The name itself can be disheartening. “Death Valley” doesn’t sound like a very good place for a vacation, yet every year many tourists who visit California decide to go to Death Valley, one of the most incredible and evocative American national parks.
This amazing park in California is one of the natural wonders found in the United States, with its arid and desert landscape that is so surreal that it appears out of this world, with its ancient lakes, now evaporated, which often reflect iridescent rainbows, with its sea of mountains, patterns, shapes and remarkable rock layers.
Death Valley is vast; it is the largest national park in the United States, excluding Alaska. Often, when you visit it, you have the impression of being on another planet or of looking at lunar landscape. But first let’s start with tips and information, because when you visit Death Valley you will need to take some precaution and prepare well.
- Preparations… 4 Important Things To Remember When Visiting Death Valley
- Where is Death Valley? How to get there?
- Where Do You Pay the Entrance Fee or Purchase an American the Beautiful Pass?
- Things To Do in Death Valley: 7 Beautiful Places You Must See
- If there’s a little time left…
- Death Valley Map Attractions
- Where Can I Stay Overnight When Visiting Death Valley?
Preparations… 4 Important Things To Remember When Visiting Death Valley
Most of Death Valley is accessible by car, but you should know that it is the hottest place in the United States; usually the temperature is around 113 degrees Fahrenheit and the highest recorded temperature, measured on July 10, 1913, is 133 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t believe me, look at the picture below. The temperature displayed on the dashboard of my car during the visit to Death Valley in August was 118 degrees F.
Therefore, to be ready for the climate of Death Valley, I highly recommended the following precautions:
- Does the air conditioning work well?
- Bring a good supply of water.
- It’s better fill the tank beforehand. There are only 2 gas stations in Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells.
- Check the fluids in the car. Excessive heat can mess up your car.
As you read in our article about when is the best time to go to Death Valley, a good season to visit Death Valley is spring, when temperatures are not so high and the wildflowers are in full bloom.
One last bit of advice about finding accommodations. If you want to spend the night inside the park you will have to book well in advance, but you can also find a place to stay (more easily) in the small towns outside the park, whic was already explained in a previous post about searching for hotels in Death Valley.
Where is Death Valley? How to get there?
Death Valley is located in California, on the border with Nevada, and Hwy 190 cuts right through the middle of it. The park, as mentioned above, is very large, so when speaking of distances we will use as a reference point the Visitor Center, which is the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, centrally located within Death Valley. This is the main information area of the whole park, located in a sort of small oasis in the desert, with accommodations, a food court, exhibits and a gas station, a highly prized commodity.
From the East (Las Vegas to Death Valley)
The distance from Las Vegas – the “nearest” big city – is about 140 miles, which will take just over 2 hours to travel. There are actually two ways to reach Death Valley from Las Vegas:
- The shortest road (124 miles): From Las Vegas you must deviate from the main artery (the I-15) to the NV-160 W, a road not far from Red Rock Canyon State Park. At Pahrump turn left towards Bell Vista Ave (follow the brown signs), that leads to Death Valley Junction. From this junction follow the Hwy 190 for 31 miles to Furnace Creek.
- The fastest road (143 miles: from Las Vegas you go north along the US-95 N to Amargosa Valley, another desolate place we mentioned in our article about the oddities of Southern Nevada. In Amargosa take the NV-373 S to Death Valley Junction, and from there follow the same directions provided above. In both cases you can consider including a stop at Dante’s View in the itinerary, which is reached by deviating from Hwy 190. Since it is basically on the way, those who do not want to miss this phenomenal viewpoint should take advantage of it, because when coming from Yosemite (Eastern Sierra) it is less likely to be included in the itinerary it due to tiredness from traveling, logistics or lack of time. All the main attractions are in fact in other areas of Death Valley, to the west and to the north.
From the West (Yosemite to Death Valley)
Another classic drive is from the west (from Yosemite Park), in the months when the Tioga Road is open, or from Reno/Lake Tahoe, even further north, throughout the year. In each of these cases, however, it is necessary to travel the long stretch on US-395 to Lone Pine. CA-136 E begins here, which soon flows into the aforementioned Hwy 190 and arrives at the park past Panamint Springs and the pseudo-western village of Stovepipe Wells. Entering the park from this side you will immediately pass the Mesquite Flats Dunes, which deserves to be your first stop.
