The hottest place on Earth might not sound like an ideal camping spot, but more than 1 million visitors head to Death Valley each year, with thousands opting to camp inside the park. Across the U.S., there are other desolate landscapes with unique geological features that welcome those looking for camping alternatives to Death Valley National Park.
With the lowest elevation in the U.S. (Badwater Basin) and mountain peaks topping 11,000 feet, Death Valley is a place of extremes. Summer temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit and beyond, setting world records, while freezing temperatures are common in winter. Amid this vast desert landscape, you’ll find peaks and hills rising above the rocky sands, as well as annual wildflower blooms and rare super blooms.
Whether you’ve already visited Death Valley, or want to visit but haven’t been able to, here are camping alternatives that offer some similarities.
Camping Alternative to Death Valley With a Rugged, Desolate Landscape
Like Death Valley National Park, Big Bend National Park is home to a rugged landscape, with vast desert expanses and jagged mountain peaks; the summer heat is also blistering, though the top temps aren’t quite as extreme.
Named for a large bend in the Rio Grande River, Big Bend National Park is located in far Southwest Texas, along the border with Mexico.
Scenic drives are a popular way to explore this large park, with views of the Chihuahuan Desert, Chisos Mountains, and Rio Grande River. Day hikes offer up-close views of these landscapes, with a surprising diversity of flora and fauna that changes along with the elevation.
Other activities include river trips through the Santa Elena Canyon, biking, and birdwatching. After dark, turn your eyes skyward for inky black night skies, perfect for stargazing—Big Bend is considered to have the lowest light pollution of any national park in the contiguous U.S.
Recommended camping options in and near Big Bend National Park include:
Camping Alternative to Death Valley With Unique Geology
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park has the same sense of mystery as Death Valley, leaving visitors wondering how the park’s massive sand dunes ended up this close to mid-America.
The national park is a favorite of many, partially because these are the tallest dunes in the U.S., offering picturesque views of the soft rolling hills juxtaposed against mountain peaks. A seasonal creek runs through the dunes, providing more recreational opportunities. Rent a sandboard to go sledding down the massive hills, take a float in the rippling creek, explore the sands on foot, or take a commercial tour in a four-wheel drive or on horseback. Visitors can also fish for the rare Rio Grande cutthroat trout, photograph epic landscapes, and after sundown, enjoy the dark skies above—look for the Milky Way, which is usually visible above the silhouette of dunes.
Recommended camping options in and near Great Sand Dunes National Park include:
Of course, there are plenty of other locations in the U.S. to explore epic sand dunes: Indiana Dunes State Park and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore lie along Lake Michigan, and Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is close to the Pacific Coast.
Other sand dunes are more mystifying: Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park has interesting coloring, as does New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. Then there’s Bruneau Dunes State Park in Idaho, which holds the record for the tallest single-structured dune.
Camping Alternative to Death Valley on the East Coast
For a similar edge-of-the-earth experience, head to Dry Tortugas National Park. Spread across seven islands in the Gulf of Mexico 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas truly is far from civilization.
It takes a serious effort to reach Dry Tortugas, but it pays off with views of the endless ocean, sparkling in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing blue and green hues. Visitors can also explore preserved remnants of Fort Jefferson, a coastal fortress that dates to the 1800s.
Even with its history, the landscape is the true star of the show at Dry Tortugas. Take a seaplane tour for aerial views or drop below the surface while snorkeling and diving among coral reefs, which provide a thriving home to marine life. Visitors can also enjoy boating, paddling, fishing, and swimming.
Despite its remote location, Dry Tortugas has on-site tent camping. The popular island ferry books months in advance, so plan ahead if you want to sleep on the sand.
Recommended camping options in and near Dry Tortugas National Park include: