Whether you have only one day, a week or 10 days to explore all that the magnificent Death Valley National Park has to offer, an absolutely must do is a drive on the very popular and very scenic Artists Drive Scenic Loop, a 9 mile, one way, narrow, paved drive, meaning that once you commit to the drive, there is no turning back!
Access to the drive is on Badwater Rd. 8.5 miles south of the Hwy 190/Badwater Rd. junction, about 10 miles south of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and 8 miles north of Badwater Basin salt flats. Be aware that the drive has a vehicle length restriction of 25 feet due to the dramatic dips, twists and sharp turns. The Artists Drive Scenic Loop exits back to Badwater Rd. about 4 miles north of the entrance.
Below is a satellite view of the area with the actual route we traveled highlighted by our dash camera, the line colors represent relative speed:
If you want a quick sense for what the drive is like, this 3 minute video will give you a rough idea:
If you visit, the timing of your drive will determine how vibrant the colors are. There are many varying opinions on this. One opinion is that sunrise and early morning is probably the worst time of day because the sun will be directly behind the mountains leaving the scenery in shadows and then as the sun rises the colors will be bleached by the lighting. Other opinions claim that the middle of the day with the sun high in the sky and near sunset are probably the best times. We drove the loop three times from early to mid afternoon and found the colors to be quite vibrant.
And even though the loop is only 9 miles, how long it takes you to complete the drive depends on how frequently you stop and how long you spend at each stop, so plan accordingly. Best to plan on at least an hour.
What we learned is that the vibrant array of colors splashed on the hillsides were created by the remnants of repeated eruptions of ancient volcanoes like Death Valley’s Ubehebe Crater (we didn’t visit) blanketing the landscape with ash and minerals. The volcanic minerals were chemically altered by heat and water and variable amounts of oxygen. The oxidation of the different metals produced the vibrant colors – the green hues are produced by chlorite (part of the mica family), the purples are produced by manganese and the fiery reds by hematite (iron).
We also learned that from January to March of 2017 the drive had to be re-engineered over a series of alluvial fans and gullies after the devastating 2015 flash floods as seen in this YouTube video. Alluvial fans occur when a fast-moving mountain stream empties out onto a relatively flat plain and all of the sediment it was carrying falls out as the water slows down. Note there were minor floods in 2021 and more serious floods in 2022 which closed Artists Drive temporarily, but as of late 2022 Artists Drive is open even though other roads in the park remain closed. See here for info about the 2022 floods and current road closure status.
Ever since we arrived in this glorious park, there hasn’t been a moment when stunning views weren’t surrounding us in every direction. Driving Artists Drive was no different. Looming ahead of us were the towering Black Mountains, eroded over time by the power of water, painted in varying shades of brown, rust, tan, yellow, green, pink and purple towering over the flat, rocky terrain on either side of us as we started the drive.
Thank goodness for the digital photo taking capabilities we have today! Back in the day I wonder how many rolls of film and all the steps involved from the purchase to the development it might have taken to capture all of the magnificence of Death Valley? I shudder to think of it!
Back to our drive….the sinuous black asphalt tarmac stretched ahead of us like a ribbon, twisting and turning, rising and falling like a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. Thankfully, every now and then there would be a place along the side of the road to pull off to snap that one of a kind photo or to let an annoying tailgater in a hurry pass us.
After several miles, perhaps around mile 3, we could see cars parked and people climbing up a hill so of course, we had to investigate. Although the view was pretty at the top of the ridge, it was less awesome than we anticipated.
Although the entire drive is worthy of continuous oohs and aahs, the highlight of the drive was Artist’s Palette. At mile 4.5, a sign marks the entrance to the Overlook. Be aware that there is limited parking so on the busier days it can become quite congested making it difficult to find an available space.
A palette of course is defined as a board or surface upon which an artist places dollops of paint pigments, which are then often mixed to create additional blends and tints. What a perfect name – it truly does look like an artist’s palette!
There is a 1/2 mile trail leading up into the hills but we lazy folks just enjoyed the view from the parking lot.
And once again for you Star Wars junkies, the out of this world landscape was a prime spot for the filming of Star Wars, A New Hope. Per this website “just before the turn leading to the Artist’s Palette parking area, the ‘Sandcrawler Station’ scene was filmed for A New Hope. Then from the Artist’s Palette parking area, by walking up the small hill to the north visitors can see an arroyo overlook, which was the dry riverbed that R2-D2 traveled in A New Hope.”
Getting back on the road, although still pretty, it seemed somewhat anti-climatic at first after the technicolor kaleidoscope we had just witnessed. But no disappointment ahead, instead this dramatic dip provided us with a “whee” moment or two!
Even after that, we did still see a lot of color!
Finally it was time to end this out of the world journey and return back to earth! As mentioned earlier in this post, we drove the loop on three different days, each time just as surreal as the previous one! A must do for any Death Valley visitor!
To see more photos, click here. Note the photos are from three different days so they are not in order of what you see along the drive.