Before I share my hiking recommendations for Death Valley National Park, a word of caution is definitely in order. One e-mail which I received from a park visitor commented that Death Valley "can be the most dangerous place on earth for any hikers." And his words certainly hold a lot of truth. While it can be considered fairly safe to do basic family hikes to tourist destinations during cooler months, other places hold a lot of risk for the inexperienced. Allow me to recap a few of the risks for the benefit of those considering hiking in Death Valley.
HEAT / COLD / WEATHER -- Death Valley has deadly heat during spring, summer, and fall months. At all times of year, carry and drink an abundance of water, apply sunscreen, wear layers of clothing, monitor the forecast, and stay out of canyons during rain due to danger from flash floods. There can be cold blizzard weather and snowstorms when hiking in Death Valley's mountains during fall, winter, and spring months.
ROUTE FINDING -- Getting lost in Death Valley is very easy for inexperienced hikers. Trails are mostly non-existent. Good map reading skills, GPS hiking units, satellite phones, personal locator beacons, hiking in groups, and leaving an itinerary with park rangers and family members can all be helpful.
MINES / CABINS -- Stay out of old mining tunnels. Potential dangers inside abandoned mines include unseen vertical mine openings, deadly gases, oxygen deficiency, cave-ins, unsafe structures, unstable explosives, and other assorted risks. Hantavirus is also a risk inside mining ruins and cabins. Keep a safe distance from and do not climb on any old mining structures.
WILDLIFE THREATS -- Death Valley has mountain lions, snakes, and scorpions, and you should be prepared to deal with encounters. Carrying a snake bite kit is an option (which some sources say doesn't work well) and you might bring bear repellant pepper spray to potentially scare off mountain lions in case of a sighting. Other large animals include wild bulls, wild cows, wild horses, mule deer, and wild burros.
TERRAIN OBSTACLES -- Death Valley has an abundance of narrow canyons which can be very beautiful but also dangerous with falling rocks. While progressing up canyons (and other areas), hikers often run into dry falls or other obstacles which result in three options. The three options are to either stop and turn around, climb the dry fall, or look for a way to bypass the dry fall. The option you choose will depend on your skill level and safety awareness. An example of such a dry fall obstacle is shown in the middle picture below. The right picture below shows an example of a ledge bypass which should not be crossed without the use of safety ropes and gear because there is no margin for error.