After being cooped up for months, it seems everyone had the same idea this summer: get in the car and experience the natural beauty and grandeur of a national park! Many of these protected areas saw record attendance—all the more reason to plan a visit for the off-season. From stunning waterfalls and towering redwoods to mountain vistas and epic sand dunes, each of our picks have unique charms, and all are within an eight-hour drive of Orange County. It’s time to tick these iconic spots off your travel wish list!
✓Sand Dunes ✓Education ✓Tranquility ✖Trees
259 miles from Orange County
“How can rocks and sand and silence make us afraid and yet be so wonderful?”
— Edna Brush Perkins, suffragist and writer
Situated along the California-Nevada border, Death Valley National Park is known for its record-setting temperatures, otherworldly landscapes, and brilliant night skies. The 3.4-million-acre park is not only the largest of its kind, it’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest. The past two summers, the park reached a record 130 degrees. To avoid extreme heat, time your visit for late winter or early spring for a chance to see desert wildflowers.
Contrary to its name, Death Valley is full of vibrant and diverse landscapes such as Artist’s Palette, a dreamy, rainbow-colored canyon. The visually striking pink and teal hues are a result of volcanic deposits rich in iron oxide and chlorite compounds. The 9-mile, one-way drive to get there is breathtaking in and of itself.
To feel as though you’ve traveled halfway across the world or even to a galaxy far, far away, hike up the tawny mounds of sand at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Certain scenes from “Star Wars” depicting the planet Tatooine’s iconic desert scenery were filmed at the park, including the one where C-3PO and R2-D2 are lost at Dune Sea.
Make sure to stop at Badwater Basin to walk on a sprawling salt flat and one of the lowest points in North America. Close to the entrance of the park is Zabriskie Point, which has a viewing deck at the end of a short, paved path to marvel at badlands.
At night, locals recommend stargazing at Dante’s View, an accessible mountain lookout with panoramic views of the park during the day. Death Valley is an International
Dark Sky Park with a gold-tier rating, which makes it a prime spot for awe-inspiring observations. Thousands of stars and celestial objects, and even the Milky Way, can be seen at almost any location away from lights.
Centrally located inside the park, The Oasis at Death Valley is the best place to unwind after hours of exploring. It offers three recently renovated options. Surrounded by date palms, The Inn at Death Valley ($350) has the most luxurious accommodations with a tiled, spring-fed pool, a fitness center, an on-site spa, and rooms with sweeping desert and property views. The Ranch at Death Valley ($188 and up), the site of a former working ranch, is a family-friendly hotel with a spring-fed pool, tennis courts, and lawn games. You can easily walk to its town square, where you’ll find dining, an ice cream and coffee bar, and a general store. Book one of the 22 new 500-square-foot casitas with a living room and wet bar for added privacy and comfort ($550 and up).
Dine with a view of the Panamint Mountains at The Inn at Death Valley’s Dining Room with entrees such as 10-ounce wagyu ribeye ($71) and Palm Beach grilled mahi-mahi ($40). Don’t miss The Last Kind Words Saloon, a kitschy restaurant and bar inspired by the Wild West.