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Death Valley National Park, CALIFORNIA

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The largest national park outside of Alaska, Death Valley is an almost unfathomable place. The park encompass mountain-size sand dunes, below-sea-level salt flats, mysterious singing rocks, and colorful sandstone canyons. Extremes are the norm: Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in America, with summer temperatures peaking above 120 F°/49°C, and average rainfall a mere 2 in/5 cm per year.

Even though Death Valley’s summer temps are uninviting, from late fall into spring its climate is just about perfect. These are the months to explore the park’s remarkably diverse desert landscapes: enormous sand dunes, rugged badlands, expansive salt flats, and serpentine canyons. You can walk along the rim of Ubehebe Crater, site of a volcanic eruption 2,100 years ago, while a boardwalk trail follows Salt Creek, where pupfish, a tiny native fish, survive from a time when a gigantic lake filled Death Valley.

Stop in to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center for current weather, road, and trail information, then get out and explore this majestic expanse. Driving distances are vast, so give yourself ample time to get from one destination to the next. Hike through the vibrant beauty of Golden Canyon, its sandstone walls colored every imaginable shade of gold from orange to apricot to school bus yellow. Drive to Zabriskie Point at sunset to photograph the folded and eroded badlands glowing in the saturated light. See an original 20-mule team wagon and the adobe ruins of the 1880s Harmony Borax Works. Touch the polished marble walls of Mosaic Canyon, one of the scenic highlights with its colorful slick rock and marbled narrows that are navigable for all ages.