It’s uncommon for the term “colorful” to be appropriate for an environment devoid of plant life. Of course, Artists Drive Scenic Loop is in a National Park, so exceptional topography comes with the territory. This 9-mile one-way south-to-north road winds through the Artists Drive Formation at the foot of Death Valley’s Black Mountains. The colorful hillsides result from volcanic debris and playa deposits from the Miocene epoch, between 23 and 5 million years ago. Erosion has exposed red, pink, and yellow shades of oxidized metals, green from mica decomposition, and purple from manganese. It is a veritable rainbow in stone easily viewable from the passenger’s seat. No wonder it is the most popular scenic drive in Death Valley National Park.
The Artist’s Pallet is the main draw along the Artists Drive. It is one of only two sites along the route with a formal parking lot. Visitors pull off for pictures and explore the colorful formations. In fact, it even has an overflow parking lot along the approach to the main parking lot for busy days and larger vehicles. Volcanic deposits of iron oxides and chlorite create a colorful hillside of red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, and green.
Artists Drive In Star Wars
For fans of Star Wars, Artists Drive is also a filming location for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In fact, Artists Drive is one of several locations across Death Valley that stood in for the desolate desert planet of Tatooine—home of Luke and Anakin Skywalker. Visitors may recognize an arroyo near Artist’s Pallet as the filming location where Jawas capture everyone’s favorite droid, R2D2. Nearby is also the plateau where Luke Skywalker discovers the Jawa’s Sandcrawler.
Visiting Artists Drive
Artists Drive off Badwater Road is one of the most accessible areas of Death Valley. The one-way paved route winds between towering colorful hillsides, all visible from the vehicle. This also makes the drive one of the few Death Valley attractions that are still enjoyable from the air-conditioned car interior during the sweltering summers of this arid desert.
It is best to visit mid to late in the day. Most of the colorful hillsides are east facing and in shadow in the morning. Of course, whatever time you make it will be special. As the sun travels overhead, it illuminates the formations in new and fascinating arrangements. Light from the early afternoon evenly exposes the craggy formations for true, rich colors. In contrast, late evening and sunset can cast some more exposed formations in a more surreal light, but most will be in shadow.
As the name would suggest, most people will experience Artists Drive by car. The tight turns and narrow canyon walls mean that the road is limited to vehicles 25-feet long or shorter for a good reason. It is the most popular scenic route, so even though the drive is 9-miles between a low speed limit and the occasional backup, driving this road can take between 25 and 45 minutes. The drive’s popularity has led to strict rules for cars not to stop on the road and only pull off at designated locations. There are two significant parking lots at the most popular sites and occasional pull-offs along the way.
With the amazing scenery, windy route, and slow car speeds, Artist’s drive is also a popular cycling destination. The twisting trail is relatively level, with a few dips into washes. Given that the road is one lane with very little median, it’s still important to be aware of the other vehicles sharing the road. Unfortunately, there is no formal parking lot at the entrance of the drive for bicyclists to unload their gear. Instead, one can park in one of the many lots in Furnace Creek, 9-miles north of the scenic loop’s entrance and 5-miles from the exit. Or try your luck on one of the smaller lots along the loop itself.
We have visited Artists Drive several times. It’s guaranteed to please, no matter the time of year. Of course, this hardly fills much of a day, and with how spread out Death Valley is, it makes sense to pair Artists Drive with a few other stops within easy driving distance. For more fantastic rock formations, hit the cinematic vista of Zabrinsky Point or the head-scratching arrangements of Devil’s Golf Course. And don’t forget to pop 9-miles south for the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin.