Have you ever wondered what stepping onto the surface of another planet would be like? Well, you don’t need to be a billionaire to find out for yourself! Just take a trip to Death Valley National Park and you’ll see that it is like nowhere else on Earth. These epic things to do in Death Valley and amazing must see attractions will absolutely blow you away.
Located on the eastern side of the Panamint mountains in California and the western side of the Amargosa mountains in Nevada, Death Valley National Park is one of the driest, hottest points on Earth. The precipitation gets blocked out by the mountain ranges bordering Death Valley, resulting in the dry desert that makes up the majority of the park.
Despite its harsh conditions, Death Valley is a popular tourist destination thanks to its otherworldly landscapes and unique history. Whether you’re looking to explore the desert or see one of the most unique National Parks in California, Death Valley is definitely worth a visit!
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Best Time to Visit Death Valley National Park
The best time to visit is between October to April. In October, you can expect 85 degree highs and 60 degree lows. November is also a nice time to go but evenings start getting cold.
Spring is an ideal time to go see wildflowers starting in mid-March. If there is enough rain in the prior fall, there’s a chance for a super bloom. Spring temperatures in March are perfect with highs around 80 degrees and lows around 55 degrees. April will start hitting 90 degrees with comfortable evenings in the 60s.
Winter has nice daytime temps in the mid 60s but can be quite cold at night in the high 30s.
Summer has the scorching heat we all know about with highs around 115, with the hottest day on record clocking in at 134 degrees!
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How Much Time Do You Need to Visit Death Valley
One of the biggest mistakes people make visiting Death Valley is underestimating the size of the park. At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley National Park is the largest in the lower 48 states. It’s only outdone by the massive parks in Alaska and it dwarfs Yellowstone National Park.
Since Death Valley is often visited on a California Road Trip, people think that they can visit as a day trip and continue on. In addition to the fact that Death Valley is an out of the way place that takes quite a bit of time to get to, it also takes a lot of time to drive between Death Valley attractions within the park.
It’s highly recommended to stay overnight for at least one night. Two days in Death Valley will allow you to get a sample of what the park has to offer. If you want to do multiple hikes, try to stay for 2 nights or more.
How to Get to Death Valley National Park
The best way to get to Death Valley National Park is by car. Death Vally borders the state line between California and Nevada. Many people visit Death Valley as part of a California Road Trip and will take the Western Entrance.
If you are arriving by plane, the most convenient airport is Las Vegas Harry Reid International Airport. You can rent a car at the airport and enter through the Eastern side of the park through Death Valley Junction.
Western Entrance From California:
- From San Francisco and Los Angeles, it takes approximately 5 hours and you will use the Ridgecrest directions below. Those that are coming from a Highway 395 Road Trip, will use the Lone Pine directions.
- From Ridgecrest: Take Highway 178 East to Trona Road for 39 miles. Turn left on Panamint Valley Road, then right on Highway 190 East to Furnace Creek.
- From Lone Pine: Take Highway 395 S to Route 136 East which turns into Highway 190 East to Furnace Creek.
Eastern Entrance From Nevada:
- From the airport, you will take Highway 160 West to Bell Vista Avenue to CA Highway 95 out of Las Vegas and over the Amargosa mountains.
Cost to Enter Death Valley National Park
The cost to enter the park is $25 per car for 7 days. If you have an America the Beautiful National Park Passport, the entry is free. You can pay the fee at either entrance.
Those that wish to do backcountry backpacking will need to obtain an additional permit.
Best Things to Do in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is a vast, scenic expanse of sand dunes in California. It’s located right on the edge of Death Valley and has been designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. The park is home to over 10 different ecological communities, including badlands, valleys, mountains and salt flats.
In addition to its natural wonders like rock formations and wildlife habitats, it’s also famous for being one of the hottest places on Earth- summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit! So pack your sunscreen, carry tons of water and explore everything this park has to offer.
1. Get Acquainted With Death Valley at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Right at the entrance to Death Valley, you’ll come across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and you won’t be able to resist the temptation to get out an explore them. There’s a trail if you want to take it easy but after a long car ride, we suggest picking the tallest peak you see and attempting to get to the top of it.
It’s soft sand and takes longer than you think to reach your desired viewpoint but it’s also rewarding to get up and look out over all the dunes. We suggest doing this trek during the day because we heard there can be rattle snakes at night.
2. Sunrise or Sunset Watching at Zabriskie Point
Sunrises and sunsets spectacular in Death Valley National Park. One of the coolest places to watch a sunrise or a sunset in Death Valley is at Zabriskie Point. It’s a quick drive if you are staying at one of the Death Valley hotels. For almost no effort getting there, you are rewarded with a spectacular view.
To make it more exciting, leave the observation area and hike down into the martian looking landscape below. There aren’t official trails but it’s very easy to navigate the hills and explore. Just wear trail runners or hiking shoes that will keep you from slipping.
