Is Artists Palette Worth Visiting? (Death Valley’s Painted Hills)

To get to the famous painted hills of Death Valley, we needed to make a detour. It said to be a short one. But were the Artist Drive Loop and Artists Palette actually worth it? 

Last updated: May 11, 2024

Artists Palette - Roads and Destinations
Artists Drive and Artists Palette in Death Valley National Park

Dreaming of the Painted Hills of Death Valley National Park

“What is there to see in Death Valley?” Confusion mixed with politeness was written all over the face of our friend. Just a few years ago, I would’ve asked the same question. That day, however, I knew better. 

Both times we visited Death Valley National Park, a secluded group of hills painted in beige, orange, blue, with a slight hint of purple and green were calling me. The first time around, we didn’t even get close to rainbow-like Artists Palette. 

Now perched on our friend’s couch two weeks before our second trip to Death Valley, I confidently listed a few things that could make the desert look enticing: photogenic polygons on the desert floor, gullies that reminded of Arizona’s famous slot canyons, and colorful hills and mountains along Artists Drive. 

I stopped myself before the last words could escape my mouth. Most of the articles I had read,  pictures I had seen on the web praised the vibrant, colorful nature of Artists Palette, the main star of the area. 

But were those painted hills of Death Valley indeed so striking? Or were they just photoshopped and looked rather pale in real life? Some people insisted that the latter was true. If that was the case, was Artists Palette worth visiting considering that we would need to make a detour to see the place? 

I wanted to know the answers firsthand.

How to Get to Artists Palette?  

The Artists Drive Scenic Loop, home to Death Valley’s most famous colorful hills – Artists Palette, is a short detour off Badwater Road. A member of Death Valley’s elite club, the area neighbors Devil’s Golf Course in the north. 10.5 miles south is located Furnace Creek, one of the closest hamlets to most of the park’s landmarks.

So naturally, you want to check out the surreal colors of Artists Palette on the way back from Badwater Basin to Furnace Creek.

One thing we had learned early on during our road-trip adventures is to never put off until later something that we can do now. Weather can change. Darkness will descend upon the area before we can make our way back. Our tired bodies won’t find as much delight in the place that just a few hours ago looked like it could be the most alluring destination of the entire trip.

So contrary to common sense, we veered to the left as soon as the sign Artists Drive came into view.  

What Are Artists Drive and Artists Palette?

The Artists Drive Scenic Loop is a 9-mile loop in Death Valley, Inyo County. The paved, one-way road winds through vibrant hills whose colors range from yellow to red, terracotta, and pastel green. 

The multicolored hills along Artists Drive were carved by the powerful streams of water. The forces of nature removed the top layer of land and left exquisite formations as they flowed through Death Valley that once boasted large lakes and formidable rivers. 

Volcanic deposits rich in iron oxides and chlorite are responsible for the rainbow effect of Artists Palette and surrounding mountains. 

No maintained trails exist along the Artists Drive Loop. Yet the area is dotted with a plethora of  pull-offs that offer scenic views of the vibrant desert hills and safe grounds for wandering.

Artists Drive - Roads and Destinations
Distant views of the Black Mountains from Artists Drive
Death Valley National Park - Roads and Destinations
Shallow Lake Manly | Is Artists Palette worth visiting?

First Official Vista Point

The first official pull-off greeted us about one mile into our journey along the Artists Loop. A well-trodden path took us from the parking lot to a series of hills with dramatic views of the Black Mountains towering in the distance. 

To our right, white salt flats were supposed to create an unlikely contrast to the colorful mountain sides. Yet not during this trip. After winter rainstorms, Death Valley’s painted hills stared at now shallow Lake Manly, a rare lake that reclaims its rights in the park after heavy rains. 

Artists Palette

The biggest star of the Artist Drive area bestowed upon us its famous views less than four miles farther down the road. Illuminated by afternoon sun, the vibrant colors of Artists Palette dwarfed all other surrounding hills. It was the most vibrant place we’d seen in Death Valley.

Yes, Artists Palette was indeed colorful, as good as it gets. A 30-minute detour we didn’t have time for in the first place was well worth it. The most famous painted hills of Death Valley were a sight to behold even from the side of the road where we first spotted them. I decided to get to the precious desert masterpieces a little bit closer, though. 

Artists Palette - Roads and Destinations
No maintain trails exist in the Artists Palette area
Death Valley National Park - Roads and Destinations
You “make” your own trail as you go

Hiking to Artists Palette

A few narrow trails ran through the hills and up into the mountain side, invigorating your senses and filling your heart with gratitude. Some hills were steeper than the others. The change in elevation, however, was manageable for most of the visitors.   

There was no official start or end of the Artists Palette trail. You could start your hike near the second official pull-off or anywhere along Artists Drive. The trail ended at any place where your thirst for the vivid desert colors was quenched. 

I decided to head back to the car after treading across a couple tiny hills. Far enough from the car but still a rather long walk away from the colorful sides of Artists Palette, I shared the remarkable views with my accidental companion, a desert wind, and no other soul nearby. 

Watch our Death Valley video on YouTube

Things to Know Before Going to Artists Palette

The Best Time to Visit

Artists Palette is unmatched. Its colors, so distinct from the rest of the park, penetrate through desert dust storms and winter rains. The painted hills of Artists Palette, however, get a special radiance in late afternoon when the sun casts dramatic shadows and the colors pop up even more.

Plan for a 30-Minute Detour

While the Artists Drive Loop is only 9 miles long, it’s narrow with lots of dips and sharp turns. Even if the views from the car fully satisfy you, the one-way road can still slow you down with desert traffic, which is not uncommon during holidays and on weekends.

Vehicle Length Restriction

Taking into account the unfavorable peculiarities of the road, vehicles over 25 feet (7.6 meters) are prohibited on Artists Drive. 

Is Artists Palette Worth Visiting?

Yes! The colors of the painted hills along Artists Drive are outstanding. The views are unobstructed. You can feast your eyes on the whole gamut of desert hues right from the car or hike up into the mountain side. The Artists Drive Scenic Loop itself is easy, but may be challenging for those who get dizzy on winding roads. 

READ MORE: Hiking Ubehebe Crater Trail in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park- Roads and Destinations
Death Valley’s painted hills

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