A place with little water, even less nightlife, and ground temperatures suitable for slow-roasting a chicken may not sound like a hidden gem, but that's Death Valley. At least it scares off tourists: Death Valley National Park spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman says, "You can be out there for days at a time without seeing anyone." Its otherworldly vistas include deep volcanic craters, jagged salt flats, snowcapped peaks, and Badwater Basin, a sink of cracked and calcified land 282 feet below sea level, stretching over eight miles.
And while daredevils may seek out Death Valley in the height of summer (like runners in the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race held here every July), it's best to come at the end of the year, when temperatures drop to San Francisco-esque 60s during the day, 40s at night. But don't roll into Death Valley unprepared. This is, after all, a desolate 3 million-plus acres. Here are a few ways to get started.
For hikers, the park features a variety of easy trails off Highway 190 – the central north-south thoroughfare – including one along the Mesquite Flat Dunes, an impressive array of ever-shifting sand in the valley center. Nearby Stovepipe Wells Village has campgrounds, as well as sundries and a motel. For a more difficult hike, try Telescope Peak Trail, a 3,000-foot climb high into the Panamint Range, on the park's western edge. (This time of year, best to bring along crampons, just in case.) The trailhead is at Mahogany Flat campground, which is free and not far from another of the valley's historical oddities: charcoal kilns, a collection of conical ovens used by mining companies to generate fuel more than a century ago.
To tour by car, a high-clearance vehicle is a necessity for many of the park's roads, including the one leading through Titus Canyon, a windy corridor marked with Native American petroglyphs. A two-wheeled ride also offers strange sights: Twenty miles from the Ubehebe Crater – a giant dimple left by an ancient volcano – is the Racetrack playa, an open stretch of desert where stones appear to have traveled overground on their own. Head east for Scotty's Castle, an elaborate 1920s mansion undertaken – but never finished – by an eccentric Jazz Age millionaire. Or, in the Panamints, take Skidoo Road to the abandoned mining town of Skidoo. The gravelly grind gives a good sense of the conditions prospectors had to endure.
After you've spent a day touring around, it's time to relax. Though not exactly Vegas, Death Valley does have amenities. Most of these can be found in Furnace Creek, the valley's only substantial town and home to the upscale Inn at Furnace Creek, a hotel originally built in 1927 by a borax-mining company. The inn offers luxury rooms and killer views, but not much to do. For more action, the Ranch at Furnace Creek, down the hill, is a better bet, with three restaurants, a big pool (open year-round, heated by natural springs to 82 degrees), a mining museum, and access to the lowest-altitude golf course on the planet. It's 18 holes, but with the way the ball carries, it feels like 36. Looking out over green grass and palm trees, you may feel, unexpectedly, that you're in one of the coolest places on Earth.