3. Hike to Devil’s Golf Course
Devil’s Golf Course is a geological formation located in Death Valley National Park. It’s made up of sharp, jagged rocks that make it virtually impossible to play golf here (hence the name).
The 2.6 mile out and back hike to Devil’s Golf Course is an easy and popular one, that’s definitely worth the effort. The views are incredible and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen!
4. Artists Palette
The Artists Palette is easily accessible by driving up to the parking area that sits right by the rock formation. Colors of pink, blue, and grey all blend together to create a can’t miss stop at Death Valley National Park! There’s a short trail that takes you up close to Artists Palette but be careful to stay on trail at all times so as not to erode the brilliant colors away.
Getting out on the trail can look a bit different here in Death Valley than in any other place in the US. That’s because there are no trees or water sources to be found! The lack of shade and water demand that you hike early in the morning or later in the day while bringing plenty of sunscreen and water to keep you safe throughout your hike.
5. Checking Out the Salt Flats at Badwater Basin
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Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, located 282 feet below sea level. It’s an amazing place to visit, and it’s also home to some of the most unique wildlife in Death Valley National Park. Be sure to check out the salt flats while you’re here!
Death Valley is known for its scorching temperatures, but it’s also home to Badwater Basin, the lowest and hottest spot in North America.
6. Running the “World’s Toughest Foot Race” – The Badwater 135
Most visitors to Death Valley National Park aren’t coming here to run, but for a select few, heading to Death Valley in July to run an ultramarathon makes perfect sense,
The most intense race on Earth takes place in Death Valley each year in July. Known as the Badwater 135, racers will run 135 miles from the bottom of Badwater Basin all the way up to the Mt. Whitney Portal at 8,300′.
If that doesn’t sound daunting enough, the race actually crosses three mountain ranges on the way and gains a total of 14,600’ in elevation overall!
For those who enjoy getting out and working up a good sweat while going for a run, there are plenty of opportunities to hit the road running here in Death Valley. With over 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads throughout the park, there is something that will suit the fitness guru in your group!
7. See a Natural Bridge
A great hike to check out is the Natural Bridge. You’ll hike through a canyon to view the effects that ancient waters had in creating a giant hole in the canyon, leaving a bridge connecting the canyon walls together! The hike is 2 miles out and back.
While natural bridges are common in Utah, it’s a rare occurrence in California.
8. Biking Through Death Valley is One of the Best Ways to Explore
One of the most enjoyable ways to enjoy Death Valley National Park is from the seat of a bike. With over 300 miles of road throughout the park, cycling is an ideal way to explore, especially in winter.
9. 20 Mule Team Canyon
20 Mule Team Canyon Road is a loop road that you can drive or walk. It’s off the beaten track so it’s more peaceful than some of the other more popular Death Valley spots. There a great view and photo point half way up the trail.
The road is named after the 20 mule teams that carried sodium borate out of Death Valley to be manufactured into the cleaning product Borax. It’s a big part of the history of Death Valley.
10. Racetrack Playa
Drive out to Racetrack Playa to view one of the most fascinating natural phenomena in the world: the sailing rocks! You’ll need a high clearance 4×4 vehicle to get out there safely, and it’s quite the trek.
But once you do, you’ll see a large flat open space with hundreds of rocks that seem to push themselves on the desert floor on their own, leaving a track in the sand from where they’ve been.
What’s even more amazing is that there are boulders that weigh upwards of 700 pounds that seemingly move themselves along the ground! Please be sure to stay on the road when you visit though as the ground is incredibly sensitive and can be permanently damaged if you walk or drive on it!
Don’t have a high clearance 4×4? No problem! You can rent a properly outfitted jeep at Farabee’s Jeep Rentals. Stop by their shop in Furnace Creek to pick up your rig to hit the trails!
11. Star Gazing in a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park
Death Valley is the largest dark sky park in America. You can see the magnificent star filled sky including the Milky Way during your trip.
As you can imagine, there is very little light pollution at Death Valley National Park. The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to protect the park from light pollution. This creates one of the best environments in the US to view the stars as there aren’t tons of lights around to wash out the brilliant glow of the stars above!
The best way to enjoy star gazing here is to plan to be outside for at least 30 minutes to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a flashlight with a red lens so you don’t ruin your night vision. And be sure to pick a night when there’s a new moon so that the light from the moon doesn’t obstruct the light coming from the stars!
12. Self-Guided Star Wars Tour
One of the most iconic planets featured in the Star Wars films was Tatooine, which made Death Valley the perfect location to film the type of scenery that would make audiences believe that George Lucas actually traveled to space to shoot the movies!
One of the best Star Wars spots is Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes mentioned above. Remember that scene from episode 6 when Luke saves Han Solo from being thrown into the sarlacc pit? You sure will when you step on the same dunes that was the setting to one of the most iconic scenes in the entire franchise! If you’re up for a big drive check out Dante’s View.
13. Do a Ranger Guided Tour
If you’re limited on time, consider scheduling one of the many guided tours with the rangers at Death Valley National Park.. The rangers do an amazing job of making the seemingly endlessness of the park accessible by focusing in on a specific subject when doing their talks.
