Photo Credit: James Marvin Phelps
A Guide to Death Valley National Park
My only experience in Death Valley National Park was a quick drive through on my way to the John Muir Trail a few years back. I didn’t have time to stop, but I do remember being impressed with the landscape and the size of the mountains. They were absolutely MASSIVE! Ever since, I’ve been planning a return visit to explore Death Valley’s sand dunes, canyons, and spring wildflower blooms. In this new post, guest contributor Paul Martinez shares with us his full 3-day Death Valley National Park Itinerary and helpful tips from his trip so you can experience the best that Death Valley has to offer. Enjoy and if you’ve been to Death Valley, we’d love to hear your advice for this unique National Park down in the comments. Thanks! -Kristen
by Paul Martinez
At 134°F, Death Valley holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded, it’s no wonder why they call it “Death Valley”. Situated east of the Sierra Nevadas and in-between the Great Basin and Mojave deserts, this is truly a land of extremes. It’s one of the most extreme environments on earth with an average rainfall of fewer than three inches, and in true Death Valley fashion, some years have actually received none. Despite its record droughts, however, a great diversity of life manages to survive in its valley; like an occasional wildflower seen sprouting through the ground, or a hidden lush oasis providing a refuge for wildlife. We spent three days exploring the park and enjoyed some of the key attractions, but Death Valley National Park could easily entertain for a full week! In this post, I share all of the details of my trip and a complete 3-day Death Valley National Park itinerary.
••• GETTING TO DEATH VALLEY •••
Death Valley National Park is only 2 hours from Las Vegas and 5 hours from Los Angeles. It is definitely worth the drive as it is the largest US National Park outside of Alaska. Death Valley also makes for a great week of exploring nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite if you are willing to venture a bit further on your road trip. Death Valley National Park is less than 2 hours to Lone Pine, CA which is the portal to Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. Are you up for an unforgettable “lowest to highest” vacation traveling from the lowest point in the lower 48 states, Death Valley’s Badwater Basin, to the highest point, Mt. Whitney?
••• BEST TIME TO GO TO DEATH VALLEY•••
The Furnace Creek Visitor Center is open year round but keep in mind summer can be miserably hot in the park—by May Death Valley is often too hot for most visitors. Fall, winter, and spring are the best times to visit the park. and Spring is the most popular time due to the wildflower blooms.
** Read Next: Save Money on Admission in U.S. National Parks **
••• WHERE TO STAY IN DEATH VALLEY•••
Death Valley National Park has nine campgrounds, which doesn’t include some of the privately owned campgrounds that also reside in the park. Furnace Creek Campground is by far the most popular and from October to April reservations can be made online for their 136 available sites. This campground is located directly behind the only visitor center in the park–a great starting out point for adventuring in the park! Depending on when you’re visiting, some campgrounds will be closed for the season so make sure to check in advance. All campgrounds in Death Valley are first come, first serve (except for Furnace Creek from October through April).
We didn’t want to worry about finding a campground the day of arrival, so we booked a campsite with Panamint Springs Resort prior to the trip. They are located on the western end of Death Valley National Park, and offer incredible views of distant sand dunes and the soaring Panamint mountain range… oh and they have a bar and free showers, what’s not love?
Not into camping? That’s okay! Death Valley is actually a great National Park for non-campers with 4 accommodation options that don’t involve a tent! Bearfoot Theory editor, Kim Vawter, recently explored Death Valley with her parents who are in their 60’s and they highly recommend the Furnace Creek Ranch as well as the famous Furnace Creek Inn. Read more about non-camping accommodations.
••• INSIDER DEATH VALLEY TIPS •••
Don’t Leave Home Without Maps!
It is very difficult to receive a cell signal from most places in Death Valley. Be prepared for this. Make sure to tell a friend when you plan to return from your trip and call to check in with them after you return.
Beating the Heat
Keep in mind services in Death Valley are limited, this includes places to purchase/refill water bottles. Pack in plenty of water and make sure to stay hydrated, even if you are just exploring by car.
••• 3 DAY DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK ITINERARY •••
For a place as diverse and large as Death Valley, it was important for my wife and I to have a list of sites that we wanted to see. For a place like Death Valley this can be a bit tricky… especially when you have sand dunes, craters and slot canyons to choose from. Over the course of 3-days, we tackled some of the area’s best attractions with this 3-day Death Valley National Park itinerary.
Photo Credit: National Park Service
In the span of 3 days, we were able to see all of the major areas with this Death Valley National Park Itinerary.
We set out from Los Angeles around 8:00 AM and arrived just before noon to set up camp at Panamint Springs Resort. After setting up our tent, we headed towards the Stovepipe Wells Village area to hike through Mosaic Canyon.
