Artist's Drive – Inyo County, California - Atlas Obscura

Artist's Drive

Millions of years of oxidation make a drive down this winding Death Valley road surprisingly colorful. 


Death Valley conjures images of a rugged, desolate, monochromatic landscape of sun-blasted mountains and blistering, arid valleys. Artist’s Drive, however, is a meandering road along the face of the Black Mountains that reminds visitors of the colorful, dynamic—albeit ancient and slow-moving—geological activity that shaped the area.

This one-way, south-to-north loop branches off of Badwater Road and up through an alluvial fan that formed during the Miocene epoch, between 23 million and 5.3 million years ago. While modern ape species arose and diversified and human ancestors branched off from chimpanzee ancestors to begin their own evolutionary adventure, violent, explosive volcanic activity formed what is now known as the Artist’s Drive Formation.

Mineral-rich deposits reaching depths of 5,000 feet were subsequently eroded by infrequent but intense flash floods that roared down the deep valley, exposing buried deposits of iron, mica, and manganese to oxidize in the bone-dry air. Iron turned pink, red, and yellow; mica slowly combusted in green hues; and manganese added shades of purple, creating the brilliant rainbow of colors that paint the silent canyons today.

While the main scenic stop along the drive is found roughly midway at the formation known as Artist’s Palette, the entire nine miles of Artist’s Drive’s twisting, dipping ride through the ancient mountainfront range provides dazzling colors on one side and breathtaking views of the salt flat below on the other. Fans of deafening quiet and sci-fi landscapes will be pleased. 

Know Before You Go

Artist's Drive is a one-lane, one-way road that runs south to north, so it's best incorporated into a drive from Badwater to Furnace Creek

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