Despite its name, Death Valley National Park in California is far more than just a barren swath of the desert. In fact, it’s one of the most unique national parks in the United States famous for its one-of-a-kind geologic features, otherworldly landscapes, and scorching heat. (The highest temperature recorded at Death Valley is the whopping 57ºC or 134 degrees Fahrenheit! )
Since Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States (it covers over 3 million acres), you will need time to explore it. That means setting aside at least 1-2 days for the major highlights of the Death Valley National Park. And if you want to do some backcountry hiking away from the popular spots in Death Valley, you will need even more time.
The History of Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park has a fascinating history. Several Native American tribes migrated throughout the area for thousands of years before a group of European-Americans arrived in the mid-1800s while trying to make their way to the goldfields during California’s Gold Rush.
Travellers couldn’t get out of the valley for weeks because of its uncharted terrain. While they were able to get water from several springs throughout the area, they were forced to eat a few of their oxen to survive and abandon their wagons. After the group was eventually able to find its way out, one of the women turned around and exclaimed, “Goodbye Death Valley!” giving the iconic place its name.
The area known as Death Valley today didn’t have any significant economic activity before prospectors started mining borax which was transported out of the area by the famous twenty-mule teams. Tourism didn’t expand in the valley until the first quarter of 1900 when the interest in the area increased. Death Valley was first designated as a monument and later as a national park in 1994.
How to Find Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located predominantly California, although a small part of it sits in Nevada.
Partially located in the Mojave Desert, Death Valley can feel like the middle of nowhere. The park is about 2,5 hours away from Las Vegas and at least 4.5 hours away from Los Angeles, the nearest major cities. Depending on where you are, there are several ways to get to Death Valley National Park.
From Las Vegas:
Death Valley National Park is one of the most popular day trips from Las Vegas. Take Blue Diamond Road (which later turns into US Route 160) toward the Spring Mountains. When you get to the town of Pahrump, make a left turn at Road. This will bring you all the way to Amargosa Valley, a rural unincorporated community near Death Valley National Park. Follow the road signs, and you will get right to the eastern entrance of Death Valley.
Right before the entrance, you will see an unmanned station where you are supposed to pay the entrance fees which are $35 per vehicle. If you don’t have cash, you can use a credit card at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.
From Los Angeles:
While there are several ways to get to Death Valley from Los Angeles, the shortest route will take you 4,5 hours. You will have to take Interstate-405 north and then merge onto State Route 14 that traverses through Lancaster and a number of other small desert towns before you have to turn onto State Route 178 and enter the park after getting past Panamint Springs on State Route 190.
The two nearest towns to Death Valley are Beatty in Nevada and Lone Pine in California.
When to visit Death Valley National Park
Most international visitors tend to visit Death Valley National Park during summer when temperatures soar into the triple digits. While there’s definitely something cool about experiencing this kind of temperature in a place that seems to be cut off from civilization, many visitors are not aware of the fact these temperatures can be deadly. During summer months, hiking in remote parts of Death Valley is strongly discouraged because of their rugged and remote terrain.
If you want to avoid the extreme heat, you should plan your visit to Death Valley National Park during winter or fall which begins in late October. During winter, the weather is mild, the sunshine is plentiful and the tourist crowds are gone.
Late fall and winter is also the best time for backcountry hiking in Death Valley since you don’t have to endure the scorching heat. However, keep in mind that the desert can get cold at night, so if you plan on camping at Death Valley, make sure to bring warm clothes.
Things to do at Death Valley National Park
Due to its vast size, most tourists tend to visit Death Valley on their own. This means you have to have your own vehicle or rent it because unlike other popular national parks in the United States, Death Valley doesn’t have buses that bring passengers from one point of interest to the other.
There are, however, several options when it comes to organized tours of Death Valley. You can find organized day trips of the Death Valley National Park from Las Vegas on websites such as Viator, GetYourGuide and tours4fun.com. Each tour package has different rates and covers different points of interest.
Camping at Death Valley National Park
Camping at Death Valley National Park is the ultimate experience. You get to see the clear night skies adorned with the Milky Way and enjoy the pristine desert landscapes. As a matter of fact, the park was designated as a dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association. If camping at Death Valley National Park is not yet on your bucket list, it definitely should be!
There are several campsites at Death Valley National Park. But before you plan your camping trip, I recommend checking the current conditions with the National Park Service website, especially in summer, when temperatures hover over 37ºC or 100 degrees Fahrenheit even at night. Rates at Death Valley campgrounds range depending on whether you have a lifetime pass and what hookups you need.
Here are some options if you want to do camping at Death Valley:
Furnace Creek CG
Furnace Creek CG is one of the most popular campgrounds at Death Valley National Park and the only campground that takes reservations.
Sunset CG is a first-come, first-serve campground where finding a spot is a lot easier than at Furnace Creek.
Stovepipe Wells CG
Stovepipe Wells CG is also a first-come, first-serve unstaffed campground.