Whether you’re interested in learning more about Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America!) or you’d like to witness rangers demonstrate the art of flintknapping (which is how early humans first made tools out of stone) there’s something for everyone to enjoy!
You can also book a guided hiking trip, especially one of the paleontology hikes which allows you to view fossilized tracks of ancient birds, camels, and cats!
Death Valley Backpacking
Make sure to stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to pick up a permit before you hit one of the 11 different recommended backpacking trails in Death Valley National Park. And be sure to bring plenty of water as there are very few (if any) water sources on the trails!
Make sure to stop by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center or the Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station to pick up a permit before you hit one of the 11 different recommended backpacking trails (3 popular choices listed below) in Death Valley National Park. And be sure to bring plenty of water as there are very few, if any, water sources on the trails!
14. Cottonwood-Marble Canyon Loop
Desert backpacking at its finest! You’ll make your way along this 31.8 mile loop to find some of the most interesting sights in the entire park. Your trip will take you through desolate canyons and by house sized boulders wedged into canyons that were carried to their current resting place via massive floods years ago.
You’ll also get to witness evidence of some of the first people to occupy Death Valley in the form of ancient petroglyphs! And if that wasn’t enough, pay attention to the forecast before your trip. The wildflowers on this loop are absolutely spectacular after a good rainstorm!
15. Telescope Peak via Shorty’s Well
If you’re a hardcore backpacker that isn’t afraid of a little elevation gain, you have to do the Telescope Peak via Shorty’s Well route. This massive hike will take you over 40 miles and 11,000 feet of elevation gain to complete from start to finish!
Don’t let that scare you off though. If you get started early in the morning before the sun comes up, it’s very manageable to get to higher elevations before temperatures get too high. And boy are the rewards worth the struggle to get to the top. The views from the top of Telescope Peak of Death Valley below are just jaw dropping.
16. Swaney Loop
For those who want to get the benefits of seeing the forces of nature and ancient petroglyphs that Cottonwood-Marble Canyon offers, but don’t have the time to spend hiking the entire loop, you have to hike the Swaney Loop.
There are similar opportunities to see the power of flood waters inside of slot canyons, the mystery of the first humans to occupy the valley through viewing petroglyphs, and you get the added benefit of doing a few rock scrambles as well. There’s nothing quite like combining rock climbing and backpacking to make for some epic stories!
Where to Stay in Death Valley National Park
- The Inn at Death Valley (8.3) – The best hotel in Death Valley with a terrific pool and great location.
- The Ranch at Death Valley (7.5) – a resort with a pool and activities. It’s got a great location but the rooms are a little dated.
- Panamint Springs Resort (7.5) – a rustic campground with motel rooms, small cabins and tents.
Camping in Death Valley National Park
There are more than 750 campsites throughout Death Valley National Park. Each one (save a few at Furnace Creek Campground) are available on a first come, first served basis. It pays to plan ahead! Keep a few sites in mind of where you’d like to camp, just in case your first option doesn’t pan out.
Just like the rest of Death Valley, there are a plethora of campgrounds in different environments, making it possible to camp in Death Valley year-round.
- The campgrounds like Furnace Creek and Sunset sit nearly 200 feet below sea level, making them ideal for winter camping in Death Valley. Furnace Creek also has RV Hookups that can and should be reserved in advance.
- During the summer, you’ll be able to find cooler temperatures at campgrounds like Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany Flat as they sit at elevations between 4,100’ all the way up to 8,200’!
Food, Shopping & Gas Inside Death Valley National Park
You’ll be doing a lot of driving in the park and can refuel at the small gas stations located at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. They each have a small convenience store for snacks or things you might have forgotten at home.
If you are staying at The Inn at Death Valley or The Ranch at Death Valley, you’ll find places to buy souvenirs and full restaurants.
What to Pack for a Death Valley Trip
Hiking shoes or trail runners will make your life much more pleasant. You will also want a large brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen. There are times you won’t be able to find shade.
Hiking shoes or trail runners will make your life much more pleasant. You will also want a large brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen. There are times you won’t be able to find shade. A day pack to hold sunscreen and water or camera gear will also come in very handy.
If you’re planning on venturing outside, be sure to wear light weight, polyester or wool clothing to keep your body nice and cool throughout the day. Pants and long sleeves are a must, even during summer months. This is to keep your skin from getting baked by the sun during the day as well as to guard against bites.
While the bad news is that there are rattlesnakes and spiders in Death Valley, the good news is virtually no bugs so leave the bug spray at home. As long as you don’t put your hands or feet into somewhere you haven’t checked first, you should be fine.
Don’t forget your camera equipment of choice. Death Valley is an amazing spot for photographers to hone their craft.
Whether you live in California or are a visitor on a California Road Trip, there are so many great things to do in Death Valley that showcase what the largest park in lower 48 is all about. Death Valley National Park is a must see destination in one of the most beautiful US States, that is well worth your time.