Death Valley National Park is one of our favorite road trip destinations. Its name doesn’t necessarily do a lot to sell it as a destination – perhaps that’s a reason we didn’t visit until we’d lived in California for many years. That said, the desert can be incredibly beautiful, and Death Valley offers a glimpse of the amazing variety that a desert can offer.
Getting to Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is in the California desert, surrounded by mountains that seem to keep the moisture out. It’s roughly 2 hours from Las Vegas (good daytrip), 4.5 hours from Los Angeles, and 8.5 hours from San Francisco.
From Las Vegas, we enter from Death Valley Junction, while from LA or SF, the Panamint Springs entrance is probably better. Just make sure that you avoid entering through highway 267. This entrance has been closed for quite a while and there do not appear to be plans to reopen it.
Coming from Northern California, our plan typically is to drive the night before until the nearest big town on the west side of the park (Ridgecrest). Then the next day, we try to check out of our hotel early (e.g. 6-7am) so that we can maximize our time in the cooler morning hours.
On the way into the park, there are kiosks to pay for your pass ($30 for a week). That said, if you go to several national parks in a year, the $80 annual pass might pay off.
Where to Stay When Visiting Death Valley National Park
Our favorite place to stay when visiting Death Valley is inside the park, near Furnace Creek. Unfortunately, there are not many options for this, the hotels can be expensive, they book up fast, and the timing may not work into your plans. Since we often make last minute plans, we have only done this once. We found The Ranch at Death Valley to be quite fun, centrally located inside the park, not as expensive as other in-park options, and much more green and cool than you might expect!
On the west side of the park, we prefer to stay in Ridgecrest (about an hour to the outer entrance, but really a 2.25 hour drive to Furnace Creek). It is one of the larger towns in this desert region of California, which means that there are several options for reasonable chain hotels that will fit most budgets, many dining options, and a grocery store to top off your water supply and pick up a picnic lunch before you head into Death Valley. In contrast, closer towns on that side, like Lone Pine or Olancha, are quite small.
On the east side of the park, we prefer to stay in Las Vegas (about a 2.25 hour drive to Furnace Creek). The boys love the lights and excitement, and there are hotels to fit any preference. When traveling with kids, the Excalibur or Circus Circus are good choices if you want your kids to have fun at the arcades. Otherwise, we always love staying at various themed hotels.
What to Do
There are a lot of things to do in Death Valley. If you are only there for a day, make sure you plan around the expected weather. In July, highs can average 116°F in the shade, and the lows aren’t much better at 88°F! On the other hand, January’s average high is only 67°F and the low is 40°F.
In the winter, you can plan for a full day of hiking. But in the summer, it is advisable to carry lots of water – even if you plan to only be outside for 15-30 minutes, not stray too far from your air-conditioned car, keep hiking to a minimum, and keep things low-key during the hottest part of the day.
Basic Itinerary for a Day Visit
Since our visits to Death Valley National Park almost always originate from Northern California, we usually like to enter through the west entrance.
The earlier you arrive, the more likely you are to spot some interesting wildlife. On this particular trip, we saw a desert fox (a worker in the visitor’s center thought the ears indicated a fox rather than a coyote, but we really aren’t sure)! Jeremy tried to roll down my window to get a better picture, but all I could think about was the kids in the back seat and our roast beef that was sitting in the ice box for lunch!
Our first real stop in Death Valley from the west is almost always at the Mesquite Sand Dunes:
From the sand dunes, the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center is a 25 minute drive. If you didn’t already take care of this, you can definitely pick up a map here, but they also have nice museum-like exhibits that gives a great overview of the park. And if you are overheated, the air-conditioning is nice.
While you are in the town of Furnace Creek, you can stop for gas (hopefully you filled up before you set out), visit the Borax Museum (if it is open), check into your hotel or campground, or mail a post card at the post office!
From here, there are a few options, but we usually head out to Badwater Basin, making sure to stop at the Devil’s Golf Course on the way. At Badwater Basin, we like to take a short hike on the salt flats.
On our return to Furnace Creek, make sure to take the beautiful 9-mile one-way detour through Artist’s Drive.
Our last or second-to-last stop is usually Zabriskie Point. If it is cool enough to consider a hike through this beautiful area of Death Valley, you won’t be disappointed!
If we have enough time or energy, we then continue up to Dante’s View. At 5,575 feet, this is a delightfully cool area of Death Valley, and makes an excellent place for a picnic. At last visit during lunch-time there were no picnic tables, so we usually just eat in the car.
If you get an early start and keep hiking to a minimum, you can finish this itinerary by late lunch time, or if you happen to be visiting during the winter, you can stretch it out to a very full day. Do what makes sense for you and your family!
Mesquite Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are super cool, but they are also super dangerous, particularly in the summer. Distances are deceiving, the heat can start out hot and eventually become unbearable, and you can easily become confused and loose track of which rolling hill marks the spot of the parking lot. Carry more water than you think you need!
I still remember our 2018 trip when a couple came back parch from a hiking trip here and begged some water from us. Fortunately, we had tons of gallon jugs water in the car and were able to give them one to get them to the Furnace Creek Visitor’s center without worry.
This area is what most people associate with a desert: rolling sand dunes with the sparse vegetation. The surprising part is the mountain backdrop.
Our kids always love sliding and rolling around in the sand dunes. You do need to watch out for snakes and scorpions, but odds are they are trying to find somewhere a bit cooler to hang out. I try to do a more careful visual check when I notice the kids starting to become crazier than I would prefer. Fortunately, the worst we have seen are the trails the snakes left.