From the North
Those coming from the north, for example, following this route from Tonopah, will access the park from Beatty in Nevada, a northern gateway often designed as an overnight stop for those visiting the park. Follow NV-374 S until the junction with Highway 190. Again, you may decide to take a short detour to the Rhyolite ghost town before continuing on to the actual Death Valley.
As you will see, there is also a more fascinating entrance the park, the Titus Canyon Road, but it is reserved to those who have a lot of time and above all an off-road vehicle.
From the South (Los Angeles to Death Valley)
Lastly, this section concerns those coming from the south (Los Angeles, or Barstow for those who have visited for example the Joshua Tree) and specifically, those traveling from the south-west, who after going to Sequoia National Park want to reach Death Valley via Bakersfield. This last scenario occurs more often than you would expect. In fact, all those coming from San Francisco, who cannot access the Tioga Road for the seasonal closure in winter, are therefore forced to bypass the Sierra Nevada from the south to go towards Death Valley and Nevada.
- Coming from Los Angeles: the distance is 267 miles, which can be covered in 4.5 hours. As soon as you leave San Fernando (north of Los Angeles) and get on the I-5 N, take the CA-14 N and follow it all the way (it will become Panamint Road) until the junction with Hwy 190 at Panamint Springs. From there, turn right towards the Visitor Center.
- Coming from Barstow: Take I-15 north-east to Baker, on the edge of the Mojave National Preserve. From there drive on CA-127 N to the Death Valley Junction and then take Hwy 190 by following to the directions given earlier.
- For those coming from Bakersfield (Sequoia): Take CA-58 E to Exit 167 towards Bishop. This will take you to CA-14 N, so just follow the directions given above. Usually, since the journey from Sequoia is long, Ridgecrest is used as a halfway stop for overnight stay, also because Trona Pinnacles, a true gem, is found nearby.
Where Do You Pay the Entrance Fee or Purchase an American the Beautiful Pass?
Here is where you can pay for either the entrance fee or the America the Beautiful Pass in Death Valley National Park:
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center
- Scotty’s Castle Visitor Center (closed until 2021)
- Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station (the most convenient for those coming from the west)
- Lone Pine Interagency Visitor Center (as soon as you leave the Eastern Sierra and enter Inyo County)
- Furnace Creek Campground Kiosk
It is very likely that you won’t find the rangers in one of these spots. If this happens, there are the vending machines here:
- Furnace Creek Visitor Center
- Stovepipe Wells Ranger Station
- Grapevine Ranger Station
- Ryan Kiosk
- Zabriskie Point
- Hell’s Gate (Daylight Pass Road)
- Furnace Creek Campground (April 16 to October 14)
- Sunset Campground (when open)
- Texas Springs Campground (when open)
- Stovepipe Wells Campground (when open)
- Mesquite Springs Campground
Things To Do in Death Valley: 7 Beautiful Places You Must See
First stop by the visitor center to get the map, information and anything else you may need. As you wander around Death Valley by car, even driving without a set destination is already a remarkable experience in itself, there are some viewpoints and natural wonders that it would be a shame to miss. Some of them are located along Badwater Road (Badwater Basin, Painter’s Palette), while others are near Stovepipe Wells (Mesquite Flat Dunes), and others still can be found on Hwy 190 between Furnace Creek and the Death Valley Junction (Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View) or in areas that are more remote and difficult to reach.
Below we would like to propose those that impressed us the most and that usually can be visited all (or almost all) in a whole day.
1. Badwater Salt Flats… am I on earth or on the moon?
A depression 282 ft below sea level. How is that possible? In fact, you won’t believe your eyes, but as soon as you park your car you will see – behind the expanse of salt – high up in the mountains, a sign indicating sea level. This scorching depression in Death Valley Park is called Badwater Basin, and it’s nothing more than the large bed of the prehistoric lake called Manly Lake, now completely drained. This is the lowest point not only in Death Valley, but in all of North America.
At the end of the Badwater Road, you will find a landscape of surreal and otherworldly beauty. The Badwater Salt Flats, which resembles a lunar landscape, is a place where you will experience a unique atmosphere and a mysterious silence. The parking lot is very close to the observation point, but if you can stand the heat and don’t want to miss the chance to take an incredible photo, you can also go and explore the terrain. To find out more, read our in-depth guide on Badwater Basin.
