DEATH VALLEY – the hottest place on earth – is a place where sculpted rock layers form deeply shadowed, eroded crevices at the foot of silhouetted hills, their exotic minerals turning ancient mud flats into rainbows of sunlit iridescence. Throughout the summer, the temperature averages 112°F and the hot ground can reach near boiling. Better to come during the spring, when wildflowers are in bloom and it’s generally mild and dry. Still, the area is almost entirely devoid of shade, much less water, so carry plenty for both car and body. The central north–south valley contains two main outposts, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek, site of the visitor centre (daily 9am–5pm; seven-day park pass $20/vehicle, $10/pedestrian or cyclist; t 760/786-3200, w www.nps.gov/deva).
Dante’s View, twenty-one miles south on 190 and ten miles along a very steep access road, offers a fine morning vista in which the pink-and-gold Panamint Mountains are highlighted by the rising sun. Near Stovepipe Wells, some thirty miles northwest of Furnace Creek, spread fifteen rippled and contoured square miles of ever-changing sand dunes. The most popular site, though, is the surreal luxury of Scotty’s Castle (50min tours daily 9.30am–4pm, winter 8.30am–5pm; $11; reservations t 760/786-2392), forty miles north of Stovepipe Wells, built in the 1920s as a desert retreat, tours of which take in the decorative wooden ceilings, indoor waterfalls and a remote-controlled player piano.