Located 1/4 of a mile west of Stovepipe Wells Village, it’s a two-mile gravel access road leading to the parking area. From there it was just a short walk into the canyon narrows, where the surrounding rock walls are made up of smooth, water-polished marble. We were both in awe of how incredibly smooth the walls were. Mosaic Canyon is considered a geological wonder, and as part of the National Park System, all of its features are protected by law… so rock collecting is prohibited!
Before dinner, we drove to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for a stroll during golden hour. At first glance it seemed like our plans would have to wait as clouds started to gather right over the dunes. The wind was picking up and sand was blowing everywhere… nevertheless, we got out of our car and ventured into the sandstorm.
There wasn’t one person in sight, which for being one of the parks most popular attractions was astonishing. After a while, the clouds began to clear and the wind started to calm. The mixture between late afternoon light and ripples in the sand was quite the sight to see.
Photo Credit: Chao Yen
On day 2 of our Death Valley National Park itinerary, we woke up at sunrise to prepare for a full day of exploring, beginning with an easy hike around the rim of Ubehebe Crater, located at the northern end of Death Valley National Park.
It was about an hour from our campsite, reminding us why Death Valley is the fifth largest national park in the United States and the largest outside of Alaska. The drive led us through colorful canyons, desolate badlands, shifting sand dunes, and sprawling mountains. Once there, you can enjoy a view of the massive crater right from the parking area, or like us you can hike down or around it. Word to the wise – walking up a steep gravel hill can be difficult.
If you make it to this side of the park, Bearfoot Theory contributor, Kim Vawter, highly recommends checking out the “racetrack“, which is home to the famous “Death Valley moving rocks”—commonly referred to as one of the most mystifying natural occurrences in the world. Also in this area is Scotty’s Castle but unfortunately this site is temporarily closed due to flood damage and isn’t predicted to reopen until 2019.
Next, we explored the opposite side of the park at Furnace Creek, where many of the popular landmarks are located. Zabriskie Point is one of the parks most famous sites and a popular sunrise and sunset viewing location, however it’s nonetheless spectacular during midday. To see a spectacular view of these eroded and colorful badlands, it’s just a short walk uphill from the parking area.
Photo Credit: Nagaraju Hanchanahal
Continuing down the road, definitely stop to visit “The Devil’s Golf Course” which is an immense area of sharply, eroded salt crystal formations as far as the eye can see. It is said that this area is so jagged that “only the devil could play golf on such rough links.” Just make sure to watch your step, because a slip and fall on these rocks can result in some serious damage.
Once done exploring the Devil’s Golf Course we then headed towards the lowest point in North America, the infamous Badwater Basin. This part of the park sits at 282 feet below sea level, creating a surreal landscape of vast salt flats. These salt flats cover nearly 200 square miles, and is among the largest protected salt flats in the world. With this comes extreme heat and dryness, so just make sure that you have plenty of water and sunscreen.
Before heading back to our campsite for the evening, we made sure to take the slightly longer route Artist’s Drive. This scenic loop takes you through multi-colored volcanic and sedimentary hills. We stopped at Artist’s Palette for an incredible view of hills splattered in pastels, which is said to be remarkable in late afternoon light.
In the morning, we got up to catch the sunrise and said farewell to our campsite. Our next adventure would take us just down the road, and along a 2 and a 1/2 mile dirt path to the parking area of Darwin Falls.
Prior to our trip, we had no idea that there was a lush oasis hiding the midst of this unforgiving terrain. This spring-fed waterfall is truly a miracle in the desert, flowing year-round in a narrow gorge. It was a short two-mile roundtrip hike to the falls, that involved some rock scrambling and several stream crossings.
Photo Credit: timestranger
Our final stop before driving back towards Los Angeles was Ballarat. This small ghost town lies just outside of the National Park, and is ran by its only resident and caretaker Rock Novak.
Photo Credit: mlhradio
It was a bit eerie as we arrived. There was nobody in sight… and as we parked and got out of our car, all you could hear was the faint sound of an alarm going off. We walked around for a while, and out of nowhere appeared Rock. We talked for a couple of minutes and before departing he made sure to invite us to an event they celebrate in town called Freedom Days, where he emphasized that “anything goes!”
Death Valley offers so much, from sand dunes to canyons to historic hotels any amount of time spent in the park is sure to be full of adventure and discovery! Don’t forget one of Death Valleys greatest attractions is its proximity to other National Parks and awesome off the beaten path towns. So pack some snacks, grab your maps, don’t forget sun protection too and get on your way, our parks are waiting!