2. When Nature Paints: Artist’s Palette
There are some mountains in Death Valley that are so distinctive that it seems that nature itself has begun to paint them, infusing its most extravagant colors on the various rock layers. The result is Artist’s Palette (or Painter’s Palette), a very unusual phenomenon, which has counterparts in the Painted Desert in Arizona and the Painted Hills of Oregon (to name a couple). This area was also used by George Lucas as the location for some scenes from the Star Wars saga.
To get there, drive along Artist Drive, a very strange scenic road that branches off from Badwater Road. The duration of the loop is about 25 minutes, and in the middle of the road there is an observation point of the “rock painting”. You can also get closer by going on the path that starts at the parking lot of the observation point, but we recommend you do this only when the weather is mild.
3. The Rocky Wave-like Hills of Zabriskie Point
This place was the inspiration for the director Antonioni’s famous film of the same name. Park your car in the parking lot at the base of the hill, grab your bottle of water and take a short walk for a few minutes (trust me… you’ll need water for such a short distance!) to admire the beautiful striped mountains of Zabriskie Point, which soar more than 4900 ft above the bottom of the valley. Actually, as you will read later in the article, you can also venture into the maze of pale badlands, but under certain conditions. To learn more about how to get to the viewpoint read our article Zabriskie Point Death Valley.
4. A Wonderful View: Dante’s View
This is another very impressive viewpoint, especially in the morning, when the Panamint Mountains, illuminated by the rising sun, are emblazoned in pink and gold. Dante’s View is a great viewpoint to visit in Death Valley and gives you a quick and fascinating glimpse of Badwater’s saline depression framed by the peaks. To know how to get there, read the paragraph “how to get there from Las Vegas”.
5. The Sand Dunes of Mesquite Flat
Near Stovepipe Wells are almost 15 square miles of undulating sand dunes with constantly shifting shapes. They are the most famous among the 7 different areas dunes in the park. You will find there a view to look upon in peace and quiet, if you can resist the heat. As mentioned above, they are located in the vicinity of Stovepipe Wells, one of the first “oases” you will find as you travel from the west along Hwy 190. During the best times of year for hiking you can also reach the top of the highest dune (over 1.86 miles roundtrip), but you have to take into account that of course there is no marked trail on the sand.
6. Scotty’s Castle: A Castle in the Middle of the Desert
A Spanish style villa built in the 1920s by a wealthy Chicago financier named Albert Johnson; it is located near the Ubehebe Crater. If you decide to take a tour inside the villa you will be welcomed by guides dressed in authentic period costumes, who will accompany you during the tour.
— Warning –: Scotty’s Castle is closed until the fall of 2021 for maintenance. Violent thunderstorms have severely damaged both the road and the castle’s architectural complex. You can still access Racetrack Road, Ubehebe Crater, and Mesquite Spring Campground.
7. Finally… a ghost town: Rhyolite.
If you are staying near Beatty overnight stay or if you have chosen this entrance to enter the park, you can make a short exploratory stop in the ghost town called Rhyolite, an abandoned mining town. You can walk around this small town which has some buildings that are both interesting and spooky. The feel of this town is not the same as that in other ghost towns in the area (think Bodie) but there are also other strange things to see in the immediate surroundings, such as a house completely made of glass bottles and the Goldwell Open Air Museum, in which, among all the artwork displayed, the one that stands out is an art installation by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski: The Last Supper, a ghostly version of the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
If there’s a little time left…
Death Valley is full of hidden treasures, and it would take several days to see them all! Our selection is aimed to optimize your time, but I also want to point out 8 other attractions / routes that you could include in your tour if you have a couple of days (or more) and especially if you still have energy after being under the Death Valley sun. Remember that the ideal time of year to go on trails that take even 30 minutes to walk is from November to March.
Near Badwater Basin
- Devil’s Golf Course: An immense, haunting expanse of petrified salt that gives the impression of being on another planet, especially at sunset. The salt crystals that make up the lumpy terrain of Devil’s Golf Course have peculiar shapes. You can try to explore, but paying attention to the less stable holes and rocks (as the name of the place suggests). You can reach it by taking a turn off of Badwater Road, via a short stretch of dirt road in good condition. If you don’t have a 4×4, proceed with caution.