Accommodations at Death Valley National Park
There are several accommodations in Death Valley National Park. But remember that similar to other national parks in the United States, prices tend to be very high during summer and early fall (over $150 a night), when the place is flooded by tourists.
That’s why you should book your accommodations in Death Valley in advance! However, if you are short on time, you can look for less expensive accommodations in nearby towns such as Pahrump and Beatty in Nevada or Lone Pine in California. Another option is Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, a historic venue located minutes away from the entrance to Death Valley.
Inn at Death Valley – located at Stovepipe Wells, this hotel is a great place to swim, relax and get a break from roaming the desert.
The Ranch at Death Valley is another popular hotel located within the boundaries of the park.
The Oasis at Death Valley is a resort built in ranch style that has several types of accommodations including standard rooms and cabins.
Places of Interest at Death Valley National Park
Towering mountains and shifting sand dunes, endless salt flats, and golden canyons. Death Valley seems like an incredible puzzle that is waiting to be figured out! While the park has no lack of scenic vistas, the distances between them can be huge, so before you hit the road, you should do some careful planning.
Located at the southern end of the Death Valley National Park, Badwater Basin is the second-lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. It sits at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level.
The most famous overlook at Death Valley that is pretty hard to miss, Zabriskie Point opens a stunning panorama of colourful badlands created by the erosion of the Creek Lake that dried up about 5 million years ago.
The highest point in Death Valley National Park is located just past the eastern entrance. To get there, you will have to drive up the steep winding road for about 13 miles before you get to the top of the overlook. From there, you will see the snow-capped Panamint Mountains towering over the salt flats of the Badwater Basin. And while Death Valley National Park is normally warm, Dante’s View can have some really strong winds, so don’t forget to bring a jacket.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Another popular spot in Death Valley is the iconic Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. While it is undoubtedly a very scenic place, the sand dunes can get very hot during the day, especially in summer! If you want to do some hiking along the sand dunes and take photos, don’t forget to bring your shoes! You should also wear a hat, sunscreen and carry plenty of water.
Located in the northern part of Death Valley, Ubehebe Crater is one of the most impressive features of the Death Valley National Park. Ubehebe Crater is a remote spot and you certainly won’t find tons of crowds here. It is about a half-mile wide and 600 feet deep.
Devil’s Golf Course
This quirky place got its name after the 1930s’ guide that famously said: “Only the devil could play golf” on this surface. The Devil’s Golf Cours sits about several feet above its famous neighbour, Badwater Basin.
The Racetrack Playa or the Racetrack
A dry lake bed famous for its moving rocks that leave linear marks on the dry cracked soil. It’s definitely one of the most enigmatic places in Death Valley which also requires a 4X4 clearance vehicle. If you want to do some landscape photography, this spot located in the northwestern part of Death Valley is definitely worth visiting!
Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette
Perhaps one of the most photographed places at Death Valley National Park, Artist’s Palette features colourful rock formations. The scenic overlook can be accessed directly from the parking lot, however, you can also do some hiking around the overlook.
Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
Another remote spot in Death Valley that is worth visiting, the charcoal kilns are shaped like beehives and come from the time when they were used by miners who came to the Death Valley to dig for silver.
An easy 2-mile hike will take you through the canyon toward the natural rock formation that looks like a bridge. It’s a great place to take photos and get a respite from the heat since the hike is surrounded by the towering walls of the canyon.
Whether you make a quick stop at Death Valley as part of your big West Coast trip or spend days exploring its famous vistas and hidden gems, you will not be disappointed. Death Valley National Park is worth visiting for many reasons. But after all, it’s a true place of contrasts that will amaze even the most seasoned travellers!
Organise Your Trip: Travel Advice and Tricks I Personally Use
Book Your Flight
Heading to either Skyscanner or Momondo are my methods of choice for this. They are my favourite as they search for flights from different companies all over the world. You can filter the results to suit your needs and ensure you land the best price every-time.
Book Your Accommodation
This is an important part of any holiday you’re going on. Read all the reviews and get the right accommodation via TripAdvisor. They even show you the best prices available at the time for that room from suppliers like Booking.com.For booking a hostel your best bet is to start with HostelWorld or possible even use CouchSurfing if you’re on a real budget.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel Insurance is a must these days so you have a piece of mind you’re covered for anything that could go wrong while on your trip. I now never go on a trip away without travel insurance. I’ve been using World Nomads for the past few years.
My favourite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (little more expensive but covers everything)
- SafetyWing (cheaper option to just cover you for health issues)
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
As I have been travelling frequently over the last few years I’ve learnt some great tools to use for saving money when travelling. I have a travel resource page that lists all the trusted companies I personally use and rely on. I think you will find them good as well.
The Best Place To Book Your Tours
If you are someone you likes to have the best tours in one place and read reviews from other travellers about their personal experiences of each different tour then the best platform to use is GetYourGuide.
They offer the best tours, have money-back offers in case your trip is cancelled and ensure the price of each tour is the lowest possible.
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