5 Unique Runs in Death Valley National Park

death valley
Photo: Erin McGrady

Hot. Dry. Desolate. Intense. These are just a few of the words people use to describe Death Valley National Park. It’s a unique place to visit, not to mention run.

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Come prepared, bring plenty of water, respect the desert, and run your heart out. There are some incredible adventures just waiting to be had in this wonderland.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Two miles east of the Stovepipe Wells Campground you’ll find 14 square miles of sand dunes to explore. It’s unique in that there isn’t a trail to follow—You have the freedom to find your own line and run where you please, logging as many miles as you desire.

The sand is super fine; dense and firm in some spots and loose and soft in others. The tallest dune in the area is about a mile from the parking lot, and the view is worth the climb.

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Golden Canyon Trail

On this trail, it’s about 1.5 miles to Red Cathedral which is aptly named—the rock is red and with a little bit of imagination, does indeed resemble a cathedral. The trail is on a slight rise, but if you choose to go out and back, it makes the return an easy glide to your vehicle.

Although popular with day hikers, the trail is wide in most spots which makes passing easy. It’s also not too technical; there are, however, a few rock scrambles, which are easy enough that some runners might not have to slow down at all. If you’re looking to log more than 3 miles, tack on some additional miles by heading east towards Zabriskie Point which is one of the most picturesque places in the park.

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Artists Drive

Artists Drive is a one-way road a few miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The main attraction along this drive is Artists Palette, a popular spot with tourists and a great halfway point for someone to meet you with support (water, food, a ride, etc.)

We recommend running against traffic and staying on the moderately hard-packed gravel that is the shoulder. You’ll climb, dip, turn and weave your way through some really scenic parts of the park. Along the way, the rock will rise around you and you’ll be surrounded by the most incredible greens, pinks, golds, and browns.

Badwater Basin

If you continue south past Artists Drive, you’ll eventually reach Badwater Basin. Welcome to the lowest point in North America. Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level and guess what, you can run on it.

From the parking lot, trot on out along the short walkway and find your footing along the uneven salt flats. It’s one of the most unique places to get in a run. It also serves as the starting location for what is considered by many to be the toughest race on the planet, the Badwater 135 ultramarathon.

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Dante’s View

If you’ve had an incredible day of running but want to tack on a bit more and be in a great spot for sunset, head on up to Dante’s View. You can park at the first overflow/trailer parking lot along Dante’s View road that’s about 5.6 miles from the peak and run up. Or you can park at the second small parking lot that has a pit toilet, which is about 0.6 miles from the top.

If your legs are shot, continue driving to the top and then run the .25 mile dirt trail to the peak. The drop-off is steep and it’s often very windy up there so hold on to your hat and watch your footing. We promise it’s worth the effort.

What To Know Before You Go

Carry more water than you think you’ll need. You can find water at the Stovepipe Wells Campground, the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Panamint Springs and the Wildrose Campground.

Make sure your vehicle is in good working order. A breakdown in the desert can be deadly if you are unprepared. Though the main roads in the park are paved, there are several that are unpaved and some that require high clearance and four wheel drive. Make sure you have the right vehicle and driving skills to enter these places.

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Cell service is spotty. Don’t rely on your phone as your primary source of navigation. Be sure to carry a detailed map and the proper navigational tools. The free park map that you get upon paying the entrance fee is not detailed enough for most adventures in the backcountry.

Protect yourself from the sun. A hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and lightly-colored, moisture-wicking clothing is recommended.

Gaiters aren’t a bad idea, too. They’ll keep the grit out of your shoes. We would have worn them but our zippers got locked up from a previous run.

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