- Natural Bridge: Death Valley is not as famous for arches and rock bridges as Arches National Park or Bryce, but going to Natural Bridge is a good idea for those who have some time and want to see a beautiful rock formation that is unique to the Badwater desert environment. Yes, the road that takes you to the start of the trail is off of Badwater Road, about 14 miles from the start of the road. There is a short stretch of gravel road that is also generally accessible for sedans. From the parking lot, the trail is about 2 miles round trip to reach this narrow rock bridge between the narrow walls of a canyon. Obviously, given the length of the trail, you must be prepared for the heat and in any case it is better to go during the less muggy periods of the year.
- Golden Canyon / Badlands Loop: It’s not one of the best known hikes in the park, because there’s so much to do and the stifling heat of Death Valley makes you want to give up after a short time (this happened to us in the hot month of September). But with if you have good weather, the time and energy, the Golden Canyon Trail has the advantage of taking you right into the badlands of Zabriskie Point, the white and golden ravines that can be seen from the overlook mentioned earlier. The trailhead is 2 miles from the start of the Badwater Road, and is well marked on the side of the road. There are several sections of the trail, which are doable for those with less time or less experience, such as the Badlands Loop (2.7 miles in all, but you can turn back after half a mile), which actually starts at the opposite end of the trail, the Zabriskie Point parking lot. This loop allows you to get right into the heart of the white hills without having to walk the entire canyon (7.8 miles) from Badwater Road.
Stovepipe Wells Area
- Mosaic Canyon: This is another recommended hike especially in winter or in cooler seasons (see here), as you have to venture along a path inside a canyon. If you can stand the heat, you can enjoy seeing the wonderful walls of a thousand colors, smoothed by the work of natural elements. The geology here may remind you of the sparkling rocks of Artist’s Palette, only in this case you can walk through them and touch them! The trail is located at Stovepipe Wells. Before reaching the village (coming from the west) you will see a dirt road on the right. Follow it and you will reach the parking lot next to the mouth of the canyon.
- Salt Creek Interpretive Trail: This is an easy, short trail on a footbridge along the salty river called the Salt Creek. The salt water is only present between November and May, and in springtime you can also see the unusual desert fish species (pupfish).
Ubehebe/Scotty’s Castle Area
- Ubehebe Crater: Just like Devil’s Golf Course, Ubehebe Crater is overlooked by visitors to Death Valley, who prefer to spend their time visiting the most famous places. The reason perhaps is the fact the the crater is located on the outskirts of Death Valley, in the northwest portion of the park, not far from Scotty’s Castle (closed until 2021), more than an hour from Furnace Creek. The parking area at the end of the Ubehebe Crater Road is located just above the volcanic crater and you can see the crater from various perspectives thanks to the trails on site.
- Racetrack Playa: In this remote area of Death Valley there is an incredible phenomenon. The rocks, although it is hard to perceive, move by themselves! To get to the Racetrack Playa you will need a 4×4, since the road is very bumpy. Also don’t expect to see a rock rolling, because the rocks move very slow… but you will notice the trace that it has left in time. If you want to know more read this particular West Coast route, where we have provided more details.
Titus Canyon Road is the experience that all off-road enthusiasts would like to have, so much so that over time it has become quite popular. If you don’t intend to rent a 4×4, skip this area, because this long route is a bumpy canyon road that goes through bottlenecks, steep unprotected declines, gorges and mountain passes, ruins of ancient towns (Leadfield Ghost Town) and unimaginable desert expanses with a variety of local fauna and flora. The best thing about this long route is that it is an alternative way to get from Beatty/Rhyolite through the heart of the valley, i.e. over the rugged Grapevine Mountains. Titus Canyon Road takes a right turn off the NV-374, 6.2 miles south of Beatty, which takes about 2-3 hours to cover all 26 miles of the road.
Below is a video to show you what awaits you.
Death Valley Map Attractions
Here is a map of the main attractions of Death Valley covered in this article:
Where Can I Stay Overnight When Visiting Death Valley?
The solutions for overnight stay are different and vary depending on the direction from which you arrive. We have dedicated an entire article to this topic. Click on the link below to read our tips on how to find accommodations when you visit Death Valley.
Want to see more photos of Death Valley? Look at the complete album of pictures on our Facebook page!
What about you? Have you been to Death Valley? What would you add to that list?