On one trip, after arriving at our hotel, we noticed a double puncture like wound on one of our kid’s legs. We spent a while trying to figure out if it was a snake bite or a cactus stab. In the end, we figured he would have noticed a snake biting him and it only looked minorly worrisome, so we chalked it up the the cactus and didn’t take him to the emergency room. That said, we did keep a close eye on it for the next few days.
If you are visiting this area in the cooler part of the day, you may even spot a desert fox or a coyote! On one of our trips, our boys spent a lot of time admiring and following some sort of gecko or lizard family that was having some fun together, racing from scrub brush to scrub brush.
Our next stop is usually Furnace Creek. This is a good opportunity to go to the Visitor’s Center and learn from the exhibits, which have a great overview of the history and geography of Death Valley. And if you are feeling overheated, the air conditioning is quite nice. Before you cool off inside, make sure to get a picture next to the thermometer!
You can also pick up a map and talk to one of the workers to make sure your hiking plans make sense. The one time that we hiked in Zabriskie Point, there was a slight possibility of rain – very unusual for Death Valley, and we spent most of the return part of our hike worrying about whether or not we were going to be swept away in a flash flood. Rain is no joke in the desert!
Make sure you use the restrooms before you leave the Visitor’s Center. The rest of the park has plenty of portable potties, but the cleanliness is always questionable in those.
After stopping at the Visitor’s Center, you might want to check out the Borax Museum, if it is open.
If you are in Furnace Creek around lunchtime and it isn’t too hot, there are picnic tables scattered around town. That said, we prefer to eat at the much cooler Dante’s View, even though there aren’t any picnic tables up there. Or you can stop by one of the hotel restaurants and get lunch.
Another feature of Furnace Creek is the gas station. You should always have a full tank when entering the desert, but if you are sleeping in the park and driving a bunch during the day you are likely to want to take advantage of this service. In any case, you probably want to check your gas level before heading out for the day, and top it off if needed.
There is a nice path that will take you several miles out on the salt flats, but make sure you bring water, the low elevation and presence of blinding white salt make the walk quite warm. The views and lack of people in the your pictures are worth it though!
The boys always love venturing off the path a bit and sampling a bit of salt. There are no guarantees of the purity or cleanliness of the salt you might taste, but it is a lot of fun to see what salt looks like before it gets to your table!
Devil’s Golf Course
Either on the way to or from Badwater Basin, you should make a quick detour to the Devil’s Golf Course.
Like Badwater Basin, this area is made up of salt, but instead of being flat, you will encounter very rough terrain that would make a terrible area to golf.
The first time we visited, we tried taking a walk on it, but one scraped knee on a kid convinced us otherwise. I think a salt-burn is worse than a sand-burn or a rug-burn!
On your way back to Furnace Creek, make sure to take the 9-mile one-way detour through Artist Drive. This is a great way to feel up close and personal to the rugged desert terrain that you caught glimpses of from other points, but felt like it was too hot to take a hike.
There aren’t a lot of pullout points, but if there is no one behind you, a slow drive is nice. If you stopped at the Visitor’s Center or the Borax Museum, you probably learned about some of the minerals found in Death Valley. This is an area where the mineral colors really come out!
You probably associate deserts with brown, brown, and more brown, but the reality is that many minerals are quite vibrant! Blues, greens, reds, yellows, and purples abound! It can be hard to snap a picture of them as you drive, but they will be etched in your memory. Plus, if you happen to be visiting during the early spring flower bloom, you will be even more amazed by the colors!
Our last or second-to-last stop of the day is usually Zabriskie Point, mostly because this road will take us out the east exit and towards Las Vegas. The one exception was the time we spent a night in Furnace Creek. That time, we visited Zabriskie Point in the early morning and took a hike before the heat started to pick up and make hiking a misery.
The golden rolling landscape with views of Badwater Basin never fail to amaze me. If you happen to be here during cool weather, consider getting into the super cool crevices and taking a hike. Just be wary if you happen to be visiting on the rare day that rain is predicted, or you may be putting yourself in the path of a flash flood. Desert rain is super dangerous!
If we still have energy, or want a cool – as in the temperature – place to eat lunch, we head up to Dante’s View. At 5,575 feet, you can gain an appreciation for how it was possible for Native Americans to survive in this area. While the vegetation is still sparse and isn’t somewhere that I would want to live off the land, it may be chilly enough that you might feel the desire to put on a jacket.
The views of Badwater Basin are spectacular! Can you imagine what it would have been like to be part of a wagon train, see this “lake of delicious water” from a distance, only to discover a vast supply of salt, or if there were recent rains a limited supply of extremely salty water? No wonder it has the word “Badwater” in its name! Imagine the tears of disappointment that added to the salt deposits when they realized their mistake.
A general comment about Death Valley is to make sure your car is in reasonable shape, since there are long stretches of desert, high hills, and limited cell phone service. The final hill up to Dante’s Peak did stress our old minivan quite a bit on a previous trip.
Assuming you make it to the top, there is a nice trail that you can take to get better views. Just watch out for prickly desert plants. This is where we think one of our kids brushed up against a plant and ended up with a wound that looked a bit like a snake bite. Terrifying thought!
If this your last stop, you might not have a ton of energy to hike, but if you are spending a couple of days here or just want to get a great view of the valley, make sure you make the drive up!
Leaving Death Valley
Once you leave Furnace Springs, you are going to have at least an hour or two drive to the next gas station, so make sure you are prepared with both a full tank of gas and plenty of water/snacks in case there are problems.
When we leave from the east side of the park, we usually like to spend the night in Las Vegas, but this time around, we wanted to see the back side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, so we decided to drive towards Mammoth, about a 3.5 hour drive, which is perfect if you don’t want want to spend the late afternoon roasting in Death Valley!