Visiting Death Valley is like visiting Mars. A surreal landscape home to salt flats, sand dunes, canyons, valleys and badlands, making it one the most impressive and unforgettable national parks in the United States. What’s surprising is Death Valley wasn’t always like this. Some ten thousand years ago it was actually home to several lakes, something hard to imagine with its current barren landscape. Known for its extreme environment, Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest national park in the US. With its landscape sharing many similarities to that found on Mars, NASA scientists have been testing equipment here for decades.
With the park located 2 hrs west of Las Vegas it’s a popular day trip from the city. I would of course recommend spending a few nights in the park if you wish to see everything Death Valley has to offer, including the numerous hikes. We only had 2 nights here, arriving in the late afternoon after a long drive from Joshua Tree National Park. While we were able to fit in the most popular six attractions into a one-day itinerary, we didn’t have time to do any hikes or visit the other half of the park (it is 225 km long after all).
Things to Know Before Visiting Death Valley
- Average summer temperatures reach 47°C, so avoid traveling here during the summer. Death Valley also holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded at 56.7°C.
- Cell service is limited and wifi at the hotels is very weak, so it’s best to research and plan beforehand with printed maps and directions.
- Pick up a map and guide at your hotel or the Furnace Creek visitor center for tons of info about the area and updates on any possible road closures. There were several when we visited due to floods.
- There’s no public transport in the park, so you will either need to join a day tour from Las Vegas or have a car. If you’re using a rental car make sure you check the insurance policy, as some won’t let you go off-road. While none of the sights we visited required a 4WD, you’ll need one if you wish to visit The Racetrack due to the risk of flat tyres. As we were mainly driving on paved roads our small rental sedan was fine. We did take it down one unpaved access road to visit The Devils Gold Course but luckily our tyres survived.
- Pack lots of water and snacks while driving around the park, as the only places to eat and drink near the main sights are limited to Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells Village.
- As the park is so big there wasn’t an entrance with a staffed tick counter that other national parks have. Instead we bought our entrance ticket at a self-service machine once inside the park. You can also buy one from the Visitor Centre in Furnace Creek. Make sure you display your ticket on the dashboard to avoid any fines.
- Keep your shoes on, even in the sand dunes. Rattlesnakes, scorpions and black widow spiders are all known to call Death Valley home.
- The main cause of death in Death Valley is single car accidents so drive safely.
A One Day Itinerary: 6 Things to See in Death Valley
One of the most surprising and remarkable things about Death Valley is how diverse each location is. Of the six attractions and viewpoints we visited, each and every one was uniquely different from the next. It felt like visiting six national parks in the one day. We visited the Grand Canyon a few days after Death Valley and while I loved my time there, after a few hours I found each viewpoint and photo all started to look the same. This was certainly not the case with Death Valley, which made it such a special park to explore.
1. Badwater Basin
At 282 feet (86m), the salt flats of Badwater Basin are the lowest point in North America. Having always wanted to see the Bolivian salt flats Salar de Uyuni, this was an exciting stop in Death Valley. Though the salt was a blinding white colour, every time we walked off the well-trodden tourist path it would become very muddy underneath the salt.
2. Dantes View
At 1,669m, Dante’s View is the highest viewpoint in the park. Located directly above Badwater Basin, it offers endless views of the vast salt flats across the valley floor to the rising mountains that surround Death Valley.
3. Zabriskie Point
This is possibly my favourite viewpoint, though it’s hard to choose favourites with so many unique and stunning locations in the park. Zabriskie Point was once a lake that dried up over 5 million years ago and has now become a maze of eroded golden coloured badlands. There is also a hiking trail through the valley below, which is something I would have loved to do had we had an extra day.
4. Artist’s Palette
Unfortunately this one-way 9-mile scenic loop drive was closed when we visited so we could only see the multi-hued volcanic hills from afar.
5. The Devil’s Golf Course
This vast area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain has created a landscape of jagged formations. If you listen carefully, on a warm day you might hear little pops and pings, which is the sound of tiny salt crystals bursting apart as they expand and contract in the heat. The salt crystal formations are so jagged and rough, it was once said that ‘only the devil could play golf on its surface’.
6. The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
When we first arrived in Death Valley it was the late afternoon and the wind was incredibly strong, rocking the car from side to side along the highway and being pummelled by sand. We had chosen to stay at Stovepipe Wells Village because it was right next door to the sand dunes, but we couldn’t actually make out the dunes on that first day. Luckily the strong winds had died down by the following morning and we were able to witness the sand on the dunes and not being ferociously blown around. The sand dunes are of course best visited at sunrise to avoid other tourist’s footprints. Bare in mind if you set out to walk to a particular dune you spot in the distance, it will likely take you 2-3 times longer to reach than expected. Make sure to also keep your shoes on as scorpions and other critters are known to live there.
Where to Stay and Eat
The only accommodation within the park that I’m currently aware of is The Inn at Furnace Creek, The Ranch at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs Resort. We chose to stay at Stovepipe Wells, as it was right next door to the sand dunes. I wouldn’t recommend staying in one of the towns outside the national park because you’ll waste too much time driving due to the enormous size of the park.
The only places to buy food are limited to the couple of restaurants and convenience stores located at any of the four hotels. Stovepipe Wells Village had the one restaurant, which was incredibly understaffed considering every hotel guest ate there given there were no other options. We waited 30 minutes before anyone even came to take our order, only to be told they weren’t taking any dinner orders for another hour because the kitchen was backed up. The convenience store also had very limited options. If you can buy a good supply of snacks before you reach the park I highly recommend this because getting hangry is a very real possibility with the lack of food options here.
While you can see a great deal of Death Valley in one day, I would of course recommend trying to stay for at least 2 days if you wish to do a lot of hiking or explore further afield to places such as Ubehebe Crater and The Racetrack. If you do only have time for a one-day itinerary of Death Valley, then make sure you either arrive the night before or if you’re coming from Las Vegas, start your road trip as early as you can bare to wake up.