reason you should come in summer!)
- Hike the badlands early in the morning. Want to find solace, a physical challenge, or both? Hike the badlands early in the morning before the temperatures climb. Several hiking trails take you through various canyons, gullies and over ridges through some beautiful rock formations. This is also a great challenge for fitness enthusiasts – I went for a pre-sunrise run here and found myself in complete isolation. (Don’t be stupid though, it’s easy to get lost among the many canyons and once the sun comes up, the temperatures rise extremely fast. Be careful with this one – numerous visitors have gotten lost and died in the badlands.)
- Go golfing. Yes, there is golfing in the middle of Death Valley. Fed by underground spring water, the resorts at Furnace Creek feature some of the most unique golfing grounds in America.
- Walk the dunes. The sand dunes of Death Valley invoke giant waves of sand. Rising at places up to 35 meters (115 ft), you can climb to the top, tumble back down, and enjoy the magnificent ripple patterns that the wind leaves on the peaks. (Get ready to deal with massive amounts of sand in every pocket and every orifice afterward though).
- Ssssstarrrgazing!!! This is absolutely one of the most amazing stargazing places in California. Because Death Valley is so remote from any cities, there is no light pollution. And the lack of clouds also means that you’ll have stunning views of the Milky Way in all of its magnificence. Try satellite spotting – you’ll likely see tons of them whizzing overhead.
- Meet people. There are not many people here in summer. But of the ones who are here, 50% are visitors from Europe. And the other 50% also seem to be Europeans. Come meet some fun and adventurous folks from interesting places!
- Brag! Yes, after visiting Death Valley in the extreme of summer, you have definitely earned bragging rights. So crow about it to all of your friends and family!
I hope I convinced you that there is plenty to see and do. So be more like the Europeans and check out Death Valley in summer.